SHOCK TROOPS OF THE CONFEDERACY: The Sharpshooter Battalions of the Army of Northern Virginia, Fred L. Ray, CFS Press, Asheville, NC, 2006, 414 pages, $34.95.
Fred Ray's Shock Troops of the Confederacy covers a little-known but important aspect of the Civil War: the "sharpshooter battalions" of the Army of Northern Virginia. Overall, though, this book is really about adaptation and innovation on the battlefield.
In 1862, a Confederate "sharp-shooter" was more of a skirmisher than a sniper, but as the war progressed, the Confederacy formed specialized sharpshooter battalions of volunteers who demonstrated superior marksmanship skills and boldness in battle. These units adapted to the battlefields of their day, leveraging the latest weapons technology and modifying tactics in a way that we often associate with the non-linear methods of late World War I German shock troops. Through extensive research, Ray has created a scholarly work that is worthy of serious study. His is the first book in over 100 years on Confederate sharpshooter units, and it fills an important gap in the study of Civil War history and tactics.
Although Ray uses a multitude of credible sources, including many firsthand accounts from sharpshooters on both sides, his best source is a diary kept by Major Eugene Blackford, a Confederate sharpshooter battalion commander in General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. Blackford trained his unit in skirmish drills and marksmanship out to 600 yards. Lee took notice of the battalion's performance at Chancellorsville in 1863, and soon ordered each infantry brigade to form a permanent sharpshooter battalion. By the opening of the 1864 campaigning season, over 7,000 sharpshooters had been trained and formed into battalions. These soldiers proved their worth during the Overland campaign, by dominating the skir-mish line and killing Union officers at long distances. At Spotsylvania, Union Major General John Sedgwick was killed by a Confederate sharpshooter seconds after stating "they couldn't hit an elephant at this distance."
Ray also discusses Confederate sharpshooter units in the West, as well as some Union sharpshooter units that seem to have been formed in response to the Confederate innovation. During the last two years of the war, sharpshooters on both sides fought in most major battles. In great detail, Ray describes over 19 battles during which sharpshooters played an important, if not pivotal, role. Exceptional examples include Forts Stedman and Petersburg, where Confederate sharpshooters scouted, raided Union trenches, and brought back prisoners.
Shock Troops of the Confederacy contains 43 informative maps and 59 illustrations, including pictures with information of the sharpshooter's weapons and uniforms. More than just an account of the sharpshooters' exploits, the book makes a strong case that the late Civil War battles they fought in were predecessors to the nonlinear tactics of the 20th century. Ray follows the develop-ment of light infantry organization, tactics, and weapons forward to the Boer War, through World War I, and beyond. In fact, Ray's study is still relevant for our forces in the field today, as we learn again that small-unit battlefield adaptation, innovation, and precision marksmanship are just as important now as they ever were.
LTC Scott A. Porter, USA, Retired, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas