Rifles and Sharpshooters

by Fred Ray on June 12, 2006 · 0 comments

I wanted to follow up on something Brett mentioned in his last post on my book – that armies often times spur innovations by their opponents.

One example I mention early on is the formation of rifle units in the British Army, which did so in large part because of its experiences in America. Now I heartily agree with the assessment of writers like Joe Bilby that the effect of the rifleman on the outcome of the American Revolution has been greatly exaggerated, and that to read some accounts you’d think that the woods were swarming with farmers with rifles who laid the Redcoats out in droves.

But, it’s also true that those “unerring marksmen … in forest warfare a much more formidable foe than the Imperial Guard of France” had a major psychological effect on both British soldiers as individuals and the army as a whole. Standing in the line of battle while someone took pot shots at you was extremely unnerving. “The cannon and thousands of musket balls playing upon our ranks, we cared not for; for there was a chance of escaping them,” wrote one British officer. “Most of us had walked as coolly upon batteries more destructive, without quailing, but to know that every time that rifle was leveled toward us, and its bullet sprang from the barrel, one of us must surely fall…was awful.”

Not long afterward the British formed the 5/60th Royal Americans, a mostly-German unit trained in the jaeger tradition, and later the famous 95th Rifles that went on to fame in the Napoleonic Wars.

Much the same thing happened at South Mountain in September 1862, when Robert Rodes’ Alabama brigade faced the Pennsylvania Bucktails, one of the few units in the Army of the Potomac actually trained in small unit warfare and familiar with the forest. Rodes and his men hung on, but just barely, and three months later he was having Major Blackford organize his first sharpshooter battalion. Rodes was a tactics instructor and no doubt familiar with European practice, but there’s little doubt that his experiences on South Mountain reinforced his perception of the need for a corps of trained skirmishers.

What is unusual, however, is that this lesson seems to have been totally lost, for a number of reasons, on the Army of the Potomac. This is even more strange because the commander of the Pennsylvania Reserves division that day later became the commander of the AOP. His name? George Meade.

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