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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    Tubman was born Araminta “Minty” Ross to parents who were held as slaves around March 1822 in Dorchester County, Maryland. She grew to adulthood as a slave, eventually in her late 20’s escaping from slavery on her own following a failed attempt with her brothers. Tubman then spent more than a decade helping other slaves escape through the Underground Railroad, often at great risk to herself. Frederick Douglass once wrote in a letter that he knew of nobody except John Brown who had put themselves at more personal risk in the fight against slavery than Harriet Tubman.

    When the Civil War broke out, Tubman gave her services to the Union, working in a variety of ways, including as a nurse and as a scout. Someone should make a super hero movie about her.

    For a short 7-minute bio of Harriet Tubman, check out the following video. Such a short video does not come close to capturing the extent of her life, but it is a decent overview.

    For a longer documentary about Harriet Tubman and the underground railroad, check out this History Channel documentary. Below is part one.

    And here is part two of Harriet Tubman & the Underground Railroad.

    The more you learn about Tubman, the more it makes sense to give her a national honor like putting her on the twenty-dollar bill. Looking back on her amazing life, though, it does raise one question. What took so long?

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    During the Civil War, the Battle of Gettysburg began on July 1, 1863, ending on July 3, the date of Pickett’s Charge. The three-day battle between Union and Confederate armies was the largest military fight in North American history. Additionally, it was an important turning point in the war and led to ten famous sentences by President Abraham Lincoln.

    In the video below, Historian Garry Adelman recounts the story of the battle on the fields of Pennsylvania, including how the conflict started by accident. And he does it all in less than five minutes. Check it out.

    For more about Gettysburg, check out this video about the soldiers who gathered for the 50th and 75th anniversaries of the battle.

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    On July 1-3, 1863, Union and Confederate soldiers fought on the fields near the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. During that time, between 46,000 and 51,000 men on both sides were injured or killed.

    The battle was a significant victory for the Union, having repelled General Lee’s entry into the North, but the Civil War was far from finished. The battle’s significance, and the war’s meaning, was further solidified several months later on November 19 when the Soldier’s National Cemetery at Gettysburg was dedicated, featuring President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

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    Have you been to Gettysburg? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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