“The stuff of the troops”

by Fred Ray on June 22, 2008 · 0 comments

One of the few criticisms I got on my sharpshooter book was in quoting this passage:

It became painfully apparent that, however inferior the Confederate armies were in point of education and general intelligence to the men of the Union, man for man they were the superiors of their northern antagonists in the use of arms. Their armies were composed of mainly men who had been trained to the skilful use of the rifle in that most perfect of schools, the field and forest.

This, according to present-day sensibilities, was merely a myth, although I have yet to see a serious debunking. Personally I think it would still be true that if you took a random sample of men from south of the Mason-Dixon line and compared it to the same number north of it, you’d see a significant difference in those who were familiar with handling arms, although they might not all be crack shots.
In any case the man who made the statement was Lieutenant Colonel William Ripley, the second in command of the 1st US Sharpshooters. As a veteran of the Peninsular campaign (he was wounded and Malvern Hill and subsequently invalided out of the service) he surely he would have had plenty of opportunity to confirm it.
Here’s another contemporary opinion by a former Massachusetts soldier, J. K. Hosmer, whom I have quoted before. Old Thousand Yards makes another appearance:

It is proper to inquire here as to the stuff of the troops. Which men, Confederates or Federals, made the better soldiers? In Richmond society, in February, 1862, the following estimate of the soldiers of the two sides, by General Winfield Scott, was a subject of talk: ‘Southern soldiers have elan, courage, woodcraft, consummate horsemanship, endurance of pain equal to the Indian’s, but they will not submit to discipline. They will not take care of things or husband their resources. Where they are there is waste and destruction. If it could be done by one wild desperate dash they would do it, but they cannot stand the waiting. . . . Men of the North on the other hand can wait; they can bear discipline; they can endure forever. Losses in battle are nothing to them. They will fight to the bitter end.’
Let a concrete example illustrate. One day, in 1863, before a Confederate fortress under siege, a Massachusetts corporal and an Arkansas sharp-shooter came together during a truce of a few hours. The Yankee had been won, through an eloquent outburst of Governor John A. Andrew, to enlist in the ranks, a life for which he was almost ludicrously unprepared. Untrained by out-of-door sports, he had never so much as slept in the open air; he wore spectacles. Once only, up to his mustering-in, had he fired a gun. As he stood in his mud-stained, blue attire, in one pocket lay certain crumpled and scribbled sheets, which, as a college graduate and a writer for the press, he was cherishing as material for a book. The Arkansas sharp-shooter, called by his comrades ‘Old Thousand Yards,’ stood tall, grim, and heavily bearded, with an eye like a bird of prey and a sinewy power of limb which his suit of butternut did not conceal. He had probably never seen a city; he could read and write only imperfectly. But, though untravelled and unlettered, his accomplishments were many: cradled in the forest, he was master of every backwoods art; from the ‘half-faced camp,’ perhaps the best home he had ever known, to a bed in the road or the fortress trench was no harsh transfer. His nerves had grown steady among the beasts and still wilder men of the border. ‘Old Thousand Yards’ and his friends were doughtily resisting their besiegers, and had twice beaten back energetic assaults. Yet the Union troops were equally determined, and soon after came a day when the defenders, thinned by the Federal volleys and fairly starved out, laid down their arms and gave up the fight.
The two soldiers may be taken as not unfair types of their respective sides. To be sure, Union regiments contained soldiers to whom the rifle was as another limb and the earth the familiar pillow; and throughout the army, besides the sprinkling of students, teachers, and professional men, there were many shopkeepers, mechanics, clerks, and farmers. But for the art of war they had generally everything to learn. On the other hand, in the southern levies in general could be found either absolute readiness for the field, or experience which made easy the evolution of the cool and skilful veteran.


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