Captain John D. Young, the former commander of Scales’s brigade sharpshooters, wrote this article in 1878 to describe the formation, training, and employment of the sharpshooters. Along with W. S. Dunlop’s book Lee’s Sharpshooters it remains one of the most comprehensive accounts written by a former sharpshooter. I have omitted some of Young’s battle descriptions that were simply generalized accounts.
Philadelphia Weekly Times
January 26th, 1878
Annals of the War
Chapters of Unwritten History
A Campaign with Sharpshooters:
The Organization of the Riflemen in the Confederate Service, Their Work in the Wilderness and at Petersburg , Personal Reminiscences of Some Distinguished Confederate Officers.
By Captain John D. Young
Late Commandant of Sharpshooters, Scales’ Brigade, Third Corps, Army of Northern Virginia
Long before the close of the campaign of 1863, in the late war between the States, the Army of Northern Virginia, as well as its historic antagonist, the Army of the Potomac , had completely inaugurated the system of fighting from behind earthworks. So universal had this become that intrenching tools formed part of the soldier’s regular equipment as much as did his arms of offense, and the spade and mattock were ranked almost equal in importance with the sabre and rifle. The use of trenches by the Confederate army was dictated by consideration higher than the mere effort of an individual to protect his own life. It was, on public grounds, a matter of dire necessity; its numbers, reduced by disease and death in hospital and field, were far from being recuperated by conscription, sweeping as it was, of 1864. It was apparent to all that every life must be husbanded, and that every advantage of position must be taken, both as to nature and the additions of art, to render the weaker side able to cope with it adversaries. Thus it came to pass that whenever a line was formed or a position occupied where there was any likelihood of attack, trenches were dug at once and earthworks thrown up, which were elaborated and extended as the approach of the enemy increased the chances of an action. These preparations extended even to the picket line. The remains of this vast system of defense are to be seen at this day, and will long be regarded as notable monuments of that long and desperate strife, whose other sequels, we hope and believe, are now being gradually effaced by the pitying touch of time and the wise councils of later statesmanship. The chain of earthworks around Petersburg was fifty miles in extent; being an effort, which proved futile in it ultimate issue, to make the inanimate soil, however “sacred,” supply the absence of flesh and blood. In the campaign of 1864 the necessity of still further utilizing the limited forces of the army loomed up as of prime consideration. It was also noticed that a great part of the fighting fell on the pickets; that these troops were time and again pushed in on that main body, and that, as a general thing, being unable to resist the slightest exhibition of force in their front, they roused the line when driven in, and caused the greatest trouble and annoyance.
The Old System of Pickets
Up to this time picket and outpost duty of all kind was performed by details drawn hap-hazard from the various companies of the regiments constituting a brigade; a single regiment or even company being rarely sent as a body on this kind of service. The promiscuous details were usually placed under officers with whom they were as utterly unacquainted as each man was with his right and left file. As a natural consequence, the details failed to act in the presence of the enemy as a compact, confident body; for if there is any one thing more than any other that is well calculated to destroy the efficiency of a soldier, it is the suspicion that his comrades are going to give way. It is equally a confessed fact that, when satisfied as to the courage and fidelity of one another, men who will fight at all will fight till overcome by hostile numbers. This was the state of things that presented itself to the leaders of the army in 1864. In the sharp economy of war, the use of works was a fixed fact and acknowledged advantage. Some improvement must now be made in the character of the troops who did the outpost duty. To remedy the inefficiency of the “details,” and to form a picket line that on sudden occasions might do the work of a line of battle; in short, by discipline and association, to render a small body of troops equal in strength and effectiveness to twice or even thrice their numberthis was the problem, and the solution of which was of no small labor to General Lee.
To accomplish such results no plan of organization presented itself in the formation of either army. The only thing known among military men that would in any degree approach the formation indicated, was the embodiment of a regiment for each division, after the manner of the Zouave regiments of the French service. There, as is known, to each division of the army is attached a corps who act, as Kingslake aptly puts it, as “the spike-head of the division,” being used either to push in or else ward off attack. There was, however, a serious difficulty in the way of constantly employing a regiment on this kind of duty; for while one regiment, taken as a whole, were always to be relied on for line fighting, it was well night impossible to find such an organization in any division as combined all the qualities found necessary for single and determined picket fighting. Besides, at this time, it was considered a duty not only extra dangerous, but otherwise specially onerous and distasteful; and regimental commanders were inclined to stand on their rights of only acting in their regular routine on the brigade roster. Therefore it was decided, after long deliberation, to adhere to the old plan of details, but to introduce such improvements as would remedy the most obvious defects; especially that of having new men and officers on every occasion that presented itself. To accomplish these ends an order was issued from division headquarters for the formation of battalions or corps of sharpshooters for each brigade. This order organized a body of troops that gained no little renown in the service. How often they stood before the fierce advance of the enemy the unwritten history of the Army of Northern Virginia will attest; while their unmarked graves that fringe the lines from the Wilderness to Petersburg, and the thinned ranks they paraded on the last muster at Appomattox Court-House, will prove that in heroic devotion they were second to none on an army that challenged the admiration of the world.
The Organization of the Sharpshooters
The organization and operation of the corps of sharpshooters of the Army of Northern Virginia will possess, if not for the general public, at least for the intelligent military student, the interest that naturally attaches to every movement new in the details of the servicea service the necessities of which developed many expedients before unknown in the annals and science of war. There were incidents connected with its manner of independent and advanced operations which cannot fail, from their unique and striking character, to possess a common interest for all. It was the fortune of the sharpshooters to experience all the romance and glamour of war; and to these was added enough of a danger to make the service exciting and exhilarating. Place between the lines of two great armies they saw at least the beginnings of all great movements, and had the first intimations of that pleasurable feelingthe gaudia certaminiswhich battle ever brings to the heart of the true soldier. Their time was not spent in weary waiting for the order to advance; nor were they, except in rare instances, subjected to the trying ordeal of remaining quiet under fire, with no power to return the compliment. From the earliest opening of the battle to its tragic close the ears of the sharpshooters were made familiar with the peculiar music of the rifle, and their whole mind was exercised in the problem of affording as much annoyance as possible to the enemy. A battalion was composed of one commandant, eight commissioned officers, ten non-commissioned officers, one hundred and sixty privates, four scouts and two buglers, specially selected and drafted from each brigade. These were divided into four companies, equally officered. As it was a matter of the utmost importance that men should be chosen of tried courage and steadiness, who were good marksmen and possessed of the requisite self-confidence, great care and caution were exercised in the drafts. Company commanders were ordered to present none for duty with the sharpshooters who did not come up to the standard; while the commandant of each battalion, assisted by his lieutenants, personally superintended the examination of all recruits offered for this branch of the service. The company officers in the corps were equally set apart for their military reputations in respect to zeal, intelligence, and personal gallantry. As soon as the requisite number of men was obtained a separate camp was established, and in every respect the command was placed on an independent footingreporting, as in the case of a regiment, directly to brigade headquarters. Thus closely associated together, rank and file soon learned to know and rely upon each other. Still further to increase this confidence, the companies were subdivided into groups of fours, something like the comrades de battaille of the French army. These groups messed and slept together, and were never separated in action save by casualties of disability and death. The further strengthening of this body of troops was hope to be accomplished through drill.
In order to assimilate the men and make them fully acquainted with the special character and details of the duties to which they were assigned, and above all to impart that sense of self-reliance so necessary for outpost fighting, a new system of drill and exercise was adopted. This scheme was presented in the form of a brochure, translated from the French by General C.M. Wilcox, and comprised the skirmish drill, the bayonet exercise and practical instruction in estimating distances. In a short time men, eager to learn and easily handled, not only became proficient in their drill and excellent shots, but from frequent practice could correctly measure with a glance the distance intervening between themselves and the objects at which they aimed. The drill was conducted by signals on the bugle, as the line when deployed was too extended to be reached by the voice, or, when silence was the requisite, by the wave of the sword of the officer in command. The sharpshooters were armed with the improved Enfield rifle; the scouts with rifles of the Whitworth make, with telescopic sights. In order to preserve the elan of the corps and to make the service sought after, it was ordered that this body should be exempted from all picket duty except in the face of the enemy. They were also assigned to the right of the columnthe front in advance, the rear in retreat. This freedom from the irksome and distasteful duties of the camp, which were always especially detested by the average Confederate soldierunaccustomed as he was to do any menial labor for himselfmade a place in the ranks of the sharpshooters an honor much to be desired. There was, in the very joyous nature of the service, something that had a great deal of charm for the soldier, to which, to descend from sentiment to business, may be added the very general ambition at that time prevalent, and by no means confined to the line, to be among the first to handle the plunder of the enemy’s camps. It was in this manner, as briefly related above, that the opening campaign of 1864 found every brigade of the Army of Northern Virginia provided with a body of picked troops to guard its front or clear the way for its advance. It was truly a “spike-head” of Toledo steel, which was not suffered to rust from disuse in the days that so quickly followed. It was kept bright and sharp by constant employment in the series of actions that lasted throughout that eventful year, beginning with the great battle of the Wilderness.
The Battle of the Wilderness
Though the sharpshooters were not employed in this engagement with any exclusive or even special reference to the method and distinctive purpose of their formation, it was the first action on which they fought as a separate organization….
[description of the Battle of the Wilderness omitted]
Into the Hottest Fire
[description of the Battle of the Wilderness omitted]
The Wilderness was a field well adapted by the very nature of the country to the operations of the sharpshooters; but so fierce had been the engagement that no opportunity was afforded them for the display of maneuvers or marksmanship.
An Endless Picket Fight
The movement from the Wilderness to Spotsylvania Court-House was exceedingly arduous to the sharpshooters, who were compelled to march to the left flank of the column, deployed as if in regular line. At last the Court-House was reached; but it failed to afford the expected rest. Almost immediately the command was thrown forward and began what appeared to be an endless picket fight. One day was reflexive of another, though the elements of exposure and excitement prevented their succession from becoming monotonous. At 3 o’clock, before light, the command would be moved out of the camp inside the main lines, and sent forward to relieve the regimental details who did guard duty at night. Arrived on the picket line, while darkness still reigned, the men were placed in the rifle-pits, and, arranging themselves as comfortably as circumstances permitted, proceeded to make what their rations afforded in the way of breakfast. This was generally light, except when contributions had been levied from some contraband source, or the camp of the enemy had been put into requisition. Even during this daylight repast the more adventurous would stop at times to take a shot at the gentlemen in front, while all had the occasion to look about very sharply to keep their own brains from being knocked out. The rage after plunder was fatal to some of our very best men. Some incidents of this passion are worth relating. A sergeant name Warren , during the day killed a man a short distance in front of his pit, and at night, just before the command was relieved, moved quickly forward and possessed himself of the dead soldier’s effects. It proved a rich haul, and the next morning the men were wild for an attack, beholding in each hostile form the bearer of property, of which they burned to possess themselves. All day long they were taking what I may call pot-shots at the enemy’s videttes, and in keeping away their friends, who might have otherwise removed the spoils. The impatience of the sportsmen was too great that night to wait until it was fully dark; they stole off in the gray dusk of the evening, and some of themamong whom was Sergeant Warrenreturned no more. We passed the next morning their bloated corpses on the very spot where their operations had been so rashly begun. After this occurrence stringent orders were issued against the practice of going outside of and beyond the lines. In this manner the command spent its days; sometimes on the outposts, sometimes in the rear; but always prepared to move at an instant’s warning. It so happened that we were not on picket service on the 12th of May, a day long to be remembered as the bloodiest of all the horrible fights that raged along the lines, and only equaled in mortality in proportion to the numbers engaged, by Cold Harbor , of the same year. The sharpshooters, however, saw and acted an important part of the stubborn engagement. Our position having been changed on the night of the 11th to a road in the rear of the works, we were startled the morning of the battle by the sudden apparition of a mounted officer, who dashed forward and shouted“Right shoulder shift, arms! File left! Double quick, march!” “This way!” and away the sharpshooters went after him, not stopping to ask for his authority or otherwise to “reason why.” As the command hurried through the woods the ears of the men were saluted with the familiar roll of musketry and the occasional thunder of a big gun. As we debouched from the woods into the open, we came upon that fatal anglethe error, it is said, of General M. L. Smith, engineer-in-chief of the armywhich gave so much trouble and which has passed into history as Johnson’s salient. The angle had been early recognized as the weak point of our line, and was so feared that the artillery which guarded it was withdrawn every night and sent in early each morning before light.
The enemy in front of this salient was commanded by General Hancock, to whose skill and gallantry was intrusted an assault on our lines at that point. In the dusky light he came up with a rush; and just as our artillery, which was moving in battery at the same moment, galloped up and unlimbered for action, it was captured. Only a piece or two was fired. The infantry of Johnson’s division were overpowered almost as speedily; but the supports came up promptly and a hand to hand conflict ensued, during which the two forces were rarely as far apart as a dozen yards. At times, as if by mutual consent, there would be a cessation of the fire, but it would soon break out at some other point of the line, and, sweeping down, include the wasted antagonists in its folds. In the rear of each line were the supports, who were either to relieve the first or send in plenty of ammunition. There was no lack of ammunition that day.
The training of the sharpshooters in actual war was completed by these actions, and the efforts of their officers were conceded to be successful beyond the most sanguine expectations. These battalions had already established the best reputation among friend and foe for endurance and stubborn fighting. The knowledge that the sharpshooters had the pickets lines enabled many a head to rest in peace of nights, undisturbed by visions of sudden attack and the call to arms. The battalion was now the very lightest of light troops in every particular of impedimentia. The carried absolutely nothing save their arms and haversacks. The last were of but little use. The sharpshooters found it much less burdensome to make a raid for supplies on the line of the enemy than to carry knapsacks. When rations were ordered to be prepared for three days they were generally cooked and eaten at the same time; not a difficult thing to do in the Confederate service, where the ration was scientifically calculated to be the least that a man could live on. Sometimes blankets and fly-tents were carried, but only when there was to be a long march and no immediate prospect of a fight. In the face of the enemy these daring corps generally threw away everything but their arms, and relied for provisions on the chance of war. Their losses were heavy, but easily filled by detail of the best material of the line. The prestige of the sharpshooters was well kept up, and was the just subject of pride to their officers and at army headquarters. And so, when General Grant changed his base, moving South. While Lee followed, describing the interior line, the sharpshooters brought up the rear of the latter, engaging in quite a few unrecorded actions, gaining high credit for the fighting, and occasionally rewarded by a good bit of plunder.
After General Grant’s failure to break our front a Cold Harbor, he suddenly decamped, bag and baggage, for the south side of the James river , masking his movement by covering his front with strong bodies of cavalry, supported by detached infantry. These covering troops were encountered at Riddle’s shop, half way between Cold Harbor and the River, in such heavy force as to induce General Lee to suspend the movement then in progress, of transferring Hill’s Corps across the James. In leaving Cold Harbor the sharpshooters were not ordered to follow until 10 A.M. Another delay resulted from the rifling of a bee-tree; and before reaching Riddle’s shop the dropping fire notified the rear guard that the armies were at it again. At this point General Lee and his staff rode rapidly to the front, hurrying as they did so the forward movement of the battalion. When we arrived on the ground we found that that details from the brigade were already engaged with dismounted cavalry on foot, with but poor success; while the advance of the whole corps was suspended till the force in front could be developed.
A Charge by the Sharpshooters
We were at once put in, and three battalions from Wilcox’s division were ordered to support us. As we had to move across an open field, the officer commanding the details flatly refused to go; and the commandant in charge, rightly judging that it was better to proceed alone than to depend on troops who would hang back, promptly decided to do without these supports and ordered them back to the line, where they went with great cheerfulness. The word was then passed that both General Lee and General Hill would view the advance, and at the command “Forward!” a charge was made that swept the enemy from the field, disclosed his designs, and resulted in the hurrying of Hill’s Corps forward to Petersburg, where its presence was greatly needed. When Petersburg was reached the command was placed well on the right of the line, and the duties that devolved upon the sharpshooters were in consequence very light. The men became fat and lazy on the accumulated captures of previous campaigns, and nothing more serious was attempted as the days dreamily glided by than an occasional “blockade” escape into the city. This halcyon period was rudely disturbed by the combat of the 22nd of June on the line of the Petersburg and Weldon Railroad. This affair, brilliant in all respects to the Confederate cause, has been noticed so slightly heretofore that the
details of the movement may well be given here, as its results in prisoners and guns, and, above all, in the fresh life imparted to the drooping spirits of the men, were of a magnitude not easy to be overstated. For a proper appreciation of the character of this action, some description is necessary of Major General William Mahone, the leader and moving spirit of the occasion. Mahone was a singular illustration of the fact that the Confederate service, while well calculated to develop the natural native aptitudes of its generals, did not afford all of them full scope for the exercise of the genius thus educed, but kept within narrow limits many high spirits which felt themselves capable of larger responsibilities, or wider fields than the cramped resources of the South admitted of their undertaking. He was a man of high personal courage and magnetic presence. A stern disciplinarian, he was greatly respected by his men, who, in the hour of battle, never fought so well as when under his immediate command. His frequent selection for the conduct of most delicate and difficult movements proved the high esteem in which he was held by General Lee. He was an officer in whom, it may be said, were blended the strategic qualities of Soult, and the ardent gallantry of Vandamme. Closely watching his front at all times, he never failed to strike the enemy whenever an opportunity offered, and his blows were always felt.
When General Grant, with the intention of more closely enveloping Petersburg , applied his old maneuvre of extending his left, he moved forward the Second and Sixth Army Corps for the purpose of seizing the Weldon Railroad. The movement was begun by the Second Corps, which marched to the Federal left and took position west of the Jerusalem plank road, their right connecting with the Fifth Corps. This movement at once drew out a strong force of Confederates to confront it, and a slight skirmish was the result. This happened on the 21st of June. That same night the Sixth (Federal) Corps moved up in rear of the Second Corps, and on a line parallel with it. It thus happened that when General Birney, commanding the Second Corps, swung forward his left more closely to envelop the Confederate works, a gap was created between the Second and Sixth, which widened as the turning movement progressed. General Mahone promptly noticed the bad formation of this part of the line, and himself suggested to General Lee the feasibility of attacking the left flank of Birney, then thrown well forward in the air. The march of Mahone’s Division to the front was concealed from the enemy by the nature of the ground over which it passed to get into position. Nor, indeed, was his departure from the works observed; for, with great circumspection, even in details, he ordered the men to leave them one by one, dropping to the rear as if for any other purpose than that of going out to fight. The places of the absentees were gradually filled by an extension of the lines. In order to follow up the movement, the division of General Wilcox was dispatched to the right of Mahone, and was expected to render him support by moving to the front and connecting with his (Mahone’s) right, and by afterward conforming with the latter’s movements. The plan was a good one, and its results might have been very momentous. Mahone, moving cautiously to the front, holding his troops well in hand, furiously assaulted the left of Birney in flank and rear, carrying the line and capturing whole regiments and batteries. Penetrating further in the gap with one of his brigades, he struck the right of the Sixth Corps, and here rested, after vainly waiting for the expected support, which never came. After securing his guns and prisoners, Mahone returned to his works.
The Sharpshooter’s Fire
We will now follow the division of General Wilcox. These troops, moving well to the right, took position, took position at some distance from the Weldon road. When the sharpshooters were sent forward they soon developed a strong skirmish line of the enemy, which was speedily broken; and the advance still further disclosed an open field with no enemy in front except a skirmish line and the ordinary reserve. Evidently the left of the Sixth Corps was near at hand. Two brigades of the division were moved into position, and the inevitable intrenchments soon began to appear; but beyond a sharp picket fire in front there was no fighting. All evening we heard the firing to our left, and as it increased in volume an officer of the division staff was sent out to the picket line and informed the office in charge that the division would withdraw at once from its position; that it must do its best to hold the line with both flanks unprotected, and if forced back, was to make a run for it. The sharpshooters kept up a steady fight, and were glad to perceive that there was no disposition on the part of the enemy to advance; on the contrary, they seemed rather nervous lest we should do so. At nightfall, however, unwonted signs of activity among them were to be observed. Fresh troops were moved into line; the rattle of accoutrements and canteens could be heard, and the officer’s words of commands all indicated preparations for an early advance. The word was passed down our line to give them one volley and retire. When it was well dark, on the Federals came at a charge. Greatly to our relief we could hear the officers shouting out, “Hold your fire for the line of battle!” This was just the thing we wanted. We gave them one volley and broke for the rear like quarter-horses.
There was a line of cavalry pickets in our rear; but these were alarmed at the shouting of the enemy and at once decamped, nor did they draw rein until they reached their camp. The fact that the sharpshooters got away without losing a man in the race, proved that they, on occasion, could show a clean pair of heels. Late that night it was learned that Wilcox arrived on the ground in rear of Mahone too late to be of any service. The ground had been reached by a retrograde movement. This ended this brilliant affair, which, successful as it was, was greatly marred in execution by the manner in which General Mahone was supported. If the division of Wilcox had been moved to the front the Confederates would have completely turned the left flank of the Sixth Corps; and these troops caught between two fires must have suffered great losses. It is a significant fact with regard to the various movements conducted by General Mahone, which reflected such lustre on himself and on the Confederate arms, that at no time was he placed under the command of any division commander. So great was the confidence reposed by General Lee in his skill and energy that in all cases he reported to the corps commander of directly to the general-in-chief.
The Battle of the Crater
Almost immediately following the movement on Reams’ Station, in which the sharpshooters bore their full part and bore it well, was the battle of the Crater, an action fought entirely by Mahone, from which he gained enduring fame. Here, also, the sharpshooters covered themselves with glory, being always in the van and doing full service there. Their commandant, Captain Broadbent, a man of gigantic strength and stature, especially distinguished himself by his reckless daring. Like the brave Major Ridge who led the stormers at Ciudad Rodrigo, Broadbent was first in the works and fell at the foot of the Crater wall, pierced, it was said, with no less than eleven bayonet wounds. After Mahone drove the enemy from the captured mine and retook the pieces, when the line was re-established, a Napoleon gun belonging to Pegram’s Battery (which being just over the mine was blown up by its explosion) was found to be outside the line, at some distance in front of them. It was then almost death to show a head along the line, and the great question was how to get that gun in. Finally some adventurous spirits, being inspired by the promise of a furlough, crept at night to the front, fixed a strong rope around the muzzle, and so dragged it in in triumph. In this action the artillery was specifically well served, officers encouraging the men both by their presence and example. On battery to the south of the mine was handled with a degree of gallantry that challenged all honor. It was here that Lieutenant Colonel Frank Huger of South Carolina , a young officer of great promise and of high personal courage, with his own hands worked one of the guns, although out of the fight. The sharpshooters in this battle sustained heavy losses, having not only skirmished with the enemy during the entire evening, but also participating in the attack with the main line. The extent of the enemy’s losses is known; and the battle itself lives, alone of the Confederate victories, on the canvas of John E. Elder, of Richmond, whose picture is notable for the absence from it of every recognizable form figure of those who bore part in the heroic labors and perils of the bloody day. After this battle the army had a long rest, unbroken except by an occasional fusilade over some wretched deserter.
At this time desertions from the Confederate army had become matters of such common occurrence that it was determined to put a stop to the evil by a summary execution of the law. When men had been taken for this offense there was held what was called a corps court martial; when they were found guilty they were remanded to their respective commands, that the sentence might be carried out. The sentence was executed with all the formalities suitable to such occasions, and the scene was well-calculated to strike terror to the hearts of those who contemplated the commission of this gravest of all military offenses. The brigade charged with the duty of executing the sentence was drawn up without arms, forming the sides of a hollow square. The condemned man with the firing party was marched around inside of the square, the band in front playing a dirgeusually the “Dead March in Saul.” These parades were the disgusting and disagreeable duty encountered during the whole war. Once can never forget the looks of the poor fellows moving slowly around to their death. Some were erect and composed; others so nearly dead from terror at the approach of death as the be reduced almost to a state of coma. After moving around the circle of troops, the condemned man was fastened to a stake and shot, and the brigades, filing slowly by the corpse, were dismissed to their quarters. There were, I am glad to say, no deserters from the sharpshooters, as was natural, for they were the elite of the army.
The Sharpshooters in Demand
When the heavy winter days were ended and spring found us prepared to continue the unequal contest, General Lee, weary of waiting, his depleted command being somewhat strengthened by its long rest, determined to assume the initiative. Accordingly, on the 25th of March, a movement was made on our left ( Fort Stedman ) which proved a failure. That very evening Grant delivered his riposte in the shape of a sharp thrust on our right at “ Battery 45.” Our picketsonly details were on dutywere driven in, and forced back almost under the works. The next day General Lee made a personal inspection of this portion of the lines, in company with Lieutenant General Hill and his division commanders. The picket line, as it remained, was undoubtedly faulty to the last degree, and General Lee, vexed with the burden of so many and such heavy responsibilities, seemed by no means disposed to tax his mind further with the assumption of details of this description. Turning sharply to General Hill, he exclaimed: “Here are your troops and yonder is the enemy. If you can’t establish your picket line, I can’t do it for you.” And with these words he rode away. General Hill that night ordered the sharpshooters of Wilcox to carry the crest in their front, and the next day found us strongly intrenched on a line commanding all the country before it. In moving to our right to meet the continued advances of the enemy in that direction, each day saw our works stripped of men, and each day found us fighting. The sharpshooters were in greater demand than ever before. It was a common thing for a general officer to request their assistance in the establishment of his picket lines. One instance of this kind is worthy of record. Three days before the enemy broke through the lines around Petersburg , they pushed up their skirmish line almost to our works, in front of General Cook, near Hatcher’s Run, with the view of masking their larger movements. Friday evening, a battalion of sharpshooters of Wilcox’s Division received orders to report to General Cook for duty. On reaching the quarters of that officer, they were informed that the command was told off for “nervous duty” in front of the line. We were placed in position with them by Captain Stephen W. Jones, a famous officer of the sharpshooters of Cook’s corps. That night the battalion moved on the enemy and with but slight loss captured their rifle-pits and re-established the picket line. The next day occurred the great break up and the death of A. P. Hill.
