Shock Troops of the Confederacy

Shock Troops of the Confederacy
The Sharpshooter Battalions of the Army of Northern Virginia

Fred L. Ray

Given the enthusiasm with which academic presses in the United States publish serious writings on the American Civil War, and the mountains of second-rate works on the subject produced for sale to tourists, school children, and other innocents, it is hard to condemn a reader for being wary of a self-published book on the subject. In the case of Shock Troops of the Confederacy, however, such skepticism will soon give way to considerable admiration, for in creating this skillfully researched, highly literate, and extraordinarily accessible volume, a self-taught historian has displayed a number of virtues that many professionals would do well to imitate.

While reviews on academic journals rarely touch upon such issues, Shock Troops of the Confederacy is such a beautiful volume that some discussion of the book designer’s art is unavoidable. The illustrations are both attractive and appropriate, the layout of the chapters is pleasing, and the type-face is kind to the eyes. Best of all, Shock Troops of the Confederacy is well supplied with handsome sketch maps. These, which were especially drawn for the book, provide the reader with all of the information needed to follow the course of the campaign, battle, or engagement in question, but nothing that is superfluous or distracting.

The same sort of thoughtfulness that is so much in evidence in the presentation of Shock Troops of the Confederacy can also be seen in the structure of the text. The book as a whole tells several stories, each of which relates to the others in a manner reminiscent of Russian stacking dolls. The tale at the heart of the book, the analog of the smallest matryoshka, is the saga of a particular group of sharpshooters who served the cause of Southern independence. This regimental history is insinuated into a concise (and extraordinarily fresh) account of the operations of the Army of Northern Virginia, beginning with the Peninsula Campaign of the spring of 1862 and ending three years later with the Confederate withdrawal from the doomed fortress of Petersburg. This unique exercise in operational history, in turn, is nested in an overview of the organization and achievements all of the sharpshooters, whether Union and Confederate, who fought in the American Civil War. Finally, the material that is specific to the War Between the States is embedded in an authoritative discussion of the broader revolution in shoulder arms and infantry tactics that took place in the middle years of the nineteenth century.

The story at the core of Shock Troops of the Confederacy makes extensive use of the unpublished (and hitherto unexploited) memoirs of Major Eugene Blackford. A witness of a sort that historians rarely encounter, Blackford combined a thorough understanding of military affairs with a novelist’s eye for detail and a knack for being at the right place at the right time. His memoir thus permits the painting of a highly nuanced picture of the sharpshooter battalions he commanded, the tactics they employed, and the effect that such employment had upon the course of battles and campaigns. In addition to this, material from the memoirs makes possible encounters with Blackford himself, a study-in-contrasts who challenges many of our long-standing stereotypes about Confederate officers. Neither lowland planter nor upcountry yeoman, Blackford was a third-generation abolitionist who, at the start of the war, decided that the defense of his home state of Virginia was of greater importance than the freeing of slaves.

The material that fills the layers that surround the central narrative of Shock Troops of the Confederacy, whether technical or tactical, American or European, is mostly drawn from sources that have been available for quite some time. Such material, nonetheless, is presented in a way that is remarkably fresh. One reason for this is the author’s perspective, which is usually that of a skirmisher lying in the grass or a sniper hiding in a tree. Another is the author’s impressive knowledge of all of the elements that go into a particular event, whether the specific characteristics of the weapons used, the peculiarities of terrain, the dynamics of battle, or the (frequently idiosyncratic) logic of military administration.

Shock Troops of the Confederacy is a book that every serious student of the American Civil War will want to read. It also has much to teach those who are interested in any of the many other wars of the middle years of the nineteenth century. In addition to this, historians who deal with other periods will profit greatly from the example of a work that sets a new standard, not merely for works about the American Civil War, but for the “drums and trumpets” genre as a whole.

Bruce I. Gudmundsson, Marine Corps University, author, Stormtroop Tactics: Innovation in the German Army, 1914-1918, On Artillery, On Armor, The British Army on the Western Front 1916 in War in History

This is a skillfully researched and written story of men, their weapons, and their contributions to the war effort of the Confederacy. It is not a common story, however, and it is one that has never been told before.

Any student of the Civil War has heard of Berdan's Sharpshooters in the Union army, but few have heard of an Alabama colonel named Bristor Gayle. Few know about the battalions of sharpshooters formed in 1863 or of Robert E. Lee's embracing the concept of incorporating a sharpshooter battalion in each infantry brigade in the Army of Northern Virginia. These were elite troops, specially trained in marksmanship, and their use in the war affected tactics and the results of battles. Understand, as Fred Ray teaches us: these sharpshooters functioned as snipers, but in fact they were light infantry especially trained as pickets, scouts, advance guards. and skirmishers.

The story begins with the 18th century story of riflemen and an analysis of military tactics. It progresses through the description of technological advances in the development of rifled weapons. And, it takes us through the trials and tribulations of gaining acceptance of the use of trained units of sharpshooters in the Confederate army. They were at Seven Pines, Gaines' Mill, South Mountain. and they trained through the winter at Fredericksburg. They fought at Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, the Wilderness and Spotsylvania. For these and the campaigns and battles that followed, Fred Ray takes you through each with detail and effective analysis. In many battles, even as the Confederate resources declined, these sharpshooters dominated skirmish lines. Their story is truly a remarkable one and they have finally been given their due.

Reviewed by James H. Nottage in Blue & Gray magazine Holiday 2007

Fred Ray was kind enough to send along a review copy of his excellent book Shock Troops of the Confederacy: The Sharpshooter Battalions of the Army of Northern Virginia. Fred is the descendant of one of those sharpshooters, which is what got him interested in the subject.

