This Civil War General Uttered History’s Most Ironic Last Words Just Before Getting Shot

Published May 14, 2018
Updated September 25, 2019

If there's one thing that can be said about the general, it was that he sure was confident.

John Sedgwick

Wikimedia CommonsGeneral John Sedgwick, posing in his uniform.

“They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.”

These words were uttered by General John Sedgwick just moments before a Confederate bullet hit him in the left eye, killing him instantly. The irony of his last words and unexpected death are better remembered today than Sedgwick’s military legacy, which led him into the path of that bullet at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House in the American Civil War.

General John Sedgwick’s Military Career

General Sedgwick was a career military man following in the footsteps of his grandfather, after whom he was named, who had served with George Washington.

Sedgwick graduated from West Point in 1837 and was immediately commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army sent to clear the Seminole Indians out of Florida. He fought in the Mexican War under Zachary Taylor and received two brevet promotions for his service. By 1860, Sedgewick had fought in the Utah and Indian Wars and had been promoted to the rank of colonel.

General John Sedgwick

Wikimedia CommonsGeneral John Sedgwick’s military portrait.

When the Civil War began in 1861, Sedgwick received orders to report to Washington D.C. and serve as the assistant inspector general of the Military Department. He was only there for a few months before he was promoted to brigadier general of volunteers.

He was first given command to the 2nd brigade of General Samuel Heintzelman’s division of the Army of the Potomac, and then was given his own division to command, the 2nd Division, 2nd Corps of the Army of the Potomac. He was a respected leader and well-loved by his men who often referred to him affectionately as “Uncle John.”

During the Sevens Days Battle, Sedgeick was injured in both the arm and leg at Glendale while his forces were trying to hold back General Robert E. Lee and his men from advancing down to the Virginia Peninsula. Following this battle, Sedgwick was promoted to major general.

General John Sedgwick and his men were sent into battle against Confederate leader Stonewall Jackson’s forces at the Battle of Antietam. They were ill-equipped for the battle, and Jackson’s forces outnumbered them and would surround them on three side. Sedgwick’s men took heavy casualties while Sedgwick himself was shot three times, in the wrist, leg and shoulder, but reported back for duty a mere ninety days later, recovered and ready to reenter the battle.

The Infamous Shot

Memorial For General John Sedgwick At West Point

FlickrThe General John Sedgwick memorial at West Point.

On May 8th, 1864, General Ulysses S. Grant moved Union forces southeast from Richmond to Spotsylvania County, where he believed he would be able to meet Robert E. Lee’s army on an equal battlefield and cause significant damage to their forces.

The two armies met at the Spotsylvania Courthouse, in what would become known as The Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, which lasted for over a week.

Unfortunately for Sedgwick, however, the battle would come to an end for him just one day in, on May 9th, 1864. Sedgwick had brought his forces to join four other Union Corps, bringing the total number of Union forces up to almost 100,000 men.

On the evening of May 9th, General John Sedgwick was inspecting his line and directing artillery placements at Spotsylvania. Confederate sharpshooters were firing shots at the Union army from around 1,000 meters away, causing them to duck for cover which prompted General Sedgwick to say “What? Men dodging this way for single bullets? What will you do when they open fire along the whole line?”

Trying to shore up his men’s spirits, he assured them “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.” Just moments after he uttered those words, a Confederate sharpshooter struck and killed him.

He was one of only two Union generals to be killed during the Civil War, and his death was mourned by many, including Robert E. Lee. He’s remembered as one of the Union heroes of the Civil War and a monument to him now stands at West Point Military Academy.

Next, check out the famous last words of these historical greats. Then, read these facts about American history you probably never knew.

Aimee Lamoureux
Aimee Lamoureux is a writer based in New York City who holds a Bachelor's in history from New York University. Her work has also appeared on Grunge, Mashed, and RealClearHistory.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
Citation copied
Cite This Article
Lamoureux, Aimee. "This Civil War General Uttered History’s Most Ironic Last Words Just Before Getting Shot.", May 14, 2018, Accessed June 13, 2024.