A Sharpshooter Story

by Fred Ray on June 5, 2011 · 0 comments

I’ve been researching sharpshooters for several years now, so it’s always nice to find something new like this from the history of the 115th New York. It’s interesting for a couple of reasons.

One is the story of the conversion of the 13th Indiana into a sharpshooter battalion in all but name. This is almost never mentioned, for some reason, in the regiment’s official history and one usually finds it, as here, mentioned in an offhand manner. I’ve found several veteran regiments that were converted this way, including the 43rd New York, usually after the regiment had reached the end of its original enlistment and been reorganized into a battalion of about 200 men. This is, coincidentally, roughly the same size as a Confederate sharpshooter battalion. These men were not snipers in the modern sense but light infantry who specialized in picketing, scouting, screening, and the like, and their Spencer “Seven-Shooters” gave them a real advantage on the skirmish line. Since the numbers of Spencers were limited the preference seems to have been to arm smaller veteran units like the 13th Indiana.

Just how many infantry regiments or battalions were converted this way is very hard to say, but the Army of the Potomac, like its Southern counterpart, began to increase the size of its light infantry arm in 1864, although they did always expressly say so.

The other thing is the presence of a “black rebel” sharpshooter. References to Black sharpshooters are simply too numerous to ignore, and almost all of them come, as here, from Federal sources.

The 13th Indiana Regiment in our brigade (the 3d), probably fought more battles than any regiment in the 10th Army Corps, and were celebrated all through the army for their bravery and splendid fighting qualities. Being reduced to a battalion, they were armed with seven shooters and organized as sharpshooters.

Frequently they acted as skirmishers during a battle, and while in front of Petersburg they took positions behind stumps, trees, and breastworks, doing great execution.

At one point in front of Petersburg, where a squad of the Indiana boys were watching the movements of the enemy, one after another of their number were rapidly shot dead, and the survivors could form no idea where the fatal bullets came from.

Finally, one of the regiment far more daring and shrewd than the rest, declared that he would take his position in the fatal spot, and find out the author of the bloody work, if it cost him his life. So with a select party of his comrades, he repaired to the place, and began eagerly watching the rebel lines. For three or four hours all was quiet, but at last a negro was observed walking leisurely along the works of the enemy. He carried in his arms a long fence rail which he carelessly threw across the sand bags in front of him, and then suddenly disappeared from view. In a moment the crack of a rifle was heard, and one of the Indiana boys fell over dead, being shot through the forehead. Our hero now concluded that the negro was a black rebel, that he was the man who had played such dreadful havoc among his comrades, and that the harmless looking fence rail contained a murderous gun.

He kept a sharp look-out and presently saw the negro aiming the fence rail at him. So he drew up his trusty rifle, aimed quickly, pulled the trigger, and two rifles cracked at the same time. The champion of the fence rail fell over dead, and the Indiana boy received a slight wound in the scalp. No more of our men were picked off in that way, and the rebel scould not play the same game on them again. The day following the occurrence noted above, the Indiana soldier took his position in a tree top, and picked off four rebels with ease.

One evening he came up where the 115th lay, and gave them an exhibition of his skill as a workman. The regimental flag was strapped to a post, on the breastworks, and all day the rebel sharpshooters and skirmishers had been trying to cut it down, and towards evening they opened an embrasure in a fort opposite, and began throwing cannon balls. The Indiana sharpshooter stepped up and said: “Boys, they are trying to cut down your flag, are they? just let me get up to the works, and I’ll shut up their music for a while.” The rebel embrasure was one mile distant, but “Indiana” took aim, fired, and to the surprise of all, the ball entered the hole, causing several rebel heads to disappear in an amazingly short space of time. He fired five times in succession, and put four of the five shots in the embrasure, and the Johnnies not liking such sharp practice, ceased firing, and nothing more was heard of that cannon for several days.

The next evening “Indiana,” accompanied by a friend from his regiment, proceeded to walk boldly in front of the rebel line of works, keeping in Indian file. Of course the rebels began to shoot at them, and pretty soon a spiteful bullet came screaming through the air, wounding each through the leg badly. “Indiana’s ” comrade was naturally disposed to limp but was soon led to change his mind. “If you limp I’ll knock your brains out with the butt of my gun,” thundered Indiana in a tone of deep earnestness. “Forward, March! Don’t let the sneaking traitors know you are wounded,” he continued. Both marched boldly to our works, and on reaching there safely, sank down exhausted from the loss of blood. They both laughed, and joked, and shook hands over the furlough they expected to get, and declared they would never enter the door of a hospital. Indiana was warlike still, and asked to be helped up to the works that he might give the Johnnies his pointed respects. After he had done that, he showed us his many wounds. He had a bullet wound in the right leg, a sabre cut across the right shoulder, a deep bayonet thrust in the left side, and a sore wound in the head beside the one received in the leg at the time. He fought in the Mexican war, and took part in forty battles in this one. When the stretcher arrived to convey him to the hospital he refused to get on it, and the last that was seen of him he was limping to the rear, supported by a stick.

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