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Civil War Series

The Battles of Wilderness & Spotsylvania

   

MAY 9: A SHARPSHOOTER KILLS SEDGWICK

The sun rose on May 9 to reveal a network of earthen fortifications sprawling above Spotsylvania Court House. The Confederate line started near the Po, followed Laurel Hill east across Brock Road, then lunged forward to form a horseshoe-shaped bulge encompassing high ground around the Harrison and McCoull places. Federal entrenchments wound through fields and woods across from the Rebels. A Union reporter thought that "it was Gettysburg reversed—Lee having the inner circle." The salient—or "Muleshoe," as the projecting earthworks were called—concerned Lee's engineers because it constituted a vulnerable point in the Rebel position. They deemed it a "necessary evil," however, as it was important to include high ground within the salient.

Ewell's Confederate Second Corps occupied the Muleshoe. The Southerners dug trenches with cups and bayonets, felled trees in front to create clear fields of fire, then stacked the timber with sharpened branches facing the enemy, intending to delay the Yankees while they shot them to pieces. Earthworks were erected in front of the trenches and head logs were thrown on top with "loopholes" for firing. Every so often barricades—called "traverses"— extended back at right angles from the main works to protect the Rebels from flanking fire and to give them rallying points if the Federals broke through. Meade's chief of staff, Major General Andrew A. Humphreys, remarked that "with such entrenchments as these, having artillery throughout, with flank fire along their lines wherever practicable, and with the rifled muskets then in use, which were as effective at three hundred yards as the smooth-bore muskets at sixty yards, the strength of an army sustaining attack was more than quadrupled."

A Confederate in the Stonewall Brigade wrote home: "Wonder what General Grant thinks of Master Bob today, for he is right in his way to Richmond."

TWO GUNS OF CAPTAIN WILLIAM H. MCCARTNEY'S FIRST MASSACHUSETTS BATTERY STOOD AT THE POINT WHERE THE TWO BRANCHES OF THE BROCK ROAD JOINED. JOHN SEDGWICK WAS STANDING BESIDE THE GUNS WHEN A CONFEDERATE BULLET PIERCED HIS SKULL. (LC)

Around nine o'clock in the morning, Sedgwick inspected his dispositions near Brock Road. Rebel sharpshooters were active and had already shot Brigadier General William H. Morris in the leg. Bullets spattered around and men began ducking. "What! What! Men dodging this way for single bullets," Sedgwick exclaimed. "What will you do when they open fire along the whole line. I am ashamed of you. They couldn't hit an elephant at this distance." Just then a sergeant dropped to his knees, and Sedgwick prodded the man with his boot. "What are you dodging at?" Sedgwick inquired. "They can't hit an elephant at that distance." The sergeant explained that he believed in dodging and thought that the practice had once saved his life. "All right, my man," Sedgwick laughed. "Go to your place." There was another shrill whistle and a dull thump. Blood spurt like a little fountain from under Sedgwick's left eye, and the fatally wounded general collapsed into an aide's arms.

SEDGWICK WAS AMONG THE HIGHEST-RANKING OFFICERS KILLED IN THE WAR. WHEN TOLD OF HIS DEATH, GRANT TWICE ASKED, "IS HE REALLY DEAD?" (COURTESY OF THE HISTORICAL SOCIETY OF PLAINFIELD/DRAKE HOUSE MUSEUM, PLAINFIELD, NEW JERSEY)

Sedgwick's death was sorely felt. "From the commander to the lowest private, he had no enemy," an aide scrawled to his family. Meade appointed Major General Horatio G. Wright as the Sixth Corps' new head.

The day's chief activities occurred on the flanks. Burnside's corps, which was quartered near Alrich's, began south along the Fredericksburg Road. Brigadier General Orlando B. Willcox's division reached the Gayle house above the Ni, threw skirmishers over the creek, then advanced partway up the far bank to the Beverly house. There they met determined resistance from Fitzhugh Lee's mounted Confederates. Fighting sputtered back and forth until about noon, when Brigadier General Thomas G. Stevenson's division pulled up and joined Willcox. Burnside was concerned, however, that his corps projected dangerously in front of Meade and directed Willcox and Stevenson to entrench.

From his observation post at the Gayle house, Willcox could see church spires near Spotsylvania Court House. He was distressed to see Confederates there and expressed concern that they might attack. Meanwhile, Hancock, who was still near Todd's Tavern, reported that Early had left his sector. Grant concluded from Willcox's and Hancock's intelligence that Lee must be shifting from west to east, possibly to thrust toward Fredericksburg. Sheridan had left on his raid toward Richmond, so Grant was without his mounted arm to gather information. Nonetheless, based on the reports from his flanks, he decided to exploit Lee's apparent maneuver and launch an offensive of his own. Burnside was to hold the Ni while Hancock advanced to the Po and attacked Lee's western flank. Burnside would be the anvil and Hancock the hammer while the rest of the Union army—Warren and Wright—watched for an opening to attack across Lee's entire line.

Grant visited Hancock late in the afternoon. Union artillery opened on Confederate wagons across the Po, and soon Hancock's infantry was splashing across. By dark, most of the Federal Second Corps was over the river and massing near Block House Bridge, near the left end of Lee's line. The river bent sharply south at the bridge, which meant that Hancock would have to cross the Po a second time to reach the enemy. Fearing that Lee had the bridge heavily guarded, Hancock deferred advancing until the next morning. Pontoons were thrown across the Po at the initial crossing to expedite Hancock's retreat, should it become necessary.

WITH A BOOMING VOICE AND COMMANDING PRESENCE, WINFIELD HANCOCK INSPIRED CONFIDENCE ON THE BATTLEFIELD. (NA)

Hancock's delay cost Grant dearly. Under cover of darkness, Lee withdrew two divisions of Early's corps from Spotsylvania Court House and rushed them toward the endangered Po River sector. Mahone formed across the Confederate flank while Heth circled below Hancock, then swung north to strike the Federal Second Corps' flank. In a move characteristic of his military style, Lee was turning the tables on Grant.

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