North and South
Vol. 9 Number 5
Shock Troops of the Confederacy: The Sharpshooter Battalions of the Army of Northern Virginia
By Fred L. Ray (Asheville, NC: CFS Press, 2006 Pp. 450, $34.95, hardback, 43 maps, illustrations, photos, notes, appendices. ISBN 0-9649-5855-4).
Although a few books from or about the officers and men of Confederate sharpshooter battalions have been published (William S. Dunlop's book is a classic), none approaches the comprehensive coverage and depth of research of Fred Ray's new book Shock Troops of the Confederacy: The Sharpshooter Battalions of the Army of Northern Virginia. Ray also takes a wider view of the subject than previous writers, tracing the development of light infantry and their tactics from the late 1700s through WWI and the development of the German Stosstruppen. Of course, the emphasis is on American military changes during the Civil War, and here much of the credit is given to Robert Rodes and his subordinates Eugene Blackford and Bristor Gayle. Clearly, support from the higher command echelons is essential for the success of any new tactical innovation and Rodes's brigade and divisional leadership in this regard was singularly unwavering.
Ray skillfully demonstrates the evolution of the Confederate sharpshooter units from the open-order drills and marksmanship training of the individual battalions to the creation of a hard-hitting divisional organization composed of a sharpshooter battalion drawn from each brigade. Aside from regular screening, scouting, and reconnaissance duties, by 1864, the battalions evolved into specialized units with considerable offensive punch. The transformation into shock troops is clearly demonstrated during the 1864 Valley Campaign and the assault on Fort Stedman in 1865. The Fort Stedman attack is recreated in the book in minute detail with the aid of many highly detailed maps. In fact, the book contains a large number of maps (forty-three). The quality is a bit inconsistent but the overall effort is impressive.
The maps and text are also used to illustrate certain tactical improvements that sprung from the minds of innovative junior officers. The capture of an enemy picket line by use of a brilliant movement called "seine-hauling" was particularly interesting. Other officers developed variations on this tactic and the Confederate sharpshooters became an absolute terror on the Union picket line.
The author also includes several chapters on the development and use of Federal sharpshooter units, comparing the strengths and weaknesses of each side. A brief chapter introducing western theater Confederate sharpshooter battalions is provided as well. Additionally, Union and Confederate sharpshooter uniforms and weapons are discussed and a useful chapter summarizing modern test-firing results of various period weaponry is placed in the appendix. In my opinion, what's missing from the main text or the appendices is a concentrated and highly detailed description of the battalion skirmisher/open order drills. I may be nitpicking here--you do get a good idea of the tactical evolutions from a complete reading of the text--but I would have preferred a more formalized presentation at some point.
In terms of production values and visual presentation issues, Shock Troops is well-written and edited. Maps, drawings, photos, and illustrations are numerous and appropriately chosen. All in all, it is a quality production. I would recommend this highly original and truly groundbreaking study to anyone interested in Civil War military history, specialists and generalists alike.
--Andrew J. Wagenhoffer