previous next


William Dwight Sedgwick.

First Lieutenant 2d Mass. Vols. (Infantry), May 25, 1861; Major and A. A. G. U. S. Vols., September 16, 186; died at Keedysville, Md., September 29, 1862, of a wound received at Antietam, September 17.

William Dwight Sedgwick was the only son of Charles and Elizabeth (Dwight) Sedgwick, and was born in Lenox, Massachusetts, June 27, 1831. Till the age of fourteen years he was brought up almost entirely at home, when his father sent him to Illinois to spend a summer with a farmer who was a relative, and who then lived in a log-house. Here he learned and performed every kind of farm-work of which a boy of that age is capable, and confirmed a constitution originally excellent. His father believed that, without some personal knowledge and experience of labor, he could not have a proper sympathy with laboring men. He spend one year at a French school, and one in a boys' school taught by Rev. Samuel P. Parker, in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, and finished in Lenox his studies preparatory to admission into college. After leaving college, he spent one winter in a law-office; then went abroad and studied a portion of his profession at Heidelberg, Gottingen, and Breslau. He was abroad about seventeen months. After his return, he entered the Cambrdge Law School, where he remained a year, and then established himself as a lawyer in St. Louis, Missouri.

It was his good fortune to grow up, through all his boyhood and the greater part of his youth, under the eye of two excellent parents, both remarkably gifted. He was allowed to develop with great freedom and under the happiest influences and circumstances. The fear of disobeying and displeasing them was almost the only restraint he knew; and he was so accustomed to give his parents his full confidence, that, even as a young man and away from them, he never tried or wished [168] to hide his faults, and always found in their forbearance and assistance the surest help to overcome them.

His happy natural tendencies were carefully cultivated and strengthened, and the truthfulness, humanity, and kindness to every living being, which were the characteristics of both parents, and which he saw daily and hourly practised in his father's house, became also his second nature. From his mother he inherited the happiest temper, great sweetness and cheerfulness, with great natural courage and firmness combined and from his father the refinement of sentiment, the keen enjoyment of wit and fun, and some portion of that pleasant humor for which his father's conversation is still remembered with delight by those who knew him. The free and extensive hospitality of his parents, and the attraction which the society of his aunt, Miss C. M. Sedgwick, added to the family circle, brought among the many guests a large number of distinguished and superior people into the house; and William Sedgwick enjoyed the opportunity, rare for a boy and young man, of seeing, in a perfectly unconstrained way, the best society, and of acquiring early that ease and quiet self-possession, and the winning manners, which marked him at once as the gentleman wherever he appeared. No wonder that his happy home seemed perfect to him, and his birthplace the loveliest spot on earth. His love for it became only strengthened by separation; and even with the grandeur of the Alps before him, even in Rome, he could sigh for the beauties of his own mountains, lakes, and valleys. He had great love for and enjoyment in nature, and had gained much skill in all rural and manly exercises and amusements, which were so peculiarly adapted to his taste and his strong, robust constitution, that afterwards in town-life and amid sedentary occupations he often painfully longed for them. While no amount of fatigue, of hardship, or privations, could subdue his spirits or disturb his good humor, he was yet liable to become depressed by the confinement of his life as a lawyer. With these decided tastes for out-door life and occupations, it seems but natural that the temptation to neglect his books and [169] studies for the delight of following them proved sometimes too strong for an active and spirited young man; but his natural capacities and talents were such, that, had he really lost anything by these interruptions, he very easily could repair the want by a few hours' earnest study, where others had to give at least double the time.

Though originally he had no very strong preference for his profession, he had always regarded it as a noble and interesting one. With all his advantages at home and abroad, he had been carefully and excellently prepared for it, and in some respects was peculiarly fitted to become a distinguished member of the bar. He spoke as well and as clearly as he wrote, had a sound and excellent judgment, a lively imagination, great self-possession and readiness; and even a certain pertinacity—of which he often accused himself as a great fault, and which among his friends made him almost always carry his point—seemed only the better to qualify him for a lawyer. The few years in St. Louis were prosperous for him, and very promising for the future; and no doubt he would have continued in his profession, and would have done honor to it, had not, from the moment of the outbreak of the war, the destiny of his country occupied his mind so powerfully that only with difficulty could he turn his thoughts to other matters. He felt irresistibly drawn to become active in the great national struggle; and this last year and a half of his life, with all its new and most interesting, but often sad and terrible, experiences, did much to ripen and elevate his character.