Death of General A. P. Hill
It was under most singular circumstances that Lieutenant General A. P. Hill, an officer whose name will ever be inseparably connected with the glory of the Army of Northern Virginia, met his death. When the Federal commander for the last time applied his favorite tactics, and extended his left flank to envelop our right, General Hill’s Corps was massed at and beyond Hatcher's run, though a portion of his command held the works from “Battery 45” to the extreme right. His headquarters were still established near Petersburg . On Saturday evening he left the front at Hatcher’s run, there being no indication at that point of a forward hostile movement. This the writer knows, as having obtained permission from General Hill himself to return to Petersburg , and having ridden up the lines in company with him and his staff. Next morning before dawn the enemy carried several points of his line by reason of its extension, and the attenuation of its defense. Moving across the country, the victorious Federals re-established their pickets in the direction of the river. General Hill, apprised of this state of things at his headquarters, at once dispatched such of his staff as were with him to report the facts to General Lee, and to see what could be done toward repairing the disaster. Accompanied by a few couriers, he rode immediately afterward toward Hatcher's run, with the view of rejoining the main body of his command. He was repeatedly urged not to attempt the undertaking; but his sole and laconic reply was, “I must get to my corps.”
As the General and his party proceeded upon their way they found the country filled with detached bodies of Federal infantry, straggling and plundering. The first lot of these stragglers which was come across, uncertain of their strength, and perhaps awed by the appearance of a general officera sentiment natural to disciplined soldieryquietly surrendered, and were sent to Petersburg in charge of three couriers. Accompanied only by Sergeant Tucker, General till continued on his way till, on reaching a point some four miles from Petersburg , on the plank road, they saw before them two Federal infantrymen. These men, seeing the mounted Confederates, took cover behind a tree. Hill, without hesitation, called to Tucker to ride them down; and, pushing forward in advance, received their fire with fatal effect. Thus perished, in the prime of life, a gallant officer, who had engaged in more pitched battles than he numbered years; who organized and fought with eminent success and daring the famous Light Division, and who handled the Third Corps of the army with the same vigilance, efficiency, and fidelity which distinguished him in lower commands, and which so singularly recalled his image to the dying eyes both of Lee and Jackson. In tone, in character, and in military force, he was strikingly like Bessieres; and his death may also be compared with that of the commander of the Old Guard, who lost his life in an insignificant skirmish on the eve of the great battle of Lutzen. His death was peculiarly unfortunate at this time; but even his magnetic presenceand no man’s was more socould hardly have redeemed the fortunes of the day. In fact, the army was so broken as almost to have lost its military attitude.
With the beginning of the retreat began also the most arduous labors of the sharpshooters. To this body was assigned the duty of protecting the rear of the wearied and worn battalions of Lee that now moved slowly up the line of the Southside Railroad, contesting the way inch by inch with the determined pursuer. At Farmville a decided stand was made, and here the rear guard was joined by Fitz Lee and his cavalry. The fighting on the retreat, except in rare instances, did not reach the dignity of pitched battles; but one action that took place near Farmville deserves the record it had so far received from no pen or tongue. When the enemy reached this point the conduct of operations in the rear was intrusted to Major General Fitz Lee, of cavalry fame; an officer who, after the death of Stuart, ranked first in the army for energy, elan, and all the other qualities that make the ideal beau sabeur. With a small column of infantry and such of his own command as he was yet able to hold together, Fitz Lee stoutly guarded the rear of the retreating army. As the main column passed the bridge in rear of Farmville Fitz Lee in person held the town, gradually diminishing his front, which was closely pressed by the enemy, till there remained with him but a handful of men. Seated on horseback near the bridge he calmly watched the preparations for firing it, and directed the movements of the last groups that filed across. There he sat, a grand figure, in his own person the last remnant of the Army of Northern Virginia; and like Marshall Ney at the bridge Konno, he fired the last shot and was the last man to cross. As the final man was seen to be over, and when the bridge itself was in flames, the soldiers supposing him to be a vidette, shouted to him to ride across. Lee turned slowly toward them, ordered them to hurry across, and adding, “I am Fitz Lee,” plunged into the river below the bridge. He gained the opposite bank in safety, but not without difficulty and danger, and the quick fire of the horse artillery from the other side soon gave assurance of his presence among the guns.
Hemmed in on all sides at Appomattox , General Robert E. Lee’s only hope was to cut his way through, and by the abandonment of his guns and baggage to force his path to the mountains. Having formed this resolution, Gordon was promptly dispatched forward, while the left flank was protected by moving in the four battalions of Wilcox’s sharpshooters. Two of these were engaged, and two more were moving into action. But a period to the fighting of the sharpshooters and all the rest of that “incomparable infantry” was now close at hand. When Custer rode through the Confederate lines an officer of General Lee’s staff was at once sent to recall the sharpshooters, and with the sound of their bugles to “cease firing,” in a few minutes silenced forever the guns of the Army of Northern Virginia.
This is the unedited version of the article that appeared in the July 2002 issue of America’s Civil War magazine under a slightly different title.
Shock Troops of the Confederacy:
The Sharpshooter Battalions of the Army of Northern Virginia
Fred L. Ray
Captain James McKnight’s regular army battery had already been overrun once that foggy October morning at Cedar Creek, losing a gun and several men. Now, as part of George Getty’s division, they waited on a low hill outside Middletown, Virginia, as another Rebel attack materialized out of the mist. The gunners gaped at the Confederate skirmishers loping wolf-like up the hill, howling their trademark yell. “I could not believe they were actually going to close with us,” said one, “until the men on the remaining gun of the left section abandoned it and retreated toward the old graveyard wall. Their front line was not in order, but there was an officer leading them, and I distinctly heard him shout: ‘Rally on the Battery! Rally on the Battery!’” The Yankee gunners managed to get off a last shot of double canister, but “as the Rebel veterans understood this kind of business they ‘opened out’ so that the charge did not hit any of them.” In a moment the Southerners were in amongst the gunners, “amid smoke, fog, wreck, yells, clash and confusion…man to man, hand to hand, with bayonet and musket butt on their side and revolvers, rammers, and hand spikes on ours!”
The Union gunners’ confusion is understandable skirmishers were just not supposed to close with a strongly defended enemy position, much less assault it. These, however, were no ordinary skirmishers but the elite Corps of Sharpshooters of Ramseur’s Division’s the shock troops of the Confederacy. They were, as one former member put it, “the spike-head of Toledo steel” that led both the advance and retreat of the army. The sharpshooters were, in fact, not skirmishers in the normal sense but powerful combat units in their own right. As a tactical innovation, they were fifty years ahead of their time, presaging both the “open order” of the late nineteenth century and the German stosstruppen of WWI. Unfortunately this Southern corps d’elite has received only a passing mention from historians certainly nothing like the credit they deserve.
All armies of the day used skirmishers a thin line of men spread out some distance in front of the main body. These soldiers provided advance warning of an enemy advance, then forced him deploy and harassed his main line. When the army was stationary they acted as pickets. One man swore that skirmishing had been “reduced to a science.” It depended, he said, “on two general rules: every man must keep concealed as much as possible behind trees, logs, fences, buildings, or what not, and each party must run upon the approach of its opponent with anything like determination.” To maximize their effectiveness, the tacticians of the day recommended that skirmishers carry rifles. Since most regiments (especially Confederate ones) were not armed entirely with rifled arms until second half of 1863, a common solution to was to distribute them to the flank companies and designate these as skirmishers. A “line of battle,” by contrast, stood elbow to elbow in a solid formation two ranks deep and fired by volleys.
Coordinating the skirmish line before the days of radios was a difficult proposition at best, and as it spread across a brigade front of four or five regiments or an entire division, the control problems only got worse. A brigade commander would find himself trying to give orders through his regimental commanders, who in turn had to get the orders up to their company commanders on the skirmish line. It also quickly became obvious that some men (and commanders) were much more suited to this type of work, which required marksmanship and a good deal of individual initiative, than others. Arming a flank company with rifles did not make its soldiers good shots, nor its commander someone who could act decisively without specific orders.
Two of the first men to explore solutions this tactical dilemma were Confederate Brigadier General Robert Rodes and one of his subordinates, Colonel Bristor Gayle of the Twelfth Alabama infantry. Unfortunately, since neither man survived the war, reconstructing the development of the sharpshooters necessarily involves some speculation.
At Seven Pines, fought in late May of 1862, Rodes had employed a whole regiment John Gordon’s Sixth Alabama as skirmishers across his entire brigade front. Although it provided a unified command for the skirmish line, Rodes had to halt his entire command just short of Casey’s Redoubt to reconcentrate the Sixth Alabama prior to the final assault, a move that cost his brigade dearly in casualties. Significantly, neither Rodes nor anyone else used this arrangement again.
A month later at Gaines’ Mill, Colonel Gayle (who was not a professional soldier, but who did have some prior military experience) tried something else. When a Yankee artillery battery started firing into his flank, Gayle sent out a detachment to suppress them. The unit came from across the regiment and consisted of four of the best shots from each company. Led by a promising young lieutenant named Robert Park, these riflemen so harassed the battery that it withdrew. One of Park’s men, Sergeant Jason Patton, captured a Union courier with an important dispatch.
That fall Robert Rodes and his outnumbered Alabama brigade put up a desperate defense against George Meade’s division at South Mountain. Rodes had to string his line out across the mountain so far that the regiments lacked any physical contact. The Alabamians put out skirmishers, but the advancing Yankees gobbled up almost all of them. The intrepid Lieutenant Park once again commanded the skirmishers of the Twelfth Alabama with marked success, but he, too, was captured when those of the neighboring regiment fell back without warning.
