The Battle for Antonov Airport: A Turning Point by WILL DABBS

War is dirty with unexpected inflection points. Before there is hope, afterwards there is none.

Both battles and wars are characterized by curious tipping points. It’s weird. Such stuff seems to take on a spirit of its own. Through the lens of history, it all looks so clear. At the time it must have been absolutely terrifying.

Athens and Sparta were the region’s two major naval powers some 2,400 years ago.

Military history is rife with such stuff. In 405 BC the Spartans and the Athenians faced off in a naval conflict that was epic for its era. The resulting Battle of Aegospotami during the Peloponnesian War determined the trajectory of Western civilization.

The Battle of Aegospotami ended with a resounding Spartan victory.

The Athenians and Spartans were fairly evenly matched. The fight could have gone either way. However, The Spartans under Lysander took advantage of some poorly-timed leadership mistakes and ultimately either seized or sank 170 of the 180 available Athenian Men-o-War. Lysander subsequently decreed the death penalty against anyone caught taking grain to Athens.

The decline of Greece facilitated the ascendency of Rome.

Faced with the prospect of starvation, the Athenians capitulated in 404 BC. Had Athens been victorious, then Greek democracy would likely have been the driving force behind the development of modern civilization. As it was the Romans filled that void, so here we are. That’s no doubt an oversimplification, but it is nonetheless thought-provoking.

Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, a 35-year-old college professor and Christian theologian, held the line against repeated assaults by determined Alabama infantry and, with an unexpected bayonet charge, ultimately saved the Union.

The Battle of Gettysburg was precipitated by Confederate forces searching for shoes. The subsequent fight for Little Round Top came down to the desperate actions of a few desperate men. While the war dragged on as wars are wont to do, the Confederacy never really regained the initiative after that seminal moment.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor transformed the way mankind viewed war. I had a relative who was there, and the experience changed him.

Similarly, the Battle of Midway represented the turning point in the Pacific War. The Japanese were a most formidable power in that particular pond. Their surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, represented a watershed moment in the annals of modern warfare. It seemed the Imperial Japanese Naval (IJN) was unstoppable. Then AF grew short on water.

This is CPT Wilfred Holmes. His contribution was critical to victory at Midway.

Unbeknownst to the Japanese, American codebreakers were reading their mail. The IJN had been using the term AF to describe the objective for their next major conquest. The American leadership was not certain what AF might be. Captain Wilfred Holmes suggested they send a message in the clear that Midway’s water purification facility was on the fritz. 24 hours later the Japanese transmitted that “AF was short on water,” and the Americans knew they were coming.

SBD Dauntless dive bombers ravaged the Japanese fleet during the Battle of Midway.

It cost the attacking American Task Force 34 of 41 deployed torpedo bombers and most of their crews, but the Zero fighters all dropped down to the deck where the hunting was good. At the same time, Commander Wade McClusky’s SBD Dauntless dive bombers rolled hot from altitude and sent three of the four Japanese fleet carriers to the bottom. The remaining flattop Hiryu joined them soon thereafter. Though the war ground on for three more years, the Japanese were doomed after Midway.

The war in Eastern Ukraine roars on as I sit comfortably typing these words.

Similarly, the war in Ukraine seems to have had a turning point. As I type these words the Russians and Ukrainians are busy slugging it out in the east. Though everybody seems to be an expert, nobody really has any idea how it will turn out. However, Russia’s best hope for success evaporated at the Antonov Airport on February 25, 2022. This was D+1 after the initial invasion. That was the day Vladimir Putin quite likely lost his Special Military Operation.

The Setting

Stephen Ambrose was the most popular historian of his generation. Once folks like him get done with the war in Ukraine we will understand it better. For now we just do the best we can.

Bear with me here. It’s tough to get the details straight on a war before the historians have moved in as an army of literary occupation to dissect everything about it. If I miss a bit in the ongoing fog please forgive me. I used the most reliable sources I could find.

This guy is just a freaking animal. I know he’s got his warts, but Volodymyr Zelenskyy is the most charismatic leader the world has seen in generations.

Putin expected the world in general and Ukraine in particular to just roll over and die. In the leadup to their Special Military Operation, the Russians hallucinated up their standard load of steaming crap to justify their efforts. Political maneuverings, a few pitifully staged propaganda videos that looked like they were produced by teenagers, and some epic lies about the Nazi leanings of Ukrainian leadership served to fuel these fever dreams. The fact that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is Jewish and had lost relatives in the Holocaust was an inconvenient spot of reality in the otherwise schizophrenic Russian narrative.

Putin spent these hard young studs in vast numbers in his failed attempt to take Kyiv.

The original Russian war plan, such as it was, envisioned a rapid decapitation strike led by Russian Spetsnaz and VDV airborne forces to eliminate the Ukrainian leadership and pave the way for their replacement by Russian stooges. Alas, the American intelligence apparatus is the most well-financed and capable in human history. The CIA uncovered the Russians’ intentions and communicated them to the Ukrainians in plenty of time for them to prepare. Regardless, it was still a very iffy thing.

The Objective

This is Antonov Airport circa 2012 before the Russians and Ukrainians blew it all to hell.

Antonov Airport is situated a mere 10 km outside the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv. Seizure of this strategic objective would allow Russian airborne forces to establish an air bridge and subsequent lodgment from which to neutralize the government and take the city. Taking Kyiv was the key to taking Ukraine. Taking the Antonov Airport was the key to taking Kyiv. Everything turned on this.

Before. The An-225 Mriya was the largest cargo plane in the world. We rented it from time to time to carry oversized spacecraft parts and the like.
After. The world’s only An-225 fell prey to Russian airstrikes. Sigh…

The Antonov Airport was also known as the Hostomel Airport. It was home to the world’s only An-225 Mriya cargo plane, the largest such aircraft on the planet. The CIA had provided details of the Russian war plans and the part that Antonov Airport played in them to the Ukrainians the month before. When the Russians attacked, the Ukrainians were ready and responded with overwhelming force.

As a helicopter pilot myself, I just have to say that the Ka-52 is one wicked-looking gunship.

The Russians led with a massive air assault consisting of either 20 or 34 (depending upon what you read) heavily-loaded Mi-8 Hip helicopters escorted by Ka-52 gunships. Current intel indicates that the troops involved were drawn from the 11th and 31st Guards Air Assault Brigades. As the Russian airborne task force came in low over the Dnieper River, Ukrainian defenders opened up with machine guns and MANPADS (Man-Portable Air Defense Systems). An indeterminate number of Mi-8s were hit, several of which crashed into the river. At least one Ka-52 was brought down as well. In a surreal take on modern war, this engagement was streamed in real-time. You can watch it on YouTube. It is indeed captivating.

These stills were taken from the cockpit of a Russian Ka-52 during the attack on Antonov Airport. The An-225 can be seen in the middle frame on the left. This particular helicopter was eventually shot down and its crew was rescued by Russian forces.

The concept of the operation had these heliborne troops seizing the airport for a follow-on force in eighteen Ilyushin Il-76 fixed-wing transports. However, before they could secure the airfield the Russians were attacked by a mixed force of Ukrainian National Guard troops, Ukrainian special operators, and some seriously tooled-up heavily-armed Ukrainian private citizens. Several Russian Su-25 ground attack aircraft flew in support, while the Ukrainians answered with at least two Su-24s and a MiG-29.

The Ukrainians claim to have shot down two Il-76 transports in the opening days of the war. The left picture is purportedly from another Il-76 downed in 2014.

The resulting damage to the runway left the airfield unable to support the Il-76s, so they turned back. Along the way, at least one or potentially two of these massive heavily-laden aircraft were shot down. One of these lumbering cargo planes was purportedly downed by a Ukrainian Su-27 fighter, though this has not been independently verified. As a former paratrooper myself I’d sooner not dwell too long on what that looked like up close. Depending upon its configuration the Il-76 will accommodate between 125 and 140 combat troops. That would have been a mess.

The fight for Antonov Airport was desperate and pitiless.

After a vicious fight, the Russian paratroopers were pushed off of the airfield and into the surrounding woods. One of the defending Ukrainian units was the Georgian Legion. The Legion’s commander, Mamuka Mamulashvili, later claimed that his men had expended all of their ammunition during the battle. In response, Mamulashvili commandeered a car and proceeded to run down retreating Russians with it. Their 4th Rapid Reaction Brigade later posted images on their Facebook page of some of their members proudly holding a Ukrainian flag liberally perforated with bullet holes.

