Blackford Takes a Look at His Superiors

by Fred Ray on May 8, 2016 · 0 comments

Blackford’s pithy observations were not limited to the generals. He also was not shy about criticizing his immediate superiors, such as the recently elected Colonel Jones (who was in fact 49 years old) or the other Colonel Jones of the 12th Alabama. This letter to his mother, written on February 20th, 1862, also details the difficulties encountered in a recent payday.

I wish you could see old Col. [Allen C.] Jones – he is about 60 years old (49 by his count), with perfectly white hair & beard, and a face of deep red colour, except the nose which is purple. He is a very jolly old gentleman, and lets any one who has any tact do exactly as the pleases, but any one more unfit to command could scarcely be conceived. We have a great deal of fun with him sometimes, especially on Dress Parade or a Sunday inspection, on which occasions it is customary for the officers and men to look neater than usual. At such times the old gentleman comes out in a full Confederate suit, and furnishes the whole corps a rich treat in witnessing the drawing of his sword. So much does he enlarge on these occasions that he could not draw it were he confined to a room as large as any in our house, altho’ he has done it every evening since his promotion 4 months ago, the men never fail to laugh, and in such a manner that the officers cannot check it.

Camp Pope Publishing

I received Pa’s letter Friday – General Rodes has spoken once to me about entering Col. R[obert] T. Jones’ 12th Ala. Regt., but as he said found me prejudiced against him. Col. J. is one of the men who has never been able [to] distinguish between the volunteer and the regular, tho’ he has had no experience in regard to the latter. He treats his men in such a way, that I am sure I could not live peaceably in his Regt., as I deem it my duty frequently to stand between the Cols., and the men, and would invariably have trouble with him. My best plan however will be to wait and see what turns up.

This has been pay day, and in addition to my other labours of reducing baggage, sending off the sick &c., I have been counting money, and handing it out. A fine study is presented on these occasions, the men are mostly indebted to one another to the whole amount of their pay, and immediately upon receipt of their money, they commence paying off one another. To give you some idea of the trouble attending one of these pay days, I can tell you that I am only furnished with $10 & $20 to pay with, and from this I have to pay out such sums as $23.75, $25.25 & so on, the fractions being occasioned by their having bought shoes &c. from the Quarter Master, to be deducted from their pay. Much ingenuity must be displayed to make any progress at all, but by means of the debt they owe one another, and by summing up the amount due one mess & turning over to its head I came through finally.

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British shooter Michael Yardley participated in a Discovery Channel special for their Unsolved History series,The Plots to Kill Lincoln.” One of these plots was the shot taken at him by a Confederate sharpshooter at Fort Stevens on July 11 or 12, 1864 during Jubal Early’s raid.

The question was if it was realistic to conclude that the shot was deliberate and of so were the rifles of the time really accurate enough to have hit him other than by blind luck?

The range in question here? Well no-one seems quite clear, but the producer – bless him – decided on half a mile. Of course, I accepted this modest 800 yard challenge immediately and then worried about how to accomplish it (while thinking of how distant a deer appears at 300 paces through a modern scope).

Of course this is open to question (the Confederates at one point got to within 50 yards of the fort, but had fallen back to about 3-500 yards. No one really knows how far away they were or what kind of rifle was used to make the shot. Nevertheless the producers settled on a Whitworth.

There were two replica Whitworths in .451 (one a Parker Hale, the other from Navy Arms), both equipped with the famous mechanical rifling system – where the large hexagonal bullet is a machine fit in the bore. [You can get Henry rifled ‘Whitworth’ replicas today as well, but we opted for authenticity.] As well as hexagonal bullet guns, there was a more conventional .577 Enfield of long pattern as a back-up, and the choice of two period optical sights.

Both of the telescopes were quickly abandoned as impractical for long range shooting. One was side mounted, and almost impossible to use without a dreadful contortion, the other was incapable of being elevated sufficiently for a 400 yard shot, let alone one at double that range. Happily, the two Volunteers appeared serviceable.  I opted for the Parker Hale in spite of my previous experience. It belonged to someone at the US National Firearms Museum (located at the NRA headquarters in Fairfax Virginia).

