Union Generals killed by Whitworth Sharpshooters

Nathan Stuart

Private
Joined
Apr 14, 2020
Here's an example of what counts as a legit primary source, albeit published 20 years after the war.

Of note to this topic,
1) Solid account, albeit a Reb General officer
I was within ten steps of Gen. Doles when he was killed. A Federal sharpshooter had been picking off our men all day, and I had been trying for hours to locate him, but had failed to do so. I was in advance of our line a hundred yards, and was concealed behind a rock. Several times he had shot at me. About fourteen hundred yards in front of us was a strip of woods. I knew the sharpshooter was in them somewhere, but the tree tops prevented my seeing the smoke of his gun. He hadn’t shot at me in two hours, but confined his fire to the line in my rear.

“Gen. Doles advanced to where I was and asked me if I couldn’t silence that fellow, as he was doing terrible execution in his lines. I told him I had been trying to do it all day, but had failed. He asked me to do my best. He then stepped in front of me, and faced the woods, exposing his entire person. I told him he had better look, out as that fellow had shaved me very close several times, and it was dangerous to expose himself.

“I had scarcely spoken the words when a ball struck him in the right side, passing through his body and coming out under his left arm. Gen. Doles turned half around and fell forward, face downward, and never spoke –being killed instantly. I carried him off the field, and was detailed to carry his remains home. Gen. Doles was a fine officer.
"


2) "Mebbe"
I was shot through the body once. While I was in the hospital Charley Grace of LaGrange, Ga. Used my gun, and is said he killed Gen. Sedgwick, but others doubt it.
Thanks for the extra information.
At least five whitworth shooters claimed the Sedgwick hit, including Charley Grace (4th Georgia), Thomas Burgess (15th South Carolina) and Ben Powell (12th South Carolina).
I thought it might have been Powell because there was some corroborating evidence.
 
Joined
Jul 6, 2020
Location
Hoboken living, CNY raised
According to his Pastor's narrative, Rice died of wounds received from a Minnie rifle ball to the thigh. His leg was surgically amputated almost instantly, but he lost too much blood and he died two hours later.
Hope this provides clarification.
Doesn't ultimately matter to my research. But regardless, canister or ball, seems pretty clear he wasn't targeted by a marksman.
 

Rebforever

Lt. Colonel
Joined
Oct 26, 2012
. . . and what are the distances involved in each case?

I don’t know home many here have fired Whitworth or other such small-bore rifles at long range, but it’s a hard enough game on a rifle range with wind flags and when shooting at a big black circular aiming mark at a known distance. That’s left me somewhat sceptical about claims of some targeted shots - for Sedgwick for example walking around to rally his men, it seems just as likely he walked in front of the bullet rather than it being aimed at him.

A good topic for discussion and trying to sift out the know facts and supposition.

David
I think I read in Reah’s book, Sedgwick was up on the earthworks raising cain telling they couldn’t kill a Elephant from here and got hit in the eye.
He was obviously looking out across the battlefield when he was shot.
 

Belfoured

Sergeant Major
Joined
Aug 3, 2019
Death of Union Major-General John Sedgwick

It is widely recorded that eyewitnesses around Sedgwick at the time of his fatal shooting heard the distinctive long shrill whistling sound of whitworth bullets travelling through the air. These references are easy to find.

Although at least five whitworth marksmen claimed the kill, the most likely candidate is Ben Powell, a reputedly decent and honest person. The reported shot was estimated to be over 900 yards.

An extract from Ben Powell’s letter written to his wife in November, 1980, states:

…”I served until a few days before the battle of Gettysburg when I was presented with a long-range Whitworth rifle with a telescope and globe sights and with a roving commission as an independent sharpshooter and scout. This rifle killed Gen. Sedgewick at Spotsylvania Court House.”…

Powell’s account is corroborated by another Confederate sharpshooter, Berry Benson. Benson wrote an article, ‘Who Killed General Sedgwick’ which appeared in the ‘Augusta Chronicle’, Augusta, Georgia, on November 25, 1917. Relevant extracts from this article are shown below:

WHO KILLED GENERAL SEDGWICK

…”About 10 o'clock in the morning of the 9th of May, 1864, three days after the battle of the Wilderness, and three days before the battle of the Bloody Angle, Major-General John Sedgwick, commanding the sixth corps of Grant's Army, was killed, near Spottsylvania, by a single shot from a Confederate sharpshooter, over a half mile distant. History thus records, but history does not record who fired the fatal shot. Nor is it generally known, but we of the battalion of sharpshooters of McGowan's South Carolina Brigade, of which I was first sergeant, knew….

