William Joyce Sewell was born on December 6, 1835 in Ireland. Orphaned at a young age, he emigrated to the United States in 1851. He was for a time employed in mercantile business in New York City, made several voyages as a sailor on merchant vessels, afterward engaged in business in Chicago, IL. He moved to Camden NJ in 1860.
When the Civil War started, William Joyce Sewell raised a company of Volunteers, and was commissioned Captain and commander of Company C, 5th New Jersey Volunteer Infantry. He fought with his regiment in the Peninsular Campaign and at the Second Battle of Bull Run, and had been promoted to Lieutenant Colonel in July 1862. When the 5th New Jersey’s commander, Colonel Samuel H. Starr, was recalled in October 1862 from volunteer service back to the Regular Army, William Sewell became commander of the regiment and was promoted Colonel in January 1863 (on the recommendation of Colonel Starr himself).
Colonel Sewell led the unit at the May 1863 Battle of Chancellorsville, where he would render his most distinguished service of the War. In the heavy fight along the Plank Road, the 5th New Jersey’s brigade commander, Brig. General Gershom Mott, was severely wounded and had to leave the field. His brigade and other elements started to retreat, but Colonel Sewell, now in command of the brigade, rallied them around the brigade colors and successfully led a counterattack. Although wounded himself, he held his position, fending off several more attacks before his unsupported troops, out of ammunition, had to retreat. His bravery in rallying his men would win him the Congressional Medal of Honor 33 years later.
William Joyce Sewell would recover sufficiently from his wounds to be in command of the 5th New Jersey during the Gettysburg Campaign. On the second day of that great Battle, July 2, 1863 his unit was at first posted in the Trostle Woods with the rest of his brigade. When it became apparent that the Army of the Potomac’s III Corps line, dangerously extended to the Emmitsburg Road, needed re-enforcement, Colonel Sewell’s regiment was detached and sent to Emmitsburg Road in between the Rogers and Klingel Farm Houses. Late in the afternoon the regiment absorbed the first attacks by Confederate General Cadmus Wilcox’s brigade, holding their position until driven back, and stopping to support Lieutenant Francis W. Seeley’s Battery K, 4th United States Regular Artillery in front of the Klingel House. Here Colonel Sewell’s command took a great pounding from Confederate counter-battery fire, as well as pressure from Rebel troops to their front and left. Finally the 5th NJ was ordered to withdraw, and Colonel Sewell was again severely wounded.
William Joyce Sewell would not be able to rejoin his regiment for some time afterwards, but was sufficiently recovered to lead the unit during the Wilderness campaign. In that last battle fatigue and his wounds got the better of him, and he left the regiment, eventually resigning in July 1864 due to his ill health. Two months later his services were again called upon, and he was appointed as Colonel and commander of the newly raised 38th New Jersey Volunteer Infantry. He commanded his new unit, which mostly saw only garrison duty along the James River, until its muster out in July 1865. On March 13, 1865 he was brevetted Brigadier General, US Volunteers for “gallant and meritorious services at the Battle of Chancellorsville, Va.” and Major General, US Volunteers for “gallant and meritorious services during the war”.
After the war William Joyce Sewell returned to Camden, where he would make his home for the rest of his days. He built a large home at 500 Linden Street, which was converted into a private hospital after he passed away.
William Joyce Sewell became a powerful railroad executive and a power broker within New Jersey state politics. He was vice-president of the West Jersey Railroad, and held interest in the Camden and Amboy Railroad Company and the Camden and Atlantic Railroad Companies. He was a director of the Camden & Philadelphia Steamship Ferry Company, the Camden Safe Deposit & Trust Company, and the West Jersey Mutual Insurance Company. He also served as president of the West Jersey Ferry corporation.
In 1889, a syndicate composed Sewell, Edward Ambler Armstrong, and real estate promoters Edward C. Knight and Edward N. Cohn, purchased the Camden Horse Railroad Company and converted the entire line to electricity. A year later, they extended the electric trolley line along Federal Street to Wrightsville, providing a major step towards the development of the agricultural area of Stockton Township, which is present day East Camden. With Samuel H. French he was an officer of the Stockton Rifle Range, which evolved into the ninety acre Stockton Park.
William Joyce Sewell developed neighborhoods in Camden, Cape May, and Gloucester counties – including the Sewell section of Washington Township bearing his name.
He was the dominant figure politically in Camden, his protege, David Baird Sr., was taking care of things locally while Sewell was in Trenton and Washington. William Joyce Sewell served in the New Jersey State Senate from 1872 to 1880, being its President from 1876 to 1880.
In 1881 William Joyce Sewell was elected as a Senator from New Jersey in the United States Senate, serving from 1881 to 1887. During his first term as a senator chairman, he sat on the Committee on Enrolled Bills (Forty-seventh and Forty-eighth Congresses), Committee on Military Affairs (Forty-ninth Congress), Committee on the Library (Forty-ninth Congress). He was defeated in his re-election bid in 1887, and in subsequent bids in 1889 and 1893.
During his time out of office he remained in public life as one of the national commissioners for New Jersey to the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. He was in command of the Second Brigade of the National Guard of New Jersey, and was appointed a member of the Board of Managers of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers and also was one of New Jersey’s Gettysburg Monument Battlefield Commissioners.
In 1895 William Joyce Sewell once again was elected to the Senate, and was the chairman, Committee on Enrolled Bills (Fifty-fourth through Fifty-seventh Congresses). On March 25, 1896 he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
William Joyce Sewell’s Congressional Medal of Honor citation reads: “Assuming command of a brigade, he rallied around his colors a mass of men from other regiments and fought these troops with great brilliancy through several hours of desperate conflict, remaining in command though wounded and inspiring them by his presence and the gallantry of his personal example.” His Medal was issued on March 25, 1896. He was the only New Jersey officer to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor while in command of a New Jersey regiment during the Civil War. In the Gettysburg National Military Park, his name is inscribed on the 5th New Jersey Infantry Monument, located on Emmitsburg Road just south of the Rogers Farm site.
William Joyce Sewell served as a Brigadier General in the New Jersey National Guard. When the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898, he was appointed as Major General of Volunteers by President William McKinley, but he declined the commission, which would have forced him resign his Senate seat.
William Joyce Sewell died on December 27, 1901. He was buried in the Spring Grove section of Harleigh Cemetery in Camden, NJ. His grave is decorated with a Celtic Cross designed by Alexander Sterling Calder.
Bellevue Hospital, occupying the former home of the late U.S. Senator William Joyce Sewell, at Fifth and Linden Streets, was opened on March 1, 1921 by Dr. J. Lynn Mahaffey and Dr. E.R. Schall, as a private hospital.