More on the Origins of “Sharpshooter”

by Fred Ray on January 11, 2017 · 0 comments

I’ve addressed the origins of the term “sharpshooter” several times, and it seems to be a popular one for commenters. Lately I’ve dug up a few more comments on its origin and first use in America.

One of the more intriguing units in the Revolutionary War is the Althouse Sharp-Shooters, which was a spin-off of Emmerick’s Chasseurs. Andreas Emmerick was a Hessian who fought in the Revolution as a Crown mercenary, raising a mixed company of American Loyalists and former German jägers. “Jäger” and “Chasseur” mean the same thing—“hunter”—in German and French respectively, and both were light infantry. An informal distinction of the time was that jäger applied to an independent light infantry unit, while a “chasseur” outfit was generally part of a larger unit like a battalion. Initially formed in 1777 in New York as a rifle company on the jäger pattern, Emmerick’s command eventually grew to a mixed unit of several companies of light cavalry, light infantry, and riflemen. Unfortunately Emmerick himself proved, like Hiram Berdan, to be a divisive figure, and by 1779 the unit was near mutiny, whereupon it was broken up and the men transferred to other commands.

That September John Althouse recruited a rifle company from them, which seems to have been mostly of British Loyalists rather than Germans. In fact, looking more closely we find that John Althouse was actually Johann Althaus, who apparently Anglicized his name to better fit with the New York Volunteers, a Tory infantry regiment. Althaus/Althouse was a former German jäger himself who had apparently served under Emmerick. Thus it’s a pretty good bet that the company was armed, equipped and trained like the jägers, and wore a green uniform. Althouse was also at least acquainted with Captain Johann Ewald, whose journal, published as Diary of the American War, is a wonderful source of information about the American Revolution and of light infantry in the 18th Century as well. Ewald mentions Althouse, calling the unit “Althouse’s Sharp-Shooters.” Since Ewald’s diary was written in German, this is almost certainly a translation of the term “scharfschutze,” meaning the same thing. The rolls of the New York Volunteers simply call it a rifle company, but I think it likely that “sharp-shooters” was an informal title. If so it makes sense (especially considering that the commander was German himself and quite familiar with the rifle), since in German the word was well-established and quite similar.

So…not definitive, but strongly suggestive, and it fits with how the word would have come into English.

More to come….

This section about sharpshooters appears in The Regimental Companion by Charles James (London 1811).

If the raising of the proposed corps should be considered in the light of a burthensome augmentation to the British army, those means might assuredly be adopted by which a certain proportion of each battalion might be trained, disciplined, and exercised with the rifle. This principle has been attended to in one of our militia corps. During the late war there were two companies, consisting of men who were called sharp-shooters, attached to a regiment of that establishment. In justice to Lord Dundas, who, as far back as the year 1795, not only saw the necessity of introducing companies of rifle-men into our militia establishment, but brought his notions to bear with regard to the North-York regiment, which he now commands, and of which he was then lieutenant-colonel, I cannot omit paying a just tribute to his indefatigable zeal for the service in general, and acknowledging his early adoption of a measure that is now universally recommended.* Every writer upon our military system is an advocate for sharp-shooters. Among those authors, I particularly notice Captain Sterling, and Colonel F. P. Robinson, Inspecting Field Officer of the London Recruiting District; and among the practical encouragers of a system, so laudably introduced by Lord Dundas in his own regiment, I find Lord Yarmouth at the head of the Cumberland sharpshooters, and Captain Bessel, formerly of the war office, together with many other gentlemen in the different counties of the United Kingdom. These individuals will bear testimony to the propriety of my own suggestions upon the subject, and although those suggestions originally grew out of what I had seen at the commencement of the French Revolution, they are not the less valuable because they owe their birth to the prior practice of an enemy. Colonel Robinson, in his letter, to a general officer respecting the recruiting service, and on the establishment of rifle corps in the British army, makes the following observations.

“A few years ago the British nation shuddered at the idea of introducing rifle men into our service; and every attempt in favour of the system was rejected with horror: at length fatal experience taught all Europe, that the French owed their important victories, and the whole Continent its subjugation, not more to their inexhaustible supply of men, than to the introduction of novel tactics, one great feature in which was, covering their front with swarms of sharp-shooters, who, dealing destruction among the officers of their opponents, frequently decided the fate of the day before the action could be said to have been fairly begun.”