…In the distribution to Lee's Army of these Whitworth rifles two fell to our brigade; one a walnut stock, was given to Ben Powell, and one, an oak stock, to a young fellow of Edgefield district, named Cheatham. Both of these men were excellent shots, and they now became independent sharpshooters, to go where they pleased. and carry on war at their own sweet will….

On this 9th of May, Ben came in about noon, and walking up to me, he said:

"Sergeant, I got a big Yankee officer this morning."

"How do you know it was an officer?" I asked.

"I could tell by the way they behaved; they were all mounted; it was something over half a mile; I could see them good through the telescope; I could tell by the way they acted which was the head man; so I raised my sights and took the chance; and, sir, he tumbled right off his horse. The others dismounted and carried him away. I could see it all good through the glass."

"Oh Ben," I said, "you shot some cavalryman, and you think it was an officer."

"No, sir, he was an officer, and a big one too. I could tell."

That night the enemy's pickets called over to ours:

"Johnny, one of your sharpshooters killed General Sedgwick today."

So we knew that Ben did what he said.”…

The flaw in Benson’s corroborating account, however, is that he claimed Powell’s shot hit a mounted officer (Sedgwick was on foot at the relevant time). However, it is quite possible that his memory was hazy and his recollections of the finer details of the story were inaccurate, after so long a period.

Major W. S. Dunlop, commander of a battalion of sharpshooters in Lee’s Third Corps at Spotsylvania, also attributes the shot to Powell when he states in his authoritative work, ‘Lee’s Sharpshooters(1889) at page 49 that….”A few shots only had been fired at the group , when the ringing peal of Powell’s “Whitworth” was heard some distance to the right, the officer was seen to stagger and fall; and the brilliant career of that gallant and distinguished soldier, Maj. Gen. Sedgwick , commander of the fifth Federal army corps, was closed and closed forever. Powell reported at once that he had killed a Federal general, but we knew not his name or rank until it came out a few days later in the Northern papers, announcing that Gen. Sedgwick had been killed by a Confederate sharpshooter”…

Interestingly, Dunlop’s account correctly refers to a standing not a mounted target.

Death of Union Major-General John Reynolds

Some notable historians do claim that a sharpshooter’s minie ball fired from an elevated position killed Reynolds. I will not bother with their commentaries here.

Some of the contemporaneous accounts describing Reynold’s death at the time are shown as follows.

Major Joseph Rosengarten, who served on Reynold’s staff, was nearby but not present, at the time of Reynold’s death. He says of the general’s death in ‘Annals of War(1879) in the following extract:

…"The suddenness of the shock was in itself, perhaps, a relief to those who were nearest to Reynolds in the full flush of life and health, vigorously leading the attack of a comparatively small body, a glorious picture of the best type of military leader, superbly mounted, and horse and man sharing in the excitement of the shock of battle, Reynolds was, of course, a shining-mark to the enemy's sharpshooters. He had taken his troops into a heavy growth of timber on the slope of a hillside, and, under their regimental and brigade commanders, the men did their work well and promptly. Returning to join the expected divisions, he was struck by a Minnie ball, fired by a sharpshooter hidden in the branches of a tree almost overhead, and killed at once; his horse bore him to the little clump of trees, where a cairn of stones, and a rude mark on the bark, now almost overgrown, still tells the fatal spot.” ...

