Old Thousand Yards

by Fred Ray on June 21, 2008 · 0 comments

Rev. James K. Hosmer left an excellent account of his meeting with a famous Rebel sharpshooter, dubbed “Old Thousand Yards” for his shooting ability. Hosmer, then a corporal, served with Co. D, 52nd Massachusetts, a nine-months outfit, and his description comes to us from the siege of Port Hudson. Also worthy of note are his descriptions of Confederate soldiers, their arms (they did not have specialized rifles for sharpshooting) and uniforms. At times, much like “blue-staters” today, Hosmer sounds like an anthropologist off in the heart of darkness.

A most complete entente cordiale had just been established between Company D and the Alabama and Arkansas men who have been posted opposite to us. It was rather embarrassing, at first, to come face to face with the chaps, who, for a month back, have been shooting at you night and day: but I wanted to study the live ‘reb,’ and determine the category in natural history under which he should come,—whether ‘gorilla,’ as some claim; or ‘chivalry,’ as others; or something between.

I passed out from behind an uprooted tree, the grass near the stump yet pressed down, where the body of Stowell fell as he was shot; then pushed on for a hollow, about half way to the rebel works, having an uncomfortable sense of insecurity as I walked upright; for it had become second nature to us to crawl and stoop. It was only a few steps. Here they were, the real truculent and unmitigated reb, in butternut of every shade, from the dingy green which clothes the unripe nut, to the tawny brown and faded tan which it wears at other stages, —butternut mixed with a dull characterless gray. There was no attempt at uniform, yet something common, in the dress of the whole company, —a faded look, as if the fabric, whatever its original hue, had felt the sun until all life and brightness had wilted in the web and been killed out of the dye. Still the clothing was whole; and, upon closer inspection, looked strong and serviceable, though very coarse.

A group of rebels were gathered in the hollow; and over the parapet others came jumping, coming in a straggling line down the slope. I am bound to say, they seemed like pleasant men. All were good-natured, and met our advances cordially. They straightened up as we did. It was good to be able to stretch up once more to the full height: they had not been able to do it for a month. Several were free-masons; and there was mysterious clasping and mighty fraternizing with the brethren on our side. Some had been in Northern colleges, and were gentlemen; and even the ‘white trash’ and ‘border ruffians,’ who made up the mass of them, were a less inhuman set than I should have believed.

The officers, sometimes, wore a uniform of gray; the rank being indicated by badges upon the collar. Sometimes there was nothing to distinguish them from privates. They were brown and dusty; though no more so than we, who, like them, had lived in burrows, on our backs and stomachs, for a month. We really thought, that in condition they went ahead of us. The climate and hard marching had sallowed and dug into our cheeks and shaken us on our pins; whereas they were, though not fat, by no means gaunt and emaciated.

Still they hinted at rats, mule meat, and other hard matters, they had been forced of late to come down to. ‘Here comes Old Thous’n Yards!’ said they, as a broad, tall Arkansian, with a beard heavy as Spanish moss on an oak, and a quick, dark eye, came swinging down from the parapet. They all made way for him with some deference. He was ‘Old Thous’n Yards’ with every one, and turned out to be the great sharpshooter of that part of the works. I inquired about him, and found he was a famous backwoodsman and hunter, who, with a proper rifle, was really sure of a bear or buffalo at the distance of a thousand yards.

He came forward rather bashfully. On both sides, the rifles were left behind; and ‘Old Thousand Yards seemed to be as much troubled to dispose of his hands as a college freshman at his first party. His left arm would half bend into a hollow as if to receive the rifle-barrel, and the right fingers work as if they wanted to feel the touch of the lock. I borrowed a chew of tobacco, and won the perennial friendship of ‘Old Thousand Yards’ by bestowing it upon him. Then I bought his cedar canteen to preserve as a souvenir of Port Hudson and its sharpshooter. I fear more than one of our poor fellows has felt his skill; but, for all that, he was a good-natured fellow, with a fine frame and noble countenance, —a physique to whose vigor and masculine beauty, prairies and mountain-paths and wild chases had contributed.

For the most part, these men of the Forty-ninth Alabama and Fifteenth Arkansas seemed like honorable fellows, firm to their cause; disposed to be good-natured, but declining to give communications likely to help us; and, although owning to great hardship, apparently ready to fight on. They complimented our sharp-shooting. It killed and wounded far more than our shells had done; though our shells had burned stables here, a camp there, houses elsewhere, and dismounted many guns. They told us their rifles were Belgian, Enfield, and Springfield. They had no ‘target,’ or Kentucky rifles, as we had imagined. They evidently respected us, and we did them, —so brown and strong: some of them, indeed, with lack-lustre eyes, soap-locks, and lank frames, according to the conventional type of the Southerner; but plenty of them hearty, bright, and frank.

I came back at last to our covert, took a drink of rebel water out of ‘Old Thousand Yards’ canteen, and found my hostility to these fellows much mitigated. I could see why commanders generally frown on this sort of communication. It is likely to establish relations altogether too brotherly for the purposes of war. The great principle involved is liable to sink out of sight before the personal friendship.

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