Shock Troops of the Confederacy, Part 10

Shock Troops of the Confederacy, Part 10

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, I covered the rest of the Petersburg Siege after June, and ended at Appomattox. This week, we’ll take a look at sharpshooter weapons and other Civil War sharpshooter units.

Chapter 22: Weapons and Uniforms

Ray first focuses on weapons in the next chapter, discussing the self-sealing bullet and the “Minie Revolution”. Beginning in 1818 with Captain John Norton, and extending through designs by Henri-Gustave Delvigne, and Louis-Etienne de Thouvenin, self sealing rifles grew more complex and workable. In 1849, Claude Minie created a bullet that took Thouvenin’s tige idea to the bullet itself. The French rejected the idea, but the British took it and ran, using it in their Enfield rifle. Ray calls the Enfield “one of the most accurate arms in the world in the late 1850s.” American designer James Burton went slightly further by thinning the sides of the bullet’s skirt, causing the bullet to seal the chamber without the need for a plug. Rifles could now be loaded as quickly as smoothbores, which was a major advance in weapons technology. The author next discusses the various arms used by Civil War sharpshooters. These include, in the order discussed, the British Enfield, the U.S. Model 1861 Springfield Rifle-Musket, the Whitworth Rifle, English Match Rifles, Model 1859 Sharps Rifles, Spencer Rifles, Colt Revolving Rifles, Henry Rifles, and American Target Rifles. The amount of detail needed to do these weapons justice is beyond the scope of this summary. Perhaps this might constitute a future blog entry, possibly by Mr. Ray himself. The author ends the chapter by commenting that, quite by accident, the Confederate Army was using the perfect colors for sharpshooters. Tests conducted by the British Army in 1800 concluded that gray was the best color for the skirmish line, and butternut or brown tended to blend in with the ground and other foliage as well. The uniform of the German Army in World War I, colored gray and with a soft cap, made it extremely difficult for the British to hit anyone. The British, on the other hand, with their hard round helmets, made easy targets for the Germans, further proving the suitability of the Confederate uniform to sharpshooter duty. The sharpshooter uniform differed very little from that of the regular units. Sharpshooters were usually given a patch that identified them, similar to the ranger tabs or airborne wings of today.
Chapter 23: Confederate Sharpshooters in the West

Ray mentions that although the book’s focus is mainly on the sharpshooters of the army of Northern Virginia, it is worthwhile to take a brief look at the sharpshooters in the Army of Tennessee as well. Patrick Cleburne was a driving force in the western sharpshooter movement. As a former member of the British Army, Cleburne knew the value of having sharpshooters. He created a Corps of Sharpshooters armed with Whitworth and Kerr Rifles, and it numbered 46 men at one point in 1864. The Kentucky “Orphan” Brigade also created a group of sharpshooters, and interest in joining remained high despite heavy casualties. The use of Whitworths dominated the Army of Tennessee’s sharpshooter methods, and these men tended to be more like modern snipers rather than light infantry. The author notes that “anti-material” uses for the sharpshooters were higher in the west, perhaps due to larger open spaces rather than any conscious tactical doctrine. Sharpshooters were used in particular during the Siege of Chattanooga to discourage supply trains from bringing needed food and other items into the besieged city. Apparently Longstreet’s Corps picked up the use of Whitworths while with the Army of Tennessee, and Ray believes that Longstreet had both the sharpshooter battalions on the ANV pattern as well as continuing to use a very small number of picked men who used the expensive Whitworths. In addition to the use of Whitworths, there are some instances of the use of sharpshooter units as light infantry in the Army of Tennessee. These include three Georgia sharpshooter battalions, used in some cases but not always as skirmishers for larger formations. The Ninth Mississippi Sharpshooter Battalion also acted as skirmishers. Other units existed fro brief periods of time. What is significant is that there is no evidence these units received marksmanship training like their brethren in the Army of Northern Virginia. Lastly, there were even a few sharpshooter units patterned on those of the Army of Northern Virginia, complete with target practice. Edward O’Neal and his 26th Alabama moved west in 1864, and he soon commanded a brigade. He immediately formed a corps of sharpshooters on the ANV pattern, but when he lost his command, this practice seems to have been abandoned. In addition, a sharpshooter battalion formed from the various regiments of Walthall’s brigade seems to have been used in the way Rodes first set forth, but it was disbanded after the Atlanta Campaign. The Confederate Army of the West seems to have had sharpshooters as well. Earl Van Dorn initially wanted the picked men of his army to form a 750-man strong corps of sharpshooters, but he had to settle for 200 men in four battalions, and this group permanently became the 12th Arkansas Battalion. These men specialized in “rear-guard actions, holding off superior Union forces while the confederate army tried to maneuver through Mississippi. They were tenacious fighters and suffered correspondingly heavy casualties at Corinth, Hatchie Bridge, Big Black River, and Port Gibson.” These men eventually found themselves involved in the Siege of Vicksburg, and they were used effectively during the Siege. After being paroled, at least part of the unit found itself attached to Smith’s Trans-Mississippi Department.