The Flow of War

The Mi-8 Hip is the standard Russian assault helicopter. It has been around since 1967.

A lot of stuff happened fairly quickly after that. Russian armor pushed south from Belarus, while airborne and air assault forces struggled mightily to gain a toehold. The Russian Ministry of Defence claimed the operation involved more than 200 combat helicopters, but these guys are bad to lie about stuff. While the Russians did indeed ultimately gain control of the airfield and surrounding areas, it was not before the Ukrainians had thoroughly cratered the runway.

The desperate serpentine Russian armored column that tried to move on Kyiv made it as far as Hostomel but ultimately failed to take the capital.

No matter how you slice it, the Battle of Antonov Airport was a bloodbath for all involved and an unqualified disaster for the Russians. By all accounts, the initial assault wave was essentially obliterated. The Ukrainians fought back with BM-21 Grad multiple launch rocket systems, Mi-24 attack helicopters, and copious tube artillery. By 27 February, two days into the invasion, intercepted Russian radio transmissions revealed requests for evacuation. The Hostomel debacle is what eventually spawned that infamous 40-mile armored column that stalled heading toward Kyiv. These troops did eventually make it to the airport, but they were so depleted by then as to be unable to move effectively on the Ukrainian capital.

I’m told there is a lot of stuff like this cluttering up Ukraine these days.

Within a month Russian forces were gone from the area. The Russians announced that they had just been kidding when they spent their finest combat formations on a failed effort to take Kyiv and that they had really only cared about the Donbas all along. In their haste to depart the Hostomel area, the Russians destroyed or abandoned large quantities of equipment. When the Ukrainians regained the airport they found the remains of seven tanks, twenty-three BMP’s, three APC’s, one anti-aircraft system, three helicopters, two field artillery guns, and sixty-seven trucks, jeeps, and sundry military vehicles.

Back when he was just wrangling polar bears and flying his own ultralight airplanes I used to think this guy was kind of cool. Now I realize he is a homicidal sociopath.

Only time will tell the ultimate outcome of this ghastly fight. If the West stays the course, the Ukrainians keep being awesome, and Putin doesn’t completely lose his mind and toss a nuke in the mix then the Ukrainians have a real shot at winning this thing. Sadly, there remains a lot of blood and heartache standing between now and such a favorable outcome. I just hope humanity learns something from all this. At some point, we really should evolve to the point where one psychotic dictator’s hubris is insufficient to initiate and sustain war between nations.

Addendum–What follows is my opinion alone. Perhaps it will spark some spirited discussion in the comments. I wrote this article some time last year. A lot has happened since then.

Supporting Ukraine with weapons is the one solitary thing Joe Biden’s administration has done that I agree with. This seems to me like a once-in-a-century opportunity to drive a stake through the heart of our perennial nemesis without shedding American blood in the process. I came of age during the Cold War in a world dirty with megalomaniacal dictators like Putin. This insanity has gone on for 78 years.

The weapons we are sending Ukraine are, in large part, drawn from our old stocks. Much of that stuff is already bought and paid for. When Biden announces another zillion dollars’ worth of equipment heading to Ukraine, that’s often money we spent a long time ago. We built that gear to fight the Russians in the first place, not to just sit in the desert and rot.

The Ukrainians are willing and enthusiastic to do the fighting and dying, but they must have the tools. Yes, they have their warts. Yes, they have a legacy of corruption, but so do we. How much Chinese money do you figure passed through the Biden family in the past decade? If nothing else the Ukrainians are striving mightily to stamp out corruption now because they know failure to do so will stop the flow of weapons.

I’m admittedly biased because I know people who are serving over there. They are patriots who are fighting desperately for their freedom just as we would were we invaded by a rampaging conquering army. If the last 20 years have taught us anything it is that Putin will never, ever stop until somebody stops him.

I know Putin feels hemmed in by NATO, but he is a cold-hearted monster. Of course the former Soviet satellite states want to align with the EU and be free. So would we.

The Ukrainians, against all odds and expectations, are humiliating the Russians on the battlefield. No, I don’t want to see American troops committed to battle in Europe. However, if we do go to war then American boots on the ground will be standing alongside those of soldiers from every country in the free world.

