GEN. JOHN SEDGWICK.
DELIVERED BEFORE THE
VERMONT OFFICERS' RE-UNION SOCIETY,
AT THEIR SIXTEENTH ANNUAL MEETING AT
MONTPELIER, Nov. 11, 1880.
By Martin T. McMahon,
Adjutant General, Sixth Army Corps
RESOLVED, by the Senate and House of Representatives--That the Secretary of the Senate be instructed to procure the printing of two thousand and five hundred copies, in pamphlet form, of the address of General Martin T. McMahon, on the life and services of Major General John Sedgwick, delivered before the Officers' Reunion Society on the Eleventh day of November, A. D. 1880, for the use of the Historical Society, State Library, and the General Assembly, as follows: To each member of the Senate and House of Representatives four copies, to each Town Clerk one copy, to each College, Normal School, and Academy in this State, one copy; one copy to the Governor and each of the Heads of Departments, and to each Judge of the Supreme Court one copy, to the State Library two hundred copies, to the Vermont Historical Society two hundred copies, and the remaining copies to the Vermont Officers' Reunion Society.
JOHN L. BARSTOW,
President of the Senate.
James L. Martin,
Speaker of the House of Representatives.
Approved December 14th, 1880.
Ladies and Gentlemen:
If I felt that any degree of responsibility attached to me for my appearance on this occasion, other than perhaps a certain lack of moral courage to resist the flattering invitation of your committee to deliver this address, I should feel obliged to commence with an apology; for I certainly confess to a feeling which has dwelt upon my mind ever since the invitation was communicated to me and the suggestion made that it would be agreeable to the solders of Vermont that the subject of the address should be, "John Sedgwick," that I am totally inadequate to do justice to the memory of that gallant soldier or justice to an audience such as this.
Disclaiming responsibility, however, except as I have stated, I shall proceed at once without loss of time to say a few words to you, fellow citizens, of a man who deserves to be kept in perpetual memory by the people whom he served, and by men of every land who admire honest and sterling manhood, and pure and devoted patriotism.
Those who were in the army or who remember the trying days from '61 to '65 must often realize that there is to-day in the United States and out of it a generation who, being children or unborn when the civil war commences, know very little of its history.
Those who bore a part in it scarcely realize yet, that this great American conflict for the maintenance and restoration of the Union will stand in human history as one of the most important events that has ever been chronicled by the pen of man. The younger generation to whom I have referred learned history before this chapter was written in its pages. Although recorded in the blood of a million of their fellow creatures, upon trampled battlefields in many States, although written in words that will never fade on the hearts of many widowed women, on the hearts of thousands of orphan children, the history of the school room of the younger generation of to-day contains nothing of the civil war. It was not the practice before the war, nor do I believe it is now, that young people who leave the school room ever devote themselves with any remarkable diligence to continuing their studies either of history or of any other branch included in the regular course. It is not to be wondered at, therefore, that there are many heroes who gave their lives for this Republic, whose names are comparatively little known. Neither is it to be gainsaid that as time advances the names of these men will beam in the firmament of American glory with the steady lustre of the everlasting and unchangeable stars. The lesson of their lives will be taught to the children of the future as a necessary portion of their education; the story of their deeds will be told to the old and the young. And pen and pencil will portray in all the forms by which ideas are communicated and made imperishable, some central truths that they lived and died to establish. Of these truths, one may be stated here. That the people of our day and generation are not unworthy the inheritance bequeathed them by the founders of this government; that the people of our day have not degenerated, that at no time throughout all the past annals of the world has any nation or people or race produced grander types of humanity than this American Republic. Of the men of '61 to '65 it may be said that they differed in character and achievement as well as in personal demeanor "as one star differeth from another star in glory."
There were the grave veterans of former wars, there were the bright faced boys of the school room who left their mothers' sides to marched in serried ranks to battle fields of the terrors of which they never could have had the remotest conception. There were the farmer and the blacksmith, the lawyer and the mechanic, the preacher and the laborer, the doctor and the clerk, men of all walks in life, men of all grades in social circles, men of all habits of mind, of all grades of talent, men with and without ambition, who marched with steady steps to make up the millions who faced the privations of the field to establish a principle which it had heretofore seemed to them it was sacrilege to question. This principle was that this Republic is an indestructible Union of indestructible States. The names of many of those who composed our armies have become historic and household words. The memory of all, even of the humblest whose record occupies no greater space in the world's history than the breadth of a small granite slab, wide enough to hold above the waving grass in any of the great cities of the dead the touching word, each letter of which suggests a tear--"Unknown," deserves to be held by their surviving comrades, by their fellow countrymen of to-day, and by endless generations yet to come, in tender, affectionate, everlasting remembrance.
But of these, I am here to speak of only one.
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the Upper Potomac by the strange and unaccountable arrest, never explained, of Gen. Charles P. Stone, Sedgwick was sent to the command of this division, then described as a corps of observation. But when at last the army of the Potomac was completed and took the field in organized corps, Sedgwick's Division became a part of the second army corps.
