The Lone Marksman

As a followup to my previous post about a present-day marksman in Afghanistan, I am posting (with his kind permission) Gary Yee’s article about a lone marksman at the Battle of New Orleans and the effect he had. Gary, who will be coming out with a sharpshooting book of his own shortly, is one of the few historians who has dealt with the psychological effect of the rifle. Now this seems strange to me, since we hear a lot about the psychological effect of the bayonet, fortifications, artillery, and the like. Yet a well-placed rifleman, as we see here, can decisively affect the morale of a sizable enemy force even when the number of men he actually kills is quite small. This effect is magnified when the men he kills or wounds are the officers charged with directing the enemy unit, not only because it affects command and control but because the loss of a loved or respected officer has a great effect on morale. In modern terms, the rifleman, whether called a marksman, sharpshooter, or sniper, degrades the effectiveness of the enemy unit. If this degradation proceeds far enough the entire unit, or at least its operation in that particular battle, will fall apart as it did here, and did many more times in the Civil War. As Captain Beaufoy observed: “Destroy the mind, and bodily strength will avail but little in that courage required on the field of battle.”

The Lone Marksman Revisited

The well documented exploits of a rifleman in the Battle of New Orleans By Gary Yee1 The NMLRA publication Muzzle Blasts – Earliest Years Plus Volumes I & II, reprints the tale “The Lone Marksman.” Originally published in August 1941, it tells how one man, Lt. Eprahim McLean Brank of Greenville, Kentucky, thwarted an entire column of troops. The story seemed so fantastic that several questions came to mind. Why Brank wasn’t a casualty required explaining. After all, the famous 95th Regiment, armed with the Baker rifle, was present. From what distance did Brank commence firing? Finally, could the story be substantiated? These questions prompted inquiry, and before we present the article in its entirety here, along with footnotes pointing out the changes from the original notes, a brief review is in order. From the Filson Club of Kentucky, it was learned that the source, an original handwritten note, is now kept in the University of Chicago’s Durett collection. After a few emails to the University, I obtained a copy of the original handwritten note. It was copied from an article published in The Republic (Boston, 1832), by William Walcott. Recall that in the 17th and 18th centuries, newspapers obtained information either by hiring reporters or by subscribing to other newspapers. It is likely that the Boston’s Republic drew upon an English paper for its source. British strategy called for isolating the New England states a la Burgoyne with one army, sacking Washington with another, and capturing New Orleans and isolating the interior with a third. Commanding this last army was Sir Edward Pakenham, who arrived with his Peninsular War veterans on December 13, 1815. Pakenham, along with several of his generals, was killed in this one-sided battle that helped propel General Andrew Jackson into the White House. From the battle, we have this account that was previously published as The Lone Marksman by an anonymous British officer. (Note: All text omitted in the original publication is indicated by brackets, and substitutions made from the notes are identified by footnotes, with the original in the text and the substitute in the footnote.) “[A British officer, who was in the Battle of New Orleans, mentions an incident of thrilling strangeness; and our description of the western hunter, many of whom hastened to the defenses of that city, as volunteers in the army of Jackson.]

“We marched,” said this officer, “in solid column in a direct line, upon the American defenses. I belonging2 to the staff; and as we advanced, we watched through our glasses, the position of the enemy, with that intensity an officer only feels when marching into the jaws of death. [It was a strange sight, that breastwork, with the crowds of beings behind, their heads only visible above the line of defense.] We could [distinctly] see the long rifles lying on the works, and the batteries in our front with their great mouths gaping towards us. We could also see the position of General Jackson, with his staff around him. But what attracted our attention most, was the figure of a tall man standing on the breastworks, dressed in linsey-woolsey, with buckskin leggins, and a broad-brimmed [felt] hat that fell around his face almost concealing his features. He was standing in one of those picturesque graceful attitudes peculiar to those natural men dwelling in forests. The body rested on the left leg, and swayed with a curved line upward; the right arm was extended, the hand grasping the rifle near the muzzle, the butt of which rested near the toe of his right foot. With the left hand he raised the rim of the3 hat from the eyes and seemed gazing intently on our advancing column. The cannon of the enemy had opened up on us, and tore through our ranks with dreadful slaughter; but we continued to advance [unwavering and cool, as if nothing threatened our progress.]

