Information about Confederate sharpshooter battalions is often hard to come by and you have to dig it out piecemeal and then try to assemble it into some sort of coherent whole. Often all you have is some offhand mentions in letters, reports and reminiscences.
Such is the case with Archer’s mostly Tennessee brigade. The presence of a sharpshooter battalion of 150-200 men organized on the typical ANV pattern has been amply attested to in 1864, but did they have one at Gettysburg in 1863? If so did these trained marksmen have any part in the death of Gen. John Reynolds on July 1? The answer to both is yes.
J. B. Turney, a member of the 1st Tennessee, described the advance of Archer’s brigade on that day as follows:
The battle was begun about 9 o’clock on the morning of July 1, with Heth’s Division, Archer’s Tennessee Brigade—consisting of the First, Seventh, and Fourteenth Tennessee Regiment, Thirteenth Alabama Regiment, and Fifth Alabama Battalion—being in the advance. The sharpshooters, under command of Major Buchanan, of the First Tennessee, encountered the Federal advance some three miles southwest of Gettysburg.
This fits in nicely with the role and organization of the ANVs sharpshooter battalion—about 200 men drawn from across the brigade, commanded by a field officer, screening the front of the brigade.
The fact that they were trained marksmen calls for a new interpretation of the incident. We have all heard that the average Civil War soldier got little if any marksmanship training and could not hit the broad side of a barn. This was not true of the men in the sharpshooter battalions, who got extensive practice on things like distance estimation (a critical skill for the rifle musket) and long-range shooting. They also would have know that anyone on horseback was a high-value target since he would most likely have been a high-ranking officer or a courier. It was these men who first encountered Gen. Reynolds deploying his men.
Some time back Eric Wittenberg published an account by Charles H. Veil, who was with Reynolds at the time of his death and was an eyewitness to the event. Veil says of Reynolds “he turned in his saddle, looking toward the rear and the Lutheran Seminary, where he was struck by a Minnie ball and fell from his horse.” At this point the Confederate infantry was close enough to shout an order Veil to drop the general, but he brought his body off safely. As for the wound, “the ball had entered the back of his neck, just over the coat collar, and passed downward in its course. The wound did not bleed externally and, as he fell, his coat collar had covered up the wound, which accounted for my not discovering it at first.”
The fact that the wound was in the back of his neck as the turned suggests that the fatal bullet came from the Confederate side, but the downward trajectory presents a problem. If the line of sharpshooters was close to Reynolds, this would be difficult to explain. Taken at face value it would suggest either a sharpshooter in a tree (unlikely since the Confederates had not yet occupied the ground) or a long range shot from further back behind their line. The rifle musket threw its ball in a looping trajectory that dropped steeply at the end of its flight (see graphic here) and could have inflicted such a wound, and at least one of the men who later claimed to have shot Reynolds said he did it from long range.
Other possibilities include that it was a stray bullet (there was, after all, a lot of lead flying around at the time) or that Veil, who had no medical training, might have simply been mistaken as to the bullet’s path. Then too, bullets sometimes take unusual paths in the human body and end up in unexpected places—something well known to surgeons then and now.
Overall, though, I think the balance of the evidence points toward the obvious—that the advancing line of Archer’s sharpshooters made the fatal shot.
Archer’s sharpshooters also participated in the famous attack on July 3rd.
I can recall the magnificent advance of the long line of brigade sharpshooters clearing the way for our advance under the command of that superb soldier, Maj. Ferg Harris. The tall form and commanding presence of this officer made him a conspicuous mark for the enemies’ sharpshooters.
The brigade’s heavy casualties of July 1st necessitated a reshuffle of commanders, with Maj. Buchanan assigned elsewhere. Harris (a lieutenant at the time) continued in command of Archer’s sharpshooters until April 2, 1865 when he was severely wounded (for the seventh time) trying to stem the Union breakthrough at Petersburg.
Note: First quote is from J. B. Turney, “The First Tennessee at Gettysburg,” Confederate Veteran, VIII (1900), the second from a reply letter by Capt. J. H. Moore in the next edition, January 1901.
For another look at Reynold’s death “Who Shot J.R.” by D. Scott Hartwig. We come to basically the same conclusion altho we use the term “sharpshooter” somewhat differently.
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