Shock Troops of the Confederacy, Part 8

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 discussed the Overland Campaign and Early’s raid on Washington, D.C. In this week’s installment, we’ll take a look at the 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaign and move back in time a bit to the beginning stages of the Siege of Petersburg.

Chapter 16: Charles Town, Winchester, and Fisher’s Hill

After Ft. Stevens, Early’s troops crossed the Potomac into the Shenandoah Valley. When it became apparent that Early was not going back to Petersburg, Grant appointed Major General Philip Sheridan to command the new Army of the Shenandoah, made up of VI Corps, VII Corps, and XIX Corps, and some two AotP cavalry divisions, about 45,000 men in all. Early had around three times less that number and he engaged in a war of maneuver, constantly maneuvering between Strasburg and Harpers Ferry in an effort to confuse the Federals. This effort, commonly referred to as the “Mimic War”, succeeded because Sheridan was under pressure not to lose a battle so close to the Presidential election of 1864. By this time, Colonel Hamilton Brown was in command of the sharpshooters of Rodes’ Brigade, Blackford commanding those of Battle’s Brigade only due to issues with varicose veins. Finally Sheridan broke the impasse on August 10, 1864, advancing to Berryville. Early fell back to Fisher’s Hill, and kept a signal station on nearby Massanutten Mountain. A Federal detachment soon captured the station, but Confederate sharpshooters took it back. Confederate Lieutenant General Richard Anderson came up from Petersburg to reinforce Early with a division of infantry, two brigades of cavalry, and some artillery. Sheridan fell back quickly, worried that this force was the entire Rebel I Corps. Early followed and caught up to the Vermont Brigade of Wright’s VI Corps at Charles Town on August 21, 1864. Rodes again used an increasingly recurrent tactic, sending out his division sharpshooters backed by an infantry regiment and some artillery. The action at Charles Town was not a full-blown battle, but the Vermont Brigade suffered over 100 casualties. Ray mentions that they were frequently chosen by the VI Corps to act as skirmishers, being chosen for their skill at this profession. Early chose not to attack because Anderson’s column and Fitzhugh Lee’s cavalry had been held up by veteran repeater-toting Federal cavalrymen. After Sheridan retreated to entrenchments near Harpers Ferry and two weeks of rain, Anderson started his men back to Petersburg. Early then foolishly sent two of his infantry divisions to tear up railroad lines near Martinsburg, leaving Ramseur’s Division fearfully exposed at Winchester. Sheridan sensed an opportunity and moved against Ramseur on September 19, 1864. A traffic jam in a narrow pass and Ramseur’s resolute defense were able to stall Sheridan long enough for Gordon and Rodes to arrive with their divisions. Rodes’ Division took the center east of Winchester, with Battle’s Brigade in reserve. As usual, the sharpshooters were thrown out in front. Sheridan’s troops pushed the Confederates back at first, but a counterattack by Battle’s Brigade against a gap in the Union line between the VI and XIX Corps soon drove the Federals back. Rodes was killed during the fighting. Sheridan regrouped, and the Northern forces again started to drive the Confederates back. To make matters worse, Early had no real reserves available after having used Battle. The Union VIII Corps and the Yankee horsemen now launched an assault on the Confederate left. The Rebel horsemen were of poor quality and couldn’t hold off the attack. Gordon’s Division couldn’t face Crook’s VIII Corps on their left and the XIX Corps on their right. The sharpshooters of Rodes’ Division were sent to try to stem the tide, but were unable to make a difference. Early’s army fled in confusion south to Fisher’s Hill. The sharpshooters covered the retreat, performing the job an adequate cavalry force would have been ideal for. The sharpshooters stopped and dug in at Flint Hill, a rise about a half mile in front of Early’s main position. Here, on September 21, they squared off against Warner’s Brigade of Getty’s Division of the Union VI Corps. Sheridan had sent this brigade in to seize the hill and give him a good view of Early’s lines. Only when the entire brigade charged did the sharpshooters retire, and even then they formed a new skirmish line in front of Fisher’s Hill. Sheridan dug in that night on Flint Hill, and September 22 was filled with skirmishing for the better part of the day. Sheridan had sent Crook around Early’s left, however, and a flank attack soon drove off Early’s worthless Valley Cavalry and routed Early’s entire army from the field. Ray believes that the sharpshooters would have been an ideal choice to deal with Crook’s flanking force, but points out that they were already busy in front dealing with the Union forces on Flint Hill. Early retreated to Waynesboro, and Sheridan commence with “the Burning”. He believed Early’s force was finished as his opponent.