He married, in 1857, at Hanover, in Germany, Louisa Frederica Tellkampf, daughter of Professor A. Tellkampf of that place. From his letters to his father-in-law at the beginning of the war we can best learn the earnest and intense interest which he took in the destiny of his people, and the motives that decided him to leave his profession and family to offer his services to the country. In reply to the warning of Professor Tellkampf, not to engage himself in the war, and before the former knew that he had joined the army already, he says:— [170]

Your views are perfectly natural; but the same reasons which should induce me to withdraw from the service of government would, if adopted by all those to whom they apply as well as to me, break up our armies and leave us at the mercy of Southern dictators. In one prediction I have seen already that I was quite right, —in saying to my friends, when they tried to persuade me to the contrary, that we should find there would be far from a superabundance of those ready for their country's call to arms, and that every one would be needed; even now we have barely enough to stand on the defensive. After having once taken the step, and feeling as I do, I know you could only despise me, should I forsake my country's cause because you regard it as almost hopeless. Were these views, which I believe are general, not only in Germany but in all Europe, to prevail throughout the North, and were those engaged now in their country's service to reason as foreigners do for us, we should be lost indeed; but we should deserve our fate, in such a case, and for very shame could only wish to be buried in the ruins our want of faith had involved us in. For my part, if my country is to perish, my hope is to perish with her. I could not wish to survive the downfall of what I regard as the world's hope. Should America cease to be a first-class power, and be broken up in contemptible little fragments, what would you think would become of England? How long would it be before she would lie before the feet of France? What would become of the surplus population of Europe? What chance would be left to Germany and Italy in the struggle for eventual freedom after the failure of the grandest experiment of a free government that the world has known? Utter discouragement and dejection would fall upon the friends of freedom everywhere, should the North now yield to the entreaties of those who say, “Do not persist in this war, for you will be only shedding blood to no purpose.”

In accordance with these principles, Mr. Sedgwick forsook his profession, and was commissioned (May 25, 1861) as First Lieutenant in the Second Massachusetts Volunteers (Colonel Gordon). He went into service with the regiment, was detailed as ordnance officer of Major-General Banks's corps, and was soon transferred to the staff of Major-General Sedgwick, his kinsman, with the rank of Major. All through his period of service he wrote constantly to his family; and the following extracts will show his habits of mind, and the spirit in which he served his country. [171]

St. Louis, Missouri, April 18, 1861.
... The excitement increases here daily. I do not expect any outbreak to occur here for the present, but at the same time a breaking out of hostilities here at almost any moment would scarcely surprise me. Men like Mr. G——and Mr. C——--, who still profess to be thorough Union men, say that Lincoln's proclamation is sinful and outrageous; that to try and whip in the Cotton States is madly hopeless; and that when war breaks out, in consequence of the attempt, the Border States must infallibly defend their “Southern brethren.” Mr. G——thinks, moreover, that one Southerner is equal to two Northerners, and that the recognition of the Southern Confederacy by the European powers is so palpably certain as to leave no possible room for a contrary expectation. These are the sentiments of many who have said and still say, that if the government could put down the Rebellion and hang Jeff Davis and the other Rebel leaders, they should like to see it done. Thus you see how the matter strikes the Southern mind, among those who deplore secession and declare it unjustifiable. I am led to think this feeling will be pretty universal,— “Many men of many minds.”

We are drilling here, under a pledge to obey any call made on us by the United States authorities, to resist attack or rebellion here. I am longing, as I never should have thought to do, to join the Massachusetts Volunteers. Perhaps I may not be able to “hold myself in,” if matters come to the point of actual war. I'm very sure that I would rather die in battle twenty times, than have Washington captured, or than that the North should now yield her principles to accommodate those of the South. At the same time I cannot avoid feeling grief and distress in the knowledge that so many people I esteem, and could agree with on every question of morality, except in these proand anti-slavery issues, are quite as capable of being aroused to enthusiasm on the side of this monstrous wrong as any of us at the North on the other side. God send us a good issue!

camp near Darnestown, September 12, 1861.

. . . . How do people that you meet talk about the war? Does Northern spirit and determination seem to you unabated, and do you see many signs of an increase of the desire to see slavery abolished? I pray God that it may come to that. Not that I would have total and immediate abolition declared; but I want a policy adopted and persevered in which shall look to the speediest abolition possible.


camp Sacket, October 24, 1861.

