Shock Troops of the Confederacy, Part 4

Shock Troops of the Confederacy: The Sharpshooter Battalions of the Army of Northern Virginia

by Fred L. Ray

ISBN-10 0-9649585-5-4

ISBN-13 978-0-9649585-5-5

6 x 9 inch hardback – 450 Pages

43 Maps, 59 Illustrations

Footnoted / Indexed / Complete Bibliography

Publication date: Winter 2005

Price $34.95

When I last blogged on Fred Ray’s new book, I covered Chapters 1 to 3. The author went into the background of light troops, their uses, tactics, and formations, both in Europe and then in America. The French military dominated tactical thinking in the 1850’s, and American military minds were willing pupils of the French as the Civil War started.

Chapter 4: Beginnings

Ray next tackles the state of the Union and Confederate forces at the beginning of the Civil War. He notes that the small standing army left both sides completely unprepared for what they were about to face. In addition, early in the war most troops on both sides were armed with smoothbore weapons, and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia did not even see a majority of its men using rifles until after the Battle of Chancellorsville. Ray also notes that the two tactical practices predicted for rifle toting infantrymen, long range firefights and bayonet charges, did not happen very frequently. Even though rifles started to replace muskets, the slow rate of fire meant that men still needed to be massed in large, packed formations to deliver maximum firepower. These formations maintained an emphasis on the unit as a machine. Skirmishing, on the other hand, focused on individuality. At first, soldiers were drawn fro, units with no regard to affiliation or skill. This led to lack of familiarity and also led to mediocre soldiers performing this important duty. Later, soldiers in flank companies were given rifles and asked to perform picket duty on a routine basis. Ray writes that Confederate soldiers seemed to have an advantage on average as far as skill with a gun went. Many Northern soldiers had never even fired a gun when they first joined the army. Some Union soldiers were skilled at the art of target shooting, and these were gathered together in units such as Berdan’s United States Sharpshooter Regiments. Richard Ewell was the first on the Confederate side to attempt to organize his skirmishers in an orderly fashion. He ordered each brigade of his division to take two companies of each regiment and form a battalion that would be trained in the duties of light infantry. These orders couldn’t be implemented because the division was soon engaged in the Valley Campaign, leaving no time to train the troops correctly. The reorganization of the Confederate regiments in April 1862 also led to the formation of some “sharpshooter” units, such as the Palmetto Sharpshooters. They had been tabbed to become a unit trained specifically as sharpshooters, but Confederate manpower needs forced them to continue as a regular infantry regiment. During the Yorktown phase of McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign, troops in Wilcox’s Alabama brigade were brought together under Archibald Gracie and formed an ad hoc light infantry battalion for a month. It soon disbanded, but it had helped Magruder protect his Yorktown line. The Confederates also ran into Berdan’s Federal sharpshooter units around this time. In response, they formed a corps of sharpshooters from several rifle-carrying companies of various regiments. In May 1862 the Confederate government officially authorized a sharpshooter battalion for each brigade in the army to be composed of between 3 and 6 companies from the brigade. In addition, many “sharpshooter” units held that title while actually serving only as line infantry, similar to the situation of the Palmetto Sharpshooters above. However, the constant fighting and movement of 1862 prevented these ideas from taking shape just yet. Ray concludes the chapter by mentioning that the sharpshooter ideas seemed to come from men who had served together in 1861. Ewell commanded a brigade in Van Dorn’s Division, and Ewell’s subordinates included Robert Rodes, Eugene Blackford, and Bristor Gayle, with Rodes getting the lion’s share of credit for eventually putting the sharpshooter battalion theories into practice. Robert Rodes was Colonel of the 5th Alabama early in the war, and it was a part of Ewell’s Brigade. Rodes was known as a strict disciplinarian and he was essentially the drillmaster for the brigade. When Ewell was promoted to division command, Rodes took over the brigade in October 1861.

