Blue & Gray article on Fort Stedman

by Fred Ray on August 17, 2008 · 0 comments

In a previous post I looked at some order of battle problems with the recent Blue & Gray article on Fort Stedman. Today I’ll look more at the article itself, particularly the treatment of the sharpshooters. There are some issues, as I’ll try to point out, with which I disagree but are honest differences of opinion. Others, like whether or not Cox’s NC brigade participated, do have a right and wrong answer.

First, two other minor gripes about the OB and the units involved—author Bill Wyrick refers to the “Doles-Cook” brigade, which is what it’s called in the unit history, but it would have been just Cook’s brigade at the time of the battle (George Doles had been dead for nearly a year). He also calls the 17th Michigan the “17th Michigan Engineers.” This was a small infantry regiment that had been detailed as Division engineers, and not an actual engineer unit.

Then there are the sharpshooters. How should they be put into the OB? In the last post I quoted General Cox as saying that the brigade’s sharpshooter battalion was “really about the size of an ordinary regiment.” This is typical of late war Confederate units because they put a high priority on keeping the sharpshooters up to strength. Each of Gordon’s divisions also had a demi-brigade (the division sharpshooters) made up of the battalions from each brigade. Although Cox’s brigade was not present, his sharpshooters were, which would have made Grimes’s sharpshooters 5-600 strong, and this tallies well with estimates of the size of initial assault force. Wyrick lists the division sharpshooters for Grimes’s division in the OB, but not the others. How does one list and track these phantom units, which did operate tactically?

I do wish the article had spared a paragraph or two to explain that the sharpshooters were light infantry and not snipers, since this is a widely held misconception. By this point in the war, when one speaks of Confederate skirmishers, they are talking about the sharpshooters. Part of the confusion comes from postwar Confederate sources (e.g. Walker, Barrier, et. al.) that give the impression that “storming parties” were picked on the spot just prior to the attack from the best and bravest men. Yet I’ve independently confirmed that the men who led the assault—Joseph Carson, Joseph Anderson, Hamilton A. Brown, Thomas Roulhac, etc.—were all sharpshooters. After the battle General Lee credited “the sharpshooters of Gordon’s Corps” for carrying the works. Thus, J. D. Barrier says:

Sometime in the early darkness, Lieut. Jim Edmondson came to him for help to select six of the most dependable members of Company F, to help make up a squadron of sixty men for some special duty unknown to any of us.

Since we can confirm was Edmondson was the regiment’s sharpshooter commander, a more likely explanation is that he was gathering his men from the line companies and perhaps a few volunteers as well. Barrier wrote long after the event and may not have know it anyway. General Walker praises Captain Joseph Anderson as “the bravest of the brave” in a 1903 article but does not mention his being a sharpshooter.

The sharpshooters can also be identified by how they fought. Skirmish drill, derived from the French Zouave tactics, dictated that men fight in four-man sections called “comrades of battle.” Regular infantry fought in line of battle. Thus, in the fight at Fort Haskell and elsewhere, when we talk of “a great number of little parties or squads, of three to six men each,” we can be confident they are sharpshooters. They were also the ones you’d encounter on the skirmish line, but more about that later.

In my book I’ve discussed at length the numbers of the initial assault troops going into Fort Stedman, and suffice it to say that Gordon and others were all over the place with their figures. Wyrick goes with three columns led by fifty pioneers and 100 men, which is probably as good a guess as any. I would raise that considerably, as I think it likely that the division sharpshooters of each of Gordon’s divisions led the assault. Four to five hundred for Grimes and maybe 200 each for the other divisions. As for the “pioneers,” they may have been actual detailed pioneers (I’m not aware that the Confederates had division pioneers) or they may have been simply sharpshooters with axes, which I think more likely.

At this point the sharpshooters were the best troops left to the Confederacy. It did not take a military genius to see that the Confederacy was tottering, and consequently the morale of line infantry was, to say the least terrible. Even fine old units like the Stonewall brigade were riddled with defeatism and at a low ebb of efficiency. Not surprising, then, that the sharpshooters were chosen for the initial assault.

Next: Who probed Fort Friend?

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