Down the broad waters of the Potomac in that early day in spring, amid the thunders of artillery from fleet and fort, with waving flags and streamers gaily decked, hundreds of vessels sailed day after day conveying the great army of the Potomac to its destination at Fortress Monroe to begin the grand advance on Richmond.
Sedgwick's connection with those important events reveals one grand and magnificent episode.
At Fair Oaks on the 30th of May when the treacherous river rose and seemed to sweep all hope of succor from the left wing of the army of the Potomac, on which the whole force of the rebellion was suddenly hurled; when bridge after bridge so carefully constructed had given way, and there remained but one, over which the water poured in a might torrent, and which was held in place by ropes attached to the trees upon either bank, Sedgwick's great will and iron nerve rose to the occasion higher than the waves, stronger than the mad river,--and over the trembling bridge through the surging waters he led his men, dragged his artillery and accomplished a passage marvelous in its achievement, magnificent in its results.
With his arrival on that field all danger to the army and the cause was removed. The enemy was repulsed and driven back at every point, and the following day defeated on every portion of the field. This affair illustrated one peculiar train in Sedgwick's character and life. He was always quietly but decidedly at the right spot at the right time, and he seemed to get there or be there with such quiet precision that there seemed nothing strange in it until you critically examined the obstacles overcome. This feature fitted him peculiarly for the command of the Sixth Corps which he attained somewhat later, for throughout the history of the corps repeated instances on important occasions are to be found when its prompt and timely arrival accomplished decisive results. It is not to be wondered at, therefore, that when such a command succeeded to such a corps that the reputation of both should stand high throughout the army.
At Antietam, under the blue September sky in the early dawn, the reorganized army of the Potomac under its old commander confronted upon a single field its old opponent. Hitherto all our great battles had been fought upon one side or the other in detail. Sedgwick commanding his division under the gallant Sumner, pushed forward on their right leading his men with that earnest determination which always implied that the thing he set out to do must be accomplished in spite of all human resistance. His men melted away under the steady and destructive fire, yet he pressed on forcing the enemy back through the woods and the cornfield, beyond the memorable Dunker church. He was bleeding from a painful wound to which he referred almost petulantly as being merely an annoyance and awkward just at that time. At last again struck by an enemy's bullet he fell from loss of blood and exhausting and was carried from the field. The contest at this point had been severe beyond description and when Sedgwick's bleeding body was borne away and the hearts of his men were drooping, it was the old Sixth Corps that pressed forward under Franklin and Smith and Slocum to restore our broken ranks, to save the remnant of Sedgwick's Division and assist in completing the glorious work of the day and one of the greatest victories of the war. Sedgwick's wounds were very painful, but long before they were fully healed he was back again in the field and assigned to the command of the Ninth Corps. Referring to the pain and annoyance of his wounds he once said laughingly: "If I am ever hit again I hope it will settle me at once. I want no more wounds."
When the customary and expected change was made i the command of the army of the Potomac after the first Fredericksburg, an interchange of commanders was ordered between the Ninth and Sixth Corps which placed General "Baldy" Smith in command of the one and General Sedgwick as the chief of the other. He joined the corps at the camp on the Rappahannock known as White Oak Church. When he came he was kindly received, even enthusiastically, notwithstanding the corps greatly mourned its late commanders both Franklin and Smith.
The winter passed monotonously enough. It was a dismal camp, and the days went by right heavily until at the opening of spring our ancient labor was resumed and once more the faithful old Army of the Potomac found itself again upon the hated pontoons, crossing the river of death preliminary to the battles which made up the sad record of the Chancellorsville campaign. Inasmuch as this campaign, and the events connected with it, constitute perhaps the most important of Sedgwick's history, I shall devote more of my time to it than to any other of the actions in which he was engaged.
The movements of General Hooker at that time were singularly well planned. Our army occupying the Falmouth Heights and the left bank of the Rappahannock was confronted by the army of General Lee occupying the opposite bank, the City of Fredericksburg, Marye's Heights and the river above and below the city, a distance of some miles.
Hooker's plan consisted of transferring the greater part of the army rapidly and secretly some twenty miles above Lee's position, crossing the river in force, marching to the flank and rear of the rebel line and compelling the enemy to evacuate a strongly fortified position and come out and give battle outside his works in order to save his communication with Richmond.