There’s admittedly a lot riding on this, and the Internet is forever. I might indeed have to eat these words. However, screw what the media says about the broken state of the American dream. America stands for freedom. We always have, and this is a righteous fight against the dark forces of tyranny and oppression.

We spent tens of thousands of irreplaceable lives pushing back against this darkness in Korea and Vietnam. Putin made a massive mistake, arguably the biggest since Hitler invaded Russia in 1941, and now he is paying for it. Just like World Wars 1 and 2, we didn’t start this. But we have the means of finishing it once and for all. Now that we have somebody else who wants to do the fighting it seems insane not to support them in every way we can. Just my $.02.

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Pilot Officer Jock Adamson was in a foul temper. A product of the little town of Rockhampton on the northeast coast of Queensland, Australia, Adamson had been flying in North Africa with the Desert Air Force for three months. He was assigned to No. 3 Squadron of the Royal Australian Air Force flying Curtiss P-40E Kittyhawks.

p-40 warhawk airplane
These early P-40B’s sported two cowl-mounted fifties along with four wing-mounted .30-caliber machineguns. Photo: San Diego Air & Space Museum

It had taken him about three minutes to grow weary of this place. Dry, hot, miserable, and bereft of both booze and women, this part of the world had little to commend it. Combine this with the fact that the Germans and Italians tried to kill him both day and night and you had the chemical formula for a sour attitude.

It was April 7, 1943, and Pilot Officer Adamson along with his wingman were on the hunt. The war on the ground swept back and forth as the British 8th Army slugged it out with the Afrika Korps. The Afrika Korps would surrender a short five weeks later, but for now they yet remained a formidable force.

64th fighter squadron p-40 warhawk north africa
A Curtiss P-40 taxis to takeoff in North Africa in 1943. It was part of the 64th Fighter Squadron, 57th Fighter Group. Photo: NARA

On this day a German column was making a rare daylight convoy movement. Jock and his mate spotted the dust cloud a dozen miles away. Dropping down to 100 feet off of the parched arid ground, the two Australians advanced the throttles on their powerful Allison engines and closed in for the kill.

b-24 liberators esorted by curtiss p-40 fighters
On the way to attack Japanese forces, these B-24 Liberator bombers are escorted by Curtiss P-40 fighters over China. Photo: NARA

The combination of their low altitude and the cacophonous noise of the German Maybach engines masked the approach of the two Allied fighters. The first inclination the marching Germans had that something was amiss was when a sleeting hail of heavy fifty-caliber bullets swept over the length of their column. Afrika Korps Landsers leapt off of their tanks and out of their trucks to seek refuge in the sparse cover on the sides of the desert track. Without a proper ditch or any foliage, however, the Germans were all but helpless.

us soldiers deliver p-40 warhawks to free french forces in north africa
U.S. service members present Curtiss P-40 fighters to Free French forces in North Africa during World War II.

The two P-40’s swooped up and over, reversing course for another pass from the opposite direction. This time a few Wehrmacht soldiers fired back with their Kar98k rifles and a handful of MG34 machineguns, but they still stood little chance against the marauding Curtiss fighters. Jock and his wingman once again unlimbered their half dozen .50’s to sow carnage across the German motorized convoy.

p-40 pilots scramble to meet japanese attackers
P-40 pilots of the 14th Air Force scramble to meet a Japanese air raid on 03 MAY 1944. Photo: NARA

Each of Jock’s .50 calibers started the engagement with 615 rounds of linked four-and-one ball and tracer. That gave him a total of 3,690 rounds. The AN/M2 gun cycled at 850 rounds per minute. That equated to about forty seconds of fire until he was out of ammo. With the North African skies dirty with Bf-109F Messerschmitts, Jock and his wingman felt that two passes was enough. They swung their crates toward home and settled back to cruise speed, warily scanning the skies for vengeful Luftwaffe fighters.

loading a bomb on a p-40 warhawk in italy during world war ii
On April 11, 1944, a ground crew loads a 500-pound bomb under the belly of a Curtiss P-40 Warhawk in the 79th Fighter Group. The photo was taken at an air base in Capodichino, Italy. Photo: NARA