‘The roar of cannon had no effect upon the figure before us; he seemed fixed and motionless as a statute. At last he moved, threw back his hat-rim over the crown with his left hand, raised his rifle to the shoulder and took aim at our group. Our eyes were riveted upon him; at whom had he leveled his piece? But the distance was so great that we looked at each other and smiled. We saw the rifle flash, [and very rightly conjectured that his aim was in the direction of our party.] My right-hand companion, as noble a fellow as ever rode at the head of a regiment, fell from his saddle. The hunter paused a few moments,4 without moving the gun from his shoulders. Then he reloaded, and resumed his former attitude.5 Throwing the hat rim over his eyes, [and] again [holding it up with the left hand,] he fixed his piercing gaze upon us, [as if hunting out another victim]. Once more, the hat rim was thrown back, and the gun raised to his shoulder. This time we did not smile, [but cast glances at each other,] to see which of us must die. When again the rifle flashed, another of our party dropped to the earth. There was something most awful in this marching to certain death. The cannon and thousands of musket balls playing6 upon our ranks, we cared not for; for there was a chance of escaping them. Most of us had walked as coolly upon batteries more destructive, without quailing, but to know that every time that rifle was leveled toward us, and its bullet sprang from the barrel, one of us must surely fall; to see it rest, motionless as if poised on a rack, and know, when the hammer came down, that the messenger of death drove unerringly to its goal, to know this, and still march on, was awful. (Note: The substitution of “minutes” for moments in the above paragraph was suspicious. With the rifle’s slower rate of fire than the musket, and the rifle’s long range advantage decreases as the musket armed soldier closes in, time was not something a rifleman can give to the musket armed solider. There is another implication to minutes that will be explored later.)

‘I could see nothing but the tall figure standing on the breastworks; he seemed to grow, phantom-like, higher and higher, assuming, through the smoke, the supernatural appearance of some great spirit of death. Again did he reload and discharge, [and reload and discharge his rifle,] with the same unfailing aim, and the same unfailing result; [and it was with indescribable pleasure that I beheld, as we neared the American lines, the sulphorous clouds gathering around us, and shutting that spectral hunter from our gaze.]

‘We lost the battle; and to my mind, the Kentucky Rifleman contributed more to our defeat, than anything else; for while he remained to our sight, our attention was drawn from our duties. [And when, at last, we became enshrouded in the smoke, the work was completed,] we were in utter confusion, and unable, [in the extremity,] to restore order sufficient to make any successful attack. [The battle was lost.]”