Chapter 17: Cedar Creek

Sheridan’s beliefs were mistaken. Early reorganized his demoralized force, and aided by the return of Kershaw’s Division, Early moved north. On October 13, he attacked and routed a Federal force at Rupp’s Hill. For a few days, both sides settled into an uneasy stalemate. But Early eventually sent his army forward on a daring night march. Early on the foggy morning of October 19, 1864, Early’s troops crossed Cedar Creek and slammed into the unsuspecting Federals. The sharpshooters of Colonel James P. Simms’ brigade, the 3rd South Carolina Battalion, managed to capture the Union pickets along the creek, and the rout was on. Early’s force successively attacked and drove in the VIII Corps under Crook and then the XIX Corps under Emory. As the Confederates swept north against the VI Corps, Dodson Ramseur (now in command of Rodes’ Division) sent his division sharpshooters to cover his right at Middletown. Once the main attack on the VI Corps, positioned on Cemetery Hill, was under way, the sharpshooters were recalled and sent in to lead the attack. They did not wait for the main lines, instead attacking and capturing Union artillery while they were still in open order. The artillerymen were astonished that “skirmishers” had closed on their position and taken their guns. General Getty’s VI Corps was forced to retreat to the north. The Confederates thought they had won the battle. Gordon sent his division sharpshooters forward, and facing heavy resistance, found this not to be the case. Early consolidated his gains and tried to set up a defensive position. Many Confederates, hungry and tired, began to loot the Yankee camps rather than focus on the task at hand. Sheridan, who had been away until now, rallied his men and launched a devastating counterattack. The sharpshooters of the 3rd South Carolina Battalion were surprised and captured almost intact. The rest of the sharpshooters in the skirmish line were more vigilant, but they couldn’t resist the Federal advance for long. Early’s men in the center beat back the first attacks and sent the Union troops reeling back, but Sheridan had too many men. To make matters worse, Ramseur was shot and killed, demoralizing the men of his division. Little Phil’s troops managed to get around Early’s left and again routed the Southerners. Although the Confederates had again been beaten, they had managed to inflict over 4,000 men killed and wounded at a cost of around 1,800 of their own men. Early’s army was now truly ruined as a force capable of opposing Sheridan. Eugene Blackford, although not killed or wounded, was a casualty of the battle. Early went looking for scapegoats, and he found one in the sharpshooter. To make matters worse, Blackford’s friend Rodes was dead, and his new division commander Grimes backed Early’s need to find people responsible for the defeat. Ray next takes a look at the men of Battle’s Brigade and their strength in January 1865. Out of a strength of only 667 men, nearly one fourth, or 145 men, were a part of the brigade sharpshooters. Ray maintains that this shows how important the sharpshooters were to the Confederates at this time.

The last part of the Cedar Creek chapter serves as a conclusion to the 1864 Valley Campaigns. Ray wanted to relate these battles in more detail, he says, because “they give a good picture of the Southern sharpshooters in action and the differences in the way that they fought as compared to the line of battle.” Sharpshooters were flank guards at Winchester (due to the lowly Valley Cavalry being unable to perform adequately), and they also went out and covered the main battle line’s front in the fight. Eventually, they were sent to the left to act as a sort of demi-brigade to save the day, though they came up short on this occasion. At Fisher’s Hill, the sharpshooters occupied an advanced outpost and then were used again as forward skirmishers on the picket line. Ray blames Early’s inability to react to Crook’s flanking force as the reason for the disaster there. And Cedar Creek “shows the mature evolution of the sharpshooters, particularly those of Rodes’ Division, in their various roles.” These men always fought in open order, and their training had evolved to the point where they had taken massed artillery in that open order, something unthinkable before that time. Men in skirmish formation simply DID NOT attack in this way. Ray also contends that the sharpshooters became very versatile. They could be sent into tough situations and find a way to do the job. Whether they were covering a picket line, acting as rear guard, or fighting in the main battle line, the sharpshooters were a foe to be reckoned with. Ray also believes that by late 1864, even the Confederate main body had started to fight in a slightly more open order than that of the early years of the war. He believes that the “battle line looked a lot like the skirmish line, except for the intervals.” Ray ends the chapter by comparing casualties in skirmish fights such as Ft. Stevens and Charles Town with the massive slugfests of Winchester and Cedar Creek. Casualties in open order fights, while not trivial, were much less than those suffered when main battle lines in close order fought it out.