While the movement was in progress Sedgwick was left near his original camp a few miles below Fredericksburg in command of three corps of the army composing the left wing. There were his own, the sixth corps, the first under command of General John F. Reynolds and the third under command of General Daniel E. Sickles. With this strong force he was to cross the river, threaten the enemy's fortified position below Fredericksburg and without bringing on, if he could avoid it, a general engagement so conduct himself as to make the enemy believe that it was his intention to do so at any moment. In other words he was left to create a formidable diversion, but still strong enough to fight if necessary. The crossing of the river occupied the opposite bank and were within easy talking distance of our men. The rumble of heavy wagons carrying the pontoon boats could be heard across the river, and it was therefore determined that the boats should be carried down upon the shoulders of the men. The light brigade under General Calvin E. Pratt, were assigned to this important duty. After much delay, trouble and vexation the boats were at last launched before the enemy had any full realization of what was about to occur. The night was dark and foggy, but sounds could be heard at an unusual distance. Two or three times from the opposite bank the rebel pickets hailed with the usual "Halloa there Yank, what's going on over there? What are you doing? Our pickets occasionally replied, "Johnny we're coming over after you." This stile of conversation occurred at intervals during the night as some unusual sound attracted the enemy's attention. When the boats were launched and manned by soldiers of the engineers brigade as oarsmen, the troops of General David A. Russell were embarked, sixty men in a boat, and in deathly silence, the oars scarcely making a ripple in the water, forty boat loads pushed from the shore side by side, and were lost i the fog before they had gone twenty feet from land. The dead silence still continued while those upon the shore watched with beating hearts, and listened with anxiety not to be described. It seemed an everlasting time while each one peered through the fog which fell like a pall upon the gallant band that had left us for the other shore. The river is not more than eighty or hone hundred yards wide at this point but the progress of the boats, owing probably to the necessity of rowing with great silence, was unusually slow. There was ominous stillness on the further bank. There seemed to be no movement of troops; we could hear no rumbling of artillery. Suddenly upon the damp night air there rang from the enemy one single clear word distinctly heard in all the boats and across on our bank and well understood. That word was "Fire!" The blaze of musketry in the fog along the hole river bank for two hundred yards seemed like the silent, sudden opening of one great mouth of flame. The crash that followed took away some of the scenic effect of this brilliant display, and was of itself robbed in its effectiveness by the uncomfortable accompaniment of rattling bullets which, fortunately for those in the boats, were aimed too high to do much harm except upon the innocent spectators who had not yet embarked. The rebel yell familiar as it was to all of us never seemed so ominous and disagreeable. Nothing was heard from the boats except here and there a word of command or encouragement, and afterwards as the first from the further bank continued and grew after the first volley more straggling, the anxiety for one word from Russell grew grave and great. In a few seconds a boat was seen returning, and after our hearts grew chill, believing that the attempt to land had been abandoned. As the boat however, came out of the fog, it was seen that it was empty except as to the oarsmen. Then in another clear, loud, exultant cheer followed by another and another, told us that the works on the further banks were ours. The boats made another trip carrying other regiments, and then the bridges were rapidly laid down and completed soon after daylight. In the meantime a second crossing was effected about one mile further below on the river where Reynolds threw across one of his divisions. For three days we remained in this position skirmishing every day, keeping two divisions on the enemy's side of the river, the rest of the command in readiness to cross. Meanwhile Hooker with the rest of the army had rapidly and admirably accomplished the crossing of the river and the great flank march which formed the essential feature of his plan of action. With Slocum in advance he was sweeping down upon the enemy's flank capturing even their outlying pickets. Upon Hooker's arrival on the field, for reasons never fully explained or understood, he checked Slocum's further advance in the direction of Fredericksburgh, contracted his own lines and seemed to assume the defensive, and maintained it during the rest of those unfortunate operations. Meanwhile he withdrew from Sedgwick's command, first Sickles' corps and then Reynolds', which had to march to join him by way of one of the upper fords; and Sedgwick was left at Franklin's crossing three miles below Fredericksburg with the Sixth Corps alone, which numbered at that time about twenty-two thousand men. On Saturday night Sedgwick had one division of his command across the river deployed in front of the enemy's work extending about four miles below the city.
An order from General Hooker received at half-past eleven at night directed him to take up his bridges, march to Fredericksburgh upon our side of the river, relay the bridges, cross with his command, capture the city, take the heights which dominated the town known as Marye's Heights, marched out on the plank road in the direction of Chancellorsville and join General Hooker's command at daylight. The distance of Chancellorsville from Fredericksburgh is about eleven miles. The distance to be accomplished by withdrawing to our own side of the river and marching by the Falmouth Heights to Fredericksburg about five miles. Inasmuch as it would have been totally impossible in the time allowed for the whole march to have taken up the bridges, transported them in Fredericksburg and relaid them there, General Sedgwick decided not to remove the bridges, but to cross with his whole corps on the bridges as constructed and move by the flank on the enemy's side of the river into Fredericksburg. By doing this he would same some hours of time. He moved at once to cross the river with his remaining division.
Brooks who was in position, fronting the enemy's works, was sharply pressed by their pickets in the darkness, as if they desired to know whether we were withdrawing. Newton's and Howe's divisions with the light brigade, marched in the direction of Fredericksburg. They were pressed as they advanced by enemy's skirmishers, who were on the alert, and their progress resisted, in this manner, was necessarily cautious and slow.
