Shock Troops of the Confederacy, Part 7

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, we talked about the chapters involving the winter of 1863-1864 and the beginning of Grant’s Overland Campaign in 1864 at the Wilderness. Today, we will move on to the rest of the Overland Campaign through Cold Harbor, and finish with Early’s attack on Washington, D.C. Sharpshooters were now being asked to hold lines out in front of the main line of battle, a tactic which Robert Rodes used more than once from May-July 1864.

Chapter 13: Spotsylvania

General Warren’s Union V Corps led the march south out of the Wilderness, but they were stopped short of Spotsylvania Court House by J.E.B. Stuart’s Confederate cavalry at a place that would become known as Laurel Hill. While Stuart’s Cavalry fought a delaying action, Henagan’s South Carolina Brigade of Kershaw’s Division came running up in support. Their sharpshooters, the 3rd South Carolina Battalion, covered the brigade’s deployment, and then settled into a position just west of the Block House Road. The brigade beat back a rush by Warren’s first two brigades on the scene, and then the sharpshooters faced Denison’s Maryland Brigade, coming on in a deep, compact column, with Denison and division commander Robinson in front. The severe fire of the sharpshooters caused Denison’s Brigade to halt and return fire, but they slowly managed to get some men into the sharpshooters’ lines, where the Southerners were at a disadvantage since many didn’t have bayonets. The combined fire of some Confederate artillery east of the Block House Road along with the 2nd and 3rd South Carolina regiments drove Denison’s men back in a hurry. Bartlett’s Union brigade was also repulsed farther west. The rest of the afternoon was spent strengthening the lines, and the 3rd South Carolina Battalion kept up a withering fire across the Spindle Farm, especially against officers. Late that afternoon, Crawford’s Union Division, the Pennsylvania Reserves, was thrown against Robert Rodes’ newly arrived division, posted east of Block House Road. Battle’s Alabamians led the attack, preceded by the brigade sharpshooters as usual, and they were soon driving the Pennsylvanians back in the rapidly growing darkness. The campaign had now changed. The second hand growth of the Wilderness and the two or three day periods of contact of the past turned into trenches, constant contact, and open fields of fire. The sharpshooters were about to come into their own. Ray describes the methods of the Confederate sharpshooters, who were posted in rifle pits out in front of the main line. Many men would down an opponent, and then go to the body to get supplies. Some men became quite proficient at this practice. In addition, the Whitworth Rifle was introduced, meant for long range sniping. Several men in each battalion, the very best shots, would be given these guns. Their job was to report to higher headquarters and be directed where to go. One of these men managed to kill Union VI corps commander John Sedgwick on May 9, just after he uttered his famous line about the Confederates not being able to hit an elephant at that distance. Ray contends that the Confederate sharpshooters “now began to dominate the skirmish line, as they would for the rest of the Overland Campaign.” Union Colonel Emory Upton’s attack on May 10th drove in Doles’s Georgia brigade, but were forced back again by Cullen’s Alabamians, among others. Eugene Blackford became commander of the 5th Alabama when its Colonel was wounded, and Ray says the record does not indicate who took Blackford’s place. Rodes’s Division was also involved in the massive May 12th Union assault on the Mule Shoe, where they were thrown into the maelstrom and just barely held on. Lane’s Brigade, off to the confederate right, was asked by Lee to send out sharpshooters to make a reconnaissance to the Fredericksburg Road, which they did. The Yankee sharpshooters found the work to their liking as well in this new style of warfare. Lee pulled back to the base of the Mule shoe later that night. In some of the badly hit brigades, the sharpshooters were no longer ordered into the lines in order to protect them. Instead, they formed in the rear as file closers. After more than a week of fighting in the area, Grant started to shift south and east again. Lee sent Ewell’s II Corps north and then east to the Harris Farm, where they met a few regiments of Union Heavy Artillerymen, newly arrived from Washington, D.C. These Heavies performed pretty well for fresh arrivals, and Ewell’s attack was repulsed. Some sharpshooters were detailed to connect with the rest of the army. Later, some men did not get the order to withdraw, and quite a few were captured, including many sharpshooters.

