Benjamin Medicus Powell, CSA
During the American Civil War, General John Sedgwick was killed by a Confederate sharpshooter at Spotsylvania, Virginia on May 9, 1864. According to the insciption of the monument which honors him at Spotsylvania "The identity of the marksman who fired the fatal shot remains a mystery, although at least five Confederate soldiers later claimed responsibility." Benjamin Medicus Powell is believed by many to be the man who fired the fatal shot. This is his story.
The photo, articles and clippings were provided by John Everett, great grandson of Benjamin Medicus Powell.
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This letter from Benjamin Medicus Powell to his wife was published in
Sumter, S.C.My dear wife,
November 21, 1907
Just before you left to pay your mother a visit you had me promise to send you, along with my first letter, a condensed statement of my services with the Confederate Army. Well, here it is in as few words as possible.
I was the first man to volunteer in Lancaster County, headed the list of Lancaster Grays. Captain John D. Wylie was going to school there at the time. Heard the first gun on Fort Sumter. Was one of the twelve thousand with gun in hand when Lee surrendered at Appomattox. Was with Gen. Joseph E. Johnson at Yorktown, Williamsburg and Seven Pines. Lee took command there and I was in all the battles where he commanded, to the surrender.
Never was in the hospital from sickness. At Gaines Mill I got in among the Yankees and was a prisoner a few hours but escaped, bringing back my guard and three other Yanks. How this was done would be interesting. All of my company that went into the nattle [sic - battle?] of Frayser's Farm were killed or wounded but myself and one other, Viz Nesbitt. There I had my cap box and belt shot off me. After the Seven Days battle I, with five others got a transfer from Co. A, 5th South Carolina Vol. to Co. 2, 12th South Carolina Vol. in which regiment I served until Lee surrendered.
While a member of the 12th Reg., I was offered a lieutenant twice but declined the honor. At the battle of Second Manassas Col. Barnes placed me in command of the Infirmary Corps in which capacity I served until a few days before the battle of Gettysburg when I was presented with a long-range Whitworth rifle with a telescope and globe sights and with a roving commission as an independent sharpshooter and scout. This rifle killed Gen. Sedgwick at Spottsylvania Court House.
At the Bloody Angle or bend in the same battle I had four holes shot through my hat. This angle was the bloodiest spot of the war, east or west. I mean where McGowan's South Carolinians fought. Men lay dead on top of each other in the .......... A tree 18 inches in diameter was cut down by many balls and came near falling on the 12th Regiment's colors.
It would take many pages to give all or the half of my camp and battle and scouting experiences. I will close with these reminisces by stating that I captured nearly 50 Yankees from Cold Harbor to the surrender, 47 in all. I was severely wounded at Gettysburg, shot through the left shoulder, ball popping out under the shoulder blade.
Your affect. husband,
WHO KILLED GENERAL SEDGEWICK (sic)
About 10 o'clock in the morning of the 9th of May, 1864, three days after the battle of the Wilderness, and three days before the battle of the Bloody Angle, Major-General John Sedgwick, commanding the sixth corps of Grant's Army, was killed, near Spottsylvania, by a single shot from a Confederate sharpshooter, over a half mile distant. History thus records, but history does not record who fired the fatal shot. Nor is it generally known, but we of the battalion of sharpshooters of McGowan's South Carolina Brigade, of which I was first sergeant, knew.
The arm of the Confederate infantry was of two kinds, the Enfield rifle, the regulation British Army rifle, imported from England by running the blockade, and the Springfield rifle, the regulation United States Army rifle, captured by us in battle. These two guns, both muzzle-loading, were of the same calibre, and the catridges of each fitted the other. There was some differences in the make-up of the cartridges; we of the sharpshooters preferred the English cartidge.
Along with the Enfields from England came also a small supply of Whitworth rifles, a long, heavy gun of small bore, made for sharpshooting at long range. This gun carried a small telescope on the top of the barrel, through which to sight - the hind sight (within the telescope) was a cross of two fine metal threads.
In the distribution to Lee's Army of these Whitworth rifles two fell to our brigade; one a walnut stock, was given to Ben Powell, and one, an oak stock, to a young fellow of Edgefield district, named Cheatham. Both of these men were excellent shots, and they now became independent sharpshooters, to go where they pleased. and carry on war at their own sweet will.