It was the opening dawn, therefore, when the first brigade of Newton's command reached the town of Fredericksburg, moved out and as soon as the deployment could be effected, assaulted the stone wall made memorable by the slaughter of our troops, under Burnside, in the previous December. This stone wall or line of rifle pits, presented to us at the beginning of the slope which led up to Marye's Heights a smooth face of solid stone, about six fee high, behind which, but on higher ground, was a strong line of the enemy's infantry. As our men advanced gallantly to the attack, supported by one or two batteries, the first in position, the enemy reserved their fire until our line was close at hand. The batteries at Marye's Heights crowning the crest behind the stone wall opened with terrible effect. It was impossible to withstand the fire; the men were ordered to fall back, and did so in good order, and without panic. When they reached favoring ground affording shelter, the line was ordered to lie down, and did so promptly and without confusion. Sedgwick rode out near the left of the line, and as he witnessed the repulse he remained watching intently the enemy's position with an expression on his face that I had never observed before. All the merry lines about his eyes had disappeared; his lips had settled into a fixed expression of determination, and the genial face which I had never seen before except in camp, seemed at that moment to be made of iron. A few of his staff were scattered in the vicinity; the others were along the line of the retiring troops, to indicate the position where the line was to halt, re-form and lie down. When this was accomplished the enemy from the rifle pits perceiving a commanding officer whose very presence indicated authority, directed their fire upon General Sedgwick. After a few seconds of delay I ventured to suggest to him to retired from his exposed position. At first he did not seem to hear me. Upon my repeating the suggestion as the bullets became more numerous, he turned to me with a rapid gesture, pulling down his old slouch hat as if to conceal the intense expression of his eyes, and said with strange emphasis, "By Heaven, sir, this must not delay us."
He slowly turned his horse and rode back into the streets of the town.
During the few moments that he stood gazing at the enemy's works his plans were completed, and were carried out without the loss of a single instant.
Gibbon's division, which had crossed over on a bridge newly laid directly in front of the town, was ordered to move forward on the right to develop what could be accomplished by an attack in that direction. Howe was ordered to execute a similar movement on the left. In the meantime, from Newton's Division and the light brigade, assaulting columns were organized to carry the heights directly in our front if the flank movements should prove impracticable. Gibbon found himself confronted by the canal running parallel to the enemy's position and under the full fire of all their batteries. This he could not cross in line of battle; to cross it in column on a bridge constructed for the purpose under the fire which could be concentrated on him was destruction. Hazel Run on our left with its deep and precipitous banks rendered a similar good service to the enemy as part of their defensive line and checked for the time the advance of Howe. The regiments for the main assault from the centre on Marye's Heights were collected as quickly as possible. These regiments were drawn from the various divisions of the corps. Our extreme left was still back at the position held on the previous day and strongly skirmishing with the enemy in their front. It was therefore ten o'clock before the assaulting columns were formed and ready to attack.
From the main street of Fredericksburg, running at right angles to the river, the plank-road leads up to the center of the enemy's position.
From the limits of the city to the crest of Marye's Heights the distance is about half a mile. A toll gate stands about half way up the slope. The heights on both sides of the road were crowned with batteries. A little above the toll-gate and at the commencement of the steeper slope to the left of the road as we faced the enemy's position, was the stone wall occupied still by a strong line of infantry. In front of the stone wall, about three hundred yards below and near the outskirts of the city, was our line of battle repulsed at daylight. The enemy plainly saw our preparations for the assault and evidently did not wish to interfere with them. They seemed perfectly confident of the result, and when they saw that we intended to attack their direct front and center, they scarcely disturbed our intentions by a single shot. At last it was my duty to report to the General that everything was in readiness. His instructions were that one column formed on the street leading to the plank-road should march directly up the plank-road; that another and parallel column formed on a street about sixty yards to the right should march up through the fields toward the toll-gate. At this point he knew that they would receive the heaviest of the enemy's fire. He directed that the line of battle still lying in front of the stone wall and rifle pits to the left of the plank-road should rise up at that instant and go forward with a cheer, and at double-quick.
In this plan there was an admirable calculation and combination of what may be called the moral effects and which are of much importance in a movement of this kind. The advance of our left column on the plank-road he knew would be a tempting target for the rifle pits on their left, and that by the time the head of the column approached the toll-gate they would not doubt draw the entire fire from the rifle pits; that both columns would attract the full attention of the batteries on the heights, that the fire would reach its highest intensity as the heads of the columns reached the toll-gate, and then, if at all, they would commence to waver, and a single cheer from an advancing line of American soldiers delivered as the Sixth Corps knew how to deliver it, would not only put new heart into the men composing the columns, but strike dismay to the defenders of the rifle pits who would have already discharged their volley fire.
The result was as he expected. The men went forward gallantly at "trail arms." The artillery tore through our ranks, the men neither halted nor hesitated. the left column, by the very force of the fire on its front and flank, bent towards the plank-road and the heads of the two columns came together at the toll-gate. There, for an instant, as when a strong, quiet stream moving in a new channel meets with some sudden obstacle, there was a momentary pause and the men clustered round the frame building at the toll-gate seemed to hesitate, and, for an instant, it was doubtful whether they could advance. Out upon the clear summer air rang the cheer of Newton's men. Up at double-quick they sprang. The men in the rifle pits who had forgotten the line of battle in their zeal to destroy the advancing columns, saw their danger. The men of the columns burst like a mountain torrent over all barriers. Taking up the cheer of the line of battle they pressed forward magnificently, victoriously, and before the enemy were aware of the fact, still firing from their batteries on the hill, their attentions distracted by the smoke of their own guns, by the cheering of the line of battles and its advance, the flag of the Sixth Main volunteers, supported by that regiment and its sister regiment, the Fifth Wisconsin, was planted, standing out upon the breeze between the guns of the Washington light artillery of Louisiana as their last discharges were made.
