Some time ago I did a post on the origin of the word “sharpshooter” – that it came into the English language by way of the German mercenary riflemen hired by the British crown in the late 18th Century. A couple of commenters, however, took issue with that analysis and insisted that it came from the use of Sharps rifles by the U.S.S.S. in the Civil War.
Thanks to a tip by Bryce Suderow I found an article from a New York newspaper going all the way back to 1817, when Christian Sharps would have been five years old (he didn’t patent his famous rifle until 1848).
Albany [NY] Argus January 17, 1817
Col. Forsyth, so celebrated in the last war, as a commander of a band of sharpshooters which harassed the enemy so much, happened in a scouting party to capture a British officer. He brought him to his camp and treated him with every respect due to his rank – happening to enter on a conversation on the subject of sharp shooters, the British officer observed that Forsyth’s men were a terror to the British Camp – that as far as they could see they could select the officer from the private, who of course fell a sacrifice to their precise shooting. He wished very much to see a specimen of their shooting. Forsyth gave the wink to one of his officers then at hand, who departed, and instructed two of his best marksmen belonging to the corps to pass by the commanding officer’s headquarters at stated intervals. This being arranged, Col. Forsyth informed the British officer that his wish should be gratified, and observed he would step in front of his tent to see whether any of his men were near at hand. According to the arrangement made, one of the best marksmen appeared. The Colonel ordered him to come forward and inquired whether his rifle was in good order. “Yes, Sir,” replied the man – He then stuck a table knife in a tree about 50 paces distant and ordered the man to split his butt. He fired, and the ball was completely divided by the knife, perforating the tree on each side. This astonished the British officer. Appropos [sic], another soldier appeared in sight. He was called, and at the same distance, to shoot the ace of clubs out of the card. This was actually done. The British officer was confounded and amazed, still more when Col. Forsyth informed him that 4 weeks before, these men were at work in the capacity of husbandmen. – So much for the American soldiery.
So I think this pretty much settles it and shows that the term was in common use in America at least as far back as the War of 1812. The Col. Forsyth mentioned here is Lt. Col. Benjamin Forsyth of the US Regiment of Riflemen. Forsyth, a Tarheel, made a reputation for himself both as a fearless and effective fighter as well as the leader of “the wickedest corps in the Army.” He also seems to have had an appreciation of the value of psychological warfare.
Bryce’s tip was about a very worthwhile historical web site with archives of New York newspapers going back to very early days. Although somewhat quirky to use there is much here for the patient researcher.
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