Although Colonel Gayle died at South Mountain, his innovations were not forgotten. That December, at Fredericksburg, Rodes organized the skirmishers of each regiment in the same way Gayle had done for the Twelfth Alabama. Each of the brigade’s five regiments contributed a forty-man detachment under a junior officer, and for the first time Rodes grouped them into an ad hoc battalion. Although Rodes’ brigade was not directly engaged at Fredericksburg, it was these skirmishers now called sharpshooters who pushed forward the day after the battle.
Rodes took the final step in January 1863 when he permanently assigned the young major of the Fifth Alabama, Eugene Blackford, as commander of the consolidated battalion, now to be called the Corps of Sharpshooters. Rodes explained to Blackford that “he had felt the absolute need of trained skirmishers always ready to go to the front instead of the miserable system heretofore existing of calling for details from each company hurriedly when approaching the enemy who arrived at the head of the column in march all breathless, and utterly ignorant of the duty required of them and besides company officers when called upon in this manner in entering battle, did not wish to lose a good man & so sent the worst they had. Thus the indifferent men in the brigade, indifferently commanded by any detailed officer, who knew not one of his men or any thing of the skirmish drill, were sent to protect the front. The consequences were inevitable a feeling of insecurity in the main body the necessity of keeping a second line for protection, the incessant alarms made by the men in the front, who mistook every movement.”
Under the new system, each regiment now designated a permanent forty-man company commanded by a lieutenant. They marched and bivouacked with their regiment but could be detached at any time for skirmishing or sharpshooting duties. As an extra inducement, they were exempted from fatigue duties. Blackford only accepted the best any man who did not meet his strict standards of soldiering, marksmanship, and “fidelity to the Southern cause” went back to his unit. The regimental commanders resisted giving up their best men, but with Rodes’ backing Blackford prevailed.
Blackford immediately began an intensive program of training. After some experimentation with weapons they settled on the British-made Enfield rifle, which (with British ammunition) could hit a man-sized target out to eight hundred yards. Because of the black powder rifle’s low muzzle velocity, range estimation was an essential skill, and Blackford drilled his men relentlessly in it. He also instituted a rigorous marksmanship program, kept records, and sent back any man who failed to improve. Blackford himself carried a breech-loading Sharps rifle that he used to great effect he claimed to be the best shot in the battalion. “I always carry a rifle into the action myself and use it faithfully too.”
Blackford solved the problem of controlling a strung-out skirmish line by using buglers, and even worked out a system of indicating ranges by bugle calls. At the end of January he wrote his mother: “I am very much interested in the instruction of a battalion of Sharpshooters, which has lately been organized in this brigade, and to the command of which I have been assigned. I have lately commenced drilling them by the bugle signals altogether. Tis a beautiful sight to see the line deployed for more than a mile, all controlled by the single sounds of a bugle. I am much in hopes that I shall be able to win some credit in line of battle, this as a general rule Skirmishers have had a poor chance, being brushed off the field early in the action.”
A month later he wrote that “my battalion of SharpShooters progresses finely. I drill them altogether by the bugle, and the merry clear notes of the bugles may be heard at almost any hour in good weather. I have now declared them fit for service, an have spoken for the first job that comes up.” As an identifying badge he allowed the men to wear “a little red trefoil shaped piece of flannel.”
Rodes seems to have been pleased with his experiment. When he took command of D. H. Hill’s division that spring he organized sharpshooter battalions on the same pattern in the rest of the division’s brigades as well.
Blackford and his sharpshooters soon got a chance to show their stuff. At Chancellorsville, the new battalion provided flank security for Jackson’s famous march around Hooker’s right, “marching their laborious way thru swamps & pine thickets.” Then, in a scene immortalized by James Power Smith, “the well-trained skirmishers of Rodes’s division, under Major Eugene Blackford, were thrown to the front” to scout the Union position and protect the Confederate deployment. Smith describes Stonewall sitting on Little Sorrel, “visor low over his eyes, lips compressed, and with his watch in his hand” with Rodes and Blackford in attendance. At Jackson’s command, Rodes nodded to Blackford, who had his bugler sound the advance, “and back came the responses from bugles on the right and the left, and the long line of skirmishers, though the wild thicket of undergrowth, sprang eagerly to their work.”
On the day after the battle the Sharpshooters drew the unenviable assignment of scouting Hooker’s dug-in position against the Rappahannock. “I lost many men,” wrote Blackford, “under a tremendous fire of grape & canister & musketry. I was in more danger than I had ever been before, but I saw their forces & their position generally.” The next day they went in again, but this time the Yankees were gone.
Later that summer at Gettysburg the sharpshooters again proved their worth. On July 1st Rodes’ division attacked the flank of the Union I Corps at Oak Hill, only to be attacked in turn by the advancing Union XI Corps. Rodes assigned Blackford’s battalion to cover the gap between Doles’ brigade and the rest of the division. Although heavily pressed by most of a Federal division, the sharpshooters fell back in good order, taking a heavy toll. It was quite an improvement over South Mountain. (For a detailed account of Blackford and his sharpshooters at Gettysburg, see “Taking Aim at Cemetery Hill” in the July issue of America’s Civil War)
After the battle Blackford covered the Confederate retreat, which led to another tactical innovation. Rodes put the young major in command of all five sharpshooter battalions of his division, which formed a sort of “demi-brigade” nearly a thousand strong to act as the army’s rear guard.
Although slow to pursue the Rebels, Meade attempted to cut off the Lee’s retreat at Manassas Gap (near Front Royal, Virginia). When General William French’s III Corps pressed the lone Confederate brigade defending the gap, Rodes threw Blackford’s sharpshooters in on the Union flank. “So near were we that every shot took effect,” he wrote, “and having perfect protection ourselves, we enjoyed the fun highly losing only three men.” Their deadly accurate fire, plus some artillery, soon forced French’s men to withdraw.
Impressed by the success of Rodes’ concept, General Lee ordered every infantry brigade in the Army of Northern Virginia to organize its own sharpshooter battalion in early 1864. Like everything else in the Confederate army, their organization varied somewhat. While everyone used the four-men-per-company, forty-per-regiment scheme, Rodes’ sharpshooters seem to have stuck with their five company arrangement, while some other battalions used three companies and others four. All used buglers for communications. After the war General Cadmus Wilcox modestly took credit for the whole idea, and does seem to have translated a French manual on skirmish tactics. Rodes, however, had already implemented the concept a full year before.
Meanwhile Rodes continued to refine the sharpshooters’ tactical doctrine and organization. He combined the four sharpshooter battalions of his division into a permanent organization, the Division Sharpshooters, under Major Blackford. This gave him the option of using his sharpshooters as a separate “demi-brigade,” under his direct command. Rodes put Blackford in charge of the training. “These drills attracted much attention,” wrote Blackford, “and every morning there was a crowd of officers looking on.” After tactics and drilling they began marksmanship practice. “A thousand or more of them were banging away for hours, until my head would ache from the noise and smell of the saltpetre. This went on daily until the opening of the campaign.”
Since the Army of Northern Virginia typically fielded around thirty-six infantry brigades, and each brigade had a sharpshooter battalion of some 200 men, this meant that the Confederates now had a corps of over 7000 picked men trained in marksmanship and skirmish tactics available for the spring campaign in 1864. The new battalions soon proved their worth in the Overland campaign, which one sharpshooter characterized as “an endless picket fight.” They made ideal scouts, advance and rear guards for the brigade or division, and could be readily used as a flank guard as well. When the lines stabilized, the sharpshooters pushed forward into a line of shallow rifle pits as close to the enemy line as possible. Some outfits kept the sharpshooters on line for two or three days at a time, then gave them a day of rest while regular infantry took their places. Others put the sharpshooters in line during the day and replaced them with infantry pickets at night. “The battalion was now the very lightest of light troops in every particular,” said one. “They carried absolutely nothing save their arms and haversacks. The last were of but little use. The sharpshooters found it much less burdensome to make a raid for supplies on the line of the enemy than to carry a knapsack.”
At Spotsylvania the Confederate sharpshooters, complained one Yankee, “commanded completely the position of our line of battle.” They remorselessly tormented the men in the trenches, causing them, as one man quipped, “to spread ourselves on the ground as thin as the butter on a slice of boarding-house bread.” The Federals tried to push out their own line of rifle pits as far as possible to reduce their effectiveness, but this gave little respite from the hissing bullets.
The Rebels also introduced another unpleasant wrinkle a small number of men in each battalion now carried the formidable Whitworth rifle. This state of the art weapon, some models of which sported telescopic sights, was said to be able to bring down a man at 1200 yards. As an added bonus, they were no heavier than a service musket. Commanders often gave the Whitworth sharpshooters (the term sniper did not come into use until well after the Civil War) “roving commissions” on the battlefield, allowing them to pick targets of opportunity. Frequently they got their orders directly from division headquarters. One of them picked off Union General John Sedgwick at Spotsylvania (the unfortunate general’s last words were “they couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance”).
The organic sharpshooter battalions gave the Confederates a degree of tactical flexibility that the Federals simply could not match. The bluecoats suffered from all the organizational problems that the Confederates had already identified, and although they did have their own excellent sharpshooters, these were separate units that had to be dispersed along the line when the army halted, then reconcentrated and moved separately when the battlefield shifted. The Federals tried attaching company-sized sharpshooter units to infantry regiments and brigades, but these were often misused as ordinary infantry by commanders who had no idea of their proper employment. Although some Union sharpshooter units like Berdan’s carried the very effective breech-loading Sharps, others struggled along with heavy civilian target rifles that greatly restricted their mobility. Every Confederate brigade, on the other hand, had a readily-available body of crack shots who were trained in skirmish tactics. All they need do was fall in. In the more or less continuous conflict of the Overland Campaign, they consistently outfought the Yankees at the skirmish line.
Probably the best example of what the sharpshooters could do was the struggle at Doswell House on May 24th, 1864. As Lee’s army dug in on the North Anna River, General Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps advanced through dense woods toward Confederate positions near Hanover Junction. As they approached, Colonel Thomas Smyth’s brigade pushed forward to clear away Rebel skirmishers and find their main line. Smyth’s two lead regiments, however, encountered withering long range fire from Colonel William Cox’s North Carolina sharpshooters, part of Robert Rodes’ division. Smyth brought up another regiment but the Tarheel riflemen, crouched in rifle pits at the edge of the woods, refused to budge until finally charged with cold steel by a fourth regiment.
Smyth followed them into the dense woods, but meanwhile Colonel Bryan Grimes’ North Carolina sharpshooters had reinforced Cox’s men. About five hundred yards into the forest, Smyth was again stopped dead by heavy, accurate rifle fire. When he called for reinforcements, his commander, General John Gibbon, committed his entire division. Rodes responded by sending up the sharpshooter battalions of Doles’ Georgia brigade and those of Battle’s Alabama brigadeBlackford’s menwho began to work their way around the Union left flank. The thin gray line, backed by two artillery pieces, amounted to no more than 800 men in hastily-dug rifle pits, but once again they fought the Yankees to a standstill.
Smyth finally got his attack rolling again late that afternoon. He captured a section of North Carolina rifle pits, only to lose most of it to a fierce counterattack when the Confederates fed in more men from their main line. As a drenching thunderstorm soaked the darkening woods, a savage close-quarter battle broke out, with the Federals (who thought they had captured the main Confederate line) barely managing to hang on to their gains.
It had been quite a battle. Far from being brushed aside, Rodes’ “skirmishers” had stopped a reinforced Yankee division pretty much on their own. “We drove them with considerable slaughter, losing but few,” exulted Colonel Grimes. The sharpshooters continued their work as Grant shifted south toward Cold Harbor, playing a significant part in that battle on June 2nd and 3rd. Shortly after that, however, the situation in Virginia changed abruptly. While most of the Army of Northern Virginia ended up trench-bound at Petersburg, the Second Corps including Rodes’ division was on its way to the Shenandoah.
The 1864 Valley campaign developed into a war of feint and maneuver as Jubal Early tried to substitute bluff and movement for numbers one in which the sharpshooters were very much in their element. In a hundred different skirmishes up and down the Valley they repeatedly demonstrated their grit and tenacity. Indeed, it was the sharpshooters who, except for the big battles like Winchester and Cedar Creek, did most of the actual fighting. Early often employed them as “foot cavalry” to compensate for his notoriously unreliable mounted men, and as the example at the beginning of this article shows, they also saw service as assault troops.
After clearing the Valley of Federals, Old Jube crossed the Potomac and marched on Washington itself. On July 9th, 1864, he met a defending Union army under Lew Wallace at Monocacy. Blackford and his sharpshooters lit into the Yankees on the National Pike to Baltimore, taking on a hurriedly-raised scratch force of 2,500 men under Brigadier General Erastus Tyler. When the smoke cleared, Tyler’s men were streaming eastward, leaving 83 dead and 236 wounded and missing. Blackford’s losses were light, and Rodes did not bother to engage his infantry brigades. When Early’s army reached Washington a few days later, it was Blackford and his men who began probing the defenses of Fort Stevens on the outskirts of the city. They easily pushed back the inexperienced Yankee skirmishers, and by mid-afternoon on July 11th were almost inside the fort. Only the timely arrival of Union reinforcements prevented its fall and forced the Confederates to withdraw. During the retreat Early put an unemployed colonel, Hamilton Brown, in command of Rodes’ division sharpshooters. Brown’s regiment, the 1st North Carolina, had virtually ceased to exist at Spotsylvania. The remnants had been consolidated with another regiment and transferred to Cox’s North Carolina brigade of Rodes’ division.
Meanwhile the brigades in the Petersburg trenches had found new uses for their sharpshooters. In addition to their normal duties as scouts, pickets, and sharpshooters, they also performed special intelligence missions. The commander of Lane’s brigade sharpshooters, Major T. J. Wooten, became well known for his technique of “seine-hauling” Yankee prisoners. “He would steal up to the enemy’s skirmish line,” wrote a contemporary, “sometimes crawl until within easy running distance then dash forward, halt on the line of pits, and just as the rear of his command passed him he would order both ranks to face outward and wheel, and they, coming back in single ranks and at a run, would capture everything before them and not fire a gun. In all of his dashes he never lost a man, killed, wounded or captured.”
When General John Gordon needed a force to storm Fort Stedman and its supporting batteries on March 25th, 1865, Colonel Brown and his Division Sharpshooters got the nod. Infiltrating across no man’s land, Brown and his men took the fort by surprise with unloaded muskets, then held it against fierce Union counterattacks, capturing the Federal general N. B. McLaughlin in the process. When this last Confederate offensive failed, the sharpshooters remained as a rear guard, and Brown and most of his men were captured in Fort Stedman. The remnants of the sharpshooters helped cover the army’s retreat to Appomattox, and were once again in the advance when Grimes’ division made the last attack of the Army of Northern Virginia.
Yet for all their effectiveness, the collective memory of the war virtually ignored the sharpshooters. Men tended to write about famous individuals, their own regiments, or the great battles rather than about composite units. When ex-Confederate major W.S. Dunlop finally did write a book about the sharpshooters in 1899 he subtitled it “a story of Southern Valor that has never been told.” Still, while they may have been forgotten in their own country, the tactics the sharpshooters had pioneered remained valid. The widespread adoption of long-range repeating rifles in the late 19th Century spelled the end of the close-packed line of battle and the adoption of the “open order” essentially a skirmish line. At the century’s turn the Boers gave the British a bloody lesson in effectiveness of riflemen, and in WWI the Germans fielded special units for trench warfare. These “shock troops” (stosstruppen) consisted of a “storm” battalion in each infantry regiment especially trained in marksmanship, infiltration, and light infantry tactics. The men were volunteers drawn from across the regiment, and only the best were accepted. These elite units, which nearly turned the tide for Germany late in the war, looked a lot like the sharpshooter battalions that Robert Rodes and Eugene Blackford had organized fifty-five years earlier.
The Killing of 'Uncle John'
Major General John Sedgwick fatally misjudged the accuracy of Confederate sharpshooters at Spotsylvania
Fred L. Ray
"I beg of you not to go to that angle," said Lieutenant Colonel Martin McMahon. "Every officer who has shown himself there has been hit, both yesterday and to-day." McMahon, Major General John Sedgwick's chief of staff, was referring to a jog in the lines of the Union VI Corps near Laurel Hill, Virginia, where Confederate sharpshooters were particularly troublesome that day of May 9, 1864. One in particular "killed with every shot" and was "said to have taken twenty lives." Casualties of rank that morning already included a staff officer, Colonel Frederick T. Locke, and one of Sedgwick's brigade commanders, Brigadier General William Morris, who had been shot off his horse and severely wounded. "Well, I don't know that there is any reason for my going there," Sedgwick replied.
An hour later, however, smarting under the incessant hail of lead, he ordered his own skirmish line to move farther out and sent McMahon up to supervise. A line of infantrymen soon filed into position near the point of the angle. "That is wrong," said Sedgwick. "Those troops must be moved farther to the right; I don't wish them to overlap that battery."
"Uncle John," as his men affectionately called him, joined his chief of staff near the guns to oversee the deployment, forgetting his promise of an hour before. On the brow of a low hill 500 yards away, a Confederate rifleman, probably from Lt. Gen. James Longstreet's First Corps sharpshooter detachment, noted how the others deferred to two men who had just arrived. He adjusted the sights of his Whitworth rifle and began gently squeezing the trigger.
All this Federal movement drew "a sprinkling fire" from their opponents. Mixed in with the popping of the service Enfields, however, was "a long shrill whistle" of another type of round. Although no one was hit, some of the men instinctively dodged. "What! what! men, dodging this way for single bullets!" said Sedgwick, laughing. "What will you do when they open fire along the whole line? I am ashamed of you. They couldn't hit an elephant at this distance." Another of the whistling rounds passed close by, even as the general prodded one of the men with his boot. "Why, my man, I am ashamed of you, dodging that way," he said. He repeated that "they couldn't hit an elephant at this distance." The soldier defended his actions. "General, I dodged a shell once, and if I hadn't, it would have taken my head off. I believe in dodging." Sedgwick, who was in a genial mood, chuckled and said, "All right, my man; go to your place." The sharpshooter, now sure of the range, touched the trigger once more.