Chapter 24: The Opposition

Ray also dedicates a chapter to the Union sharpshooters. Probably the most famous sharpshooters in the entire war were Hiram Berdan’s 1st and 2nd United States Sharpshooters. Berdan, a “born promoter”, was able to organize these regiments out of various companies formed throughout the northern states. Berdan initially had the men bring their own rifles, but he promised them Sharps, and after a delay during which they used Colt Revolving Rifles, he finally came through on that promise in June 1862. Berdan’s men were used in company-sized units during the Peninsula Campaign. They only saw use as a light brigade during the Chancellorsville Campaign, which Ray calls “unfortunate, since they had the potential to win against the Southern sharpshooters.” Berdan’s men helped cover the left flank of the Union army at Gettysburg on July 2, 1863, and later that year the two sharpshooter regiments were sent to different brigades, and they were again used in small groups along the skirmish line. It always took a long time to send out and recall the men in this fashion. These men were used to good effect in the Petersburg Campaign, where they traded shots with their Confederate counterparts. Ray points out that the USSS would have made a perfect light brigade during the 1864 Valley Campaign, where fast movements and continual skirmishing made the presence of sharpshooter units ideal. The 1st USSS disbanded in December 1864, and the 2nd only lasted two months longer. Apparently the Union generals never hit on the idea of using their sharpshooters as shock troops on the Confederate (and later German) pattern. Ray next briefly mentions the “Light Division” of the Union VI Corps at Chancellorsville. These men were meant to travel quickly, hence the “Light” designation. They were not trained in the normal usage of the term light infantry. The experiment soon ended and wasn’t tried again. Several regiments were recruited to be sharpshooter regiments, but were simply used as regular units, such as the 203rd Pennsylvania and the 9th New Jersey. Some other units, such as the 57h Massachusetts, recruited 9 regular companies and one sharpshooter company. Other men recruited companies of sharpshooters, only to see them wasted by a government that didn’t know what to do with them. Several state sharpshooter battalions were formed as well, such as the 1st Battalion New York Sharpshooters and the 1st Battalion Maine Sharpshooters. In the next section, Ray discusses the various sharpshooter battalions from Michigan, including those who went to Berdan, the 1st Michigan Sharpshooters, and Hall’s Independent Sharpshooters. These men all participated in the Petersburg Campaign, including the Ottawa and Ojibwa (Chippewa) Indians in one of the companies of the 1st Michigan SS. The 1st was the first unit to enter Petersburg after its fall, according to the author. Next the topic switches to the famous Pennsylvania Bucktails, the 13th Pennsylvania Reserves. Their Lt. Colonel, Thomas Kane, had recruited men from western Pennsylvania, and they were excellent shots. The unit “trained as light infantry in the British tradition, and their commanders often used them on the skirmish line.” Ray says their finest moment came at South Mountain in September 1862, where they almost single-handedly brought about the collapse of Rodes’ line. However, Ray says, “for all their light infantry expertise, they fought as often in line of battle as in extended order.” The Union brass again did not know what it had. The Bucktails ironically caused the formation of Confederate sharpshooter units, rather than more Union units! Rodes’ beating at South Mountain led directly to his formation of a sharpshooter battalion. By 1864, the Confederates had far outshined the Federals in their use of sharpshooters. Northern sharpshooters continued to be used in improvised ways, and the famous Union early-war units were fading away from attrition or being mustered out. By late 1864, they finally were issuing better weapons such as the Sharps and Spencer rifles to the flank companies of veteran regiments, but this was still not enough. The VI Corps seems to have used informal “Division Sharpshooter” units in 1864, but it was nowhere near the level f the Confederates. These men did play a vital role in the final Union breakthrough at Petersburg on April 2, 1865, however. Some efforts were also made to arm one regiment per division with Spencer repeaters and allow them to act as skirmishers, though this was also an informal arrangement. Apparently the XVIII Corps of the Army of the James also used division sharpshooters at Petersburg in mid 1864, though a late-year reorganization disbanded the XVIII Corps, and presumably the sharpshooter arrangement. Ray concludes the chapter by noting that Confederate and Union sharpshooter efforts were inverses of one another, the Federals starting strong and finishing weak, while the Rebels gained strength as time went by.

Next week in Part 11 we’ll close out the book by taking a look at the evolution of sharpshooter tactics up through World War I. Look for a review (including this entire 12-part series of posts) a week or less after the 12th part. I plan to read Eric Jacobson’s new book on Spring Hill & Franklin next in this manner.

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


11 responses to “Shock Troops of the Confederacy, Part 10”

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