Shock Troops of the Confederacy, Part 5

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

In last week’s post, I followed the Sharpshooters through the early war period, and ended with the first serious steps leading to the permanent formation and training of sharpshooter battalion during the winter of 1862-1863.

Chapter 7: Chancellorsville

Rodes’ Division was in the thick of the fighting at Chancellorsville. His sharpshooters were ordered to picket Hamilton’s Crossing on the Rappahannock River. They faced off against Yankee pickets for a day, and then moved west with Lee’s main body as Hooker’s intentions became clear. Blackford’s sharpshooters were sent out in front of the main body of the division to protect them from unseen enemies possibly lurking in the Wilderness. They stayed in these positions until the morning of May 2, when they joined Stonewall Jackson’s famous flank attack against Howard’s Union XI Corps. Blackford’s men covered the right flank of the main body as they marched around Hooker’s right flank, and they led the way in the actual attack. Howard’s XI Corps was driven back with many prisoners lost, and the sharpshooters and others were treated to a large bounty of captured food and other items. However, Jackson and A.P. Hill were shot in the confusion, and J.E.B. Stuart took over the II Corps temporarily. On May 3, the sharpshooters were used as line infantry, and after heavy attacks, the Yankees retreated from the crossroads at Chancellorsville. Wofford’s Georgia sharpshooters were busy on the eastern side of the line, back with the Confederate units that did not participate with Jackson’s May 2 attack. They kept the Union troops busy on that end of the line, and even applied some pressure that helped to cause a few Yankee units to surrender. On May 4, Lee and many of his men headed east to deal with John Sedgwick’s advance from that direction, and Stuart relied on his cavalry and sharpshooters to cover large gaps in his line in the Wilderness facing Hooker. On May 5, Lee needed to see if the enemy was still present in force, and Blackford’s men, along with the sharpshooters of Ramseur’s Brigade, were sent out to investigate. After suffering losses, the sharpshooter battalions retreated and gave Lee the information that the Yankees were strongly entrenched. Although the sharpshooters had done well at Chancellorsville, in their first battle after their formation, Rodes still wasn’t satisfied. He ordered the formation of a second “Corps” of sharpshooters in each brigade’s sharpshooter battalion, bringing the total to 1 man in every 6 in a brigade belonging to these elite units. This allowed the two corps of a given battalion to relieve each other from picket duty and cover more ground as skirmishers. Ray found only one documented piece of evidence mentioning this formation of a second corps per brigade. It is an order in Iverson’s Brigade from late May 1863. Rodes Division was reorganized before Gettysburg, losing Colquitt’s Georgia Brigade but gaining Daniel’s Brigade of North Carolinians, who were immediately ordered to form a sharpshooter battalion. The sharpshooter arrangement in Wofford’s Brigade became permanent around this time, and the four brigades of Dorsey Pender’s Division also formed permanent sharpshooter battalions based on Blackford’s model as well. The number of sharpshooter battalions was growing.

Chapter 8: Gettysburg

Again at Gettysburg, the men under Rodes saw some hard fighting. On the fist day at Gettysburg, Rodes’ Division came in from the north on the Mummasburg Road, and they faced portions of the Union I and XI Corps. Rodes had a lot of ground to cover, so he sent Doles’ Brigade to his far left to guard the Carlisle Road. He placed Blackford’s sharpshooters in the gap between Doles and the other four brigades of his division. While Rodes attacked Baxter’s and then Paul’s Union Brigades in several clumsy assaults, Blackford held off a much larger number of Yankee skirmishers, who were detached and thrown together as they usually were. Blackford’s men held as long as they could, and eventually retreated. But they had not gone far before they saw Jubal Early’s Division advancing to fill the space they had previously occupied. Once Early arrived, Rodes sent in another attack, much better coordinated this time, and helped to drive the Yankees from the field. Ray points to the large number of casualties on the Union skirmish line (~25%), and attributes those figures to the Corps of Sharpshooters. He also points out that several of Rodes’ brigades went forward either without skirmishers (Iverson) or by using the old method of detaching men (O’Neal), and concludes that this contributed in no small way to the early struggles in the first attacks. One other interesting point is that a Confederate sharpshooter killed Union General John Reynolds, commander of the I Corps, over on the Confederate right. Rodes’ Division didn’t really see any fighting on day 2. They were ordered to make an attack as night fell, but the order was rescinded. Rodes next ordered Blackford to move into the town of Gettysburg itself and annoy the Union line on day 3. Blackford’s men got situated in various houses and other buildings before daybreak. His men banged away at numerous Yankee positions on Cemetery Hill, and he even had men scrounge around town looking for more ammo to keep his men supplied! Blackford’s men got a front row seat to Pickett’s Charge, and they attempted to take some of the pressure off by again firing into the Union positions as Pickett’s men retreated. As the Rebels retreated from town, Rodes placed Blackford in charge of all five sharpshooter battalions of the Division in a demi-brigade, around 1000 men in all, and ordered him to act as the rear guard for the Army. Ray writes that this arrangement would soon become permanent. Blackford and his sharpshooters kept the Yankees at bay all during the retreat, but they often went hungry. The main body usually had eaten everything worth eating by the time they reached any given point. Still, Ray concludes the chapter by pointing out that in spite of the loss of the battle, Rodes could be pleased with his men. They had done everything he had asked them to do successfully.

Chapter 9: Manassas Gap

Still in Maryland, Blackford lost his personal baggage wagon to burning at the hands of the Federals. The Yankees even used his diary to identify and remove a friend and his family from Maryland, forcing them to evacuate to the Confederacy. On July 6, Blackford was ordered by Jubal Early to charge over a hill to see if enemy infantry was behind it. Blackford obeyed, even though he was sure the information was false. After taking senseless losses, Blackford and his men retreated, and they did not look kindly on General Early on that day. On the morning of July 15, 1863, Rodes’ sharpshooters slipped across the Potomac River at Williamsport by slipping into other units one by one. They caught up with Rodes’ Division later that day. As the Confederates retreated through the Shenandoah Valley, Meade tried to cut them off by forcing his way through Manassas Gap in the Blue Ridge Mountains. French’s III Corps, consisting of 6,000 men, led the way for the Union. Only 600 men of Wright’s Georgia Brigade faced French at first. Soon Rodes’ Division was called up as reinforcements. The sharpshooters, positioned on the Confederate left, had a field day. They shot up the timid Union attacks, and at least one northern soldier was exasperated by the timid way in which his commanders sent in their attacks. Both sides lost about the same number of men (around 100 each). French, though he had the 1st and 2nd United State Sharpshooter regiments in his Corps, failed to use them to any advantage. The 2nd USSS never lost a man in this engagement. Rodes again used the five battalions of sharpshooters as a combined force under Blackford, something he was doing more and more frequently. The sharpshooters were almost captured that same night due to the negligence of a staff officer. Instead, through some good luck, they managed to evade the Federals and rejoined Rodes’ Division. As the Gettysburg Campaign came to an end, Rodes’ men returned to their camps near Orange Court House.

In these three chapters, the sharpshooters grew from battalion-sized units to larger formations on the division level consisting of multiple battalions from each brigade in the division. This led to the sharpshooters having an even greater impact on the battlefield, as we shall soon see in next week’s installment.

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!






4 responses to “Shock Troops of the Confederacy, Part 5”

  1. Fred Ray Avatar

    Just a small correction, Brett. After its first test at Chancellorsville Robert Rodes concluded that the sharpshooter battalion was too small for the kind of missions he envisioned for them. He therefore doubled the size of the existing battalion rather than adding a second one, which increased its strength to around 200 men.

    He did this by adding another “corps” of sharpshooters, thus each battalion had a First and Second Corps of Sharpshooters. The intent was that these would be used as picket reliefs, but I’ve also seen references to them being used as separate tactical units.


  2. Brett S. Avatar


    Thanks for the correction. I’ll go and change that now.


  3. J.D. Petruzzi Avatar

    I’m really enjoying the review of this book, Brett. I’ve been wanting to pick it up and looks as though it’s a good read. Gotta buy it now!


  4. Brett S. Avatar


    I’m definitely enjopying the book myself. I’m close to finishing, but I’ve spread the review out over quite a few posts, three chapters at a time. It’s a great book and one that needed to be written.

    Brett S.

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