Back on the ground, the Afrika Korps troops slowly made their way back to their vehicles to count the cost. Troops caught in the open were torn to pieces by the ferocious half-inch slugs. Several trucks were on fire as was a halftrack. One Panzerkampfwagen Mk IV tank was badly damaged, and a kubelwagen was a total write-off. Alongside the kubel was Oberstleutnant Claus von Stauffenberg.

two seat p-40 observation plane
This Curtiss P-40 was converted to a two-seater observation plane. The photo was taken on February 14, 1944 in Papua, New Guinea. Photo: NARA

Von Stauffenberg was barely alive. His right hand was shot away, as were two fingers on his left hand. One round had bounced off the ground and then torn out his left eye. A beloved officer, his men cared for him as best they could before evacuating him to the rear for medical treatment. After three months in-hospital in Munich, von Stauffenberg was finally back on his feet. He jokingly told his friends that he had never really known what to do with so many fingers when he still had all of them. He was awarded the Wound Badge in Gold as well as the German Cross for gallantry as a result of this action.

p-40 pilots 26th fighter squadron
In China, pilots of the 51st Fighter Group sit on the wing of a P-40 fighter to discuss a mission. Photo: NARA

Fifteen months later, Claus von Stauffenberg deposited a 1-kilogram block of plastic explosive equipped with a time pencil underneath the heavy oak table in the Wolfsschanze during a briefing held for Adolf Hitler in what is modern-day Poland. He had started the operation with two blocks of explosive, but his injuries prevented him from arming the second. Von Stauffenberg excused himself minutes before the bomb detonated. Hitler’s stenographer was killed instantly and three German officers ultimately died of their wounds, but Hitler was saved by the heavy table leg that separated him from the device.

p-40 pilots in alaska
Pilots play cards to pass the time next to a P-40 at their base in Alaska. Photo: NARA

Hitler went on a rage-driven rampage. Heinrich Himmler ultimately killed some 4,980 Germans felt to be disloyal in reprisals. Von Stauffenberg himself was shot outside the Benderblock headquarters in Berlin in the middle of the night while illuminated by the headlights of a military truck. Though the assassination attempt was obviously a failure, the resulting purge and paranoia at the highest levels did substantively advance the Allied cause.

chinese soldier guards a p-40 flying tiger
A Chinese soldier guards a line of American P-40 fighter planes, painted with the shark-face emblem of the “Flying Tigers,” at a flying field somewhere in China. Photo: NARA

Had von Stauffenberg not been so badly injured he could have easily armed both bombs, and Hitler would have died. However, had it not been for his injuries von Stauffenberg might have remained in an operational assignment and never gotten so close to Hitler. Sometimes in war as in life, little things can be big things.

The Plane

The Curtiss P-40 was the primary fighter aircraft of the U.S. Army Air Corps at the outset of World War II. An advanced all-metal design, the Warhawk first flew in 1938 and entered squadron service a year later. The P-40 was the third-most commonly produced American fighter of the war behind the P-47 Thunderbolt and P-51 Mustang. Some 13,738 copies rolled off the lines. New P-40’s cost Uncle Sam about $36,000 back in the late 1930’s. That would be a bit north of $600,000 today.

p-40 flying tiger in china
A P-40 Warhawk, part of the famous Flying Tigers, sits near a runway in China while a C-46 Commando lands in the background. Photo: NARA

The earliest P-40B was equipped with an Allison V-1710 engine producing 1,040 horsepower. These early planes featured two .50-caliber guns in the engine cowling synchronized to fire through the propellor arc along with four wing-mounted .30-calibers. Later P-40E and K models sported half a dozen fifties in the wings. The planes used by the Australians to nearly kill Claus von Stauffenberg would have been the latter sort.

The Warhawks that were so badly ravaged during the attack on Pearl Harbor were B-models. The definitive wartime version was the P-40E. This plane sported an Allison V-1710-39 V-12 liquid-cooled engine producing 1,240 horsepower. Essentially the same engine was used on the P-38 Lightning. In the case of the twin-engine Lightning, one engine was geared to turn the prop in the opposite direction to help offset torque effects.

p-40e cockpit controls
By modern aviation standards, the cockpit of the P-40E Warhawk was fairly austere. Photo: U.S.A.F. Museum

The gaping radiator underneath the big Allison engine lent itself to a shark’s mouth. This flamboyant decoration was pioneered by the P-40’s most famous users, Claire Chennault’s American Volunteer Group — the Flying Tigers. In Commonwealth service, the P-40B and C were called the Tomahawk, while the P-40E and later variants were Kittyhawks.


I recently had the opportunity to observe a P-40E up close, and it is a surprisingly large plane. The landing gear struts fold backwards and the wheels rotate to rest flush in their wells. The landing gear of the F4U Corsair has to perform a similar chore. Despite this complexity or perhaps because of it, the Warhawk’s landing track is wide and stable.

author with curtiss p-40 warhawk
The author found the P-40 Warhawk to be a fairly awesome war machine up close.

While the P-40 was heavy for its era and struggled in the close fight with Japanese Zeroes and German Messerschmitts, it was a slippery design that built up speed quickly in the dive. As a result, Allied pilots were trained to engage in slashing attacks at high speed and from altitude whenever possible. This maximized the capabilities of the P-40 while negating some of the advantages of enemy planes.

curtiss p-40e warhawk plane
The P-40E was the definitive wartime model. The Warhawk was an effective fighter for its era that held its own against advanced German and Japanese machines in the early years of the war. Photo: U.S.A.F. Museum

The P-40 Warhawk is a beautiful war machine that just drips history. While such planes were cheap in the immediate aftermath of the war, they are breathtakingly expensive today. Early in the conflict as America struggled to find its war footing, it was the P-40 Warhawk that took the fight to the enemy. The vengeance it wrought eventually led to crushing defeat for the Axis powers.

Special thanks to for the rare opportunity to study one up close.

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John Sedgwick: The Pachydermal General & the Whitworth Sniper Rifle by WILL DABBS

John Sedgwick was a popular and effective General Officer fighting for the Union during the American Civil War.

John Sedgwick was born in September of 1813 in the Litchfield Hills town of Cornwall, Connecticut. His grandfather had served as a General Officer during the Revolutionary War alongside George Washington. Originally commissioned into the Artillery, Sedgwick graduated from the US Military Academy at West Point in 1837 with a class rank of 24th out of 50.

John Sedgwick, shown here on the right alongside a brace of his staff officers, was a professional American soldier at a time where there weren’t a great many professional American soldiers.

Sedgwick served in both the Seminole and Mexican-American Wars, earning brevet promotions to Captain and then Major. Afterwards, he transferred to the Cavalry and served in the Indian Wars concluding with a punitive expedition against the Cheyenne. By the onset of the American Civil War John Sedgwick was a Colonel serving in Washington DC.

John Sedgwick was a cautious but successful General.

Cholera nearly killed him early in the war. However, he recovered and was promoted to Brigadier General in the summer of 1861. What followed was a successful career involving a series of combat commands and ultimately promotion to Major General.

Stonewall Jackson thoroughly trounced Sedgwick at the Battle of Antietam. MG Sedgwick was nearly killed in the exchange.

During the Battle of Antietam, the Union II Corps Commander MG Edwin Sumner threw Sedgwick’s division into a desperate assault against Confederate forces commanded by Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson without proper reconnaissance. Sedgwick’s troops were engaged from three sides and summarily butchered. MG Sedgwick was himself shot three times–in the shoulder, leg, and wrist–and retired from the field with roughly half his command remaining.

Sedgwick’s men revered him.

MG Sedgwick was popular with his men. His troops affectionately called him “Uncle John.” However, quick to speak his mind, Sedgwick remained a reliably poor politician. He had thrown his weight behind such controversial figures as George McClellan and was a vocal critic of General Benjamin Butler. The Secretary of War Edwin Stanton felt that he should have been a more vigorous proponent of abolition and what was then viewed as the Radical Republican agenda.

By 1864 MG John Sedgwick was a capable Union Corps commander.

By the Spring of 1864, Sedgwick was tired. He had by now been fighting for decades and had been seriously wounded multiple times. He had lost men in combat by the hundreds. He admitted in a letter to his sister that he wished to leave the Army and return home to New England. Despite some of his more unpopular political views, Sedgwick was granted command of the VI Corps holding the Union right during the Battle of the Wilderness in May of 1864 under LTG US Grant.

