May 9, 1864: “No greater loss could have befallen us” with the death of Sedgwick

If you’ve been following the sesquicentennial flow of events, you know May 8, 1864 was another day of furious battle as Federals tried, and failed, to gain Spotsylvania Court House.  May 9, however, was considered a “lull” in the fighting.  Though no major assaults took place, the two armies remained a few hundred yards apart.  And the two armies continued an active fire across the fields.  The infantry and artillery on both sides maintained a brisk, though not overwhelming, fire.  Captain Charles E. Mink, Battery H, 1st New York Light Artillery described the situation in his official report of the campaign:

May 9, placed the guns in position behind a line of works thrown up at the edge of the woods at Laurel Hill, right section in the road which passes through the Wilderness at this point, the center and left sections about 80 yards to the right where the work formed an angle of about 45 degrees with the line in front of the timber.

Today a single Napoleon gun stands in that location, representing Mink’s and other guns stationed there during the battle.  I’ve featured it in a previous post.

Overland Campaign 641

On a clear day… and no traffic blocking…. you can look over the barrel of this gun and easily see the treeline held by the Confederates.

Mink went on to record the most famous incident of the day, almost as a passing note, in his report:

In our front, at about the distance of 500 or 600 yards, [was] a dense piece of woods, in which the enemy’s sharpshooters were stationed; killing Major-General Sedgwick near the guns of Lieutenant Richie’s section, and wounding many men and officers near us.

While the Confederates may have been targeting officers in the Federal lines, I would submit the sharpshooter that killed Sedgwick was employed primarily to harass Mink’s and other artillerymen on the line.  Sedgwick happened to be another target that presented himself.

Overland Campaign 625

Mink’s commander, Colonel Charles S. Wainwright, was less reserved in his diary entry for the day:

Quite early in the day these skirmishers inflicted a terrible loss on us by killing General Sedgwick. He was shot dead a few feet from Mink’s left piece, near the rejunction of the roads. No greater loss could have befallen us; certainly none which would have been so much mourned. “Uncle John” was loved by his men as no other corps commander ever was in this army. His name will henceforth be linked with Reynolds and Buford; nor do I know of another worthy to be associated with them. General Wright, on whom Sedgwick has always placed the greatest reliance, succeeds him in the command.

Just four days into the Overland Campaign and both armies were losing men, particularly key leaders, at an alarming rate.  And at a rate which would not slack for many weeks.

General Sedgwick lies today in a cemetery in Cornwall Hollow, Connecticut.  There is an HMDB entry for the memorial at that place, with photos from my friend and fellow markerhunter Bill Coughlin.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 36, Part I, Serial 67, page 655;  Charles S. Wainwright, A Diary of Battle: The Personal Journals of Colonel Charles S. Wainwright, 1861-1865, edited by Allan Nevins, New York: Da Capo Press, 1998, page 360.)

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

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