Shock Troops of the Confederacy, Part 6

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

Last week, I covered the sharpshooters at the major 1863 battles in the eastern theater, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. This week, we move into late 1863 and on through the Battle of the Wilderness.

Chapter 10: Winter 1863-1864

Blackford and his men didn’t get to rest long. They were soon involved in picketing Morton’s Ford across the Rappahannock River. Blackford, ever the innovator, had a trench cut back to a ravine near the sharpshooters’ picket line so that they could escape quickly in the event of trouble. In addition, the sharpshooters were increasingly being used in long bouts of picket duty, and Blackford knew that his men would grow weary of the work unless he did something. His plan was to group the sharpshooters into teams of four, with one man on watch while the other three slept. Each hour, a horn was blown, and the man on duty woke up the soldier whose turn it was next. Junius Daniel’s North Carolina Brigade, newly arrived before Gettysburg, needed work on their sharpshooter training and methods. Blackford got them squared away, but Daniel himself was incredulous that only ¼ of the men were active on the picket line. He berated Blackford, but the sharpshooter, aware that Rodes had given him absolute authority over the Corps of sharpshooters, threatened to arrest Daniel and told him he had no business interfering. Rodes upheld Blackford’s authority in the matter. The sharpshooters next participated in the Bristoe Station Campaign. Lee had decided to strike north in a movement similar to that of the Second Manassas Campaign a year earlier. Meade was cagier than Pope had been, however. Although the sharpshooters did good work in picking off stragglers from the retreating Yankee columns, A.P. Hill managed to get a bloody nose at Bristoe Station, effectively ending the campaign. Lee tore up the Orange & Alexandria Railroad from Bristoe Station south to the Rappahannock before again retreating south of that river to make winter quarters. However, a surprise Union attack at Rappahannock Station on November 7, 1863 caused Lee to fall back again, this time behind the Rapidan River. Blackford was on leave starting in early November. Meade decided to launch an offensive, however, in late November 1863. This was the Mine Run Campaign, contested in bitterly cold weather in the inhospitable Wilderness. The sharpshooters of Rodes’ Division fought a delaying action at Robertson’s Tavern. It was an interesting fight because the opposing brigade commander, Colonel Samuel Carroll, had trained his 8th Ohio in light infantry tactics extensively. As Carroll’s men and the sharpshooters fought, the main body of Rodes dug in not far behind. That night, all of the Confederates retreated west behind Mine Run and dug in. The 1st and 2nd U.S.S.S. were deployed by the Federals to skirmish and determine Confederate strength. The commander of the 1st U.S.S.S., Lt. Col. Caspar Trepp, was killed with a ball through the head from a Confederate sharpshooter. Meade decided the Confederate defenses were too strong and retreated on December 1, with the sharpshooters of Doles’ Brigade bagging 137 men on their own. Ray concludes the chapter by comparing the sharpshooters of the two armies. The Yankees had started earlier, but Rodes and Blackford had created a system every bit as effective as their northern counterparts. The Union, in fact, had reached “the apogee of the Federal sharpshooter movement.” It was to be downhill from this point forward. As an example, Ray explains that Carroll’s sharpshooter experiment is never mentioned again. On the Confederate side, the sharpshooter experiment had worked so well that these picked men “would assume an increasingly prominent role in the Army of Northern Virginia.”

Chapter 11: Preparing for 1864

The winter of 1863-1864 saw Lee order that all brigades in the Army of Northern Virginia should organize Sharpshooter battalions. Apparently Cadmus Wilcox took credit for this idea, though Ray maintains that Rodes deserves much more of the credit. Sharpshooter battalions other than Blackford’s had been created in 1863, but most had fallen out of favor by the dawn of 1864. For instance, Haskell’s sharpshooter battalion of McGowan’s Brigade had been discontinued when Haskell was killed at Gettysburg. This battalion was reformed in March 1864 under Captain William S. Dunlop, who would later write a history of the sharpshooters at the turn of the century. All of these new sharpshooter battalions began training in picket duty, skirmishing, and long range shooting, just as Blackford’s had the year before. I consider the following paragraph to be one of the most important I’ve yet read in the book, so I’ve quoted it in its entirety:

Although several writers mention Lee’s sharpshooter order, no copy has yet come to light. In any case, the army’s sharpshooter battalions’ organization varied somewhat from brigade to brigade—like everything else in the Confederate Army. While all fielded a battalion of 170 to 200 men and used a draft of about one man in six across the brigade, the number of companies varied. This may have been as much a reflection of the chronic shortage of officers as anything else. Blackford’s sharpshooter battalion stuck with its five companies, one company per regiment arrangement throughout the war, as did some others (e.g. Mahone’s Brigade), while some other battalions (e.g. McGowan’s and Lane’s Brigades) used an arrangement of three companies, and still others (e.g. Scales’s Brigade) fielded four. There were also permanent organizations like the Third Georgia Sharpshooter Battalion of Wofford’s Brigade, consisting of five companies, that continued to serve until the end of the war. Some brigade commanders used existing units, such as the Third South Carolina Infantry battalion of Joseph Kershaw’s brigade. This seven-company battalion was converted to a sharpshooter battalion by adding handpicked men from across the brigade.