The morning dew was yet fresh upon the grass on that pretty slope which led from the city limits to this crest of death; the blood of one thousand gallant men was mingled with it. Many of them cold in death, many of them writhing in the agony of painful wounds. There were distant homes, some of them among the Green Mountains and by the lakes of this very State, where expectant wives were looking forward to the unknown agony yet to come. There were distant hearths where little children played, some of whom may now be listening to my voice, who knew not that at that moment on a grassy slope in far Virginia a cloud had fallen on their young lives never to be lifted again. There were hearts in many homes that day that were ready to break as they wearily waited for news from the front. Nevertheless the war went on, and the twenty thousand gallant men who swept that crest, less the one thousand bleeding on its slope, went forward under John Sedgwick.
Our advance was spitefully resisted. At Salem chapel, midway between Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, the enemy strongly reinforced from the main army under Lee confronting Hooker, reinforced also by the troops who lined the river above Fredericksburg and who fell back upon the carrying of Marye's Heights, made a final stand. Brooks, God bless him! Old commander of the Vermont Brigade, true-hearted gentleman, unequaled soldier, rough and ready, beloved of men, robust and strong and prompt, went forward with his division of the red cross through the thick undergrowth that covered the mild ascent that led to Salem Heights. The sunken road across the crest at right angles to our line of march, filled with the rebel infantry, checked for the moment his advance, but he swept forward gallantly and well, pierced their line and for a moment and held the crest.
His flank and rear were assailed by the enemy, who overlapped him, and he was forced back through the undergrowth out into the clearing, followed closely and viciously until he was enabled to re-form under cover of our batteries, which, with grape and canister, rapidly served, checked the enemy under the personal supervision of Sedgwick. The next division, as fast as it arrived, was put into action, and the whole line again advance, steadily forcing its way up the crest, until at last night set in and there was the silence of death. All night long those two armies lay in the position in which they had fought during the closing hours of the day. There was no interchange of soldiers' bandinage; there was not a picket shot to disturb the silence. No fires were lighted upon either side, and the men lay down coffeeless on their grassy beds. Here and there the stretcher-men moved around silently bringing in their wounded or gathering in the dead. There was but one sound that disturbed the stillness. From the direction of Chancellorsville we could hear the low rumble of artillery, telling of marching columns. Strange but not unexpected rumors reach us from our rear that the city of Fredericksburg and Marye's Heights, which we had carried so gallantly and at such a cost, were re-occupied by the enemy, re-enforcing from the direction of Richmond. The situation of the corps was critical. Howe's division was formed in line of battle facing to the rear and toward Fredericksburg to resist an attack from that direction. Brooks and Newton remained on the field facing towards Chancellorsville, and the two lines thus formed in opposite directions, about two miles apart, were connected by a skirmish line of troops supporting frequent batteries. Everything indicated that the Sixth Corps would be overwhelmed by an attack from all sides at early daylight. General Sedgwick, when all his arrangements were completed, lay down in the wet grass with his head pillowed on his saddle; but he slept not. Three times during the night he telegraphed to General Hooker, sending the dispatch to the river at Banks Ford, a few miles above Fredericksburg, with which point we still held communication. There was a certain pathos in those dispatches that none who do not realize the situation can appreciate.
"I have reached this point," he said, "in obedience to orders. My advance is checked. The enemy is strongly reinforcing from your direction. I can plainly hear the rumble of their artillery. My losses are heavy. I will be, no doubt, attacked in strong force at daylight. Can you help me?"
This was the burden of the dispatches three times repeated during that still and anxious night. No answer came until eight o'clock of the following day. In the meantime the enemy wasted the hours in preparation. On that morning a staff officer of General Sedgwick, whose personal relations enabled him to speak freely, and whose youth, no doubt, inspired him somewhat with a sentiment of enthusiasm, remarked to the General that the situation seemed gloomy. The General quietly assented, with that pleasant merry twinkle in his eye which all who knew him will remember. Our young friend then remarked:
"General, it looks as if the Sixth Corps was going to close its career to-day."
"It has somewhat that appearance," said the General.
"Then," said our young officer, with must honest intensity, " If the Sixth Corps goes out of existence to-day, I hope it will e with a blaze of glory that will light the history of this war for all time."
The General quietly smiled and bending forward said:
"I will tell you a secret; there will be no surrendering."
The long hours went by and at eight o'clock came a strange message from the commanding General.
"You are too far away from me to direct. Look to the safety of your corps. Fall back on Fredericksburg or cross the river at Banks Ford, as you deem best."
