John West—Hero or Blowhard?

by Fred Ray on December 26, 2008 · 0 comments

Every war produces heroes, but also a number of blowhards, who somehow always seem to outnumber the heroes. Sometimes it’s hard to tell who’s who.

One such case is John West, who claimed to be a “noted sharpshooter” in Virginia armed with a Whitworth rifle. I first ran across West’s account in John Morrow’s The Confederate Whitworth Sharpshoooters. Although Morrow quoted West extensively, he did not footnote him, which made it difficult to evaluate the story.

“Kildee”—West’s nickname—claimed that:

In ’62 General Lee received thirteen fine English Whitworth rifles that were warranted to kill at 1,800 yards. These were the best guns in the service on either side. Thirteen of the best marksmen in the army were detailed for this special service, and I was the only Georgian that was selected. We were placed under the command of a General Brown, who had no other duty than to command us. We were practiced three months before going into service. A score of every shot was kept during these three months, and at the end I was 176 shots in the bull’s eye ahead of the rest. The last day of the practice our marksmanship was tested by our superior officers. A white board, two feet square with black diamond about the size of a hat in the center, was placed 1,500 yards away. The wind was blowing stiffly and it was very unfavorable for good shooting, but I put three bullets in the diamond and seven in the white of the board. I beat the record and won the choice of horse, bridle, saddle, spurs, gun, revolvers, and saber. Our accouterments were the best the army could afford.

West, who was in the Fourth Georgia, also claimed to have killed generals Banks and Shields and to have been within ten steps of General George Doles when he was killed by a Union sharpshooter at Cold Harbor. This always sounded too much like a tall tale, so I never used it. Yet over time, to my surprise, I’ve been able to verify many of the details of West’s account, and have come to the conclusion that much of it is true in substance if not in all the details.

West’s CSR (Compiled Service Record) is unexceptional and says nothing about his service as a sharpshooter. He enlisted in 1861 in Co. C, 4th Georgia, was severely wounded and furloughed home in late 1864, but returned in time to be present for the surrender at Appomattox. There’s no mention of any service as a sharpshooter, but that’s not uncommon since it was a detailed position and few rosters have survived. I know that my own ancestor was a sharpshooter from other sources, but his CSR is silent on the matter.

Thanks to Google Book Search I was able to run down a copy of West’s account in Camp-Fire Sketches and Battlefield Echoes, an 1886 book of anecdotes and reminiscences. Books like this, however, are often unreliable. How much of West’s account is true?

For one thing, it seems unusual, to say the least, that a general officer would be assigned to supervise 13 sharpshooters. West is inconsistent, calling Brown first a general and then a colonel. Who could this be? Strange to say a real person, Col. Hamilton A. Brown, fits this description. Brown’s regiment, the First North Carolina, was almost all killed or captured on May 12, 1864, at the Mule Shoe at Spotsylvania. Brown himself was badly wounded but escaped. The remnants of the First NC were consolidated into the Third NC (which together totaled no more than 100 men), leaving Brown without a job. When he returned to the army in August he was given command of the Rodes’ Division Sharpshooters. This outfit was made up of four sharpshooter battalions and numbered 5-600 men, of which John West would have been one. So “general” Brown can be identified, and he indeed had no other duty than to command the sharpshooters, although there were considerably more than 13 of them.

What about the number of Whitworth rifles? These were normally apportioned 2 per sharpshooter battalion, so Rodes’ division would have had at least 8, but perhaps as many as 13. The number is too low for the whole army but that’s not something that Private West would have known about. We know from other sources that these rifles started coming into the army in mid-1863, not 1862. Thus when West talks about practicing for three months he is most likely referring to the winter of 1863-64, when Rodes’ sharpshooters conducted extensive marksmanship training, and he may well have been the best shot. We know that competitions were held and that some sort of prizes were awarded. Whether the target was actually 1500 yards away, however, is doubtful. A Whitworth might shoot that far, but not the service Enfields that most men carried. The longest distance I’ve read of these men shooting is 800 yards, although it’s possible that there might have been an exhibition match for the Whitworths. So once again I think the substance is correct while the details are garbled after 20 years. West, like many others, consistently exaggerates both the range of the Whitworth (“warranted to kill at 1,800 yards”) and combat ranges.

West also has a story of himself and Colonel Brown being captured at Cold Harbor, then escaping. He stashed his rifle, he says, and came back for it later. This may seem unlikely, but I’ve seen a similar story from another Whitworth sharpshooter. It is hard to fit this incident with his story of being “within ten steps” of General George Doles when he was killed by a Yankee sharpshooter on June 2nd, but it is possible.

What about his claim to have killed generals Banks and Shields? Gen. James Shields was wounded, but not killed, at Kernstown on March 22, 1862, but the Fourth Georgia was not present. He lived until 1879. Gen. Nathaniel Banks was never wounded and died in 1894. “Kildee” makes no direct claim of doing it, but uses the process of elimination instead.

I’m currently doing a free trial of Footnote.com, which has a number of digitized newspapers, and found two articles in the Atlanta Constitution that mention West, both in 1885. The article is about a reunion of the Fourth Georgia that year and mentions his nickname as Kildee and his service as a Whitworth sharpshooter. There are some differences, such the number of rifles being 15 instead of 13, and the statement that the rifles were presented by one of General Lee’s classmates and that the brigade commanders drew them by lot, and that Gen. Doles got only one. This prompted another article from another former soldier, who identified Charles Grace as the battalion’s other Whitworth sharpshooter, and stated that Doles had “drawn” two rifles. Grace is mentioned in the brigade history and is a claimant for the honor of shooting General Sedgwick at Spotsylvania.

Given the constraints of a old soldier’s fading memory, I am satisfied that West was who he said he was and did pretty much what he said he did. Like many veterans he exaggerated things somewhat, and it’s not always easy to sort this out, but within these constraints I feel comfortable using West’s account, especially when the describes things he saw and did. In spite of his exaggerations, I’d call him more hero than blowhard.


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