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The last words of John Sedgwick

The last words of John Sedgwick

John Sedgwick was a general in the Union Army in the American Civil War. He saw many engagements and was wounded by bullets three times - but was seemingly immune to fear.

In his last moments on earth, he said:

They couldn't hit an elephant at this distance.

Source: The Death of General John Sedgwick, General Martin McMahon, 1887.

Background to John Sedgwick's last words

Major-General John Sedgwick was an important figure in the American Civil War and was considered by his men to be a brave and inspiring leader. Nevertheless, the general public would now be unaware of him but for the rather unfortunate assertion he made just before dying.

At the U.S. Civil War skirmish of Spotsylvania Court House, Sedgwick was deploying his men to face the enemy, with Confederate snipers hindering their preparations. His statement "They couldn't hit an elephant at this distance" are probably some of the best-known of all 'famous last words'. They may sound contrived, but are in fact precisely what he said just before being shot. The alternative version "They couldn't hit an elephant at this dist..." is apocryphal and an elaboration made for comic effect, as is made clear by this verbatim report made by General McMahon, who was at Sedgwick's side at his untimely death.

I gave the necessary order to move the troops to the right, and as they rose to execute the movement the enemy opened a sprinkling fire, partly from sharp-shooters. As the bullets whistled by, some of the men dodged. The general said laughingly, "What! what! men, dodging this way for single bullets! What will you do when they open fire along the whole line? I am ashamed of you. They couldn't hit an elephant at this distance." A few seconds after, a man who had been separated from his regiment passed directly in front of the general, and at the same moment a sharp-shooter's bullet passed with a long shrill whistle very close, and the soldier, who was then just in front of the general, dodged to the ground. The general touched him gently with his foot, and said, "Why, my man, I am ashamed of you, dodging that way," and repeated the remark, "They couldn't hit an elephant at this distance." The man rose and saluted and said good-naturedly, "General, I dodged a shell once, and if I hadn't, it would have taken my head off. I believe in dodging. "The general laughed and replied, "All right, my man; go to your place."

For a third time the same shrill whistle, closing with a dull, heavy stroke, interrupted our talk; when, as I was about to resume, the general's face turned slowly to me, the blood spurting from his left cheek under the eye in a steady stream. He fell in my direction ; I was so close to him that my effort to support him failed, and I fell with him.

As McMahon makes clear, Sedgwick's actual final utterance was "All right, my man; go to your place", but his preceding sentence is just too good to ignore in any collection of last words.