But to the strong and earnest appeal, "Can you help me strongly if I am attacked," there was no reply. In the direction of Chancellorsville there was the silence of death. Not an answering gun replied to the crash of our artillery which echoed from every battery. The enemy on our front, in fact I may say on our three fronts, replied. The commanders of the other corps who stood inactive near Chancellorsville heard the incessant roar of the artillery near Salem chapel. They chafed almost to mutiny, because while this gallant little band, less than one-fifth of the army, was contending against these desperate odds, six corps stood idle within the sound of their guns. Sedgwick and Hooker have passed away, and have undergone that final judgment from which there is no appeal. I am not here to say one word in disparagement of the dead, much less of a gallant soldier like General Joseph Hooker, but I do stand here to vindicate the memory of one of the purest men, one of the truest patriots, one of the best and bravest--aye, and greatest soldiers that ever honored any land by a life of honorable service and a glorious death upon the field of battle. It has been stated before a committee of the National Congress, whose sole business seemed to be during the several years of their continuance, to dishonor the names of the best and truest of our soldiers, that Sedgwick's failure to obey the orders of Hooker was one of the chief causes of the failure of the Chancellorsville campaign. This statement was principally made by a man who still lives and whom therefore I am at full liberty to answer. Daniel Butterfield, Major-General, chief of staff of the Army of the Potomac, absent from every position of danger during all these operations, controlling at the old headquarters at Falmouth Prof. Lowe, the chief of balloons, and doing a large correspondence in Napoleonic style by telegraph and stenography, has stated before this committee that General Sedgwick's delay was the primal cause of the failure. General Sedgwick's order to advance to Chancellorsville and be there at daylight included another and more important commission. He was directed to make this march, impossible in itself in the time allowed--impossible if the march was unresisted. He was ordered to capture Fredericksburg and everything in it, which he did. He was ordered to carry Marye's Heights, which he did magnificently. He was ordered to advance upon the plank-road, which he did. He was also ordered to destroy any force that might intervene between him and the General commanding. This he gallantly attempted, and did as much in the line of destruction as it was possible to do with the force at his command. the same dispatch which ordered him to destroy any intervening force informed him that the army commanded by General Robert E. Lee was between him and the position he was ordered to occupy at daylight. Now an order to destroy General Lee and his army was very easy to issue. Its execution, as some of you gentlemen will perhaps remember, was attended with considerable difficulty; and when it is considered that during the thirty-six hours that Sedgwick was struggling to execute this part of the order, the main body of our army, consisting of six corps, never fired a shot, although within sound of Sedgwick's guns, I submit that any man who says that the failure could in any degree whatever be attributed to Sedgwick, insults every soldier of his command and dishonors the memory of the dead.
When the day came, Lee overestimating, as appears from his report made subsequently, the extent of Sedgwick's forces, failed to make his attack in force until about five o'clock in the afternoon. He believed that Sedgwick was accompanied by Reynolds' Corps, and he hesitated to attack until he could withdraw a sufficient force from Hooker's front to make his victory certain. The main attack was made in the afternoon about five o'clock, from the direction of Fredericksburg, and made gallantly and with vigor. One brigade of Howe's division, strongly posted, received the assault and was broken. Then, as on many other days in the long war for the Union, the farmyards and the workshops, the schoolrooms and the colleges, the mountains and valleys, the city by the lake, and the hamlets on the hills of the Green Mountain State, spoke out to the world for "freedom and unity," spoke from the barrels of two thousand gleaming muskets and by the ringing cheers of two thousand of the best and bravest men that ever served a State. The Vermont Brigade on the flank of Neill's, holding the woods which flanked also the rebel advance, poured in their steady contribution of well-directed bullets on the advancing masses of the rebellion, and the Sixth Corps and the army and the Union were saved by Vermont. The night came down upon anxious hearts. The battle was over, nor gun nor color was lost; but the position of the old corps was still as critical as ever. I pass over the melancholy history of the hours that followed, filled as they were with contradictory orders, one revoking the other, and a third renewing the first. The Sixth Corps crossed the river that night, making their passage over the pontoons lighted by the bursting shells which the enemy, with very creditable practice, was dropping in the vicinity of the bridges, and the next day Hooker, far above, recrossed the river, and this campaign was over. Sedgwick lost five thousand men in his honest endeavor to execute that part of the order which directed him to destroy the army commanded by General Lee; the combined loss of all the other corps scarcely exceeded this. Then came the regular and periodical change in commanders, the annual picnic into Maryland and Pennsylvania, the panic in Washington, and at last Gettysburg.
On Cemetery Ridge, amid gravestones, shattered by shot and shell, behind hasty earthworks of fence rail and dirt, our gallant brothers of the Second Corps, under the first of one hundred and eighty guns and against the very flower of the invading army, made this Union an immortal thing and the name of Hancock a cherished memory that will live forever in the hearts of the American people.
The long night march of the Sixth Corps from Manchester to the field of Gettysburg and its timely arrival to retrieve the disaster that Sickles had suffered, were the principal features of our Maryland campaign.
We had many marches that were prolonged and tedious; many that were forced by day and night before and after the great deciding battle. It was during the period I have been describing too, that this Vermont Brigade, holding the skirmish line at Beaver Dam, repulsed a full line of battle attacked twice repeated. It was during this time, too, that Sedgwick directed me to "put the Vermonters ahead and keep everything well closed up."