. . . . My faith does not begin to be shaken yet, though, so far as I can see or learn, every “impartial observer” abroad professes the unqualified conviction that this government cannot succeed in re-establishing its sway over the Southern States. I long for the day to come when the government shall declare the war to be one of emancipation, and be supported as now by the great mass of Northern men. . . . .

The number of people about here, where they ought to be and probably are as well educated and intelligent as in most parts of the South, who can't read, is really astounding; and I should need to have great faith in a person's accuracy to believe what I have seen, did he relate it to me,—not having seen it myself. I asked a man to-day,—of about the mental calibre by nature of our sensible Berkshire farmers,—how it was possible that he and so many others were so ignorant, and that their children were brought up in the same way. He said they never had a chance to “get learning,” —that there were no free schools, and they could not afford to send their children to any others. I asked if he knew many people about here who could read, and he answered, “There a'n't many sure.” But I did not need his assurance of the fact; for though the country is not thickly settled, and I only see those who come into town by the one small road we are on, I have certainly given passes to fifty who could not read what I wrote for them; yet this is the “sacred soil,” sacred to the memory of Washington and one or two other good men, but desecrated by the barbarous influences of this damnable institution. If slavery were to be successful in this contest, I fear I should be driven into an utter abandonment of all my faith in Providence. But if, for our own sins, we have yet a long and hard struggle before us, I am willing to accept it, so that we work our way through the darkness into light at last; and I think I could lay down my life cheerfully, if need be, could I but die in the full faith that the final result of the contest would be to plant the system our fathers founded more firmly, and purified from the canker that has corrupted it and endangered its existence.

Headquarters, December 26, 1861.

War with England seems to me not unlikely, though I have been very slow to believe in it. If it comes, we must bid good by to the hope of a speedy peace, and every man who can will have to turn soldier. Were it not for my wife and children, and for you and——, I should require only the assurance that the North would [173] continue in harmonious action to put forth its entire strength, to enable me to accept cheerfully the prospect of a war which, if we can keep under honest guidance, can but result in our coming out of it the strongest of all the nations of the earth; but which, if politicians and the traditional clinging to slavery-sympathies on the part of so many of our Northern people tear us asunder, will grind us to powder. If such is to be the result, we must accept it, believing that, though we cannot interpret God's designs or appreciate the tendency of the means he uses, his designs will yet be carried out, and that we, his instruments, are doing his work, whether we judge rightly or wrongly the immediate or proximate issue of our deeds. Leave me the faith I have now that we are engaged in a righteous war, and I shall never allow myself to despair; and as yet I am very far from that point.

In another letter, written to his father-in-law in January, 1862, he says:—

There has been much reason for disappointment lately, but I am not disheartened, and let not go one jot or tittle of my faith. This lukewarmness, this dreadful, silly fear of hurting people who would never scruple at placing their feet upon our necks and grinding our heads into dust if they should get the opportunity, is a disease of the national mind. But I believe it is a curable disease and will be cured; and I shall not mourn as one having no hope, though I do chafe and fret that this obscuration of people's intellect does not clear away all at once. I am afraid government does not recognize as yet the truth that slavery must fall, and that by attacking the enemy in every weak point, and by stern measures of confiscation whenever practicable, the success of our cause is assured, which milder means will fail to bring about. I should be glad to have the war last ten years, if it must, so that its end may leave slavery in its death-throes. And I do not propose to abandon the cause while life and strength are spared me; for I believe it to be a holy one, and devised of God, however much unholiness mingles with it, as it mingles with everything involving the joint action of masses of men in this world.

camp near Yorktown, Virginia, April 13, 1862.

. . . . For myself, I have no presentiment that I shall fall; and if I do, it will be Heaven's will. If I should lose a leg or an arm, I should not consider that I had made any too great sacrifice to the country's cause; and I hardly feel as if I should regret it. . . . .

I am delighted, dear mother, that you do not allow yourself to [174] feel unnecessarily anxious about me. I shall do my duty, but I shall not commit any folly of bravado, and shall survive this war unless Heaven wills otherwise; in which case we shall all be ready cheerfully to submit ourselves.