Chapter 14: The North Anna and Cold Harbor

As Grant sidled south and east to the North Anna River, the sharpshooter situation continued to be muddled on the Yankee side. The 1st and 2nd U.S.S.S. had been detached and only reported to the headquarters of Birney’s Division, but “as for the rest of the Federal army, some brigade commanders habitually designated certain regiments as skirmishers, but on the whole it never seemed to occur to the Army of the Potomac’s by-the-book commanders that a sizable light infantry force might be a great help when moving, as they now were, through densely wooded country where they had no reliable maps and few guides.” The 1st and 2nd U.S.S.S. were sent forward of the advance to find the Federals during the latest advance. They managed to secure extra rations along the way. On May 23, just north of the North Anna River, Kershaw’s Brigade was entrenched in “Henagan’s Redoubt”. There they faced three brigades of the Union II Corps, and the sharpshooters of the 3rd South Carolina Battalion made it tough for the Federals. In the end, though, the Southerners were forced to retreat. Over on the Confederate left, Warren’s Union V Corps had forced a crossing of the North Anna. At first one regiment of Wilcox’s Brigade was sent to investigate, but after they were driven off, the sharpshooters were sent in. They managed to capture some pickets and cause confusion, which paved the way later for an assault by Wilcox on three Yankee divisions. The Confederates surprised the Federals, but they were able to hold. From the night of the 23rd until noon of the 24th, the sharpshooters slowed the Federal main body while the rest of the Confederates were busy digging breastworks in the rear. Sharpshooters of Mahone’s and Anderson’s Brigades got into a firefight with some of the Pennsylvania Reserves at Quarles’s Mill as well on the 24th. Over on the Confederate right, Hancock’s Union II Corps had crossed the rover at Chesterfield Bridge. The Confederate center at Ox Point was the only river crossing they still held, and Crittenden’s Union IX Corps Division attacked it. They first pushed the sharpshooters of Mahone and Anderson out of the way, and drunken brigade commander James Ledlie led a suicidal charge against the formidable works at Ox Ford, covered by the sharpshooters in rifle pits out front. It failed miserably. As that fight ended, Hancock’s men pushed south through thick woods against the Confederate right. As was becoming typical practice, the Confederates placed their sharpshooters well out in front of the main line. The sharpshooters of Rodes’ Division (fully one-sixth of his entire division) were on the east side of the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Petersburg Railroad. Hancock sent in Thomas Smyth’s brigade of Gibbon’s Division, who couldn’t budge the sharpshooters. Eventually, two more brigades of Gibbon’s Division joined in, but the sharpshooters, around 800 men, were behind a line of breastworks and still held firm. At 5:30, Smyth finally managed to take a part of this forward line of breastworks, but they were retaken shortly thereafter as Rodes moved some of his main line units forward. Another II Corps brigade managed to get to the main Confederate line on Smyth’s right, but they too had no success. The fight over the Confederate skirmish line continued until nightfall of the 24th. Hancock’s Corps was now trapped on the south side of the North Anna with no help, but Lee was ill, and an attack wasn’t made. On the 25th, there was a lot of heavy skirmishing, and the Federals used Coehorn mortars against the Confederates at Ox Ford. The Yankees skirmished some more on May 26th, and then started another move south and east. They left the 1st U.S.S.S. behind to cover the retreat. The sharpshooters of Lee’s army had played a key role at North Anna, keeping the Yankees from discovering the trap of Lee’s “inverted V” formation until it was too late. They had used the woods skillfully in keeping the Federals back. They had “covered Hill’s retreat after the debacle at Jericho Mills, surrounded Crawford’s division and pinned it to the river at Quarles’s Ford, and contributed significantly to Ledlie’s humiliating defeat at Ox Ford” on the left. Over on the right, “Rodes’s men had not only slowed Gibbon’s advance but had counterattacked and put him on the defensive.” Ray maintains that even though Hancock had the two United States Sharpshooter regiments available, he did not deploy them effectively. Grant now moved southeast to Cold Harbor and Bethesda Church, only ten miles from Richmond to the southwest. The sharpshooters on both sides were highly effective in the first few weeks of June along this line. This was punctuated by Grant’s failed assault on June 3rd. The artillery especially suffered under the guns of these men. After 10 days or so in the trenches at Cold Harbor, Grant crossed the James and moved on Petersburg. The Confederate II Corps and its sharpshooters, however, moved into the Shenandoah Valley.
Chapter 15: Monocacy and Fort Stevens