As Yardley notes, there were problems with the rifles, which can be rather fussy. I own one myself now (it has the conventional Henry rifling and not the hex bore) and have had some of the same problems. As it happens I was there on site as an unpaid consultant, and at the time had very limited experience with black powder shooting. If it had happened now (and I had my kit) I’m pretty sure I could have gotten both rifles running again. It was also extremely cold and there was a 10-15 knot crosswind, which complicated matters, especially at longer ranges.

All the while there were some fit young Englishmen watching us with interest with some US companions. I never did find out who they were, but noted that the range was frequented by SEAL units (and owned by ex-SEALs).

He is correct about that. I talked a bit with some of them, who were quite friendly. Yes, they were SBS (Special Boat Service, a spec-ops branch of the Royal Marines, roughly equivalent of the US SEALs.)

Camp Pope Publishing

In spite of the mechanical problems Yardley did manage some impressive hits on a man-sized target at 800 yards, which were a tribute to the accuracy of the rifles and—especially given the conditions and his lack of familiarity with the rifle and black powder shooting—his shooting ability. I left convinced that shots at that distance definitely were possible, even with iron sights. So Abe was indeed lucky to escape unharmed. Still, it was not definitive.

By that time, however, we were out of time and more importantly, light. Yardley continued his quest a few days later in western Pennsylvania and had better luck with the equipment, having found a black powder armorer.

I estimated that the vertical aim off was something in the region of 70 feet at the range. The wind was blowing from behind which was lucky. I squeezed off a shot. The gods were with us. The first shot hit the black silhouette target, a little low and right, but on target.  It could be done, more to the point, I could do it. It was all caught on camera too. I managed to 4 more shots on target out of 5 fired in total. In otherwords, five out of six were on the money which wasn’t bad considering my lack of familiarity with the gun. Feeling cocky, I had a bash at 1000 yards. The shot fell 12″ low but perfectly in line with the target centre (in this case a steel plate). So, if I can do it consistently, I have little doubt that a civil war sniper, a man who lived with his rifle, could as well. I was so impressed with the rifle that I have decided to buy another and learn to shoot it properly.

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Blackford Evaluates His Generals

by Fred Ray May 2, 2016

On December 7, 1861, Blackford wrote his father a rather pessimistic letter about the state of Confederate leadership. He is at his pithy best here when he evaluates his division commander, Earl Van Dorn. By the way our Maj. Gen. [Van Dorn] is a sad example of what effect too rapid a rise in the […]

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Harriet Tubman on the $20

by Fred Ray April 27, 2016

As you’ve probably heard, Harriet Tubman is slated to replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill. This has led to a sort-of debate. I say sort-of, since the issue was decided by the Washington bureaucrats and not the people, whom no one thought to ask. Liberals have hailed the inclusion of a black woman, while […]

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Eugene Blackford letter excerpt November 21, 1861

by Fred Ray April 11, 2016

The excitement of battle quickly died down, to be followed by the unending drudgery of drill, picket, and fatigue details of all sorts. Blackford was taken ill and went home to recuperate, then returned, still very weak, when he heard a battle might be imminent. There was an action at Ball’s Bluff on October 20th […]

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Blackford’s baptism of fire at Manassas

by Fred Ray March 24, 2016

For Blackford, the deciding moment came with the secession of Virginia on April 17, 1861. Like many other Southern Unionists like John Mosby, Jubal Early, and Robert E. Lee, Blackford threw in his lot with the new Confederacy, taking his company, the Barbour Greys, to Richmond. There they were assigned to the 5th Alabama Infantry. […]

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Eugene Blackford letter excerpt March 11, 1861

by Fred Ray March 13, 2016

Once secession of the Lower South was a fact, the seceded states immediately began attempting to expel Federal garrisons and claim United States installations. This was successful except for a few points, most notably Ft. Pickens at Pensacola and Ft. Sumter at Charleston. Alabama and Mississippi both sent troops to assist the taking of Ft. […]

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