The circumstances of Sedgwick’s death have remained legendary. In most versions of the story, Sedgwick is said to have proclaimed “they couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance” immediately before being killed by a bullet. The most truthful version of the story is the one told in decades later by Martin T. McMahon, who was standing next to Sedgwick when he was killed. McMahon recounted the sad tale at the 1887 dedication of the Sedgwick Memorial at Spotsylvania Courthouse, as follows:
…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 sharpshooter’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 got up and saluted, and said, good-naturedly, “General, I dodged a shell once, and if I hadn’t dodged, it would have taken my head clean off. I believe in dodging.”
The General and some of the men in the rifle pits who had heard that remark laughed, and the General replied “all right my man; go to your place.”
Another of the same kind of bullets passed while I was standing talking to the General in a low voice, about something which I have never since been able to recall. Then a third time the same shrill whistle closing with a dull heavy stroke interrupted me, and I remember distinctly that I commenced to say, “General, they are firing explosive bullets,” when his face turned slowly to me and the blood spurting from his left cheek under the eye in a steady stream, brought to me the first knowledge of our great disaster. He fell in my direction, and I was so close to him that my effort to support him failed, and I went to the ground with him.