John Sedgwick was born in Cornwall Hollow, Conn., in 1813. After a short stint as a teacher he attended West Point, graduating 24th in his class in 1837, after which he began his military service as an artillery officer. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Sedgwick gained plenty of combat experience prior to the Civil War, serving in the Seminole War and in Mexico, where he won two brevets for gallantry. Transferring to the cavalry, he participated in various campaigns against the Indians in the West and in the Mormon expedition.
In the spring of 1861, Lt. Col. Sedgwick took over the First Cavalry when his commander, Colonel Robert E. Lee, resigned. Like many professional soldiers, he saw the war as an opportunity, hoping that he might make full colonel. By August, however, he had been appointed brigadier general of volunteers and had been given command of a brigade. That fall he took over a division in the Army of the Potomac after his commander was arrested, and as such took part in McClellan's Peninsula campaign of 1862. Wounded at Glendale, he received a second star that summer. At Antietam Sedgwick tangled with Stonewall Jackson in the West Wood and came off second best. His division was cut to pieces, and Sedgwick, hit by three bullets, was carried unconscious from the field. "If I am ever hit again," he said after convalescing for several months, "I hope it will settle me at once. I want no more wounds."
When Sedgwick returned to duty in December, following the Union defeat at Fredericksburg, he was rewarded with a corps command. After a month at the helm of the II Corps, followed by three weeks in command of the IX Corps, he took control of the body of men that he was to be most identified with, the VI Corps, on February 4, 1863. Although he was a stout fighter and a consummate military professional, as a field commander Sedgwick tended toward caution. Given an independent mission at Chancellorsville that spring, Sedgwick forced Marye's Heights against Jubal Early but failed to effectively threaten Lee's rear. Blocked by a single Confederate division at Salem Church, the VI Corps ended up having to retreat ignominiously across the Rappahannock the next night.
Still, Sedgwick's professionalism, modesty and agreeable demeanor won him many loyal friends in an army often beset with ambitious intrigues and personal feuds. Although nominally a Democrat and a McClellan man, his low-key approach to both Army and national politics endeared him to the Lincoln administration, who kept him in command of a considerably enlarged VI Corps when the five small corps of the Army of the Potomac were reorganized into three large ones in the spring of 1864.
A lifelong bachelor who often amused himself with marathon bouts of solitaire, Sedgwick cared deeply for his men, who reciprocated with their undying affection and the title of "Uncle John." In a move typical of the man, he made a brigadier general move his headquarters to accommodate a recently arrived brigade that would otherwise have had to bivouac in a muddy field. Unlike many of the army's glittering leaders, his personal appearance—"broad-shouldered, heavy-framed, with a full, brown, tangled beard"—was distinctly plebian. "Had it not been for his military surroundings," said one of his men, "he would have been mistaken for a rough backwoodsman." Soldiers in the VI Corps accepted Sedgwick's strict discipline because he treated them fairly, handled them competently if not brilliantly, and did not waste their lives.
Ulysses S. Grant's Overland campaign of 1864 began on May 4, when the Army of the Potomac crossed the Rapidan and clashed with the Army of Northern Virginia in the tangled thickets of the Wilderness for two bloody days on May 5 and 6. Posted at the right end of the Union line, the VI Corps's debut was not particularly auspicious. Late in the afternoon of May 6, Confederate Brig. Gen. John Gordon had discovered an open flank and launched a devastating attack, scattering two brigades and shaking the entire corps. Darkness and confusion ended the fighting, and on May 7 both armies rested.
That evening Grant began shifting his army eastward toward the crossroads at Spotsylvania. The VI Corps, at the end of the line, had the longest march and did not close up behind the already-engaged Union V Corps on Brock Road until the next morning. The Confederates had narrowly won the race to Laurel Hill, the terrain dominating the crossroads, and had beaten off a series of poorly coordinated Union attacks on May 8. The VI Corps had been relegated to a supporting role, but by the next morning Sedgwick was busy moving his men up to relieve the exhausted V Corps units. The Federal position straddled a fork of the Brock Road near the Alsop Farm, with an artillery battery at the angle where the line changed direction.
The Confederate position, roughly 500 yards away on a low knoll, bristled with artillery and sharpshooters, whose slightly elevated position allowed them to rain bullets down on their opponents. The lines here were manned mostly by South Carolinians belonging to Longstreet's First Corps. One brigade under Colonel John Henagan, part of Kershaw's Division, held the ground east of the road, while Colonel John Bratton, in command of Jenkins' Brigade from Field's Division, held the western side. Colonel Frank Huger's artillery battalion and Brig. Gen. Goode Bryan's Georgia brigade were sandwiched between them, and Brig. Gen. William Wofford's Georgia brigade lay in reserve. Just west of the knoll was the Spindle farm, where gray-clad sharpshooters waited in the charred ruins of the house and perched in the trees around it.
There, in the more open terrain near Spotsylvania, the new Confederate sharpshooter battalions began to demonstrate their effectiveness. Organized that spring, each of the Army of Northern Virginia's infantry brigades now boasted a battalion of 160 to 200 sharpshooters, who each had gone through an intensive marksmanship program. Although most were armed with the highly accurate .577 Enfield, one or two men in each battalion now carried the deadly .451-caliber Whitworth rifle, a state-of-the-art weapon (some with telescopic sights) with a range in excess of a thousand yards. It was these men, crouched on the knoll, whose "dropping fire," said one Union staff officer, "was making sad havoc with anything of ours in sight."
The next man to fall, unfortunately for the Federals, was Uncle John himself. "For a third time the same shrill whistle," said McMahon, "closing with a dull, heavy stroke, interrupted our talk." Just as McMahon started to resume their conversation, General Sedgwick began to slowly collapse, "blood spurting his left cheek under the eye in a steady stream." McMahon tried to catch him, and both men went down. A brigade surgeon, Dr. Emil Ohlenschlager, was nearby and quickly attended to Segdwick, but there was not much he could do but pour water from his canteen on the general's face, where "blood still poured upward in a little fountain." The soldiers, well aware of what was happening, watched silently from their nearby rifle pits. John Sedgwick's spirit fled swiftly, one more among thousands that summer, without disturbing the smile that remained on his face. McMahon, ever the good staffer, quickly sent word to the Army's commander, Maj. Gen. George Meade, who appointed Maj. Gen. Horatio Wright to replace him. General Grant initially had a hard time with the unpleasant news, asking twice, "Is he really dead?"
The thoughts of the rank and file, however, quickly turned to revenge. The incensed Yankees sent infantry patrols to find the culprit and killed several Rebel riflemen in retaliation. Eventually they located nine Confederate marksmen in a tree and proceeded to do a little sharpshooting of their own with a rifled artillery piece. "The first shot," chortled a Union soldier, "cut the tree off about 40 feet from the ground & down came Mr. sharp shooter head first."
Nevertheless, Confederate sharpshooters continued to make the day miserable for the Federals, sending a "ceaseless and deadly fire" toward anyone who exposed himself. This led to a number of minor but intense picket line actions in which the Federals tried to drive away their tormentors. When pressed, the Confederates would simply fall back, often firing the woods as they did. These efforts culminated with a couple of brigade-sized fights in late afternoon near Spindle farm. However, in each case the result was the same: Having taken the position and driven off the gray-clad marksmen, the Federals would find that they were too exposed and far from their main line and have to withdraw.
That evening, however, there was time for grief. "His Corps weeps," wrote one officer in a typical comment. "He was our Uncle John and we shall never see his equal. His loss is irreparable."
Major General John Sedgwick was the highest-ranking officer to die during the Overland campaign, and one of the highest ranking of the war, a circumstance that generated some controversy about who pulled the trigger for the fateful shot. No one made an immediate claim (it was, after all, in the middle of one of the bloodiest battles of the war), but several men came forward well afterward, while others were the center of speculation.
Before looking at individuals, however, we should first take a closer look at the Confederate sharpshooter units. As mentioned above, each infantry brigade now had a sharpshooter battalion armed primarily with Enfields, and at 500 yards the Union position was well within range of this less-powerful rifle. Most of the sharpshooters functioned not so much as snipers but as light infantrymen whose jobs included picketing, screening and scouting, and who thus stayed under tight tactical control. The Whitworth men, however, were given considerable leeway to roam the battlefield, subject only to general guidance from senior commanders. And while the general practice in Virginia was to leave the Whitworth shooters in the sharpshooter battalions, this seems not to have been the case in Longstreet's corps.