Fate, Valor, and Snipers

MG Sedgwick is shown here second from the right along with a variety of Union staff officers and generals. Those guys did rock some snazzy uniforms.

The Battle of Spotsylvania was the second major fight in Grant’s Overland Campaign against forces under Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Fighting went on for some thirteen days and resulted in 32,000 casualties on both sides. Spotsylvania was the bloodiest battle of the campaign.

MG Sedgwick had no shortage of courage. His calm demeanor under fire reliably inspired his troops.

On May 9, 1864, Sedgwick’s Corps was tepidly engaging Confederate skirmish lines vicinity the left flank of the Rebel defense. As was his custom, MG Sedgwick was at the front personally directing the placement of his organic artillery assets. John Sedgwick had begun his career as an artilleryman, and he had a gift for the employment of cannon.

Confederate sharpshooters armed with specialized weaponry were remarkably capable for their day.

As Sedgwick and his staff attended to the myriad tasks associated with preparing a Corps for battle, Confederate sharpshooters opened fire from 1,000 yards distant. Soldiers of this era were typically simply cogs in a gigantic machine, the purpose of which was to amass musket fire. Rank upon rank of synchronized fire is what won battles. Individual sharpshooters, particularly firing from such prodigious ranges, amounted to little more than harassment.

Whitworth rifles fired this radically advanced forged polygonal bullet.

The Confederate sharpshooters this day were armed with expensive and rare British Whitworth rifles firing an elongated faceted 530-grain .451-caliber bullet. These heavy but accurate bullets made a characteristic whizzing sound as they passed nearby. Rebel snipers prided themselves on their ability to pick off gun crews at extreme distances. As the Union artillerymen and Sedgwick’s own staff scrambled for cover the General strode about upright and unprotected.

John Sedgwick was not going to let a little sniper fire drive him to ground.

Survivors heard Sedgwick say, “What? Men dodging this way for single bullets? What will you do when they open fire along the whole line?”

Not sure exactly what the hand in the jacket thing meant, but they all seemed to do it. MG Sedgwick on this fateful day let his bravery get the better of him.

Sedgwick’s men were indeed ashamed yet they persisted in flinching at the sounds of the Whitworth bullets flying uncomfortably nearby. The General continued, “Why are you dodging like this? They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.” You can likely see where this is leading.

The Rifle

This somber-looking gentleman designed a remarkably advanced rifle during the middle years of the tumultuous 19th century.

The British Whitworth rifle was a product of Englishman Sir Joseph Whitworth, a successful engineer, and businessman. Whitworth did his initial experimentation into polygonal rifling with large-bore brass cannon before shrinking the concept down into something more portable.

These terrifying-looking lads were British officers during the Crimean War.

Whitworth visualized his eponymous weapon as a replacement for the general issue British 1858 Enfield then in use during the Crimean War.

The Whitworth was a markedly better performer at long range when compared to more primitive muskets of the day. However, it was expensive and maintenance intensive.

The Whitworth did indeed significantly outperform the .577-caliber Enfield in both accuracy and range. However, Sir Joseph’s rifle cost four times what the Enfield did at the time. The Whitworth’s radical polygonal rifling was also markedly more prone to fouling than was that of the Enfield.

The Whitworth’s hexagonal bore was its most unusual feature.

The hexagonal cross section of the Whitworth’s rifling combined with its unique elongated faceted projectile meant that the bullet did not have to bite harshly into the rifling as was the case for the more traditional Enfield. This meant markedly higher velocities. The Whitworth’s 1-in-20 twist was also appreciably tighter than the typical 1-in-78 twist of the contemporary 1858 Enfield. In the hands of a skilled marksman, the Whitworth was known to render accurate fire at up to 2,000 yards.

The lockwork on the Whitworth was of a fairly uninspired design.

While the Whitworth barrel was radically revolutionary, the lock, trigger, and furniture were relatively conventional.

Though rare, these early 4X telescopic sights revolutionized precision riflery.

Some of these early Whitworths were fitted with rudimentary 4X Davidson telescopic sights and fired from log rests or forked sticks carried for the purpose.

Queen Victoria used this counterweighted contraption to hit a bullseye 400 yards distant with a Whitworth rifle.