Early’s II Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia left Cold Harbor and the vicinity of Richmond on June 13, bound for the city of Lynchburg in the Shenandoah Valley. They had been sent to protect the city from David Hunter’s Union army then threatening that place. The author points out that Early’s Cavalry was weak, forcing the sharpshooters to perform a lot of the missions (scouting, rear ad advance guard, picketing) that a properly working cavalry force ought to have done. Robert Rodes and Eugene Blackford, both natives of the city of Lynchburg, were literally fighting for their homes. After a day of skirmishing, hunter retreated into the mountains, clearing the way for a strategic advance by the new Valley Army. Early moved north down the Valley, bypassed Harpers Ferry, and then ran into a scratch Federal force at the Monocacy River in Maryland, just east of Frederick. Rodes was on the left flank (to the north) and moved on “hundred day” Ohio men of Erastus Tyler’s Brigade. Curiously, Rodes only sent his sharpshooters, numbering around 500-600 men at this time according to Ray, in against Tyler, who was holding the Jug bridge over the Monocacy. As it was, Tyler’s men had all they could handle from only Rodes’s sharpshooters. They did manage to hold open a line of retreat for Ricketts’ VI Corps Division, which was also on the field and faced the main attack to the south from Gordon’s Rebels. Ray believes that had Rodes’s entire division been sent in force against Tyler, “the result would have been swift and sanguinary.” On July 11, Early showed up north of Washington, D.C., and moved on Ft. Stevens. He first sent in some mounted infantry, but eventually the sharpshooters moved up. They skirmished all day with a hodgepodge force of Federals consisting of members of the Veteran Reserve Corps, units of the Washington garrison, and civilians hastily called into temporary formations. The area was excellent for sharpshooters, and Rodes’s men among others were able to hide in various houses on two covered hills directly in front of Ft. Stevens. No attack came, however, as units of the VI and XIX Corps arrived late on July 11. The Federals, says Ray, had failed to burn or demolish many homes in their front at the Confederate approach, and it cost them as the skirmishing moved into July 12. The author then goes on to explain that many citizens visited the battlefield as the battle was still going on, but that the Confederate sharpshooters left them alone. As July 12 wore on, a second VI Corps Division began arriving. The Federals, top heavy with commanders, eventually decided to push out a strong skirmish line to see exactly what Early had available behind the two hills and the sharpshooters posted there. As night fell on July 12, fighting rolled back and forth over the two hills. The confederate sharpshooters had been reinforced by several North Carolina regiments and gave as well as they got. Robert Rodes directed this battle, and Ray says he used the same method as at the North Anna, using his skirmish line initially and then feeding line units forward as needed, using a ravine behind his position to screen the advance of the reinforcements. Each side thought they had won, the Northern troops because they had captured the two hills, the Southerners because they had successfully covered Early’s withdrawal from the area. Lucius Chittenden, a treasury bureaucrat, walked over the battlefield. He found a Rebel officer acting as a sharpshooter, and also observed Confederates who had been partially burned in the two houses on the hills. Ray concludes the chapter by noting that the July 12 fight at Ft. Stevens had been the largest open order battle of the entire war. The sharpshooters had killed all of the regimental commanders in Bidwell’s Brigade, their foe in the recent fighting, including a large number of other officers. On member of the 122nd New York mentioned that the number of dead versus the number of wounded was much higher than normal, and paid an unknowing tribute to the sharpshooters. Around 500 Rebels and 600 Yankees fell over the two-day fight. Early’s move on Washington was over.

Look for the next installment this coming Monday, a week from today, as usual. We will be moving deep into 1864 following Early’s 1864 Valley Campaign, and then backtrack a bit and look at the opening engagements at Petersburg in mid-June 1864.

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






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