Shock Troops of the Confederacy, Part 9

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 my last post, we covered Early’s battles in the Valley versus Sheridan, and the early portion of the Petersburg Campaign. This week we’ll cover the rest of the Petersburg Siege, and end at Appomattox.

Chapter 19: Assault On Hare’s Hill

By late March 1865, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was in a precarious position. Lee wanted to evacuate his lines protecting Petersburg and Richmond and attempt to hook up with Joseph Johnston’s army in the Carolinas. He planned a diversion that would hopefully cause enough confusion to allow his army a badly needed head start south. That diversion was the brainchild of II Corps commander John B. Gordon. He had selected a weak spot in the Federal lines, with Ft. Stedman in the center, and his goal was to quickly and quietly break through, roll up the line north and south, and possibly capture City Point, the Federal supply depot along the James. Gordon had his own three-division II Corps of 7,500 men and two brigades of Bushrod Johnson’s Division under Robert Ransom, another 2,000 plus men, available for the immediate assault. Facing the Confederates across the way were the 2nd and 3rd Brigades of Orlando Willcox’s 1st Division, IX Corps. The area being assaulted ran from Fort McGilvery in the north to Fort Haskell in the south. A brand new division of large Pennsylvania regiments under John Hartranft was in reserve, and Fort Friend was an active fortification on the old Confederate Dimmock Line, now to the rear of the current Federal earthworks and near where the Pennsylvanians were stationed. Gordon attacked in three columns, with the sharpshooters leading the way and assigned the task of quickly overrunning Fort Stedman and its supporting batteries. Many precautions were taken both to keep the attack a secret and also to allow Confederates to recognize each other in the darkness. Gordon even sent what can be considered forerunners of deception units forward, tasked with heading to the Yankee rear, whose officers knew the names of the Union commanders in the area and whose men were to pretend to be either deserters or retreating Union troops in the darkness. With everything in place, the assault kicked off in the early morning darkness of March 25, 1864. Initially, things went very well. Gordon’s sharpshooters were able to capture Fort Stedman, Battery X to its right, and Batteries XI and XII to its left. However, counterattacks by several Massachusetts regiments, combined with units being alerted in Forts McGilvery and Haskell, meant that Gordon was now stuck in front of these two forts and couldn’t widen the gap any further north to south. Instead, an opening lay to the east. As the sharpshooters of Grimes’ Division were headed that way, Orlando Willcox accidentally ordered some of the large Pennsylvania regiments away from Fort Friend and to the south. This meant that the fort, guarded only by six pieces of artillery, would have to fend for itself. To make matters worse, this fort was all that stood between Gordon’s Confederates and City Point.

Chapter 20: Fort Stedman

John Hartranft was now in a precarious position. Willcox’s orders to most of Hartranft’s Pennsylvania regiments had sent them too far south to be of immediate use in checking Gordon’s attack. Hartranft did have the 200th Pennsylvania, and he decided to send it in to make a spoiling attack against the sharpshooters of Grimes’ Division, then pushing toward Fort Friend. Two successive charges starting at 6:30 in the morning by this large regiment and whatever men had rallied from the earlier assaults managed to blunt the Confederate advance east. The Corps Artillery Reserve (only four guns) also unlimbered and bought some precious time for a more coordinated Union counterattack. While this was going on, the Confederates of Waggaman’s Louisiana Brigade made an attack o Fort Haskell to the south, their sharpshooters out front. Some unique tactical occurrences happened here. The sharpshooters laid down a covering fire for the brigade, and later when it looked like the main line couldn’t assault successfully, the sharpshooters were sent forward in open order. They failed to take the fort, but their method in itself was interesting. By this time, Hartranft had gathered most of his Pennsylvania units into a large semicircle around the Confederate penetration. At 7:45 A.M., the final Union counterattack surged forward. Gordon had no choice but to order a retreat back to the Confederate lines. The 100th Pennsylvania “Roundheads” managed to beat their fellow Keystone Staters of Hartranft’s Division into Fort Stedman, and many of the Confederate sharpshooters covering the withdrawal were captured. Ray specifically mentions that this battle cost the Confederate II Corps most of its best men captured or killed. The author also details how, despite a commendation from none other than Robert E. Lee in an official dispatch, the sharpshooters gradually dropped out of the accounts of the battle. Despite the defeat, Ray praises Gordon as a tactical innovator. He sent his sharpshooters forward in truly nonlinear formation, with no regard for their flanks. In addition, the “Trojan Horse” or deception units were a unique idea in this war. The attack on Fort Haskell by groups of squads rather than by a linear formation is also mentioned. Ray closes by saying:

Here, at almost the end of the war, we get a glimpse of things to come—nonlinear formations, the use of elite troops to infiltrate the enemy lines, and combined arms task organizations. Technical innovations that would change the face of the battlefield—land mines, hand grenades, and repeating rifles—were either not readily available or in relatively primitive form, while others, like barbed wire and fully automatic weapons, lay in the future. Nevertheless, the armies of both sides found themselves facing many of the problems their successors would find fifty years hence: the necessity of moving through a heavily fortified zone and the difficulty of supporting an offensive across no-man’s land. Gordon’s attack on Fort Stedman marks the first clear break between the linear line-of-battle world of the nineteenth century and the nonlinear world of the twentieth.

Chapter 21: Decision at Petersburg

Grant, theorizing that Lee had weakened the rest of his lines to assault Fort Stedman, launched efforts all along the lines to capture the Confederate picket lines. The sharpshooters were not in their usual positions along those lines, having been used in Gordon’s attack or resting from picketing the day before. Possibly due to this, the Federals largely succeeded, at a cost of around 1500 casualties per side, in spite of the Confederate sharpshooters’ best efforts to retake them. Ray writes that this would have significant consequences later. In addition, the Federals seized a knoll called McIlwaine’s Hill that overlooked a part of the main Confederate line southwest of Petersburg. If the Federals placed artillery on this hill, the result would be unacceptable. It had to be retaken, and of course the sharpshooters were given this task on March 27. The sharpshooters of four brigades (around 400 men) lined up this time in linear formation, with two battalions in front and two just behind. Major Wooten and Captains Young and Dunlop were three of the four commanders, with the fourth presumably unknown, as Ray doesn’t give a name. Wooten and Dunlop’s troops would hit the Yankee line and wheel right and left. The trailing battalions would move forward and secure the crest of the hill. The plan worked beautifully, and the hill was retaken with minimal losses. The Northerners simply didn’t have a comparable set of troops to counter such an attack. On March 29, the sharpshooters of McGowan’s Brigade were moved west to Burgess’s Mill, and on March 31 they were involved in an attack at White Oak Road. At first the Confederate attack went well, but soon they were being driven off. McGowan’s sharpshooters took up position on the flank of the Union troops and inflicted heavy casualties until forced away into their breastworks. On April 1, 1865, Phil Sheridan led a combined infantry/cavalry force that defeated George Pickett at Five Forks. Lee’s lines were now untenable, and Grant ordered an assault at dawn of April 2. The Yankees of the VI Corps were set to lead the assault that eventually broke through, and they had learned some hard lessons over the past year. Each division in the VI Corps had a sharpshooter company of picked men from the regiments of the division. Two of these companies led the assault on April 2, acting as a scouting force and a flank guard. After the Union attack broke through, one of these companies even moved east and took Fort Gregg, guarding the inner line of the Petersburg fortifications, but lack of support caused them to fall back. Fort Gregg would later hold up the Federal advance and save the Confederate line from falling completely. On the left of the VI Corps line, units moved west towards Fort Davis, capturing it and its artillery. McComb’s Tennessee Brigade, led by its sharpshooters, managed to drive the Yankees back for a time, before eventually being forced to retreat. Harry Heth commanded a polyglot force of four brigades on the western end of the line, and he retreated in good order to Sutherland Station, along the South Side Railroad. Miles’ Union II Corps division pursued. Heth had sharpshooters out front, including Dunlop’s command. They managed to hold off several rounds of attacks. However, Miles then used the Spencer-toting 148th Pennsylvania as skirmishers to cover an attack on the Confederate left. This assault broke the line and captured many remaining sharpshooters. The remaining pockets of sharpshooters covered the flanks of Lee’s army on its retreat to Appomattox, and even were assigned to lead Lee’s attempt to break out to the south on April 9, 1865. It was not to be, however, as Lee had decided to surrender.

As the war drew to a close, the role of the sharpshooters was continuing to evolve, sometimes into something pretty close to what would come in Europe from 1914-1918. Although Ray’s book is specifically focused on the sharpshooters of the Army of Northern Virginia, we are by no means finished. Next week, we’ll take a look at the weapons and uniforms of the sharpshooters, Confederate sharpshooters in the West, and those of the Union. The entry should appear as scheduled next Monday, June 5.

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






One response to “Shock Troops of the Confederacy, Part 9”

  1. Fred Ray Avatar

    If anyoone is interested in reading a more detailed account of the battle of Fort Stedman, America’s Civil War has posted my article, which is taken from the book, at

Leave a Reply

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