The First Corps had spent the previous fall and winter in the Western Theater, participating in the campaigns at Chickamauga and in eastern Tennessee, and had evidently adopted a somewhat different organization based on that of the Army of Tennessee. There, influenced by Maj. Gen. Patrick Cleburne, the Whitworth sharpshooters had been grouped together in a separate company at division level. Thus, in the spring of 1863, Cleburne had organized a "Corps of Whitworth Sharpshooters" 46 strong, to be deployed at his personal direction, and Longstreet appears to have formed a similar group of riflemen at the corps level that fall. Just how strong this outfit was we don't know, but if it was allocated the same number of rifles as the rest of the Army of Northern Virginia (one or two Whitworths or the equivalent for each of its nine infantry brigades), then Longstreet's corps of sharpshooters may have had as many as 18 of these long-range rifles. Laurel Hill would have been the logical place to employ them, and it would explain the intense fire under which the Federals found themselves. Unfortunately no roster and only a few references to this shadowy unit have survived, one being the 1901 account of Colonel A.J. McBride, an officer in the 10th Georgia (Bryan's Brigade), who described "a band of sharpshooters composed of the best shots in the [First] corps." McBride credited one of these men, "Kansas Tom" Johnson (who was himself killed a few days later), with shooting Sedgwick. McBride gives no details, but if Johnson was in such a "band" he probably had a Whitworth and would have been in the right area.
Another man said to have shot Sedgwick was Thomas Burgess of the 15th South Carolina (part of Jenkins' Brigade). In a 1908 article in Confederate Veteran, V.M. Fleming gave an accurate description of the terrain at Laurel Hill, where the brigade commanded by Bratton would have been on the left. Burgess, according to the account, was a picket who fired at a group of mounted men who rode out in front of the Federal lines, killing one of them. Burgess himself was always reluctant to claim having killed Sedgwicklike many other men in the 19th century he regarded this method of warfare as "something akin to murder." Burgess, whose weapon is unspecified, was certainly in the right place at the right time to have shot Sedgwick. However, the account is second hand and the victim a mounted man, which would fit for Brig. Gen. Morris but not Sedgwick, who was on foot.
The writer of the section on the 4th Georgia in Henry W. Thomas's 1903 History of the Doles-Cook Brigade gave credit to Sergeant Charles Grace of that regiment. "General Sedgewick [sic] was superintending the construction of some redoubts, and, as he was more than half a mile from our picket line, considered himself perfectly safe. Sergeant Grace was a fine shot and was armed with one of the few Whitworth rifles in our army, which made the deed not only practicable but simple." While there is ample evidence of Grace's service as a sharpshooter, his regiment was part of Doles' Brigade, which was with Rodes' Division of the Second Corps. On May 9, the Georgians were at the base of what came to be called the Mule Shoe, separated from Sedgwick's position by roughly a mile of densely wooded terrain. While a shot from a Whitworth might have accurately traversed that distance, it seems unlikely that it could have avoided the trees.
A final claimant was Ben Powell, a sharpshooter with the 12th South Carolina in McGowan's Brigade. Powell's service as a sharpshooter is well attested, as is the fact that he was one of the unit's two Whitworth marksmen. Powell made his claim personally in a 1907 letter to his wife, and both his fellow sharpshooter Berry Benson (in a 1917 article in Confederate Veteran) and the former commander of his sharpshooter battalion, Major William Dunlop, backed him up. In his 1899 book Lee's Sharpshooters, Dunlop describes the incident:
We discovered towards the right of the battalion, which brought a four gun battery with its infantry supports placed there for the defense of the salient, barely within reach of our long range rifles. And to these Ben Powell with his 'Whitworth' and a few files on the right paid their respects. Presently an officer of rank with his staff approached the salient, and adjusting his field glasses began to take observations of the front. A few shots only had been fired at the group, when the ringing peal of Powell's "Whitworth" was heard some distance to the right; the officer was seen to stagger and fall; and the brilliant career of that gallant and distinguished soldier, Maj. Gen. Sedgwick, commandant of the fifth [VI] Federal army corps, was closed and closed forever.
A minor problem with this narrative is that Sedgwick was not using field glasses at the time; a very major one is that Dunlop's sharpshooter battalion was nowhere near the scene on May 9. Dunlop's battalion was part of McGowan's South Carolina brigade of Wilcox's Division, which was in turn part of the Confederate Third Corps. Its commander, Maj. Gen. Cadmus Wilcox, makes it clear in his report that the division marched past Laurel Hill to Spotsylvania Court House, then took up positions just east of it. This would have put Dunlop, Powell et al. probably more than two miles from the site of Sedgwick's death. The sharpshooter battalions were integral to their parent brigades, provided for their security, and were seldom separated, nor does Wilcox make any mention of this having been done.
Could Grace or Powell have gone to Laurel Hill on their own? Berry Benson, himself a sharpshooter, stated that the Whitworth-toting Powell and his comrade Oscar Cheatham "now became independent sharpshooters, to go where they pleased and carry on war at their own sweet will." Laurel Hill was after all the hottest sector on May 9, and Powell could have walked the distance in well under an hour, Grace in half that. Still, the Whitworth sharpshooters were not so footloose as Benson makes it sound, and it seems very unlikely that these two men would have been shifted all the way to another corps area absent the kind of dire emergency that befell the Confederates on May 12. Thus, while Grace and Powell can't be entirely ruled out, they are less likely candidates than the men who were actually in the Laurel Hill sector.
It is also worth considering all these claims were made 35 to 50 years after the fact, many were secondhand and none provide a clear picture of events that can be squared with Colonel McMahon's eyewitness account, which appeared as part of the Battles and Leaders series in 1887. It is also quite possible that the shooter, like "Kansas Tom" Johnson, failed to survive the war or died soon after. By then, too many men, like Burgess, were reluctant to boast about their exploits as sharpshooters, which went against Victorian attitudes of gallantry, or they may have feared retribution after the war. Thus, unless new evidence comes to light, the shooter's identity cannot be established with any certainty.
Still, we can make some conclusions and educated guesses about who it might have been. Given the distinctive sound of the round, a Whitworth rifle probably killed Sedgwick (no autopsy seems to have been performed). If so, the shooter would have been in a group of about 75 men in the Army of Northern Virginia equipped with this singular weapon. Unfortunately, no rosters exist for these men, and information about them is mostly anecdotal. Since the Confederate First Corps covered the Laurel Hill area, and Lt. Gen. Longstreet seems to have had a separate corps of Whitworth sharpshooters, it is most likely that one of these men killed John Sedgwick. If a service Enfield did the job, then the suspects are the ordinary sharpshooters of Bratton's (Jenkins'), Bryan's or Kershaw's brigades, all of the First Corps.
Southern sharpshooters would continue to snuff out the lives of Union men high and low for the rest of the war. One of their last marks was Brig. Gen. Thomas Smyth, who died on the day of Lee's surrender at Appomattox after being mortally wounded at Farmville two days before.
After lying in state until dark on May 9 at army headquarters in a makeshift bier, John Sedgwick began his journey back to Cornwall Hollow, where he was buried. Mourners included not only his comrades in blue but menenemies at that timewho had served with him in the old army. One was his old friend J.E.B. Stuart, himself destined to die a few days later at Yellow Tavern, who confided to a staffer that he would have shared his blanket and last crust of bread with Sedgwick.
This article orginally appeared in Civil War Times June 2006
First-hand accounts by Confederate sharpshooters:
Adams, Charles R., ed. A Post of Honor: The Pryor Letters, 1861-1863; Letters From Capt. S. G. Pryor, Twelfth Georgia Regiment and His Wife, Penelope Tyson Pryor. Fort Valley, GA: Garret Publications, 1989.
Benson, Susan W., ed. Berry Benson’s Civil War Book: Memoirs of a Confederate Scout and Sharpshooter. University of Georgia Press 1991.
Bryan, Mary Givens, ed. Letters of a Private in the Confederate Army: Jack Felder. Bound volume in Georgia Dept. of Archives and History, July 1951.
Chappell, Frank Anderson, ed. Dear Sister: Civil War Letters to a Sister in Alabama. Huntsville, AL: Branch Springs, 2002.
Dunlop, W. S. Lee’s Sharpshooters or The Forefront of Battle: A Story of Southern Valor That Never Has Been Told.1899,reprinted by Morningside Publishing Company 1982, 2000.
Lowe, Jeffrey C. and Sam Hodges, eds. Letters to Amanda: The Civil War Letters of Marion Hill Fitzpatrick, Army of Northern Virginia. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1998.
Montgomery, George F. Jr., ed. Georgia Sharpshooter: The Civil War Diary and Letters of William Rhadamanthus Montgomery, 1839-1906. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1997.
Parramore, Thomas and F. Roy Johnson. Before the Rebel Flag Fell. Murfreesboro, NC: Johnson Publishing, 1965.
Wood, Anthony. Reminiscences of the 35th GA. Regt. As Seen By A Sharphooter At The Front. Conyers, GA: Privately published, n.d. (Available $12 postpaid from Anthony Wood, 755 Green Street NE, Conyers, Ga 30012.)
“Arkansas Sharpshooters at Vicksburg” Confederate Veteran XII (1904)
Barrier, J. D. “Breaking Grant’s Line” Confederate Veteran XXXIII (1925)