In 1860 at the first annual meeting of the British National Rifle Association (apparently a real thing back then) Queen Victoria fired the opening shot through a Whitworth in a machine rest and connected within 1.25 inches of the bullseye at 400 yards.

Confederate sharpshooters like this one had an outsized influence on the American Civil War.

Britain technically remained neutral during the American Civil War, but English companies were free to market their wares to the highest bidders. From 1862 until the end of the war, roughly 200 Whitworth rifles were sold to the Confederacy. It is estimated that there were never more than 20 of the Davidson sights in use during the course of the conflict.

Never Taunt Fate

The valiant MG Sedgwick caught a heavy Whitworth bullet to the face, suffering a pathologically unsurvivable wound.

As his staff wisely cowered nearby there was a sound described a “dull, heavy stroke” among all the characteristic whistling. One of the heavy Whitworth projectiles connected with the General on the left aspect of his face just underneath his eye. A shocked look on his visage, MG Sedgwick slowly turned to face one of his closest staff officers before falling forward involuntarily, a great gout of blood streaming from his massive wound.

Medics of this era were helpless to aid the fallen general. Folks with wounds this catastrophic frequently fare little better today.

Medical personnel were summoned immediately, but this wound at this time was invariably fatal. The General never regained consciousness though he continued to bleed for some while. I have myself attended gunshot wounds to the head that behaved similarly. Sometimes despite simply breathtaking damage to the central nervous system the human body nonetheless fails to get the memo for a while.


Sedgwick is shown here with his staff officers. His death left a mighty hole in the Union ranks.

MG John Sedgwick was the highest-ranking Union officer to be killed during the American Civil War. Though he had a reputation for being unduly cautious at times in battle, Sedgwick was a soldier’s General who was widely respected. Upon notification of Sedgwick’s death US Grant purportedly asked repeatedly, “Is he really dead?”

The Confederate General Robert E. Lee was a fellow West Point graduate and a personal friend of John Sedgwick. It is stuff such as this that made the American War Between the States so much more poignant.

Robert E. Lee was an old friend from before the war, and he expressed genuine sorrow at Sedgwick’s demise. Union General George Meade publicly wept at the news. LTG Grant later told his staff that Sedgwick’s death was a greater blow to the Union than the loss of a full division on the field.

MG John Sedgwick’s stern visage overlooks the grounds at the US Military Academy even today.

There is a monument to John Sedgwick on the grounds at West Point that includes a massive statue of the General. The likeness was cast from metal harvested from Confederate cannon captured by Sedgwick’s VI Corps. The monument was funded by veterans under his command.

MG Sedgwick’s spurs are said to have been good luck charms for generations of West Point cadets.

Legend has it that any cadet who approaches the statue in parade dress gray over white uniform at midnight under arms may spin the rowels of Sedgwick’s spurs and acquire good luck on any final exam. As a result, General Sedgwick’s influence is still respected within the storied halls of the Military Academy at West Point today.

Skilled marksmen used their expensive Whitworth rifles to sow chaos among critical targets like Union artillery units. Over the course of two hours during one engagement a pair of Confederate snipers armed with Whitworths neutralized an entire six-gun Union artillery battery.

The Whitworth rifle equipped with the Davidson telescopic sight was the world’s first dedicated sniper rifle. At the time these rigs cost up to $1000 a piece (about $16,000 today). Specially-selected Confederate marksmen were trained to use these precious resources sparingly against high-value targets.

President Abraham Lincoln came within a hair’s breadth of being killed by a rebel sharpshooter with a Whitworth in 1864.
After the battle numerous spent Whitworth slugs were recovered around where the President had been standing.

On July 12, 1864, during Confederate General Jubal Early’s foray against Fort Stevens on the outskirts of Washington DC, Abraham Lincoln did himself come within moments of falling to a rebel sniper armed with a Whitworth. A Whitworth round killed a Union officer mere feet from the President just before a bystander yanked the lanky Chief Executive to safety. Had that sniper connected with the somber-looking gentleman in the tall top hat the entire history of the planet might have unfolded differently. However, fate is oftentimes like that.

Sometimes the fates of both men and nations turn on some of the tiniest things.
The British Whitworth rifle was a generation ahead of its time.
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