The best eyewitness account of Reynold’s death is probably given by his Orderly Sergeant, Charles H. Veil, who was with him at the time of his death. Below is a newspaper extract from Veil’s reproduced Letter written on April 7, 1864:

…“The Regiment charged into the (Herbst) woods nobly, but the enemy was too strong, and they had to give way to the right. The enemy still pushed on, and was now not much more than 60 paces from where the Gnl. was. Minnie balls were flying thick. The Gnl. turned to look towards the Seminary (I suppose to see if the other troops were coming on) and as he did so a Minnie Ball struck him in the back of the neck and he fell from his horse dead.”…

(The Gettysburg Times, Thursday, January 23, 1958, at page fifteen)

The artist, Alfred Waud, who accompanied the Union army at Gettysburg, shortly afterwards created a sketch, narrative and map detailing the death of Reynolds. This information can be digitally accessed publicly at the Library of Congress at:

https://www.loc.gov/item/2004660757/

A part of his narrative says,

…”the Iron Brigade (Meredith's), which Doubleday, who had command of the First Corps, was leading to action in a piece of wood skirting Willoughby Run, where Archer's (Rebel) Brigade, which had just crossed the Run was advancing in line of battle. At the moment when one regiment of this brigade, Fairchild's, accompanied by Doubleday, had entered the wood, and was becoming desperatley [sic.] engaged, Reynolds, with his staff, rode up to the neck of woods in Fairchild's rear, to examine the ground, and the disposition of the enemy, when he discovered the enemy advancing, and sweeping up on his left. Instantly wheeling to ride back, he received a ball in the back of his neck, from the direction in which he had seen the enemy, and was borne insensible from the field and soon after expired.”….

Perhaps the most compelling evidence supporting a possible elevated marksman shot is contained in a letter written on July 5, 1863, by Reynold’s sister, Jennie Gildersleeve, to her brother. After viewing the dead body she described the injury in this way, …“after the bullet hit him behind the right ear it passed down and around the skull and lodged in his chest”… She was indicating that the wound had a downward trajectory from the entry point at the neck. If her version is correct, then this suggests that the lethal shot was fired from a high position, like a tree, which is more probably the case because Reynolds was shot while mounted on his horse. This letter was apparently cited by Edwin B. Coddington in his book, ‘The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command, 1968. (I have not read this book).

This combination of information above reasonably suggests that the fatal shot originated from the Herbst woods (in front of Reynolds). The advancing ranks of Archer’s infantry brigade were approaching the woods from across Willoughbys Run and his skirmishers had infiltrated the tree lot at this time. I think Reynolds was felled by a targeted shot, rather than a random one. The saddled Reynolds would have made a conspicuous figure, shouting orders, as he approached the eastern edge of the trees. The fatal bullet was a precise head shot and none of his accompanying staff on horseback, Captains Mitchell and Baird and Sergeant Veil, were seriously hit, if at all (as far as I know). I believe it was fired by a skilled rifleman carrying a conventional weapon like an enfield (not a whitworth) who was probably a skirmisher in Archer’s brigade entering the woods directly in front of Reynolds. The resourceful shooter saw a tempting opportunity then temporaily perched himself high in a tall tree within the copse to get a clearer aim at his singled out target. Although one cannot be certain, this is a possible explanation.

The Bottom Line

The only way to be certain whether a whitworth was responsible for any kill is to have an authoritative account (eg in a medical autopsy report) that identifies the type of bullet recovered from the body. Without this evidence, one can only consider possibilities and likelihoods from the circumstantial evidence available, which sometimes might be unreliable.
Klingenberg assessed the theories about Reynolds in the July 2018 issue of Gettysburg magazine.

 

thomas aagaard

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 19, 2013
Location
Denmark
Death of Union Major-General John Sedgwick
on November 25, 1917
Give me primary sources, not something written in a newspaper over 50 years after the events.

"after the bullet hit him behind the right ear it passed down and around the skull and lodged in his chest”
This is in no way evidence of anything. Even if we accept her description, being 10 yards up do not result in this.
It is simple math, to get something like this the shooter would need to be like 500+ yards up in the air.

A much greater impacts on the angle of the bullet is the fact that at the claimed 900 yards it will be falling pretty steeply.

But By fare the most likely explanation is that the bullet was redirected by hitting his skull.

Iam still highly critical of the claimed range. (other than a random bullet)
Ever tried to look at a man at 900 yards? even with a 4x scope a man is a very small target at that range.

And the bullet take more than 2 seconds to get there... making hitting a moving target extremely unlikely... other than by pure luck.
 

ResearchPress

Private
Joined
Feb 10, 2011
Location
UK
David,
From the accounts I've read, I believe Sedgwick was likely targeted by a whitworth with a telescopic sight, at a range of between 900 to 1,000 yards. This was well within the rifle's accurate range of almost twice this distance.
Insofar as I see the 'rifle's accurate range' is widely misunderstood... escpecially when getting out to ranges of 1800 yards as you suggest.

In NRA(UK) trials at 1000 yards in 1864, with Whitworth achieved a Figure of Merit of 1.84 feet. In subsequent Ordnance trials, 2.18 feet was recorded. Whitworth in his 'Guns and Steel' noted 1.93 feet recorded in 1862. Figure or Merit should not be confused with Group Size. Statistical analysis however allows an estimate of Group Size, which for a FoM of 1.84 feet would be a Group size in the region of 6.5 feet. Having fired a lot of muzzle loading rifle at 1000 yards this 'feels' reasonable to me - I know how hard it is to keep a string of 15 shots on a 12 foot wide by 6 foot high target. Remember too that a lot of weather happens in 1000 yards - head and tail winds making the shot drop short or sail over the target for example.

With regards to "well within the rifle's accurate range of almost twice this distance" - bear in mind that the Figure of Merit recorded in 1857 at 1800 yards was 11.62 feet - so a group size in the region of 40 feet!

Remarkable accuracy for the time, yes. A significant improvement on what could be achieved by the Enfield, yes. 'Accurate range' though is open to interpretation.

For more discussion on this see the following article and the two videos linked from it: Measuring Accuracy.

David
 
Last edited:

Rebforever

Lt. Colonel
Joined
Oct 26, 2012
Give me primary sources, not something written in a newspaper over 50 years after the events.

"after the bullet hit him behind the right ear it passed down and around the skull and lodged in his chest”
This is in no way evidence of anything. Even if we accept her description, being 10 yards up do not result in this.
It is simple math, to get something like this the shooter would need to be like 500+ yards up in the air.

A much greater impacts on the angle of the bullet is the fact that at the claimed 900 yards it will be falling pretty steeply.

But By fare the most likely explanation is that the bullet was redirected by hitting his skull.

Iam still highly critical of the claimed range. (other than a random bullet)
Ever tried to look at a man at 900 yards? even with a 4x scope a man is a very small target at that range.

And the bullet take more than 2 seconds to get there... making hitting a moving target extremely unlikely... other than by pure luck.
He was shot under the left eye. Battle and Leaders ,Vol 4 page 175 ooops. Sorry.

 
Last edited:

Story

Sergeant Major
Joined
Aug 5, 2011
Location
SE PA
An extract from Ben Powell’s letter written to his wife in November, 1980, states:

I don't know if you're writing a thesis or a History Channel script, but you might want to be more careful with dates and such.

You got this from Sedgewick.org, yes? It was republished in 1980, from a letter written in 1907 (44 years after the event, obviously).

dv01.gif
This letter from Benjamin Medicus Powell to his wife was published in
"The Westchester Civil War Round Table Newsletter," Croton Falls, N.Y. in November 1980:

Sumter, S.C.
November 21, 1907
My dear wife,
 

Nathan Stuart

Private
Joined
Apr 14, 2020
I don't know if you're writing a thesis or a History Channel script, but you might want to be more careful with dates and such.

You got this from Sedgewick.org, yes? It was republished in 1980, from a letter written in 1907 (44 years after the event, obviously).

View attachment 392059
This letter from Benjamin Medicus Powell to his wife was published in
"The Westchester Civil War Round Table Newsletter," Croton Falls, N.Y. in November 1980:

Sumter, S.C.
November 21, 1907
My dear wife,
Yes, you are correct. I used this source here, merely for the convenience of the reference.

There are plenty of other credible websites that refer to Ben Powell’s letter. For example, please see Fred L. Ray’s article at the History Net website below:

https://www.historynet.com/the-killing-of-uncle-john.htm

Fred L. Ray wrote an excellent work, Shock Troops of the Confederacy: The Sharpshooter Battalions of the Army of Northern Virginia’ (2006). In it (at page 119), he mentions that one of the candidates for shooting Sedgwick was Ben Powell.

In my earlier posting, I provided corroborating contemporaneous accounts from two separate Confederate soldiers, Captain W. S. Dunlop (as he was then) and Sergeant B. Benson, that Powell shot Sedgwick.

Confederate sharpshooter battalion commander, Major W. S. Dunlop, in his authorative work, ‘Lee’s Sharpshooters’ (1889) was present at the scene and claimed Powell shot Sedgwick (at page 49).

Confederate sharpshooter, Berry Benson, in his biography, ‘Berry Benson’s Civil War Book: Memoirs of a Confederate Scout and Sharpshooter’ (2007) who was also at the scene, attests (at page 68) that Powell reported to him that day his lethal shot on Sedgwick which was confirmed later that night by Union pickets. Admittedly this is hearsay and Benson recalls Powell saying he fired at a group of mounted officers. It’s possible, however, that Benson’s recalling of these particulars, years later, was imprecise.

A lot hinges on the veracity of Ben Powell’s own claims. By the accounts I’ve read, Powell was apparently a decent and honest individual.These corroborations are far from perfect, but will suffice for the purpose here. I am not saying with any confidence that Ben Powell shot Sedgwick, but it’s a distinct possibility to consider from the scant evidence I've seen.
 

Nathan Stuart

Private
Joined
Apr 14, 2020
Give me primary sources, not something written in a newspaper over 50 years after the events.
A fair point.

The surest way to discover what occurred is to obtain direct evidence, like eyewitness contemporaneous accounts (including corroborations), ballistic tests and visual footage.

Unfortunately most of these evidential forms were not available at the time.

Instead, we have to largely rely on often unreliable witness accounts and imperfect information, as well as the circumstantial evidence.

Many eyewitness and other witness versions of events are recalled long after the event. Their recollections often contain twists and embellishments of facts or fanciful notions, and were frequently done with failing memories. Subsequent publishers of these reproduced witness accounts would commonly distort their stories further to sell more publications.

Even later commentators writing about these past events tend to interpret the available information according to their own biases and predilictions.

It is on the basis of this mainly imperfect information and the circumstantial evidence that we can make sensible suggestions about what possibly happened – but unless you were there, you can never know for certain.
 

Rebforever

Lt. Colonel
Joined
Oct 26, 2012
A fair point.

The surest way to discover what occurred is to obtain direct evidence, like eyewitness contemporaneous accounts (including corroborations), ballistic tests and visual footage.

Unfortunately most of these evidential forms were not available at the time.

Instead, we have to largely rely on often unreliable witness accounts and imperfect information, as well as the circumstantial evidence.

Many eyewitness and other witness versions of events are recalled long after the event. Their recollections often contain twists and embellishments of facts or fanciful notions, and were frequently done with failing memories. Subsequent publishers of these reproduced witness accounts would commonly distort their stories further to sell more publications.

Even later commentators writing about these past events tend to interpret the available information according to their own biases and predilictions.

It is on the basis of this mainly imperfect information and the circumstantial evidence that we can make sensible suggestions about what possibly happened – but unless you were there, you can never know for certain.
But the man that was there knows. Maybe not the kind of rifle.
 
Joined
Jul 19, 2016
Location
Spotsylvania Virginia
But Is that actually any solid evidence of any of it?

Sedgwick was most likely killed by a random bullet. He was behind a union regiment that was under fire... with the usual large number of bullets going high.
That a number of different men, post war claimed to have made the shot only undermine their claims.



oh,. and the elevation thing with Reynolds make no sense at all. You need to climb a very very tall tree to get that kind of effect.
Having him bend a bend forward is a much more logical explanation.
I live near the Spotsylvania battlefield. The marker where Reynolds supposedly fell is at an elevation of 257 ‘. Laurel hill, where sharpshooters were posted is 282’. Add a possibility that the marksman was in a tree would boost the elevation on Laurel hill at least 10-15 feet.
I said supposedly where Reynolds fell because the exact spot was in question when the marker was placed, but assuming it was within a dozen or so feet doesn’t change the elevation one iota.
 
Joined
Jul 19, 2016
Location
Spotsylvania Virginia
I have made a list of Union generals (excluding brevet ranks) who I believe were killed (kia) or died of wounds (dow) from a long-range targeted shot by a confederate whitworth marksman during the war.