In another place he says: “A company of riflemen ought to be attached to every infantry regiment, as a part of its establishment, to be posted in two bodies, in the rear of the flank companies, ready at the sound of the bugle to cover the line or column with the best effect, unattended with the danger arising from the chasm in every line which, the advance of the light company must occasion, unless previously posted in the rear. Such an arrangement would leave the rifle regiments, or large detachments from them, more usefully disposable in the order of battle, or in immediate action, as exigencies might require.”

* The formation of two companies of sharp-shooters in the North-York militia preceded every thing of the UK in the British army.

** This principle has been acted upon in the North York militia, ever since the year 1795.

Thus James puts formation of the first British sharpshooter units at 1795, showing that the term was by then well-established in the English language.




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Reflections of Glory

by Fred Ray on January 6, 2017 · 2 comments

Watched Glory and parts of it several times before the holidays, AHC was pretty much showing it non-stop, which gives you time to dissect things more completely. Conclusion: made in 1989, it holds up pretty well, and I think it’s one of the best Civil War movies from Hollywood. It also got Denzel Washington into the big time and earned him an academy award.

It’s a well-told narrative—black men want to fight but are denied enlistment because no one thinks they can. Finally they are allowed to enlist in 1863 at the behest of Northern abolitionists, and of course run into all kinds of problems—no uniforms, being paid less, &c. all of which they overcome with the help of their colonel, Robert Gould Shaw. They pass their first trial of combat and Shaw volunteers them for a dangerous assault on Fort Wagner, which must be approached across a narrow and completely open causeway. The assault breaches the fort, but Shaw and half the regiment are killed. As the remaining troops enter the fort, however, Confederates are seen turning two cannon around at them. The screen fades to black…

The next morning the camera sweeps around, showing that the causeway is littered with Union bodies, but the status of the fort is ambivalent. Has it been captured or not? A flag goes up, and as it clears the parapet the morning breeze catches it and…it’s Confederate. The assault has failed, and the fort is never taken. The last scene shows Shaw and his men being rolled into a mass grave together.

Not your usual “bad guys get their comeuppance” Hollywood ending, but the film succeeds in making a larger point—that the men of the 54th Mass. showed that black men could and would fight. By the end of the war, fully ten percent of the Union army was African-American.

The film is not without its mistakes. The biggest is that the unit was not composed of escaped slaves from the South, but of free blacks from the Boston area, most of whom were well-off and educated. There are others and there is a list here, but overall they did pretty well (Shelby Foote was an adviser).

Although the 54th left a fine combat record, they were always somewhat of a hard luck outfit, like the French Foreign Legion more famous for their glorious defeats than for their victories. After Ft. Wagner they ended up in Florida, where they participated in the battle of Olustee, another Union defeat. However they gained fulsome praise there for their “undaunted courage.”

Respect can’t be commanded, it has to be earned, and earn it they did with blood and sweat, and probably more than a few tears. I always thought Confederate politician/general Howell Cobb summed it up best when he said that if Negroes will make good soldiers, then the whole theory of slavery was wrong.



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Et Tu, VMI?

by Fred Ray December 8, 2016

Virginia Military Institute is now offering coloring books as part of its student “stress busters” program. “Stress Busters is held on Reading Day of each semester,” the school said. “This is an opportunity for cadets to unwind and relax before studying for finals. This event often includes stress reduction activities such as yoga, therapy dogs, […]

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by Fred Ray September 26, 2016

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Review: Civil War Infantry Tactics by Earl Hess

by Fred Ray September 18, 2016

Civil War Infantry Tactics: Training, Combat, and Small-Unit Effectiveness by Earl J. Hess Hardcover: 368 pages 6.1 x 9.4 inches ISBN-10: 0807159379 ISBN-13: 978-0807159378 Publisher: LSU Press (April 13, 2015) Earl Hess has added yet another tome to his ever-growing list of Civil War books. His latest is devoted to infantry tactics, which I must […]

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