Review: The Second United States Sharpshooters in the Civil War by Gerald L. Early


The Second United States Sharpshooters in the Civil War
A History and Roster

Gerald L. Earley

ISBN 978-0-7864-3925-6
32 photos, 4 maps, appendix, notes, bibliography, index
253pp. hardcover (7 x 10) 2009
Price: $55.00

Gerald Early’s book on the 2nd U.S.S.S. adds yet another volume to the growing literature about Berdan’s Sharpshooters. These two regiments, which together never put more than 1500 men in the field, are by far the most famous sharpshooters of the Civil War and are the ones we usually think of when the subject comes up. There are by my count at least a dozen books dealing wholly or partially with these outfits, a circumstance due in large measure to that genius of public relations Hiram Berdan. With their distinctive uniforms, unique weapons, their heavily promoted shooting matches which at times involved President Lincoln, Berdan’s men began a love affair with both the press of his day and historians of ours. Say what you will about the man, he was a master publicist.

Raised by inventor and rifleman Hiram Berdan at the beginning of the war, the Sharpshooters were a light infantry force organized and trained along the lines of the French Chasseurs, although their uniforms owed more to the Continental, British and American rifle traditions, including their green uniforms. They were most useful early in the conflict when the Confederates had no effective counter, and declined as the war progressed in both strength and effectiveness. Though much has been written about the Sharpshooters, Early’s book is one of the few to deal exclusively with the Second Regiment (the other being Sgt. Wyman White’s Diary).

Overall the book is well written but covers a lot of ground previously ploughed by Wiley Sword, Roy Marcot, and others. If you’ve read several other books on Berdan’s men much of the first half of the book will seem repetitive. Nevertheless, by the time the narrative reaches mid-war, it comes into it own. Early’s account of the role of the 2nd U.S.S.S. at Gettysburg is the best I’ve seen, especially its role in deflecting the Confederate attack on Little Round Top, and unlike many other accounts it does not slight the regiment’s participation in the Petersburg campaign. However, I wish he’d gone into more detail about the regiment’s tactical employment, and I have my usual complaint about maps—the included ones by John Heiser are excellent but too few (there are only four), and in too many cases one is left trying to visualize the tactical situation from a written description. I also felt that Early spent too much time on the big picture—national policy, strategy, and the movement of armies—rather than on the actions of the regiment. For example he gives the July 1863 action at Wapping Heights but a paragraph even though the 2nd played a fairly important role there, but precedes it with two pages of national and army-level campaign strategy. There are capsule bios of generals like Meade and Hooker but not of the commanders of the sharpshooters other than Berdan. I had hoped to learn more about the 2nd’s first commander, Henry A. V. Post, or its second, Homer Stoughton, or its last, James Doughty, but finished the book knowing little more about them as men than when I started. Post, for example, is simply identified as a business associate of Berdan’s. Early somewhat makes up for this by including a complete roster of the regiment and by taking a fairly detailed look at the social origins and tendencies of the men, whom he characterizes as purely New England Yankee.

Early takes issue with me at one point, correcting my account of Mine Run. Evidently I was in error in attributing the 2nd’s casualties there to Confederate skirmishers when in fact most were suffered in the standup fight the previous day at Payne’s Farm. Nevertheless, he agrees with my larger point that the Confederates were getting better on the skirmish line and the Sharpshooters, who suffered consistently from poor leadership, were on the decline. We are also in agreement that the Army of the Potomac never really appreciated light infantry or how to make the best use of it.

Although attractively designed the book suffers from some unfortunate copy editing errors, notably the spelling of Confederate general Robert Rodes’ name as Rhodes and lapses like mentioning rifles “from Colonel Berdan’s personal horde” [sic]. Overall, those interested in Civil War sharpshooters (especially the 2nd U.S.S.S.) will probably want this book, but the high cost ($55) will probably put off the general reader.

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