Lore of the Sharpshooter

by Fred Ray on August 11, 2006 · 1 comment

In my last post I discussed how photographer Alexander Gardner posed the body of a sharpshooter at Devil’s Den for a more dramatic shot, and how this became an iconic image of the war. I came across an excellent article on the Gettysburg Discussion Group site by Gary E. Adleman and Timothy H. Smith on the “Lore of the Sharpshooter.” The authors do a great job of tracing, by using successive contemporary accounts, the development of the sharpshooter narrative at Devil’s Den. It’s a good object lesson for historians of how legend quickly outruns fact and in effect becomes reality.

Battlefield tourism began early at Gettysburg (the first account dates from 1864 and describes unburied skeletons on the field) and continues to this day. Guides, like photographers, realized that what their clients wanted was not necessarily a dry recitation of the facts but a good story. Devil’s Den, with its dramatic landscape, seemed made for such tales, and tourists seldom left disappointed. “Within musket range of life and cultivation, it is an absolute solitude which excites in the beholder a feeling of awe. No gorge of the wildest mountains is more striking in its romantic peculiarities,” gushed one.

From the beginning, stories centered around sharpshooters, almost to the exclusion of the fierce infantry fighting that took place there. Sometimes it was a single shooter who, depending on the story, either got his just desserts at the hands of the righteous preservers of the Union (there were few Southern tourists in the early days) or escaped. In other narratives there seemed to be whole battalions of Confederate sharpshooters at Devil’s Den. Indeed, any dead Rebel found in the area was assumed to have been one. Just how much effect Gardner’s photo had on this (his scrapbook appeared in 1865) had is debatable, but it would not have hurt the developing narrative. By the turn of the century guidebooks were giving exact numbers (that varied between 68 and 100) of sharpshooters killed there.

The authors also document another curious phenomenon that emerged about the same time – “death by concussion.” The story emerged in 1888 with a story of a Confederate sharpshooter supposedly found “who hadn’t a wound upon him. It is supposed that he was killed by concussion of a passing cannon ball.” In 1899 the former chief of 5th Corps artillery, Captain Augustus P. Martin, stated that he had suppressed the fire of a particularly obnoxious sharpshooter with a single shot (at 500 yards!) with a percussion shell that struck the rock near the man. Later, he claimed to have found “a dead Confederate soldier lying upon his back and, so far as we could see, did not have a mark upon his body, and from that fact became convinced that he was killed by the concussion of the shell when it exploded on the face of the boulder.” Like the sharpshooters, the numbers of men killed by concussion rose, eventually to 20.

The concussion theory (and the causes of such deaths were always assumed) may have derived from a common belief around the turn of the century that eventually found expression in the term “shell shock” in WWI. Thus problems that today we would identify as psychological (combat fatigue, PTSD) were seen as neurological injuries caused by the concussion of exploding shells. It’s worth noting from the descriptions above that the concussion wasn’t always from an explosion – sometimes it was from “a passing cannon ball.” As for “the” sharpshooter, Alexander Garner – the only man to actually handle the body – said he died from a head wound.

Could concussion kill a healthy young man without leaving a mark? Perhaps, but the skeptic in me says that it would be hardly possible for a blast, especially a low order explosive like black powder, to be close enough to kill without leaving at least some marks – torn clothing, singed hair and skin, etc. And wouldn’t there be some shrapnel wounds?

An unfortunate modern-day example seems to prove that. Just last month a relic collector in Georgia was attempting to defuse a Parrot shell (no word on size) when it exploded. He was seriously injured by both blast and shell fragments, but survived. You would expect, however, that if anyone was going to be killed by concussion, he would be the one.

For the latest iteration of both sharpshooter and concussion stories, I refer you to James Groves’ extensive web site. If time permits I will take a look at it and offer some comments.


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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

John A. Morrow January 8, 2009 at 8:51 pm

I’ve just read Fred Ray’s comments about “Sharpshooter West” and found it very interesting.
It is a good thing that individuals inspect any account.
I was careful about footnoting my sources for my book The Confederate Whitworth Sharpshooters and was surprised that I “missed” a reference(sort of like a sniper missed shot.)
I can’t,just now,say if I flat out missed a footnote-or a printer error.I wrote the book in long hand and will have to dig out my written book manuscript in Charleston,S.C. to determine where the error occurred.
I think that all individual accounts(including s.s. West)are subject to inspection.No doubt,some soldiers made/make claims that are a stretch-happens now and probably always has
happened.But I’m glad that Mr.Ray has given West a “clean “survey.West seems likeable.
Regards to all researchers and especially Fred Ray.
I found this information very constructive.
John A. Morrow

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