General John Sedgwick and His Last Words

Major Gen. John Sedgwick


On May 9, 1864, General John Sedgwick became the highest ranking United States soldier to be killed in the U.S. Civil War when a sharpshooter killed him at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House. But despite Sedgwick’s leadership and his bravery, he is most known for his last words.

“They Couldn’t Hit An Elephant”

As his own men took cover while Confederate sharpshooters from 1000 yards away fired at the Union soldiers, Sedgwick stood tall.  Trying to inspire his men, he asked, “Why are you dodging like this? They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.” A few moments later, he was shot in the eye and killed.

Sedgwick had been involved in the Civil War from its very beginning, starting out as a colonel. He and his men saw action in places such as the Battle of Antietam, the Battle of Chancellorsville, and at the Battle of the Wilderness.

Sedgwick’s death came a little less than a year before the Confederacy surrendered at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1965.  Also, he died exactly one year before the official end of the war by proclamation on May 9, 1865.

Despite dying while questioning his soldiers, Sedgwick apparently was well-liked by his men, who called him “Uncle John.” Ulysses S. Grant and Gen. George G. Meade were greatly saddened at his death, as was his old friend on the other side of the war, Robert E. Lee.

“Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”

There are a number of songs about guns and/or being shot, either literally or figuratively. For example, there is Aerosmith’s “Janie’s Got a Gun,” Bon Jovi’s “You Give Love a Bad Name” (“shot through the heart. . .”), Eric Clapton’s “I Shot the Sheriff,” the Beatles’ “Happiness is a Warm Gun,” and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Saturday Night Special.”

Other songs include The Clash’s “Tommy Gun,” Warren Zevon’s “Lawyers, Guns and Money,” Jimi Hendrix’s “Machine Gun,” Beastie Boys’s “Looking Down the Barrel of a Gun,” and Cypress Hill’s “How I Could Just Kill a Man.” And there is David Lee Roth’s song that invokes the type of animal in Sedgwick’s last words, “Elephant Gun.”

One of the few songs, though, that takes the point of view of the person being shot is Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” Dylan wrote the song for the 1973 movie Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.

In Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, director Sam Peckinpah used the song about the last words of a wounded sheriff to accompany the death of Sheriff Colin Baker (played by Slim Pickens). Dylan’s song begins around the 2-minute mark in the following clip from the film.

Unlike the sheriff in “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” General Sedgwick had little time to contemplate the end of his life after he was shot in the head. Yet, his last words have had a lasting power.

Storytellers used Sedgwick’s last words for a number of purposes.  Depending on how you look at his death, his last words illustrate courage, bravura, or stupidity.

You have to give some kudos to the guy, though, and many have. There is a monument to Sedgwick at West Point. And among other tributes, there are cities named in Sedgwick’s memory in Arkansas, Colorado, and Kansas.  Colorado and Kansas also named counties after Sedgwick. Streets are named after him in New York City, Chicago, and Washington, D.C.

Meanwhile, nobody remembers the name of the man who killed him. Several Confederate soldiers claimed responsibility, though many believe Benjamin Medicus Powell fired the fatal shot using a long-range Whitworth sharpshooter rifle (with telescope) from England.

What are your favorite last words? Leave your two cents in the comments. Photo via public domain.

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    2 thoughts on “General John Sedgwick and His Last Words”

    1. Songs “with the point of view of the person being shot” – also, of course, Neil Young’s POWDERFINGER.

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