Chapter 5: Seven Pines, Gaines’s Mill, and South Mountain

Rodes first led his men at Seven Pines in late May 1862. He used John Gordon’s 6th Alabama as skirmishers across his entire brigade front. This caused massive confusion when his men reached the enemy redoubt, and Ray says that neither Rodes nor anyone else used this arrangement again. After Seven Pines, Rodes commanded an all-Alabama Brigade when several units were shuffled in and out of his unit. Bristor Gayle, another important person in the evolution of the sharpshooters, commanded the 12th Alabama under Rodes. During the Battle of Gaines’s Mill in the Seven Days fighting, the regiment faced severe artillery fire. Lt. Col. Gayle detailed the four best shots in each company, organized them under Lt. Robert Park, and sent them to negate the artillery. Park’s ad hoc unit managed to kill many of the battery’s horses and men, silenced the battery, and brought back many trophies. According to the author, “Colonel Gayle’s innovation had proved quite successful.” Hill’s Division missed Second Manassas, but they were in the thick of the fighting at South Mountain. Rodes’ Alabama Brigade was detailed to hold the northern end of the Turner’s Gap line, allowing each regiment to deploy its own skirmishers. Again Col. Gayle detailed the 4 best men from each company, 40 in all, to act under Lt. Park as his skirmish line. Rodes was outnumbered 3 to 1 and facing George Meade’s Pennsylvania Reserve Division. Meade’s command contained the famous Pennsylvania Bucktails, experienced skirmishers in their own right. This time around, Park’s men fared badly, mainly due to the overwhelming numbers and extended line the Union soldiers brought to bear. The rest of the skirmishers of Rodes’ Brigade fared as badly as Park’s men of the 12th Alabama. The Yankees had too many men and outflanked the Confederates, capturing many. To make matters worse, Lt. Col. Gayle fell dead in this fight. However, as Fred Ray notes, Robert Rodes had seen the amount of time his badly outnumbered men had held off superior numbers of Yankees. He would take the sharpshooter idea to the next level. At Antietam, riflemen (possibly from Rodes’ Brigade) had fired on French’s Union II Corps Division and caused it to veer southward towards the Sunken Lane. The author writes that these riflemen changed the course of the battle in that sector. More importantly, lessons had been learned about the weaknesses of a conventional skirmish line. Rodes and others had lost many prisoners during the fighting due to these weaknesses.
Chapter 6: Winter At Fredericksburg

Eugene Blackford, another man who played an important role in the formation of the Corps of Sharpshooters, makes his first appearance at the beginning of this chapter. He had fought well under Rodes during the Seven Days, but fever had laid him low until after Antietam. D.H. Hill’s Division didn’t do much fighting at Fredericksburg because they were in reserve. After the battle, the Confederates made some changes to their skirmishing habits. At this point, Hill sent down an order asking for regular skirmishers, men who could be trained in the work. Robert Rodes ran with this idea in his brigade, asking for the best men from each regiment to form a battalion of sharpshooters, to be commanded by a major or above. Rodes chose his friend Eugene Blackford, and gave him absolute authority over his men. Each regiment was to form a company of sharpshooters, who would typically stay with the regiment. However, when called for sharpshooting duty, these sharpshooter companies in the brigade would all come together under Blackford, about 1 man in 12 in the brigade. An added bonus for the sharpshooters was that they avoided routine camp duty. According to Ray, trials of various weapons found the Enfield rifle to be accurate out to 900 yards, a range no other weapon could match. Armed with their Enfields, the sharpshooters went through new training. Blackford introduced buglers to sound calls along his spread out line, and the men also engaged in judging distances accurately and in target practice. In January 1863, D.H. Hill grew ill and was transferred to North Carolina. Rodes was assigned to division command, and he almost immediately ordered the other brigades in the division to organize sharpshooter battalions similar to Blackford’s, with 1 in 12 men in each brigade belonging to its sharpshooter battalion. By the spring of 1863, Rodes had five sharpshooter battalions, each between 100-125 men. They remained with there regiments most of the time, but when contact with the enemy was made they immediately went to the front as skirmishers. The sharpshooters also drew a lot of picket duty and were trained specifically for this duty. At the close of the chapter, Ray mentions that Blackford found other interested officers visiting him, and several other brigades outside of Rodes’ Division had sharpshooter battalions operating around the same time as Blackford’s as well, including Wofford’s Georgia Brigade, McGowan’s South Carolina Brigade, and Hood’s Texas Brigade, though this last one broke up following the death of the sharpshooter battalion’s commander.

Look for my next entry a week from today. I plan to continue posting these little blurbs each Monday until I’ve finished the book. A review will be forthcoming shortly after that point.

Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 1o Part 11Final Review & Summary

Check out Beyond the Crater: The Petersburg Campaign Online for the latest on the Siege of Petersburg!






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