Chapter 18: Petersburg

Ray next moves back in time to the trenches around Petersburg. By the summer of 1864 breastworks were being dug without orders, and men tried to protect themselves as best they could. In trench warfare, the sharpshooters were important people. They manned the Confederate picket line as often as possible. In addition, the sharpshooters made numerous raids on the Yankee lines looking for prisoners and loot. The picket lines could be close together as at Colquitt’s Salient, or over a mile apart in some of the western sectors. When the picket lines were close, there was a lot of action. Conversely, the farther the picket lines were apart, the quieter the sector. These picket lines were 200 to 500 yards in front of the main line, giving advance warning and providing a jumping off point for attacks. The sharpshooters were typically organized into two reliefs, with one relief on active duty and the second in reserve. Where the sharpshooters still had a battalion of two corps, each corps simply acted as a relief. Major Thomas J. Wooten of 18th North Carolina, the commander of the sharpshooters of Lane’s Brigade, was very skilled at bringing in prisoners at no cost to his command. He would line his men up in two single file columns side by side and sneak up to the enemy picket line. At a signal, the men would rush up keep going until the rear of the columns reached the picket line. Major Wooten, still standing on the line, would order the left column to face left and the right column to face right. They would then pivot, using the major as the pivot point, bagging many prisoners in the process. Ray apparently skips over the Battle of Petersburg, the Battle of Jerusalem Plank Road, and First Deep Bottom, moving directly to the Crater. I was a little disappointed in this, as I had suspected that Mahone’s sharpshooters might have played a key role in bagging so many Union prisoners at Jerusalem Plank Road in particular. At the Crater on July 30, 1864, members of the 48th Pennsylvania exploded a mine under the Confederate works, blasting a huge hole in the line and killing almost 300 South Carolinians in the process. Several Union IX Corps divisions entered the Crater but became confused, milling about in the pit. Lee sent in Weisinger’s (formerly Mahone’s) Brigade, including its sharpshooters under Captain William Wallace Broadbent. Broadbent’s men went in on the right of the regiment, acting as line troops. Though Weisinger’s men saved the day, they did so just barely and at great cost to themselves. Fully ninety-four officers and men were casualties out of only 104 sharpshooters. Despite this, says Ray, there was no shortage of volunteers. Men vied to become sharpshooters in their brigades, considering it a great honor. After the failure at the Crater, the siege continued. Ray also does not mention any of the battles which occurred from August 1864 – February 1865. I do not know if there was not enough material or if the sharpshooters played only small roles in these forays, but I would have liked to have seen some description of the Battles of Globe Tavern, Reams Station, Peebles’ Farm, Second Deep Bottom, Hatcher’s Run and Boydton Plank Road, among others. In any case, Ray continues on with stories of the picket line, where the sharpshooters did figure prominently. On the last day of December 1864 the sharpshooters of McGowan’s and Scales’ Brigades received permission to capture some prisoners and collect some winter clothing to replace their own worn out set. Commanded by Captains Dunlop and Young, the two battalions lined up side by side in long, narrow columns, similar to Major Wooten’s seine-hauling but on a slightly grander scale. They crossed the Federal picket line, but stopped when the middle of the column was at the rifle pits. Then, each unit faced opposite of each other, extended their flanks forward, and moved on a line perpendicular to the picket line. This effort worked beautifully, and the two battalions had their desired clothing. Not all raids went well. One such effort to roll up the Federal picket line to the Appomattox River ended rather quickly when some North Carolinians retreated at the first Yankee picket fire. The Confederates typically tried to attack where two different divisions came together. This meant the Union pickets would be less likely to cooperate as well as usual. The sharpshooters were also ordered to watch out for deserters. Because of this, some Confederates grew resentful of their sharpshooter battalions. When they did desert, they would warn the Federals of upcoming picket attacks. The sharpshooters of one North Carolina brigade even had the distasteful duty of heading into the mountains of western North Carolina to round up deserters. The Federals were burned so often that by late 1864 they were organizing large patrols to scout out the area of no man’s land and make sure no Confederate raids were forthcoming. Ray concludes that despite these measures, “the Confederates tended to dominate the picket line.” The commanders of the sharpshooter battalions together “developed a set of tactics that, allowing for the differences in technology, would have stood them in good stead in 1916 and were far more advanced than Hardee’s Tactics.”

As I mentioned before, I was disappointed to find no mention of numerous battles during the Petersburg Campaign. I am still left wondering if the sharpshooters played any kind of key role in the Battles of Jerusalem Plank Road and Reams Station especially, among others. In spite of this, I have found Ray’s account to be excellent so far. Scanning ahead, it looks like I will be discussing several chapters which focus on Fort Stedman, and the closing battles as Petersburg fell. As always, look for the next installment to appear next Monday, May 29.

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