We now turn to our first question: How could the British riflemen of the Third Battalion, 95th Regiment (3/95, later stylized as the Rifle Brigade), who had bested Napoleon’s finest skirmishers, overlook a solitary figure standing atop the breastworks? It is almost unthinkable that these Peninsular War veterans would ignore a prime and tempting target. For an explanation, we turn to 3/95 Quartermaster Williams Surtees: “[T]he enemy had been quite prepared, and opened such a heavy fire upon the different columns, and upon our skirmishers, (what had been formed for some time within 100 or 150 yards of the enemy’s works) as it is not easy to conceive.”7 If we accept Pickles’s figure of 2,232 American riflemen to 546 British or a ration of 4:1, Surtees’s comment is not unreasonable.8 Surtees also provides further insight that increases this disparity: “The right column, under General Gibbs, was to consist of the 4th, 21st, 44th, and three companies of my battalion…9 The left column, commanded by General Keene, was to be composed as follows, viz. – one company of the 7th, one of the 21st, one of the 43d, and two of ours.” The American riflemen, who were concentrated on Jackson’s left wing against Gibbs, enjoyed a superiority of 2,232 to 329 or 7:1. Supporting Surtees is Sir Harry Smith, another soldier with the 95th: “The American riflemen are very slow, though most excellent shots,”10 Of the battle itself Sir Harry remarked: “Never since Bueno Ayres had I witnessed a reverse, and the sight to our eyes, which had looked on victory so often, was appalling indeed… The fire, I admit, was the most murderous I ever held before or since…”11 Quite a compliment, considering Sir Harry fought the Spaniards in Argentina, the Dutch, and Napoleon, and after New Orleans, at Waterloo, in South Africa (Sixth Cape Frontier War), and in India where he won fame and received knighthood. The other question concerned the distance from which rifleman Brank commenced firing, and Sir Harry provides a clue. Detailed to a fatigue party tasked with burying their dead, Sir Harry notes: “A more appalling spectacle cannot be conceived than this common grave. The Colonel Butler, was very sulky if I tried to get near the works. This scene was not more that about eighty yards away from them…“12 A British column marching at ordinary pace a covers 62.5 yards per minute (a thirty-inch pace at 75 paces per minute) and at quick pace 90 yards per minute (108 paces per minute). Recall how the original article spoke of Brank pausing a “few minutes” after the first shot. Even if a “few minutes” is interpreted as only two minutes, this allows a column marching at ordinary pace to march 125 yards closer. If Brank’s first shot was fired while the column was 400 yards away, a “few minutes” would allow the column to close to 275 yards distance. By the third and fourth minute, the column would be a respective 213.5 and 150 yards away.13 After the fifth minute, the column would be 87.5 yards away and would begin to increase its speed to quick pace for additional momentum, reduced exposure in the kill zone, and increased “shock” impact. A “few minutes” meant that after the fourth shot, the column would be at the ramparts itself! One minor change with a major change in outcome. The column however, stopped to return fire. Sir Harry again:”[H]ad our heaviest column rushed forward in place of halting to fire under a fire fifty times superior, our national honour would not have been tarnished, but have gained fresh lustre.”14 It was at this distance that most soldiers fell and were buried. Furthermore, 80 yards is beyond effective range of their muskets and Colonel George Hanger’s oft-quoted remark comes to mind: “A soldier’s musket if not exceedingly ill bored (as many of them are) will strike a figure of a man at eighty yards…”15 But with the exception of Brank, the Americans weren’t offering a “figure of a man” and only their heads were visible from behind the earthworks. As at Breed’s Hill during the American Revolution, the British column stopped to fire when it should have rushed forward. While it is possible that Brank commenced firing from 400 yards, it is less plausible considering it was from an offhand position. Long shots commonly called for a prone or rest position. Recall that Revolutionary War era Lt. Cols. Banastre Tarleton’s and George Hanger’s bugleman had his horse shot from 400 yards by a rifleman who “laid himself down on his belly; for in such positions, they always lie, to make a good shot at a long distance.”16 Given that Brank fired at least four times and that it takes somewhat less than a minute to reload, or around three minutes altogether for three reloads, the column would have, at ordinary pace, advanced some 187 yards. Add the 80 yards where most soldiers fell and we attain a minimal distance of 267.5 yards. Since Brank “resumed his former attitude” after his first shot, some distance must be added, and how much more is left to conjecture. We turn now to the final question, that is, whether a solitary rifleman could wreak such havoc. Surtees who, “was not in it … but I was so posted as to see it plainly,” provides corroboration: “[T]he right column never reached the point to which it was directed; but from the dreadful fire of every kind poured into it, some of the battalions began to waver, to halt and fire, and a last one of them completely broke, and became disorganized.”17 That battalion was the 44th Foot and our anonymous British officer was most likely among them. Before the battle Smith noted: “The soldiers were sulky, and neither the 21st nor the 44th were distinguished for discipline—certainly not of the sort I had been accustomed to.”18 Seeing the 44th break, Pakenham cried out to an aide, “Lost for the want of courage,” and rode off to rally them and while doing so, was fatally wounded.19 To understand the psychology of the Napoleonic soldier in combat, we turn to Captain Henry Beaufoy of the 95th, who, writing under the pseudonym “Corporal of Riflemen,” penned Scloppetaria several years before New Orleans:

When opposed to riflemen, it is the bravest who fall, for it is the bravest who expose themselves most, and thus become most conspicuous. The Officers of our own army in Holland obtained this experience, and in several instances found it necessary to change their hats, and assimilate themselves to the private men. That powerful influence on the mind also, which prevails in a variety of ways in an army, has its full effect in that by which this species of force is employed, as well as that against which it is directed. It has been readily confessed to the writer by old soldiers, that when they understood they were opposed by riflemen, they felt a degree of terror never inspired by general action, for the idea that a rifleman always singled out an individual, who was almost certain of being killed or wounded; and this individual every man with ordinary self-love expected to be himself. How much more must this influence operate, where individual danger is incurred in heroic actions, the success of which must be rendered almost impossible, while the individual conceives himself the particular object of perhaps numerous riflemen. Destroy the mind, and bodily strength will avail but little in that courage required in the field of battle.20

Clearly Brank did not repel the entire column single-handedly, and he enjoyed the support of cannons as well over 2,000 fellow riflemen. This does not belittle Brank’s achievement, but places it into proper perspective. His was the “influence on the mind” that broke the officers’ resolve. With their officers terror stricken, the men leaderless and demoralized from artillery and rifle fire, it is easy to see why the 44th broke. British casualties were over 33% (2,100 killed or wounded and over 500 captured), and the prowess earned by the Revolutionary War American rifleman was not tarnished by those at New Orleans. Footnotes: 1 The writer acknowledges the assistance of Penny Bringhurst of the Speed Museum of Louisville, Kentucky, Jim Holmberg of the Filson Club, and Mark Alznauer of the University of Chicago. 2 “belonged” was substituted for “belonging” 3 “his” was substituted for “the”. 4 “minutes” was substituted for “moments”. 5 “position” was substituted for “attitude”. 6 “played” was substituted for “playing”. 7 Surtees, William, Twenty Five Years in the Rifle Brigade, London, 1996, 373-374. ‘Pickles, Tim, New Orleans 1815: Andrew Jackson Crushes The British, London, 1993, 32 and 37. 8 Surtees at 370-371. 10 Smith Sir Harry, The Autobiography of Sir Harry Smith – 1787-1819, London, 1999, 229. 11 Ibid, 237-247. 12 lbid, 241. 13 Nafziger, George, Imperial Bayonets, London, 1996, 67-68. 14 Smith, 247. 15 Hanger, George, To all Sportsman, re-printed by Richmond, Surrey, England, 1971, 205. 16 Hanger, 123-124. During the retreat to Corunna, 1/95 Rifleman Tom Plunkett lay upon the ground to shoot General Colbert. See Costello, The True Story of a Peninsular Rifleman, Shinglepicker, England, 1997, page 322; and Kinkaid, John, Random Shots From a Rifleman, Spellmount, Corwnall, 1998 pages 19-23, and Surtees, 90-91. 17 Surtees, 374. 18 Smith, 232. 19 Quoted by Pickles on page 73. 20 Beaufoy, Henry, Scloppeteria, re-printed by Richmond, Surrey, England, 1971, 22-23. UPDATE: I ran across a photo of Ephriam Brank in a history of Muhlenburg County, KY. It also contained the following footnote: “Tradition says E. M. Brank did not load the guns he shot from the breastworks. He used flintlocks, and fired them as rapidly as Mike Severs and Robert Craig reloaded and handed them up to him.” This would explain why Brank was able to fire rapidly.


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