Note: For those of you who missed it, you might want to check out my multi-part summary of the book, starting with Part 1.
Shock Troops of the Confederacy: The Sharpshooter Battalions of the Army of Northern Virginia. Fred L. Ray. Asheville, NC: CFS Press (2006). 432 pp. 43 maps.
Fred Ray’s Shock Troops of the Confederacy: The Sharpshooter Battalions of the Army of Northern Virginia (CFS Press, 2006) is an important new addition to the existing body of Civil War literature. The last book on this topic was written in 1899 by former sharpshooter William S. Dunlop. The author sets out to demonstrate that the Confederacy formed what were essentially the beginnings of modern war, utilizing open order tactics and formations, camouflage, and the vastly improved rifles of their generation. Although the book mainly focuses on the sharpshooters of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, Ray expands the work to examine the rise of the rifle, new tactics involving that weapon, other sharpshooter units in the Civil War, and the advancement of tactics and weapons up to World War I. Ray specifically compares the Confederate sharpshooter battalions to the German Stosstruppen (shock troops) or the Great War. In many ways, asserts the author, the Confederates were already doing in the 19th Century many of the same things the Germans later discovered in the 20th. The only thing preventing the Confederates from doing more, says Ray, was the weapons technology. Assault weapons needed to successfully drive home attacks in open order were mostly too heavy to carry in 1865.
Ray begins the book with a look at the early use of rifles in Europe and America, describes the advances in rifle technology through the first half of the 19th Century, and addresses the tactical changes wrought mostly by the French Army in that time. His coverage of the civil War makes up the majority of the work. Two Lynchburg, Virginia residents, Robert Rodes and Eugene Blackford, are mostly responsible for the formation of the Confederate sharpshooter battalions in the east, one for each brigade in the Army of Northern Virginia. Rodes’ men had been bested at South Mountain in the fall of 1862 by the Pennsylvania Bucktails, a regiment fully trained in the art of skirmishing. Rodes decided that this would not happen again, and in the winter of 1862-1863 he created a sharpshooter battalion for his brigade and gave command to Blackford. Eventually Rodes ascended to division command, and he modeled new units on the pattern of his initial sharpshooter battalion. By the fall of 1863, Lee recognized the usefulness of these units and ordered every brigade in his army to field a sharpshooter battalion. The 1864 campaigns saw the sharpshooters carry a heavy load, particularly at the Siege of Petersburg, a great situation for what we today would call sniping, and in the Shenandoah Valley, where these men were forced to act as rear guard and advance guard for the army due to the miserable condition of the Valley Cavalry. The Confederate assault on Fort Stedman in late March 1865 is covered in especially great detail since many of the particulars were eerily similar to what you would see in 1918 from the German Army. Ray next covers the development of Confederate sharpshooters in the west and the Union sharpshooter units both east and west. The Union armies started off well in the use of light troops and tactics, argues Ray, but they soon moved backward in these areas. The Confederates dominated the skirmish line in the last year of the war in the east according to the author. The Confederate sharpshooters in the west were mainly smaller groups used for sniping rather than skirmishing. Patrick Cleburne, a former member of the British Army, was the first to utilize these troops, and they soon spread to other units in the Army of Tennessee. Their presence doesn’t seem to be nearly as widespread as those of the Army of Northern Virginia, however. Ray continues with an interesting discussion of even greater rifle and other weapons improvements in the late 19th Century, covering the Boer War at the end of that time period. He closes out the book by discussing the various countries that participated in World War I, describing the various ways in which they adapted tactics to fit the new realities of warfare. The Germans were by far the best, notes Ray, forming shock troops very similar to the sharpshooters of Robert Rodes. Essentially in both situations, the point was to group your best men into units that could by placed into the most desperate areas, or to head attacks that needed to succeed.
Ray succeeds admirably in his task of giving the sharpshooters their proper due, recognizing their achievements and the truly revolutionary way in which they were used, and comparing their efforts to those of the German Army fully 50 years later. To make matters even better, Ray keeps the reader interested throughout, never losing sight of the main picture while going into tactical detail in the proper places. The numerous and excellent maps and illustrations add greatly to the text, and they are placed well throughout. I read an advanced reviewer’s copy, so there were some typos, which is to be expected. I haven’t had a chance yet to read through my final copy, but I suspect the vast majority of these were caught and removed in the editing process. I also found the comparisons to the German Stosstruppen to be well done, and the conclusions the author draws regarding these two separate but similar units make sense and are based on solid research. Ray shows equal adeptness discussing the Civil War and the evolution of the rifle before and after that conflict. This is an important new study of the sharpshooter units, one that hopefully leads to more unit histories on some of the individual battalions and also a similar study for the Army of Tennessee. If you are interested in the evolution of open order tactics and the rifle or in the development of light troops used in the attack, I highly recommend this groundbreaking new study. It is one of the best books on the Civil War that I have had the pleasure to read.
by Robert K. Krick
Robert Krick, probably the foremost historian today of the Army of Northern Virginia, leads off the book in the Foreword. He discusses the scope of Ray’s book (mostly Lee’s Sharpshooters, but extending into the past and future to give the reader an idea of changing tactics). Krick also argues that Civil War era leaders, despite mistaken perceptions to the contrary today, came up with new tactics to account for the rifled musket. In the new world of the rifled musket, reconnaissance was tougher than ever before. You couldn’t simply walk up to a position just out of range of smoothbore muskets any more. New methods were needed to see what the enemy was about. Hence readers are introduced to the Civil War era meaning of the term “sharpshooter”. Sharpshooters in the 1860’s “were light infantrymen designated and trained for duty as advance guards, pickets, scouts, and skirmishers.” Lee was adept at the use of skirmishers, says Krick. Chancellorsville stands out as a particularly striking case. In a surprise to me, Krick announces that up until even a few years ago, he believed that the sharpshooters first came about some time in early 1864 as a result of three years of hard fighting. If this prominent historian did not even know about the development of the sharpshooters, clearly this subject needed a book to be written about it in the worst way! Author Fred Ray sets out to do this in Shock Troops of the Confederacy. Two characters who are key to this story include Major Eugene Blackford, the first leader of a sharpshooter battalion, and General Robert E. Rodes, the excellent (and Krick would add underrated) division commander under whose supervision the sharpshooter project got off the ground.
How lucky for the Civil War buff that Fred Ray’s ancestor just happened to be in a Confederate sharpshooter battalion! His initial research into that ancestor led directly to this book. As the author points out, very few book have been written on the sharpshooters since the end of the war, and literally none have dealt specifically with the subject for over one hundred years. Although Berdan’s Sharpshooters may be the more famous group, Ray argues that the Southern version impacted the war in a much greater way, and hints at this early stage of the book that the Confederates were experimenting with tactics in the 1860’s that would be standard operating procedure in World War I. The author explains in more detail the scope of the book. He focuses on the Army of Northern Virginia, but mentions that the Army of Tennessee also had effective sharpshooter battalions as well, mainly focused in Cleburne’s Division.
Prologue: Assault at Cedar Creek
James McKnight’s Regular Army battery fought at the Battle of Cedar Creek, in the 1864 Valley Campaign. At that battle, they were attacked and overwhelmed by what they perceived to be a line of skirmishers in open order. In fact, these Rebels were a part of the elite Corps of Sharpshooters of Ramseur’s Confederate Division. As author Fred Ray puts it, “the Confederate sharpshooters were years ahead of their time, presaging both the ‘open order’ of the late-nineteenth century and the German Stosstruppen of World War I.”
Chapter 1: Antecedents
The author briefly covers developments in Europe in the years preceding the Civil War. British riflemen, Hungarian grenzers, German jägers, and French chasseurs, tirailleurs, and voltigeurs are covered, along with certain French ideas such as infanterie légèr and levée en masse. The use of these troops varied wildly by army. Some equipped these light troops with smoothbores only, while others went more with rifles. Some armies formed full units of light troops, while others parceled them out by the company to line battalions. I am fairly comfortable with the terminology and tactics discussed in the chapter, as I am also interested in European military history, especially the Wars of Succession and the Napoleonic Wars. Ray allows this brief description without getting too bogged down in the details, allowing the reader a brief but interesting glimpse into how light troops were used in the European armies.
Chapter 2: American Riflemen
In Chapter 2, the author shifts gears and concentrates on the development of Riflemen in the extremely wooded lands of America. Riflemen armed with the Kentucky rifle played a role in the American Revolution, picking off officers and others who displayed gallantry and generally demoralizing the opposition. George Washington formed a Corps of Rangers during the war, but the numbers of riflemen were diminished slowly as the war wore on. Although the Kentucky rifle could reach long distances, shortcomings such as its brittle nature as a hunting rifle and the lack of a bayonet made Washington and others reluctant to use riflemen unless line infantry protected them. Between the American Revolution and the War of 1812, riflemen were used sporadically. Ray mentions that a new “short rifle” based on German jäger designs was introduced in 1803, and that this new rifle was superior to the Baker rifle, its British counterpart. The new rifle was used by the new Regiment of Riflemen in the War of 1812. Ray discusses the various exploits of the American riflemen and their British counterparts, noting especially their deployment by Andrew Jackson at New Orleans in 1815. Several rifle units in the time between the War of 1812 and the Mexican War are then discussed, including the Regiment of U.S. Voltigeurs and Foot Riflemen and also the Regiment of Mounted Riflemen, both of which were organized in the 1840’s. Due to lessons learned in the Mexican War and in conflicts with Native Americans, both light units and individual sharpshooters (what we would call snipers today) fell out of favor by the time of the Civil War.
Chapter 3: Zouaves
French tactical innovations and units dominate this chapter. The French Army had to deal with an insurrection in Algeria from 1830-1847, and the natives at first were able to pick off musket-armed French soldiers with near impunity. The French created new tactics and armed their units with rifles. The result was the now-famous Zouave units, who later participated in the Crimean War and in Italy in the 1850’s. Individual initiative and small-unit tactics were priorities in the French system, and Ray calls both innovative in the military world of the mid-19th century. Confederate General William Hardee translated the French light infantry system literally word for word in his Rifle and Light Infantry Tactics, released in 1855. As the French further refined their methods, American officers read with interest various military journals and went on observation missions to see the theories in practice. Europeans began establishing formal schools to train their officers and men in the new tactics. This did not happen in antebellum America, though the 10th Infantry Regiment became in practice if not in official designation a light infantry unit. Ray says that, in typical American fashion, the unit was broken up into parts and sent to fight Indians on the frontier. The need to fight Indians in company sized units meant that specialization of flank companies all but disappeared in America. Ray concludes the chapter by saying that the French ruled 1850’s military thinking. Since their Zouave units had executed many successful bayonet charges in the late 1850’s, conventional military wisdom began to point to the bayonet as the king of the battlefield. Ray points out, however, that the Zouaves took heavy losses, and opposing riflemen were able to kill or wound many French officers. American officers failed to note this last point, and they started the American Civil War with the bayonet on their mind.
Chapter 4: Beginnings
Ray next tackles the state of the Union and Confederate forces at the beginning of the Civil War. He notes that the small standing army left both sides completely unprepared for what they were about to face. In addition, early in the war most troops on both sides were armed with smoothbore weapons, and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia did not even see a majority of its men using rifles until after the Battle of Chancellorsville. Ray also notes that the two tactical practices predicted for rifle toting infantrymen, long range firefights and bayonet charges, did not happen very frequently. Even though rifles started to replace muskets, the slow rate of fire meant that men still needed to be massed in large, packed formations to deliver maximum firepower. These formations maintained an emphasis on the unit as a machine. Skirmishing, on the other hand, focused on individuality. At first, soldiers were drawn fro, units with no regard to affiliation or skill. This led to lack of familiarity and also led to mediocre soldiers performing this important duty. Later, soldiers in flank companies were given rifles and asked to perform picket duty on a routine basis. Ray writes that Confederate soldiers seemed to have an advantage on average as far as skill with a gun went. Many Northern soldiers had never even fired a gun when they first joined the army. Some Union soldiers were skilled at the art of target shooting, and these were gathered together in units such as Berdan’s United States Sharpshooter Regiments. Richard
Ewell was the first on the Confederate side to attempt to organize his skirmishers in an orderly fashion. He ordered each brigade of his division to take two companies of each regiment and form a battalion that would be trained in the duties of light infantry. These orders couldn’t be implemented because the division was soon engaged in the Valley Campaign, leaving no time to train the troops correctly. The reorganization of the Confederate regiments in April 1862 also led to the formation of some “sharpshooter” units, such as the Palmetto Sharpshooters. They had been tabbed to become a unit trained specifically as sharpshooters, but Confederate manpower needs forced them to continue as a regular infantry regiment. During the Yorktown phase of McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign, troops in Wilcox’s Alabama brigade were brought together under Archibald Gracie and formed an ad hoc light infantry battalion for a month. It soon disbanded, but it had helped Magruder protect his Yorktown line. The Confederates also ran into Berdan’s Federal sharpshooter units around this time. In response, they formed a corps of sharpshooters from several rifle-carrying companies of various regiments. In May 1862 the Confederate government officially authorized a sharpshooter battalion for each brigade in the army to be composed of between 3 and 6 companies from the brigade. In addition, many “sharpshooter” units held that title while actually serving only as line infantry, similar to the situation of the Palmetto Sharpshooters above. However, the constant fighting and movement of 1862 prevented these ideas from taking shape just yet. Ray concludes the chapter by mentioning that the sharpshooter ideas seemed to come from men who had served together in 1861. Ewell commanded a brigade in Van Dorn’s Division, and Ewell’s subordinates included Robert Rodes, Eugene Blackford, and Bristor Gayle, with Rodes getting the lion’s share of credit for eventually putting the sharpshooter battalion theories into practice. Robert Rodes was Colonel of the 5th Alabama early in the war, and it was a part of Ewell’s Brigade. Rodes was known as a strict disciplinarian and he was essentially the drillmaster for the brigade. When Ewell was promoted to division command, Rodes took over the brigade in October 1861.
Chapter 5: Seven Pines, Gaines’s Mill, and South Mountain
Rodes first led his men at Seven Pines in late May 1862. He used John Gordon’s 6th Alabama as skirmishers across his entire brigade front. This caused massive confusion when his men reached the enemy redoubt, and Ray says that neither Rodes nor anyone else used this arrangement again. After Seven Pines, Rodes commanded an all-Alabama Brigade when several units were shuffled in and out of his unit. Bristor Gayle, another important person in the evolution of the sharpshooters, commanded the 12th Alabama under Rodes. During the Battle of Gaines’s Mill in the Seven Days fighting, the regiment faced severe artillery fire. Lt. Col. Gayle detailed the four best shots in each company, organized them under Lt. Robert Park, and sent them to negate the artillery. Park’s ad hoc unit managed to kill many of the battery’s horses and men, silenced the battery, and brought back many trophies. According to the author, “Colonel Gayle’s innovation had proved quite successful.” Hill’s Division missed Second Manassas, but they were in the thick of the fighting at South Mountain. Rodes’ Alabama Brigade was detailed to hold the northern end of the Turner’s Gap line, allowing each regiment to deploy its own skirmishers. Again Col. Gayle detailed the 4 best men from each company, 40 in all, to act under Lt. Park as his skirmish line. Rodes was outnumbered 3 to 1 and facing George Meade’s Pennsylvania Reserve Division. Meade’s command contained the famous Pennsylvania Bucktails, experienced skirmishers in their own right. This time around, Park’s men fared badly, mainly due to the overwhelming numbers and extended line the Union soldiers brought to bear. The rest of the skirmishers of Rodes’ Brigade fared as badly as Park’s men of the 12th Alabama. The Yankees had too many men and outflanked the Confederates, capturing many. To make matters worse, Lt. Col. Gayle fell dead in this fight. However, as Fred Ray notes, Robert Rodes had seen the amount of time his badly outnumbered men had held off superior numbers of Yankees. He would take the sharpshooter idea to the next level. At Antietam, riflemen (possibly from Rodes’ Brigade) had fired on French’s Union II Corps Division and caused it to veer southward towards the Sunken Lane. The author writes that these riflemen changed the course of the battle in that sector. More importantly, lessons had been learned about the weaknesses of a conventional skirmish line. Rodes and others had lost many prisoners during the fighting due to these weaknesses.
Chapter 6: Winter At Fredericksburg
Eugene Blackford, another man who played an important role in the formation of the Corps of Sharpshooters, makes his first appearance at the beginning of this chapter. He had fought well under Rodes during the Seven Days, but fever had laid him low until after Antietam. D.H. Hill’s Division didn’t do much fighting at Fredericksburg because they were in reserve. After the battle, the Confederates made some changes to their skirmishing habits. At this point, Hill sent down an order asking for regular skirmishers, men who could be trained in the work. Robert Rodes ran with this idea in his brigade, asking for the best men from each regiment to form a battalion of sharpshooters, to be commanded by a major or above. Rodes chose his friend Eugene Blackford, and gave him absolute authority over his men. Each regiment was to form a company of sharpshooters, who would typically stay with the regiment. However, when called for sharpshooting duty, these sharpshooter companies in the brigade would all come together under Blackford, about 1 man in 12 in the brigade. An added bonus for the sharpshooters was that they avoided routine camp duty. According to Ray, trials of various weapons found the Enfield rifle to be accurate out to 900 yards, a range no other weapon could match. Armed with their Enfields, the sharpshooters went through new training. Blackford introduced buglers to sound calls along his spread out line, and the men also engaged in judging distances accurately and in target practice. In January 1863, D.H. Hill grew ill and was transferred to North Carolina. Rodes was assigned to division command, and he almost immediately ordered the other brigades in the division to organize sharpshooter battalions similar to Blackford’s, with 1 in 12 men in each brigade belonging to its sharpshooter battalion. By the spring of 1863, Rodes had five sharpshooter battalions, each between 100-125 men. They remained with there regiments most of the time, but when contact with the enemy was made they immediately went to the front as skirmishers. The sharpshooters also drew a lot of picket duty and were trained specifically for this duty. At the close of the chapter, Ray mentions that Blackford found other interested officers visiting him, and several other brigades outside of Rodes’ Division had sharpshooter battalions operating around the same time as Blackford’s as well, including Wofford’s Georgia Brigade, McGowan’s South Carolina Brigade, and Hood’s Texas Brigade, though this last one broke up following the death of the sharpshooter battalion’s commander.
Chapter 7: Chancellorsville
Rodes’ Division was in the thick of the fighting at Chancellorsville. His sharpshooters were ordered to picket Hamilton’s Crossing on the Rappahannock River. They faced off against Yankee pickets for a day, and then moved west with Lee’s main body as Hooker’s intentions became clear. Blackford’s sharpshooters were sent out in front of the main body of the division to protect them from unseen enemies possibly lurking in the Wilderness. They stayed in these positions until the morning of May 2, when they joined Stonewall Jackson’s famous flank attack against Howard’s Union XI Corps. Blackford’s men covered the right flank of the main body as they marched around Hooker’s right flank, and they led the way in the actual attack. Howard’s XI Corps was driven back with many prisoners lost, and the sharpshooters and others were treated to a large bounty of captured food and other items. However, Jackson and A.P. Hill were shot in the confusion, and J.E.B. Stuart took over the II Corps temporarily. On May 3, the sharpshooters were used as line infantry, and after heavy attacks, the Yankees retreated from the crossroads at Chancellorsville. Wofford’s Georgia sharpshooters were busy on the eastern side of the line, back with the Confederate units that did not participate with Jackson’s May 2 attack. They kept the Union troops busy on that end of the line, and even applied some pressure that helped to cause a few Yankee units to surrender. On May 4, Lee and many of his men headed east to deal with john Sedgwick’s advance from that direction, and Stuart relied on his cavalry and sharpshooters to cover large gaps in his line in the Wilderness facing Hooker. On May 5, Lee needed to see if the enemy was still present in force, and Blackford’s men, along with the sharpshooters of Ramseur’s Brigade, were sent out to investigate. After suffering losses, the sharpshooter battalions retreated and gave Lee the information that the Yankees were strongly entrenched. Although the sharpshooters had done well at Chancellorsville, in their first battle after their formation, Rodes still wasn’t satisfied. He ordered the formation of a second battalion of sharpshooters in each brigade, bringing the total to 1 man in every 6 in a brigade belonging to these elite units. This allowed the two battalions to relieve each other from picket duty and cover more ground as skirmishers. Ray found only one documented piece of evidence mentioning this formation of a second battalion per brigade. It is an order in Iverson’s Brigade from late May 1863. Rodes Division was reorganized before Gettysburg, losing Colquitt’s Georgia Brigade but gaining Daniel’s Brigade of North Carolinians, who were immediately ordered to form two sharpshooter battalions. The sharpshooter arrangement in Wofford’s Brigade became permanent around this time, and the four brigades of Dorsey Pender’s Division also formed permanent sharpshooter battalions based on Blackford’s model as well. The number of sharpshooter battalions was growing.
Chapter 8: Gettysburg
Again at Gettysburg, the men under Rodes saw some hard fighting. On the fist day at Gettysburg, Rodes’ Division came in from the north on the Mummasburg Road, and they faced portions of the Union I and XI Corps. Rodes had a lot of ground to cover, so he sent Doles’ Brigade to his far left to guard the Carlisle Road. He placed Blackford’s sharpshooters in the gap between Doles and the other four brigades of his division. While Rodes attacked Baxter’s and then Paul’s Union Brigades in several clumsy assaults, Blackford held off a much larger number of Yankee skirmishers, who were detached and thrown together as they usually were. Blackford’s men held as long as they could, and eventually retreated. But they had not gone far before they saw Jubal Early’s Division advancing to fill the space they had previously occupied. Once Early arrived, Rodes sent in another attack, much better coordinated this time, and helped to drive the Yankees from the field. Ray points to the large number of casualties on the Union skirmish line (~25%), and attributes those figures to the Corps of Sharpshooters. He also points out that several of Rodes’ brigades went forward either without skirmishers (Iverson) or by using the old method of detaching men (O’Neal), and concludes that this contributed in no small way to the early struggles in the first attacks. One other interesting point is that a Confederate sharpshooter killed Union General John Reynolds, commander of the I Corps, over on the Confederate right. Rodes’ Division didn’t really see any fighting on day 2. They were ordered to make an attack as night fell, but the order was rescinded. Rodes next ordered Blackford to move into the town of Gettysburg itself and annoy the Union line on day 3. Blackford’s men got situated in various houses and other buildings before daybreak. His men banged away at numerous Yankee positions on Cemetery Hill, and he even had men scrounge around town looking for more ammo to keep his men supplied! Blackford’s men got a front row seat to Pickett’s Charge, and they attempted to take some of the pressure off by again firing into the Union positions as Pickett’s men retreated. As the Rebels retreated from town, Rodes placed Blackford in charge of all five sharpshooter battalions of the Division in a demi-brigade, around 1000 men in all, and ordered him to act as the rear guard for the Army. Ray writes that this arrangement would soon become permanent. Blackford and his sharpshooters kept the Yankees at bay all during the retreat, but they often went hungry. The main body usually had eaten everything worth eating by the time they reached any given point. Still, Ray concludes the chapter by pointing out that in spite of the loss of the battle, Rodes could be pleased with his men. They had done everything he had asked them to do successfully.
Chapter 9: Manassas Gap
Still in Maryland, Blackford lost his personal baggage wagon to burning at the hands of the Federals. The Yankees even used his diary to identify and remove a friend and his family from Maryland, forcing them to evacuate to the Confederacy. On July 6, Blackford was ordered by Jubal Early to charge over a hill to see if enemy infantry was behind it. Blackford obeyed, even though he was sure the information was false. After taking senseless losses, Blackford and his men retreated, and they did not look kindly on General Early on that day. On the morning of July 15, 1863, Rodes’ sharpshooters slipped across the Potomac River at Williamsport by slipping into other units one by one. They caught up with Rodes’ Division later that day. As the Confederates retreated through the Shenandoah Valley, Meade tried to cut them off by forcing his way through Manassas Gap in the Blue Ridge Mountains. French’s III Corps, consisting of 6,000 men, led the way for the Union. Only 600 men of Wright’s Georgia Brigade faced French at first. Soon Rodes’ Division was called up as reinforcements. The sharpshooters, positioned on the Confederate left, had a field day. They shot up the timid Union attacks, and at least one northern soldier was exasperated by the timid way in which his commanders sent in their attacks. Both sides lost about the same number of men (around 100 each). French, though he had the 1st and 2nd United State Sharpshooter regiments in his Corps, failed to use them to any advantage. The 2nd USSS never lost a man in this engagement. Rodes again used the five battalions of sharpshooters as a combined force under Blackford, something he was doing more and more frequently. The sharpshooters were almost captured that same night due to the negligence of a staff officer. Instead, through some good luck, they managed to evade the Federals and rejoined Rodes’ Division. As the Gettysburg Campaign came to an end, Rodes’ men returned to their camps near Orange Court House.
Chapter 10: Winter 1863-1864
Blackford and his men didn’t get to rest long. They were soon involved in picketing Morton’s Ford across the Rappahannock River. Blackford, ever the innovator, had a trench cut back to a ravine near the sharpshooters’ picket line so that they could escape quickly in the event of trouble. In addition, the sharpshooters were increasingly being used in long bouts of picket duty, and Blackford knew that his men would grow weary of the work unless he did something. His plan was to group the sharpshooters into teams of four, with one man on watch while the other three slept. Each hour, a horn was blown, and the man on duty woke up the soldier whose turn it was next. Junius Daniel’s North Carolina Brigade, newly arrived before Gettysburg, needed work on their sharpshooter training and methods. Blackford got them squared away, but Daniel himself was incredulous that only ¼ of the men were active on the picket line. He berated Blackford, but the sharpshooter, aware that Rodes had given him absolute authority over the Corps of sharpshooters, threatened to arrest Daniel and told him he had no business interfering. Rodes upheld Blackford’s authority in the matter. The sharpshooters next participated in the Bristoe Station Campaign. Lee had decided to strike north in a movement similar to that of the Second Manassas Campaign a year earlier. Meade was cagier than Pope had been, however. Although the sharpshooters did good work in picking off stragglers from the retreating Yankee columns, A.P. Hill managed to get a bloody nose at Bristoe Station, effectively ending the campaign. Lee tore up the Orange & Alexandria Railroad from Bristoe Station south to the Rappahannock before again retreating south of that river to make winter quarters. However, a surprise Union attack at Rappahannock Station on November 7, 1863 caused Lee to fall back again, this time behind the Rapidan River. Blackford was on leave starting in early November. Meade decided to launch an offensive, however, in late November 1863. This was the Mine Run Campaign, contested in bitterly cold weather in the inhospitable Wilderness. The sharpshooters of Rodes’ Division fought a delaying action at Robertson’s Tavern. It was an interesting fight because the opposing brigade commander, Colonel Samuel Carroll, had trained his 8th Ohio in light infantry tactics extensively. As Carroll’s men and the sharpshooters fought, the main body of Rodes dug in not far behind. That night, all of the Confederates retreated west behind Mine Run and dug in. The 1st and 2nd U.S.S.S. were deployed by the Federals to skirmish and determine Confederate strength. The commander of the 1st U.S.S.S., Lt. Col. Caspar Trepp, was killed with a ball through the head from a Confederate sharpshooter. Meade decided the Confederate defenses were too strong and retreated on December 1, with the sharpshooters of Doles’ Brigade bagging 137 men on their own. Ray concludes the chapter by comparing the sharpshooters of the two armies. The Yankees had started earlier, but Rodes and Blackford had created a system every bit as effective as their northern counterparts. The Union, in fact, had reached “the apogee of the Federal sharpshooter movement.” It was to be downhill from this point forward. As an example, Ray explains that Carroll’s sharpshooter experiment is never mentioned again. On the Confederate side, the sharpshooter experiment had worked so well that these picked men “would assume an increasingly prominent role in the Army of Northern Virginia.”
Chapter 11: Preparing for 1864
The winter of 1863-1864 saw Lee order that all brigades in the Army of Northern Virginia should organize Sharpshooter battalions. Apparently Cadmus Wilcox took credit for this idea, though Ray maintains that Rodes deserves much more of the credit. Sharpshooter battalions other than Blackford’s had been created in 1863, but most had fallen out of favor by the dawn of 1864. For instance, Haskell’s sharpshooter battalion of McGowan’s Brigade had been discontinued when Haskell was killed at Gettysburg. This battalion was reformed in March 1864 under Captain William S. Dunlop, who would later write a history of the sharpshooters at the turn of the century. All of these new sharpshooter battalions began training in picket duty, skirmishing, and long range shooting, just as Blackford’s had the year before. I consider the following paragraph to be one of the most important I’ve yet read in the book, so I’ve quoted it in its entirety:
Although several writers mention Lee’s sharpshooter order, no copy has yet come to light. In any case, the army’s sharpshooter battalions’ organization varied somewhat from brigade to brigade—like everything else in the Confederate Army. While all fielded a battalion of 170 to 200 men and used a draft of about one man in six across the brigade, the number of companies varied. This may have been as much a reflection of the chronic shortage of officers as anything else. Blackford’s sharpshooter battalion stuck with its five companies, one company per regiment arrangement throughout the war, as did some others (e.g. Mahone’s Brigade), while some other battalions (e.g. McGowan’s and Lane’s Brigades) used an arrangement of three companies, and still others (e.g. Scales’s Brigade) fielded four. There were also permanent organizations like the Third Georgia Sharpshooter Battalion of Wofford’s Brigade, consisting of five companies, that continued to serve until the end of the war. Some brigade commanders used existing units, such as the Third South Carolina Infantry battalion of Joseph Kershaw’s brigade. This seven-company battalion was converted to a sharpshooter battalion by adding handpicked men from across the brigade.
Each sharpshooter battalion, regardless of exact composition, operated on the principle of fours. Men would group into these bands of four and they would do everything together, separated only by casualties or death. All the sharpshooter battalions also used the bugle to sound calls when they were fighting in open order. However, each battalion was divided into two “corps” so that they could rotate on the picket line and also act as a provost guard during battle if they weren’t used on the front line. Ray mentions that the Union and Confederate sharpshooters used virtually identical training methods, and in fact relies on an account of a sharpshooter in the 2nd U.S.S.S. to detail how it was done. Robert Rodes, always at the forefront of sharpshooter tactics, now broached his next idea to Eugene Blackford, who was back from sick leave by April 3, 1864. Rodes wanted his sharpshooters to act at the division level. In other words, he wanted the sharpshooter battalions from each of his brigades to be able to act in front of his whole division as a unit. Blackford took command and mentioned that he had as many as 1200 men at any given time in training. Ray indicates that the target practice of the sharpshooters far exceeded that of the common line infantryman, perhaps to levels never before realized. He bases this assertion on the testimony of Blackford. Ray concludes, I another important paragraph:
Thus, since the Army of Northern Virginia typically fielded around thirty-six infantry brigades in 1864, and each brigade had a battalion of 180-200 men, this would have given the Confederates a corps of more than seven thousand men trained in marksmanship and skirmish tactics. “Grant’s intention is to siege Richmond this summer,” wrote sharpshooter Jerry Tate, who thought that “he will find some obstacles in the way that will be hard for him to remove.”
Clearly, these men have long needed their tale told.
Chapter 12: The Wilderness
The next major operation of the Army of Northern Virginia, the Overland Campaign, started with the Battle of the Wilderness on May 5-6, 1864. Blackford’s men were again in the thick of the fight, this time in Saunders Field. They (and the rest of Battle’s Brigade) had gone to support Jones’ Brigade of Virginians, to the right of the Orange Turnpike, but Jones’ sudden retreat had placed the sharpshooters and several regiments of Battle’s Brigade in among the Yankees. They had no choice but to fall back. Battle’s other regiments counterattacked, drove the Northern troops back across Saunders field, and allowed the sharpshooters to set up behind log breastworks on the western edge of the field. Blackford’s men were involved in some sharpshooting activities centering around two abandoned cannon in the middle of the field. They spent the rest of the battle in this position. Meanwhile, over on the southern (or right) flank of the battle, the sharpshooters of Samuel McGowan’s Brigade under Captain Dunlop were covering the left flank of Wilcox’s Division as it marched east on the Orange Plank Road. They were there to ensure that no Federal troops would surprise Wilcox’s formation while it was in its vulnerable road column. When Wilcox moved forward in battle line, he ordered the skirmishers to extend as far left as possible to try to cover the gap between Hill’s forces and Ewell’s to the north. Ray speculates that Dunlop’s men may have faced the 2nd U.S.S.S., which was posted in the vicinity. The Confederates fared poorly the first day on Hill’s front, but two Confederate divisions had managed to hold off five Union ones. On May 6th, Dunlop’s sharpshooters were posted several hundred yards out in front of the main brigade line, and they managed to hold up the dawn advance of the Federals for some time. Unfortunately, McGowan’s Brigade ran after firing only a few shots. General Lee himself came to stabilize this part of the line, and McGowan’s men reformed. Longstreet’s I Corps was a timely arrival around this time and pushed the Yankees back with a flank attack. Sergeant White of the 2nd U.S.S.S. was out in front of Ward’s Division when the attack hit. Ray briefly describes his experience in getting back to friendly lines. One last interesting incident occurred on May 6th. Ambrose Burnside and his IX Corps had been ordered to move down the Parker’s Store Road to the Chewning Farm. One of his units was the 1st Michigan Sharpshooters, which also included a company of American Indians. These men were trained in light infantry tactics since 1862, but they had not been in the large battles of the east. Ray notes that these men “had not yet made the harsh psychological adjustment to the battlefields of Virginia.” The Native Americans were known both as crack shots, but also for their (at the time) peculiar method of using dirt and objects such as corn for camouflage. They had noted that their Rebel counterparts blended in well with the ground and brush, and they were determined to remove this advantage. At this time, Ramseur’s Brigade had been sent south from Ewell’s main lines to intercept any Federal movement into the heavily forested center. At this point, Burnside was withdrawing, and the 1st Michigan Sharpshooters were left to retreat without aid. However, Ramseur attacked while this was happening. His sharpshooters hid behind a hill, gave the Rebel yell as pickets fired on the Michigan men, and charged along with the rest of the brigade. The Federals were driven back in a hurry. Ray concludes by noting that although some sharpshooter battalions performed well (Blackford at Saunders field, for example), there simply were not many opportunities for the usual sharpshooting skills to be utilized in the heavily wooded Wilderness. Some commanders “had used their sharpshooter effectively and had even developed some unique tactics, like ‘hollerin’’ the Yankees out of their works without actually attacking.” Lee had held, but Grant was moving south to Spotsylvania.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
Chapter 25: The Open Order
Muzzle-loading muskets, along with their slow reload rate and telltale smoke, limited the effectiveness of the Civil War sharpshooter. Soon after the Civil War, rifles made massive leaps forward. The British converted their Enfields to a breech-loader designed dubbed the Snider-Enfield, while the Americans converted their surplus Springfields into a breech-loading design of their own. In 1871, only six years after the war, the British designed their first breech-loader from scratch, the Martini-Henry. Both nations had settled on a .45 caliber weapon, but Ray stresses that this caliber continued to shrink. Hiram Berdan became a firearms designer, and his center-fire primer is still in use today. In 1888, the British created the .303 Lee-Metford, a bolt-action rifle with an eight-round box magazine. The rifle was originally a black powder weapon, but it was soon converted to smokeless powder ammunition, recently invented. By 1907, the English had created the SMLE (Short Magazine Lee-Enfield), a weapon British infantryman continued to use through the end of World War II. Smokeless powder was a real advance. Visibility on the battlefield improved, and muzzle velocity was doubled. “Stripper” clips allowed infantrymen to quickly load ammunition five rounds at a time. Ironically, says Ray, these improvements led to a bloody war in South Africa against the Boers. In it, the British faced a foe similar to the Confederacy. The Boers “were small farmers with a tradition of independence, self-reliance, and marksmanship from an early age.” These mounted sharpshooters, as Ray calls them, caused the British major headaches. At battle after battle, the British suffered heavy casualties at the cost of very few Boers. The British ended up bringing in a half million troops to defeat an enemy “who never put more than forty thousand men in the field.” In the first fourteen years of the 20th Century, armies continued to change their tactics. Many started to discard their colorful uniforms of centuries past for uniforms remarkably similar to the browns and the grays of the Confederacy. The German Army started to experiment with open order formations on the attack, but command and control made this difficult. Some pointed to the Japanese closed-order massed assaults during the Russo-Japanese as successful, though opponents pointed to the large casualties they incurred. The Germans were struggling with these ideas at the time World War I started. As the Great War started, the French followed the idea of élan vital in which the French soldier advanced with spirit, overcoming all obstacles. Needless to say, the French were slaughtered! The British apparently hadn’t learned the lessons of the Boer War, at least on the offensive, and sent their men forward in columns of platoons, only to suffer the consequences. They did better on defense, however, using trenches and barbed wire and training their infantrymen in the art of rapid fire. The Germans had some leeway in their official tactics, allowing officers to use open order formation if they so chose and some did. However, the Germans wanted a knockout blow and massed many men in a sector, too many in most cases. The Germans basically advanced “in thick skirmish lines reminiscent of those of the American Civil War.” Soon both sides were dug in, and trench warfare started. However, only the Germans tried immediately to fix their tactical issues. The German had some units descended from the old jaeger units of earlier wars, and one such unit used tactics similar to Confederate Captain Dunlop’s at Petersburg, moving forward silently, splitting left and right, and then swinging back to their own trenches with many captured Allied troops. Captain Willy Rohr, who was to become the Major Blackford of the Germans, “distinguished himself in the action.” The Germans could cross no man’s land with fewer casualties due to their open order formations, but they needed a way to subdue the enemy fortifications once reached. Enter improved weapons and Captain Rohr. Hand grenades, flamethrowers, and portable trench mortars were just a few of the weapons available to the Germans that were not yet in general use at the time of the Civil War. Captain Rohr was the driving force behind organizing sturmabteilungen, or “special assault detachments to be especially trained and equipped with these weapons”. Rohr gave his NCOs more authority and responsibility, led all of his men forward I open order without the use of skirmishers, used careful rehearsals prior to attacks, and stressed marksmanship and “a rigorous training program.” Rohr’s men were first used at Verdun, and while they performed well, a battle of attrition was no place for stosstruppen (shock troops). General Erich von Falkenhayn liked the idea and permanently approved Rohr’s battalion (Sturmbatallion Rohr). Other jaeger battalions were then converted to shock troops on Rohr’s model, much like the Confederate sharpshooter battalions based on Major Blackford’s unit. These men were exempted from normal duty, lived in comfortable quarters, and were kept in reserve at the army level to be sent to decisive points when needed. The Germans soon realized that they would need larger numbers of shock troops, and soon Rohr was teaching the rest of the German Army his methods. Like the Confederates, there was no standard organization, but many times the typical setup was a stosstrupp company per regiment, with these companies able to be grouped together at the division level. Some divisions simply made these division level units permanent. Like the Confederates, the Germans picked their best troops to be stosstruppen, and the men ate and slept with their regular units except when they were needed for special duty. The Germans also emphasized sniping, and they were better than their counterparts through most of the war. In addition, they continued to develop weapons that could help their storm troopers make decisive gains. Lighter machine guns were made and light portable artillery designed for direct support fire was also created. One major difficulty was the unwieldy rifles in close quarters, so the Germans actually created “machine pistols” capable of firing 450 rounds per minute. General von Falkenhayn was replaced after Verdun by General Erich von Ludendorff, who became a fan of the shock troops. Ray writes that Ludendorff wanted no less than to train the entire German Army as shock troops! However, he soon found this idea unworkable, but remained convinced that Rohr’s ideas could be used to break out of the trench warfare gripping the Western Front. Late in 1917, the Germans knocked Italy out of the war at Caporetto, and they successfully counterattacked against a British tank offensive at Cambrai. The Germans were losing the war, and Ludendorff decided to train one-fourth of his best divisions in the new tactics. His “second line” or “trench” divisions still had their stosstruppen battalions as well. Ludendorff launched his “attack” divisions against the British in an attempt to knock them out of the war in his early 1918 Kaiserschlact offensive. His men bypassed strong points, driving deep into the British rear, and opening a gap 80 km wide in their lines. However, British supply dumps caused hungry Germans to stop and eat, much like their Confederate counterparts in the Civil War, and railroads were used to rush reserves to the threatened areas. The shock troops “had proven devastatingly effective in ripping open the Allied front”, but “they did not restore a war of maneuver.” The Austro-Hungarians basically copied the German pattern, as did the Italians. The British took much longer to adapt, enduring the bloodbath on the Somme in 1916 before finally using tactics similar to the Germans by 1918. The British, led by Major Hesketh Hesketh-Prichard, also began to close the gap with the German snipers. Hesketh-Prichard was a big game hunter, and he used some of the methods learned from that practice. The British also used two-man teams of one scout and one sniper. The French and Italians were mainly using artillery as their offensive weapon by 1918, having never adapted fully to the German innovations, and Ray says the French Army was institutionally incapable of making the change. The “scar on the French national psyche” would take “physical form in the Maginot Line.”
Chapter 26: Evaluating the Sharpshooters
Ray first discusses “killers, fillers, and fodder.” The Confederate sharpshooter “concept made good use of the unique strengths of many Confederate soldiers, especially their innate spirit of independence, self-reliance, and initiative. U.S. Army Colonel Thomas Horner observed in the early 1980’s that a certain percentage of fighter pilots were killers, men who inflicted a disproportionate amount of casualties for their small numbers. In his study, 5% of pilots inflicted 40% of losses in World War II and Korea. The vast majority of men were filler, those who neither killed nor were killed. And the last group called fodder, which made up a small percentage like the killers, were those who were sure to be shot down in one of their first encounters with the enemy. Ray extends this concept to talk about the Confederate sharpshooters and German shock troops. The Confederacy and the German Empire used their “killers” where they would be the most effective. The author points out that a battalion of these men in the right place might be worth an entire brigade of “fillers.” Ray does concede that the sharpshooter idea had some negatives. Commanders had to be careful to use their sharpshooters when they were truly needed lest they strip their front line of badly needed skirmishers. Also, the best men were taken from the line units, and by the end of the Civil War, the quality of Confederate regular infantry regiments suffered as a result. Lastly, these best men by default would suffer the most casualties proportionately speaking since they were always in the worst part of the fight. Ray then briefly discusses the evolution of weapons from the 1700s to World War I. He says that the “quality and variety of weapons available to the light infantrymen improved steadily”, but some items, such as grenades, “remained remarkably consistent”. He points to rifles as the main area where weapons improved. In 1700, very few units were armed with rifles, but by World War I, the only limiting factor on rifles was the eyesight of each individual. Weapons destined for assault troops such as grenades, machine guns, trench mortars, and others, were available in 1865, but Ray reminds the reader that they were too heavy for the men to carry forward easily (if at all) on the attack. The demand grew for lighter, shorter, handier weapons, and that demand started to be met in World War I. Ray’s last discussion involves leadership and tactical innovation among the sharpshooters. He stresses that tactical innovation needed to be rewarded in order for these tactics to work. Lower level officers needed to be trusted implicitly as the ordered lines of past centuries were changed to open order formations. Men such as Blackford, Rodes, and Rohr had to have the approval of high level leadership to make this all work. The Army of Northern Virginia and the German Army, says Ray, were “bottom-up” organizations, while their counterparts in the Army of the Potomac and the British Army were strictly “top-down”, by-the-book units. The author points to John Gordon’s use of mixed groups of pioneers and “storming parties” to clear the way at Ft. Stedman as a precursor to the German sturmblocks of 1917. The Confederate idea of trench-raiding, such as Captain Wooten’s “seine-hauling” technique, was also later used by the Germans. Ray also makes the interesting comparison of the Confederate Battle Flag being used by racists and the term “storm trooper” having a Nazi connotation, something I never really thought about before. Interestingly, the Soviets used the term “shock” extensively in World War II without the negative connotation. After World War I “light infantry fell into disuse in Europe”, though “the concept remained viable elsewhere.” The Chinese used these tactics in Korea, and the Viet Cong practiced these tactics in Vietnam as well, using “sapper” units. Starting in the 1970’s most armies moved from longer-range rifles to short range assault rifles, though lately longer ranged sniper fire is making a comeback. The U.S. Army is using these tactics in Afghanistan and Iraq today in order to reduce civilian casualties and collateral damage to the extent possible. Ray concludes by noting that the U.S. Army is “considering a designated marksman with a specially adapted rifle in every squad, and sniper squad in every battalion. If they were to group these men into a specialized unit, the Americans would have a unit very similar to what the Confederates organized in 1863.
Appendix A: Testing the Sharpshooter’s Weapons
In this appendix, Ray discusses the problems with establishing the accuracy of older weapons when compared with those of today, mentioning tests done by Jac Weller in the 1950s and 1970s. He goes on to discuss modern sniping, comparing Whitworth-armed scouts with today’s “snipers”, and the regular sharpshooters with today’s “Designated Marksmen.” Three major changes have occurred on the battlefield between 1865 and today. First, sighting has improved vastly since the Civil War. Second, muzzle velocity has increased. Lastly, targets have become harder to hit. Early in the Civil War, men marched in tightly packed Napoleonic formations, but by 1864, trenches made available targets scarce, and this continues to the present day.
Appendix B: Orders Issued by the Confederacy Pertaining to Sharpshooters
This appendix contains all of the orders Ray could find that discussed Confederate sharpshooters. He refers to these in the text of the book from time to time as well.
Appendix C: The Assault on Fort Stedman: Numbers and organization
The final appendix in the book discusses in great detail some of the pertinent questions involving Ft. Stedman, which is basically the battle where sharpshooter tactics came to full fruition in the Civil War. Ray presents what he believes was the strength Gordon brought into the attack, the specific organizations used, and the presence of special units in Gordon’s force among other things.
The bibliography contains quite a few manuscript sources, including the National Archives. Ray also uses some newspapers of the day for pertinent quotes. His “Official Publications” used include the ever-present Official Records. His primary sources include many of the writings of men who were in or close to the sharpshooters. The author used a surprisingly large number of secondary sources, considering this was only the second book in a century on the Confederate sharpshooters. In glancing through, one finds quite a few battle studies and biographies of men who were again involved with these elite troops. Ray uses unit histories as well, obviously including unit histories of some of the main regiments known to have experimented with sharpshooter tactics or which were specifically designated and raised as sharpshooters. Lastly, proving we are now fully into the internet age, the author cites several articles available online to complete the bibliography.
The notes appear form page 368 to page 396. Rather than just citing sources, Ray often goes into paragraph-long detail of stories not central to the main story. I always enjoy this sort of noting, finding the notes interesting to read when I finish a given chapter.
The index runs from page 397 to page 413, a more than adequate size for the length of the book.
Maps & Illustrations
I counted over 100 illustrations, maps, and photographs, a welcome change from recent publishing trends. The maps are excellent, and I never felt lost while reading battle accounts.
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