Each sharpshooter battalion, regardless of exact composition, operated on the principle of fours. Men would group into these bands of four and they would do everything together, separated only by casualties or death. All the sharpshooter battalions also used the bugle to sound calls when they were fighting in open order. However, each battalion was divided into two “corps” so that they could rotate on the picket line and also act as a provost guard during battle if they weren’t used on the front line. Ray mentions that the Union and Confederate sharpshooters used virtually identical training methods, and in fact relies on an account of a sharpshooter in the 2nd U.S.S.S. to detail how it was done. Robert Rodes, always at the forefront of sharpshooter tactics, now broached his next idea to Eugene Blackford, who was back from sick leave by April 3, 1864. Rodes wanted his sharpshooters to act at the division level. In other words, he wanted the sharpshooter battalions from each of his brigades to be able to act in front of his whole division as a unit. Blackford took command and mentioned that he had as many as 1200 men at any given time in training. Ray indicates that the target practice of the sharpshooters far exceeded that of the common line infantryman, perhaps to levels never before realized. He bases this assertion on the testimony of Blackford. Ray concludes, I another important paragraph:

Thus, since the Army of Northern Virginia typically fielded around thirty-six infantry brigades in 1864, and each brigade had a battalion of 180-200 men, this would have given the Confederates a corps of more than seven thousand men trained in marksmanship and skirmish tactics. “Grant’s intention is to siege Richmond this summer,” wrote sharpshooter Jerry Tate, who thought that “he will find some obstacles in the way that will be hard for him to remove.”

Clearly, these men have long needed their tale told.

Chapter 12: The Wilderness

The next major operation of the Army of Northern Virginia, the Overland Campaign, started with the Battle of the Wilderness on May 5-6, 1864. Blackford’s men were again in the thick of the fight, this time in Saunders Field. They (and the rest of Battle’s Brigade) had gone to support Jones’ Brigade of Virginians, to the right of the Orange Turnpike, but Jones’ sudden retreat had placed the sharpshooters and several regiments of Battle’s Brigade in among the Yankees. They had no choice but to fall back. Battle’s other regiments counterattacked, drove the Northern troops back across Saunders field, and allowed the sharpshooters to set up behind log breastworks on the western edge of the field. Blackford’s men were involved in some sharpshooting activities centering around two abandoned cannon in the middle of the field. They spent the rest of the battle in this position. Meanwhile, over on the southern (or right) flank of the battle, the sharpshooters of Samuel McGowan’s Brigade under Captain Dunlop were covering the left flank of Wilcox’s Division as it marched east on the Orange Plank Road. They were there to ensure that no Federal troops would surprise Wilcox’s formation while it was in its vulnerable road column. When Wilcox moved forward in battle line, he ordered the skirmishers to extend as far left as possible to try to cover the gap between Hill’s forces and Ewell’s to the north. Ray speculates that Dunlop’s men may have faced the 2nd U.S.S.S., which was posted in the vicinity. The Confederates fared poorly the first day on Hill’s front, but two Confederate divisions had managed to hold off five Union ones. On May 6th, Dunlop’s sharpshooters were posted several hundred yards out in front of the main brigade line, and they managed to hold up the dawn advance of the Federals for some time. Unfortunately, McGowan’s Brigade ran after firing only a few shots. General Lee himself came to stabilize this part of the line, and McGowan’s men reformed. Longstreet’s I Corps was a timely arrival around this time and pushed the Yankees back with a flank attack. Sergeant White of the 2nd U.S.S.S. was out in front of Ward’s Division when the attack hit. Ray briefly describes his experience in getting back to friendly lines. One last interesting incident occurred on May 6th. Ambrose Burnside and his IX Corps had been ordered to move down the Parker’s Store Road to the Chewning Farm. One of his units was the 1st Michigan Sharpshooters, which also included a company of American Indians. These men were trained in light infantry tactics since 1862, but they had not been in the large battles of the east. Ray notes that these men “had not yet made the harsh psychological adjustment to the battlefields of Virginia.” The Native Americans were known both as crack shots, but also for their (at the time) peculiar method of using dirt and objects such as corn for camouflage. They had noted that their Rebel counterparts blended in well with the ground and brush, and they were determined to remove this advantage. At this time, Ramseur’s Brigade had been sent south from Ewell’s main lines to intercept any Federal movement into the heavily forested center. At this point, Burnside was withdrawing, and the 1st Michigan Sharpshooters were left to retreat without aid. However, Ramseur attacked while this was happening. His sharpshooters hid behind a hill, gave the Rebel yell as pickets fired on the Michigan men, and charged along with the rest of the brigade. The Federals were driven back in a hurry. Ray concludes by noting that although some sharpshooter battalions performed well (Blackford at Saunders field, for example), there simply were not many opportunities for the usual sharpshooting skills to be utilized in the heavily wooded Wilderness. Some commanders “had used their sharpshooter effectively and had even developed some unique tactics, like ‘hollerin’’ the Yankees out of their works without actually attacking.” Lee had held, but Grant was moving south to Spotsylvania.
The sharpshooters continued to grow and refine their methods as 1863 turned to 1864. although the Wilderness offered little opportunity for these picked men to shine, the future battlefields of 1864 would allow them to really show what they had learned. As always, look for another installment next Monday.

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

Check out the Siege of Petersburg Online for the latest on the Petersburg Campaign!






Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *