John Sedgwick, the commander of the Sixth Corps of the Army of the Potomac, was beloved by many of his men. They affectionately called him “Uncle John”: he in turn looked after them. It was precisely that relationship that helps explain the events of May 9, 1864. Sedgwick was riding behind the lines, assessing the strength of his corps’ position and the possibility of offensive operations, when he noticed that members of a battery were ducking as bullets whizzed by. Attempting to put his men at ease, he had just finished assuring them, “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance,” when he reeled back, the victim of a sharpshooter’s bullet that hit him just beneath the left eye. He was dead before he hit the ground.
Sedgwick’s chief-of-staff left a description of the event.
Horatio G. Wright took over command of the Sixth Corps.
Just moments before Sedgwick had embarked on his inspection tour, he had been chatting with Ulysses S. Grant. Horace Porter noted that Uncle John “seemed particularly cheerful and hopeful that morning, and looked the picture of buoyant life and vigorous health.” Perhaps he had recovered from his mediocre performance in the Wilderness. Informed of Sedgwick’s death, Grant could not at first accept it: after the news sank in, he remarked; “His loss to this army is greater than the loss of a whole division of troops.”
The sad story concealed a greater truth: both Grant and Lee were losing key commanders at a significant rate, and others were not performing according to expectations. For Lee, Longstreet was down, grievously wounded; neither A. P. Hill nor Richard S. Ewell seemed equal to the responsibilities before them, and their health was not what it could have been. Jubal Early had taken over for Hill on a temporary basis, while Lee would soon seek a replacement for Ewell. Meanwhile, unknown to everyone, Jeb Stuart would soon be lost forever.
Grant’s situation was not much better … and it must be noted that the only general with whom he had any experience prior to the spring of 1864 was his cavalry commander, Phil Sheridan, who departed this day to seek battle with Stuart. Winfield Scott Hancock was still suffering from his Gettysburg wound, and his stamina and strength were not what they once were. Gouverneur Warren was struggling as commander of the Fifth Corps, and Ambrose Burnside was, to be kind, undistinguished. Now Sedgwick was gone, and it would take Wright some time to get up to snuff.
Indeed, Grant was already asking a great deal of his commanders, more than they had been used to giving and perhaps more than any man was capable of giving. During the next several days this would become even more evident, as those opportunities became missed opportunities.