I do not remember that I ever fired either of these rifles, but my younger brother, Blackwood, a corporal in the sharpshooters with me, has sometimes fired Powell's. Once, in the trenches at Petersburg, Powell let him shoot it; the enemy camp was quite over a mile distant; my brother raised the gun at its highest elevation and fired at random. It was too far, and enemy objects too obscure to note any effect, but some little time afterward we got hold of a New York paper (the pickets would trade tobacco and coffee with each other, and swap papers), and in this paper was news from the camps that on that day two men were killed at a well by a shot that came from an unknown where no report being heard.
As to the other gun (Cheatham's), there is a story. When we were about to surrender at Appomattox, I went to my brigadier, General McGowan, and told him that I had been in prison once, and I was not going again - that I would escape through the enemy's lines if I could, and march to Johnston's army in North Carolina. He asked me to wait till it was sure it would be surrender. I did, and then I took my brother and together we crept through the enemy's lines (at times on our hands and knees in the running ditches, hidden by the blackberry vines), and marched, with our guns, to Johnston's Army, where we joined the Seventh South Carolina. But before leaving Appamattox, to begin this adventure, my brother went to Cheatham and asked him to let him take his Whitworth, and surrender my brother's Enfield in its place. Cheatham consented, with the proviso that if the war should end and my brother got safely home with the gun, he would let him have it back. My brother agreed, and finally brought the gun home, and it ought now be still in the Cheatham family.
Powell had a liking to be with us, the main body of sharpshooters, a good deal, and sometimes I would take him with me on a scout. He was with me the night I went in the enemy's camp and stole the colonel's mare, but I did not let him go into the camp with me; I made him wait for me outside.
Not infrequently Powell would have a duel with a Yankee sharpshooter; usually Powell got the best of it. But one morning he came to us with a bullet hole through his hat. A Yankee sharpshooter had done it.
"Well Ben," we asked, "did you get him?"
"No, I didn't" said Ben very frankly, "he kept picking closer and closer to me, and when he put the bullit through my hat, I quit."
On this 9th of May, Ben came in about noon, and walking up to me, he said:
"Sergeant, I got a big Yankee officer this morning."
"How do you know it was an officer?" I asked.
"I could tell by the way they behaved; they were all mounted; it was something over half a mile; I could see them good through the telescope; I could tell by the way they acted which was the head man; so I raised my sights and took the chance; and, sir, he tumbled right off his horse. The others dismounted and carried him away. I could see it all good through the glass."
"Oh Ben," I said, "you shot some cavalryman, and you think it was an officer."
"No, sir, he was an officer, and a big one too. I could tell."
That night the enemy's pickets called over to ours:
"Johnny, one of your sharpshooters killed General Sedgwick today."
So we knew that Ben did what he said.
I was working quietly at a set of books, checking up the accounts, when the telephone rang. I answered, and a voice said:
"This is Frank Barrett, at the cotton exchange; there is a man here inquiring for you; very anxious to see you."
"All right," I said, "send him around."
Presently came in a man with a pleasant smiling face, and long white silky hair that fell to his shoulders.
"Do you know me?" he asked.
Taking a good look at him, I said: "Your face is somewhat familiar; but I don't exactly place you."
"I'm Ben Powell."
"Oh, Ben" and up I jumped, and we wrung each other's hands, and nearly cried.
And that night, under my roof, we "swapped lies" til nearly midnight
Ben now wants to go to France with me.
There are some discrepancies if you compare Berry Benson’s 1917 recollection of the shooting of General Sedgwick by Ben Powell with The Death of General John Sedgwick as told by Martin T. McMahon, the General’s Chief-of-Staff. Benson says that Powell reported that the “big Yankee officer” was on horseback and tumbled off, and that the others dismounted to help him. McMahon makes it very clear that they were on foot when the General was shot. Notice these statements:
"we sauntered out slowly to the gun on the right.”
It may be that Benson’s memory had failed somewhat over the intervening 50 plus years that had elapsed when he gave his account to the “Augusta Chronicle”, or perhaps he was just embellishing a “war story,” as is so typical of sailors and soldiers of any era. Benson’s narrative does lend considerable support to Powell’s claim in his 1907 letter to his wife that his rifle killed General Sedgwick.
It is unlikely that we will ever know for certain what happened on May 9, 1864.
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