There is a quiet crossroads in Cornwall Hollow that was once the main highway between neighboring Canaan and the county seat in Litchfield. There is a cemetery on one side and a large monument flanked by cannon and cairns of round shot on the other. Down the road a piece stands a lovely mid 19th-century house, across from a still older dwelling beyond the graveyard at the top of Hautboy Hill.
These stone memorials and wooden houses are associated with the Sedgwicks, early settlers of Cornwall Hollow, and one prominent member of the family in particular: Major General John Sedgwick, a favorite son of Connecticut and corps commander in the Army of the Potomac who lost his life at Spotsylvania in 1864.
The Sedgwick Memorial was erected in 1900 and over 3,000 people attended the dedication. The entire population of Cornwall at that time was 1,175 and it is a measure of the reverence that people still felt at that time for the commander called "Uncle John" by his troops that this large an assembly has never since been equaled in town. The Connecticut Historical Society has records on all of the state's Civil War monuments available on-line, and says the following about Sedgwick's:
"The original genuine cannonballs were lost in the World War II scrap metal campaign, bringing $11.00 in 1942. Replacements are concrete. The memorial was vandalized in 1976 and again in the late l980s, at which time the bronze plaques on the howitzer pedestal, Seal of the United States on the front, and wreaths on the sides, cast by Roman Bronze Works, were stolen, and the medallion bust of Sedgwick on the front of the stele was badly damaged. Replacement plaques for the seal and wreaths have been sculpted and installed and the medallion bust repaired. The replacements, based on careful study of historic photographs of the originals, are the work of Cornwall resident Neil Estern (b. 1926). Estern is known for his portraits of public figures, including Presidents John F. Kennedy and Jimmy Carter and landscape architects Frederick L. Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. Estern's monument to Mayor Fiorello La Guardia of New York City, probably his most famous in terms of favorable art criticism, has been modeled but not cast.
The grand re-dedication of MAJOR GENERAL JOHN SEDGWICK MEMORIAL was held July 31, 1994, in the presence of a large crowd. The First Litchfield Artillery Regiment participated, a highly polished brass Civil War cannon was fired, and actor and television personality Sam Waterston, also a Cornwall resident, delivered a thoughtful and appropriate oration."
Sedgwick's grave site is on a rise in the family plot across the street from the memorial, with the cross of the sixth corps prominent on the face of his obelisk. I stopped there last week, taking a different and roundabout way to work, and with the autumn leaves turning and the sky crisp and blue it was a peaceful and contemplative place to rest and think about the man it commemorates.
John Sedgwick was a West Pointer, a veteran of the Mexican War, "Bleeding Kansas", the Utah expedition against the Mormons and against the Cheyenne on the frontier with the 1st Regiment of US Cavalry. This elite regiment included many who would rise to high command in the Union and Confederate armies, including Joseph E Johnson, George B McClellan and J.E.B. Stuart.
Sedgwick had rose from brigade to corps command in the Army of the Potomac (he had command briefly of both the 2nd and 9th Corps but was largely associated with the 6th. He was wounded at Frayser's Farm in the Peninsula campaign and his division was outflanked and badly mauled at Antietam, where he was again wounded, this time severely.
The sixth corps was among the largest in the Army of the Potomac, and yet its two major engagements in 1863 fell short of expectations. Sedgwick had command of the forces left in Fredericksburg that May when Hooker made his grand flanking maneuver that would grind to a halt at Chancellorsville. After successfully assaulting Marye's Heights and the thin line of Confederates left to hold it while Lee and Jackson contended with Hooker, Sedgwick moved slowly to Hooker's relief, fighting to a stalemate at Salem Church before withdrawing north of the river and out of the battle. In pursuit of Lee's invasion of Pennsylvania, the 6th Corps was among the last in the Army of the Potomac to complete the forced march to Gettysburg and was largely in reserve during the battle. An assault late in the year at Rappahannock Station on the confederate entrenchments was far more successful, however, as the 6th Corps carried the works by bayonet charge and displayed the strong morale and spirit of Sedgwicks men.
Nonetheless, Sedgwick was a beloved commander and retained command of the 6th when the Army of the Potomac reduced from 5 corps to 3. Sedgwick's men had encountered some of the fiercest fighting in their experience in the Battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania. "The casualties of the corps at the Wilderness were, 719 killed, 3,660 wounded, 656 missing; total, 5,035; and at Spotsylvania, 688 killed, 2,820 wounded, 534 missing; total, 4,042." Among these was General Sedgwick, struck by a sniper's bullet moments after encouraging his men to stand firm for "they couldn't hit an elephant at this distance." The irony of these last words has lead to their frequent repetition, making Sedgwick appear almost foolish instead of merely unfortunate, but Uncle John was one of the rocks of the army. He was tenacious and resolute if not the nimblest or most brilliant of generals, and his was a great loss.
There are numerous memorials to the Civil War in the Litchfield Hills. Some, like the two in Plymouth, were among the first erected in the state following the cessation of hostilities. Others were volunteer efforts of G.A.R. posts or private individuals as the decades passed and the veterans grew older. Connecticut gave many of her volunteer sons to the struggle. The Sedgwick family lost John Sedgwick in that war, but the army lost its "Uncle John".