Headquarters, &c., Fair Oaks, June 11, 1862.

dearest mother,—I had your sweet letter, written after you had seen Mr. Laflin, day before yesterday. It gave me a lively impression of the far greater anxiety, and consequent suffering, entailed by war upon those at home than upon those who go out to fight. We, as soldiers are, or ought to be, proof against all uneasiness, except in certain trying moments, which come comparatively rarely, and when the occasion passes, the feeling of care passes also; but you at home, expecting constantly news of a battle fought, and having to wait long for certain intelligence of the result, after it has been fought, are worse off. I feel as if my sympathy were due to you more than yours to me. But I trust you will not fail in adhering to your habitual serene faith. Think of me, always, until you know to the contrary, as destined to be restored to you, safe and sound. It will be quite time enough to grieve when the occasion calls for it. War, with its deadly instruments and missiles, is far less dangerous than it seems. If one of our Fourth-of-July cannon were accidentally loaded with shell, and the shell should happen to burst near a group of persons, without injuring any, the newspapers and the town-talk would call it miraculous or providential. A hundred similar miracles at least have happened to us within the last three days; a hundred shell have exploded, or have passed screeching by without exploding, over ground covered with troops, wagons, and horses; result, one or two horses wounded, and a few darkies and camp-followers (perhaps a few soldiers) badly scared. ‘. . . . General Howard, who lost his arm on Sunday, is a very interesting man,—scarcely older than I am,—and the only army officer I have met who could properly be designated by the appellation of a “consistent Christian” ; brave as the bravest, honestly and unaffectedly believing that his life is in God's hands, and that it is, to speak more expressively than elegantly, none of his business whether he lives or dies, provided he is doing his duty. Army officers who swear as habitually as Howard prays speak of him with great affection and esteem.’

These few extracts from his letters can only serve to show what he was as a patriot, how clear and sound and good his judgment, and how well, even in the beginning of the war, and [175] in some of the darkest times of it, he foresaw with the eyes of his spirit the triumph of his country, which he was not destined to share. His letters, of which there remain a large number, seem to preserve to his friends a living part of him, and have the great charm of giving always a true and striking portrait of the mood and moment in which they were written. Many are overflowing with pleasantry and humor,—all with the tenderness and kindness of his heart. Some show an uncommon talent for the description of nature, as well as for the delineation of character; and his way of expressing himself is always happy, clear, and natural. In these, written to his most intimate friends, he freely gives his religious sentiments, his views of life and destiny; and all he says is pervaded by the generous and noble spirit from which it flows.

In his military career, he found a great advantage in having formerly hardened and disciplined his body by all manly exercises, so that he was better prepared for the great exposure and fatigue that broke down many delicate constitutions. Great physical courage seemed born with him, and was so natural that he never knew the nervousness and timidity of more sensitive natures, but it helped him, no doubt, to acquire that higher moral courage which acts independently of the judgment, the approval or blame of others, and which has as its aim only that which the mind has once recognized as right and duty. He thought so little what others might think or say of him, that his actions never seemed influenced by it; and he not only appeared always perfectly natural, self-possessed, and without restraint himself, but had also the happy gift to take restraint and reserve from others, and to awaken confidence, kind feelings, and good humor. He soon became therefore, popular among his fellow-officers and his inferiors, as he had been always where he lived.

His personal appearance was prepossessing, his figure tall and strongly built, and his face well expressed his character. It was at once a very manly and a very sweet face, with dark, expressive eyes, and handsome, regular features; and the refinement, the inborn nobility of his soul, and the high idea to which he devoted the end of his life, had set their stamp upon [176] it. In his military service, his duties were always promptly and cheerfully fulfilled; and camp life, which throws men and officers so intimately together, gave him many opportunities to do kind offices to others. His firmness and gentleness made him also a desirable assistant when amputations and difficult operations among the wounded were to be performed. He had formerly, in the universities, steeled his nerves by witnessing such painful scenes, after he once found he was very weak in looking at the sufferings of others, and needed some self-discipline to acquire that perfect composure which he thought every man ought to have. How quietly and manfully he bore his pain his own words show (written in his diary), when he lay in the great agony of his mortal wound on the battle-field of Antietam.

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 the wound must be mortal. I have been praying 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 was possible, which I can truly assert, and that I have not uttered a groan as yet, lying alone on the hard ground, in the sun, with no friend near.

Eight hours he remained in this same position, till found by his friends. He was carried into a farm-house, where he received the kindest treatment. His mother and sister had the consolation of being with him during his last sickness, and present at his death; not so his wife, who learned her misfortune only at the moment of her arrival from Europe. He left behind him three little girls, the youngest of whom he had never seen. He probably little thought, when he wrote, two days before the battle of Antietam, in a letter which alludes to the want of sleep he had undergone, ‘O, how I long for a few hours' assured rest!’ how soon his eyes should close in the last deepest sleep, from which there is no more awakening. Many were the hearts that mourned his death, and many the tears that were shed at his early grave.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide People (automatically extracted)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: