Union Sharpshooter Policy

by Fred Ray on September 28, 2006 · 0 comments

I mentioned in a previous post how state politcs affected the assigment of Union sharpshooter units, and will bring up a few more examples. It did not help that the Federals didn’t really have any sort of policy on the matter. Berdan did raise two regiments early in the war, and got on well with General-in-Chief Winfield Scott and Secretary of War Simon Cameron. However they didn’t last long, and their replacements — McClellan and Stanton — were less sympathetic. Even less so was McClellan’s replacement, the abrasive Major General Henry Halleck.

Halleck, who replaced McClellan in June, 1862, had his own ideas about the organization and employment of sharpshooters. That fall Stanton wrote Rhode Island governor William Sprague that “there has been some delay and difficulty in determining the best organization of sharpshooters,” but that Halleck had decreed “that the organization should be by separate companies, to be under the disposition of the commanding general in the field, and employed as circumstances shall require.” Thus Stanton authorized Sprague to raise “as many separate companies of sharpshooters as may be in your power.”

“As circumstances may require” was not much guidance, and thus results were decidedly mixed. In spite of of War Department policy state governors continued to form larger sharpshooter units as well, such as the 1st New York Sharpshooter battalion, a four company outfit (intended to be a regiment) that joined the army just before Mine Run in late 1863. Other regiments formed expressly as sharpshooters (e.g. 9th New Jersey and later the 203rd Pennsylvania) were summarily incorporated as troops of the line. And there were officers, like Colonel Samuel Carrol, who formed their own light infantry detachments.

To further confuse the issue state governors often intervened to keep their sharpshooter companies with troops from their home state. Thus some infantry regiments (e.g. 1st Minnesota, 22nd Massachusetts) had an attached sharpshooter company, and some (the 16th and 27th Michigan) had two. In some cases, as in the Minnesota sharpshooter letter I recently posted, the regimental commander used the sharpshooters to best advantage. In other cases, however, the attached sharpshooter companies were treated as another line company, which caused a great deal of bitterness. In yet other cases, such as with the 93rd New York, four sharpshooter companies were summarily incorporated as line infantry.

The overall effect was to scatter sharpshooter units throughout the Army of the Potomac in a rather chaotic fashion, which made it difficult for them to deal with the excellent Confederate sharpshooter battalions introduced in 1863.


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