These include:

Major-General Amiel Whipple - (dow May 7, 1863)

Brigadier-General William Lytle - (dow September 20, 1863)

Brigadier-William William Sanders - (dow November 19, 1863)

Major-General John Sedgwick - (kia May 9, 1864)

Brigadier-General Thomas Stevenson - (kia May 10, 1864)

Brigadier-General James Rice - (kia May 10, 1864)

Three of the above (Lytle, Sanders, Sedgwick) are commonly understood to be victims of whitworth shooters. The other three are highly possible. In all these cases, whitworth riflemen were actively operating in the vicinity and within range at the time of the deaths.

Whipple was shot in the stomach while sitting on his horse supervising construction of earthworks by a confederate sniper on May 4, 1863, at Chancellorsville. He died three days later. It is quite possible that a whitworth weapon fired the shot, although I could find no accounts of a whitworth sniper being involved.

Lytle was known to be the victim of directed fire by a group of whitworth riflemen operating as skirmishers at Chickamauga on September 20, 1863. An unidentified whitworth sharpshooter fired the probably fatal head shot. He died that same day.

Sanders was mortally wounded at Knoxville on November 18, 1863 while walking away after standing on earthworks. It was believed he was shot in the side by one of several whitworth sharpshooters perched high in the tower of the Bleak (Armstrong) House nearby.

Perhaps the most famous whitworth shooting is of Sedgwick at Spotsylvania on May 9, 1864. It’s fairly well documented and widely accepted. While striding around in the open shouting orders to his men the Union general fell to a targeted shot to the head by a whitworth sharpshooter. He died shortly afterwards. Several identified whitworth riflemen present at the time were attributed with the kill.

Given the active whitworth sniping performed at Spotsylvania, it's likely that Stevenson was also singled out as a target by one of these marksmen. The following day he was killed almost instantly by a shot to the head, while resting on the ground and sitting upright, to issue orders. It’s possible too, that Rice, on that same day and in a proximate location, was mortally wounded by an aimed whitworth round.

I have excluded from this list the controversial death of Major-General John Reynolds at Gettysburg on July 1, 1863. After examining extensive evidence of this incident, I think it can be fairly safely concluded that he was not killed by a whitworth marksman, although I believe he fell to a targeted head shot by a skilled rifleman at relatively short range. In my view, it’s most likely that the deadly bullet was fired by a line infantryman or skirmisher in Archer’s brigade located close-by in the Herbst woods in front of Reynolds. I would not rule out entirely, though, the much lesser possibility that the source was an infantry member of Davis’s brigade positioned adjacent and north of the woods. Some accounts and modern day commentators believe that the lethal discharge was a random hit by a fired volley of shots out of the woods. It’s a possibility, but I do not think a probability. I think the described nature of the fatal wounding indicates it was a dedicated shot that ended Reynolds life almost instantly. It also appears that it might have been made from a high elevation, say by a shooter temporarily positioned in a tree inside the woods cluster. I am not aware of any whitworth rifleman being attached to either of the two confederate brigades of Archer or Davis at the crucial time. Similarly, it is unlikely there any whitworth-armed scouts loosely connected with other units, were operating freely within close enough proximity to have the opportunity for a clear shot. Any other Confederate units at this moment were too far away or inappropriately placed, even allowing for the roaming movements of their scouts.

Any comments or remarks are welcome, as is further enlightenment on this subject.
@Nathan Stuart - thanks for the thought provoking post.
 
Joined
Jul 19, 2016
Location
Spotsylvania Virginia
But Is that actually any solid evidence of any of it?

Sedgwick was most likely killed by a random bullet. He was behind a union regiment that was under fire... with the usual large number of bullets going high.
That a number of different men, post war claimed to have made the shot only undermine their claims.



oh,. and the elevation thing with Reynolds make no sense at all. You need to climb a very very tall tree to get that kind of effect.
Having him bend a bend forward is a much more logical explanation.
Sorry guys my major goof. I meant Sedgwick in my earlier reply in elevation between Sedgwick ‘s position and Laurel hill. Only had 1/2 cup of coffee this morning 😳
 
Top