Dominating the Skirmish Line

by Fred Ray on March 2, 2009 · 0 comments

I see that Brett is offering a free copy of Earl Hess’s book on the rifle musket, so it might be a good time to revisit a controversy raised therein, namely did the ANV’s sharpshooter battalions punch above their weight in Virginia? I would say they did, and base this as much as anything on incidents like this, where Ben Butler lost most of his picket line near the Bermuda Hundred.

These incidents are fairly frequent and almost always initiated by the Confederates. Note that the Rebs penetrate the picket line then swing both ways to scoop up the enemy sentries. This is made easier by the fact that the Federal unit, the 209th Pennsylvania, was new and green. Looks like the “seine-hauling” tactic developed by Tarheel major Thomas Wooten. Worth noting also that the loss of 125 men amounted to something like 15% of the regiment.

Although published by the Richmond Dispatch (November 25, 1864) the account originally appeared in a Northern paper.

The capture of Butler’s picket line in Chesterfield.

A letter to the New York Tribune, from the lines near Bermuda, says:

In a dispatch of that date, I mentioned that, on the evening of the 17th, the rebels made a night attack on our picket lines in the neighborhood of battery No. 3, near Bermuda Hundred front. I further stated that our loss amounted to forty men captured, including Colonel Kaufman, of the Two Hundred and Ninth Pennsylvania. Subsequent examination into the truth of the matter shows that our loss, instead of forty, amounted to about one hundred and twenty- five, including Colonel Kaufman, before mentioned; Captain Ed. B. Bead, of the Twelfth New Hampshire; a lieutenant, whose name I have not learned, and Lieutenant J. P. Lane, of the Twelfth New Hampshire, wounded in the thigh.

At the point where this occurrence took place it appears that our lines approach those of the enemy very closely, and the rebels have a picket post close by; at any rate, when they made the move they did, they advanced a line, consisting of parts of Hunton’s and Stewart’s brigades, quietly forward under cover of the darkness, when our green troops, instead of falling back, as more experienced soldiers would have done, skedaddled to the rear to report that the enemy were upon them. Having penetrated our lines, the two brigades parted to the right and left and enveloped the pickets on either hand, and succeeded in gobbling in the neighborhood of one hundred and twenty-five of them, and establishing their own picket lines over the captured ground, where they at once began throwing up rifle-pits.

Mr. E. T. Peters writes from General Butler’s headquarters, November 20th: “The enemy still holds the position of our picket line captured on the evening of November 17th, but that it is a matter of no great consequence. “

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