The next three posts are part of a series, one that profiles the Army of the Potomac at Antietam’s West Woods. The story of the West Woods is well-known to Civil War buffs. At 9:00 A.M., September 17, 1862, a combat-tested division entered the fray, Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick’s 2nd Division, 2nd Corps, which consisted of 5,200 officers and men. Moving ahead in three lines-of-battle, Sedgwick’s division crossed the Hagerstown Road and briefly penetrated Confederate defenses. Sadly, two Confederate divisions slammed into Sedgwick’s division’s left flank, turning the whole command on its heels. For the Union troops, the engagement in the West Woods turned into a veritable slaughter. In under one half-hour, the division counted up 2,100 casualties. Unhappily, after Sedgwick’s division retreated, many of those casualties remained caught inside a grim “no-man’s-land,” with no friend near.
One of those casualties was Major William Dwight Sedgwick, the division’s assistant adjutant general. Major Sedgwick (who was, in fact, a distant relative of the division commander) was born in Lenox, Massachusetts, on June 27, 1831. In 1851, he graduated from Harvard, then went to Germany to study law, but later returned to Boston to finish up his studies at Harvard Law School. Before the war, he had established a legal practice at St. Louis, but when the war broke out, he returned to Boston yet again to acquire a commission as first lieutenant in the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry. Four months later, Lieutenant Sedgwick received a promotion to the staff of his kinsman, Brig. Gen. John Sedgwick. By August 1862, he held the rank of major.
Nearly all of Major Sedgwick’s contemporaries remembered him as a kind, jovial man. For instance, on the afternoon of September 16, the day before the battle, Sedgwick rode over to his old regiment, the 2nd Massachusetts, and engaged in a short conversation with the officers. Captain Robert Shaw remembered it fondly: “I talked with him for two hours; he was always an interesting talker, he went off finally merry and jolly.”
The next day, when the Confederate counterattack ripped apart the division’s lines, hell broke loose among the field and staff. General Sedgwick suffered two wounds and had to leave the field, forcing the staff to seek out the new divisional commander. Immediately, the staff put themselves under the direction of the senior brigade commander, Brig. Gen. Oliver O. Howard. As Howard collected his inherited staff and attempted to formulate a plan—which amounted to a careful extraction of his engaged troops—Major Sedgwick spurred his horse to one of the disordered regiments then fighting on the front line, the 34th New York, and attempted to rally it. Scarcely had Sedgwick reached the position, when a bullet struck him in his back, dismounting him. Unconscious, he fell to the ground. The New York soldiers who saw him fall believed him to be dead. As they fled to safety, they left him behind.
Initially, false reports circulated that Major Sedgwick had been killed. Although these were later invalidated, everyone who saw him fall agreed that Sedgwick had attempted a brave thing. Brig. Gen. Howard reported, “Major Sedgwick, division assistant adjutant-general, was most seriously wounded while in the execution of his duties, and left suffering upon the field till afternoon. No one’s conduct was as cool and brave, and no soldier, it is said by his comrades, deserves higher commendation.”
The awful wound did not kill Sedgwick, not immediately. After a few minutes of unconsciousness, Major Sedgwick awoke, but discovered that one of his legs was paralyzed. Unable to walk or crawl to safety, he remained where he was, hoping that a Union counterattack might recover him. While lying on the field, Sedgwick had the wherewithal to pull out his pocket diary and start writing, a last entry, of sorts, in the agonizing anticipation that his wound would prove mortal. Here is what he wrote under the entry, “September 17”:
While trying to rally our men, a musket ball struck me in the small of my back, and I fell from my horse. As I write this I have been lying here more than an hour, powerless to move my right leg. I think that the wound must be mortal. I have been praying to God to forgive my sins, to bless and comfort my darling wife and children, my dearest mother and sisters. As I have been lying here in very great pain, shells have been bursting close to me, almost constantly. I wish my friends to know that I have fallen while doing my duty as well as is possible, which I can truly assert, and that I have not uttered groan as of yet, lying alone on the hard ground in the hot sun, with no friend near.
Sedgwick remained on the field—with no friend near, as he put it—for eight hours. Finally, toward evening, Union soldiers ventured onto the scene where the debacle had occurred and recovered him. Recognizing the wound’s seriousness, the litter-bearers put Sedgwick onto an ambulance that carried him to a nearby field hospital, the Samuel Christian Deaner farm in Keedysville. While lying there, Sedgwick wrote to his mother, Elizabeth Buckminister Dwight Sedgwick, informing her of his condition:
Keedysville, Sept 18 /62
My Dearest Mother,
I was wounded yesterday very painfully but the surgeons think not mortally. I lay on the battle field from half past 8 o’clock in the morning till half past 3 o’clock—the afternoon on hard ploughed ground in the hot sun the shells constantly falling and bursting around me and three times the rebels came behind the crest of the little slope within sixty feet of me and fired and on each occasion being driven back by the shells from our guns my wound is in the small of the back it appears to have escaped the spine. One of my ancles is also very badly sprained caused by the fall from my Horse. The Dr. intends to send me to Hagerstown or Frederick tomorrow morning with Gen. Sedgwick who is wounded in the neck and wrist. we shall get me home as fast as we prudently can.
Love to All,
W. D. Sedgwick
Naturally, Sedgwick’s letter sent alarming news throughout his family. Elizabeth Sedgwick made arrangements to reach Keedysville as soon as possible, informing one of his older sisters, Grace, who was then serving as a volunteer nurse, telling her that she should join them on the Deaner farm. Unfortunately, Sedgwick’s wife, Louisa, could not be contacted. She had already embarked on a trip to Germany to visit relatives, and she could not be recalled in time. Knowing that his mother and sister were on their way, Major Sedgwick wrote what proved to be his final letter.
Keedysville, Md. Sept.
My Dearest Mother,
I have just got your letter from New York and one from Bess. I am suffering a great deal of Pain owing to the extreme difficulty of moving and the impossibility of getting a comfortable position. I do not think it necessary that you should come to me because my man Henry takes such excellent care of me and if necessary a Surgeon will be detailed to go with me when able to start—still if you or some one of the family desire to come perhaps it may be as well, especially as my recovery tho’ probable is not certain~
Sadly, Major Sedgwick did not live much longer. He died on September 29. Thankfully, his mother and sister arrived in time to be by his side. His wife, Louisa, did not learn of her husband’s fate until after she landed in Europe. Major Sedgwick left behind three daughters—Grace, Amelia, and Mary Elizabeth. He never had an opportunity to see his youngest. She had been born in July 1861, two months after Sedgwick left for the front.
Sedgwick endured the pain of the West Woods alone. He was lucky, perhaps, that he spent his last hours alongside his loving mother and sister.
|Here, you can see Major William Dwight Sedgwick (shown here in 1861 as lieutenant).|
|This image, taken in May 1861, depicts the officers of the 2nd Massachusetts at Brook Farm. Lt. Sedgwick is standing at the far right.|
|This is a close-up of Lt. Sedgwick, taken from the Brook Farm photograph.|
|James Hope's famous painting of Sedgwick's division attacking at the West Woods correctly depicts the division advancing in three lines of battle.|