It was not the only time that he complimented the soldiers from Vermont. His compliments many times cost them very dear, for they were the high compliments of placing them on many battle fields in the foremost position of danger; of placing upon them the whole reliance of the corps. On many a day he watched them as the troops moved out of camp in the morning or closed the long dusty march of the day, and when on one occasions in the Wilderness, after the Sixth Corps had suffered a serious disaster on the day previous, when the Vermont Brigade returning after heavy losses, from their march to the assistance of the Second Corps, saw the General ride along the lines as they were coming into bivouac, they burst forth into a hearty, spontaneous cheer that touched him to the very heart; and when the cheers subsided one of them stepped to the front and called out with a comic and yet touching emphasis, "Three more for old Uncle John!" The General's bronzed face flushed like a girl's, and as the staff laughed at his embarrassment it spread along the lines and the whole brigade laughed and cheered as if they were just returning from a summer's picnic and not from a bloody field, weary, worn, and with decimated ranks. Nor had they rest that night; all night long they labored with the pick and shovel, and the next morning came the long, weary march, with fighting and intrenching, again night marches or labor in the trenches; and through it all there was neither rest nor shelter. There was no word of complaint; they was no murmur of discontent; and the steady yeomanry that made up this old brigade indulged in occasional flashes of humor scarcely to be expected from the solid citizens of conservative New England.
The colored troops who had joined us at the outset of this campaign for the first time, were green and inexperienced. They were, therefore, withheld from an active part in it; not, I suppose for any tenderness for them, but simply because the work then to be done could only be committed to veteran soldiers. When, therefore, one hot and dusty summer morning, Vermont was digging in the earthworks, the colored division of Burnside's corps passed through our lines; they looked very well in their new uniforms, but they seemed to fret and be discontented even under the burdens of their knapsacks. Thus far that had not fired a shot nor turned a shovelful of earth. A stalwart citizen of Vermont, leaning upon his spade as the division went by, solemnly removed his hat and bowing low with great dignity, said: "Good morning, gentlemen; you must find this work exceedingly fatiguing?"
The troops of the corps, owing to the long and trying marches which they had been compelled to make, acquired the habit of calling themselves "Sedgwick's foot cavalry," and maintained that they were kept on the gallop all the time. It was a joke among them that Sedgwick never stopped until his horse gave out, and on one occasion, in Virginia, when he had dismounted by the road side and stood on a little bank leaning on the fence watching the troops as they went by, men in the ranks constantly called out, "Come on, we'll wait for you. Get another horse; we are in no hurry."
For some time the General did not notice these cries nor understand this significance. At last he turned to me and said, "What do they mean by 'Get another horse; we'll wait for you?'" I explained to him the significance of the language, and as I did so he laughed heartily, whereupon in the ranks they cried out, "See the old fellow laugh," and immediately the whole column took it up with enthusiastic cheers.
These things I mention chiefly to show the relationship between the commander and his troops. He could appreciate their humor, knowing that no thought of disrespect ever entered it, and a single smile from him went like a sunbeam through long columns of tired men until it broadened into a laugh, and culminated in cheers that came from the true hearts of as gallant soldiers as ever served a patriot cause.
After the Gettysburgh campaign, Warrenton and Hazel river, a winter of delights! when the Sixth Corps lived and reveled for six long months. There were horse races and cock fights, and balls attended by fair women from home. There were festivities such as only an army knows how to organize and enjoy. Everywhere picnics by day, and dancing by night. Each corps vied with the other as to the extent of its hospitalities. Each corps claimed to have the fastest horse, the best fighting cock, to be visited by the prettiest ladies and to be altogether the best corps in the army. This extravagant claim, of course, was only true as to one corps, the Sixth, although I am free to say as some of you may remember, that in the matter of horse racing the Second Corps got the best of us on one memorable occasion and reduced the speculative officers of the Sixth to absolute penury until the next arrival of the paymaster. A last desperate effort to redeem our fortunes by sustaining at large odds a favorite chick imported from the good city of Boston, only added to our disasters; and when that unfortunate bird was laid away with funeral honors after only one round, the Sixth Corps decided almost unanimously that all this style of dissipation was highly immoral and should therefore be discouraged.
Though all this winter those who had occasion to live near and around John Sedgwick saw the sweeter and more touching traits of his character. Modest as a girl, unassuming, gentle, just, pure in heart and in word, he endeared himself to the men who followed him and was loved by all with a love surpassing the love of woman. No picture that I can draw can give to you who know him not an adequate conception of how lovable that man was.
Through all this winter of delights no man looked forward to the future except to plan amusement for the ensuing winter; for, strangely enough, we had got the idea that this war was to be continued indefinitely and during the rest of our lives.
We were not prophets nor the sons of prophets. What knew we then of the lurid fires that would lighten the Wilderness within a few short months. The angel of death hovered over many but no prophetic shadow fell from his wings. Already was his mark upon the great center of our circle, and yet in all our plans for the following winter, in all our discussions as to what we were to do to amuse ourselves and our visitors, Sedgwick was the central figure. Amid the rain and snow, and the mud and the frost, among our canvas cities our fires burned cheerily and our hearts were light. Letters came and went from home and visitors by the thousand shared our hospitality. The Sixth Corps headquarters, because it was Sedgwick's, was a central point of interest. Nothing disturbed us except the occasional report that our chief was to be taken from us to command the Army of the Potomac. This command, however, although not formally offered, he had still on several occasions most persistently declined. It was a winter of delights, but nevertheless the day came when from major-general to drummer boy where was not a dry eye in the Sixth Corps of the Army of the Potomac.
On our line of battle at Spotsylvania where on the day previous we had made an unsuccessful attack and suffered heavily, near a section of artillery at a fatal angle in our works, General Sedgwick stood with Gen. Whittier, Gen. Tompkins and myself, directing the movement of our men then occupying the rifle pits. It was in the early morning and a certain feeling of gloom pervaded the army. Sedgwick had slept the previous night unsheltered by tent or blanket. He seemed in excellent spirits although a little discouraged by the slow progress of the campaign which seemed to be desperate fighting day after day with indecisive results. A few minutes before he had spoken of some of the young officers on his staff in tender and kindly terms of affection.
He said a few jesting words to some of the men who passed before him as they moved into the rifle pits. His manner, attitude and gesture as he stood indicated to the enemy that the was an officer of rank and authority. He wore no uniform, not even a sword. From across the little valley which separated us from the enemy's lines, from one of their sharp shooters concealed in the woods in front of us came the swift messenger of death. Slowly, without a word, with a sad smile upon his lips, John Sedgwick fell and his great heart ceased to beat.
His life blood pouring in a strong, steady stream from the wound spirted (sic) over me. I made an effort to sustain him as he fell and in doing so fell with him.
He uttered no word and made no sign. It seemed to me if I could but make him hear and call his attention to the terrible effect his fall was having on our men he would by force of his great will rise up in spite of death. I called vainly in his ear--he made no answer.
His favorite aid, General Charles A. Whittier, bent over him with streaming eyes. General Tompkins, the chief of the artillery, and his surgeon Dr. Ohlenschlager raised him partly from the ground and the pale and anxious faces of the men in the long line of rifle pits were bent eagerly toward the group, but such was the force of discipline that although these men's hearts were filled with a great sorrow, although they knew that a terrible blow had falled upon them, none left the ranks, and the silence which follows a great tragedy fell upon the summer woods of Spotsylvania on that morning of saddest memories.
It was my duty to report at general headquarters that the Sixth Corps was without a commander, for General Ricketts who was next in rank, understanding that it had been the desire of Gen. Sedgwick that his old associate General Horatio G. Wright of the first division should succeed him, had informed me that he declined to assume the command. When I reached general headquarters and dismounted in front of the tent of the adjutant general of the army, the gentle and much loved Seth Williams, there were in that tent Gen. Williams and Gen. Hunt, the chief of artillery, and Col. Platt, the judge advocate general of the army, and other old veteran officers who had served through many years of warfare.
As they saw me covered with blood, Gen. Williams started forward and said but one work, "Sedgwick?"
I could not answer. Each one in that tent, old grey bearded warriors, burst into tears and for some minutes sobbed like children mourning a father.
They built a bower of evergreens among the pine woods and laid him out upon a rough bier made for him by soldier hands, and all day long there were strong men weeping by this funeral couch. They came from all parts of the army, the old and the young, the well and the wounded, officers and men, to take their last look at the beloved chieftain. Many thousand of brave men who composed that army were familiar with death in all its forms. Not once nor twice had they seen strong men stricken into sudden death. Not once nor twice had they beheld men of high rank, in high command, fall amid contending hosts. They had, perhaps, grown hardened and indifferent to what was necessarily of frequent occurrence and the common expectation of all. But when the news went that day, like an electric shock, along the lines of the Army of the Potomac that John Sedgwick was dead, a great loneliness fell upon the hearts of all, and men that scarcely ever head his voice, many that scarcely knew him by sight, wept bitter tears s if they had lost an only friend, and all recalled how on many occasions, hearing on right or left or rear the thunder of hostile guns, all anxiety passed away from the minds of men at the simple remark, "It must be all right - Uncle John is there."
The Sixth Corps went on and served through the war. It stood all day long at the bloody angle under a fire that cut down the great trees in our front. It stood up in the withering slaughter of Cold Harbor. It crossed the great river to the dismal contest before Petersburg. It swept the valley under Sheridan as with a broom, and massed in a mighty column of brigades, it broke through the stubborn lines of Petersburg, and snapped this rebellion in twain. You, men of Vermont, led that column on that memorable day in the spring of '65. You bore your part in all the events that I refer to like gallant soldiers and patriots; but not all the glories that succeeded the 9th of May, not all the triumphs achieved by your valor in the later fields of the war, not all the tame years that have followed since, have effaced the memories of that one day in Spotsylvania when we all realized the fact that all our marches yet to be made, all our battles yet to be fought, all our deeds whether good or ill would never again win word of praise or censure from the silent lips of the great man that we loved and honored as only soldiers know how to love and honor leaders like Sedgwick.
Back to the quiet churchyard of Cornwall Hollow, which the boy had left so many years ago, came, accompanied by all the evidences of a nation's sorrow, the lifeless body of that great and simple-minded hero.
He sleeps beneath a simple monument erected by a sister's love; but his memory will never die among men who love their kind and who believe that
"A country's a thing men must die for at need."