To be candid, before Fred's book was published, I was not aware that such special duty battalions even existed in Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, other than references to Eugene Blackford's sharpshooters in the first day's fighting at Gettysburg. The book has changed that misperception of mine.

Fred Ray has written an exceptional book. It's a comprehensive tour de force of its subject, and one that should probably stand as the definitive word on its subject for a very long time. It's an extremely valuable and useful addition to the existing body of knowledge about the Civil War that was probably long overdue. The book is thoroughly researched and well-written. From my perspective one of the book's best features is the abundance of detailed, useful, and quality maps. Those maps address actions that have not been previously mapped. Fred drew the maps himself, and he did an excellent job it.

Of most value to the book for is its emphasis on the critical role played by the Confederate sharpshooters on many battlefields of the Eastern Theatre of the Civil War. Of particular value to me was the focus on the role played by the Confederate sharpshooters during the fighting for the Jug Bridge during the July 9, 1864 Battle of Monocacy. Before reading Fred's work on the subject, I had never seen any discussion of the role played by the sharpshooters in the fighting for the stone bridge on the National Road. Fred's analysis is detailed and comprehensive, and helps us to fill a big hole in our study of Jubal Early's raid on Washington.

I can't say enough good things about Fred Ray's book and can highly recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest in the subject. I guarantee you that you will learn something new. I certainly did.

Eric Wittenberg, author, Plenty of Blame to Go Around: Jeb Stuart's Controversial Ride to Gettysburg (and many more). Read the entire blog entry on Rantings of a Civil War Historian plus comments here.

The old Spanish custom of placing your very best on the top shelf for people to see certainly applies to Shock Troops of the Confederacy. This is a book that you will be proud to own and show to your friends. The book just screams quality at first glance with cover art by Keith Rocco on the glossy wrap. The hardcover binding is excellent and the text is clean and well edited and packed full of 59 illustrations, 43 maps, footnoted, indexed, and a complete bibliography.

The book is a pleasure to read and definitely holds the reader’s attention through out. Author Fred Ray covers the story with the use of three themes: the story of the Army of Northern Virginia’s Sharpshooter Battalions; A history of light infantry from 1700 to 1918; and, the human story of the sharpshooters themselves.

This is the story of the very elite soldiers of The South. Who played a pivotal role in the battles of 1864 and 1865. They experimented with tactics that are used today by our special operation soldiers. The weapons that they used with deadly precision are covered in detail. The use of Shock Troops was copied by The North, but they failed in the organizational structure of such a battalion. This book is an absolute must have for anyone who is interested in the Confederacy, firearms, and the human story of General Lee’s Elite Shock Troops. An excellent book covering the very little known subject of The Confederacy’s most feared and deadly soldiers.

Ed Porter, in The Lone Star January 2008.

Fred Ray's Shock Troops of the Confederacy covers a little-known but important aspect of the Civil War: the "sharpshooter battalions" of the Army of Northern Virginia. Overall, though, this book is really about adaptation and innovation on the battlefield. ***

Although Ray uses a multitude of credible sources, including many firsthand accounts from sharpshooters on both sides, his best source is a diary kept by Major Eugene Blackford, a Confederate sharpshooter battalion commander in General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. Blackford trained his unit in skirmish drills and marksmanship out to 600 yards. ***

Shock Troops of the Confederacy contains 43 informative maps and 59 illustrations, including pictures with information of the sharpshooter's weapons and uniforms. More than just an account of the sharpshooters' exploits, the book makes a strong case that the late Civil War battles they fought in were predecessors to the nonlinear tactics of the 20th century. Ray follows the development of light infantry organization, tactics, and weapons forward to the Boer War, through World War I, and beyond. In fact, Ray's study is still relevant for our forces in the field today, as we learn again that small-unit battlefield adaptation, innovation, and precision marksmanship are just as important now as they ever were.

Scott A. Porter, Lieutenant Colonel, Retired, in the September-October issue of Military Review. Read the entire review here.

Shock Troops of the Confederacy is a tour de force that fills the information vacuum that existed regarding these unique troops. This account is oriented primarily toward the combat role of sharpshooters and less so on their scouting, reconnaissance and counterintelligence duties .... Ray has put together a study that complements C.A. Stevens' in-depth portrayal of Berdan's United States Sharpshooters in the Army of the Potomac. Together they provide a comprehensive account of sharpshooter units and tactics during the Civil War. While this book will be a welcome addition to the specialist's library, it also is an opportunity for the general reader to enter the world of a little-known, yet uniquely effective, branch of the Confederate military service.

Thomas Ryan, Washington Times, January 6, 2007. Read the entire review here.

This volume is highly polished, well-researched, and it establishes a standard for small unit historiography. From the Keith Rocco print on the dust jacket to the final appendix, it is a marvelous piece of historical literature.


Shock Troops of the Confederacy is highly recommended. It will long remain the seminal work of Confederate sharpshooter units in the Army of Northern Virginia, and it deserves to enter the realm of a classic study.

Ray has made extensive use of unpublished first-hand accounts, especially the recently discovered writings of the Confederate innovator Eugene Blackford. In addition, the author draws upon numerous obscure Southern newspaper sources and over 30 manuscript collections.

Ray displays a great command of his materials, along with an insightful knowledge of small unit tactics of the period. This book merits a place on the bookshelf of anyone interested in military history.

Michael Russert, Civil War News, October 2006. Read the entire review here.

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 they 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.


In terms of production values and visual presentation issues, Shock Troops is well-written and well-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.

Read the entire review.

Drew Wagenhoffer North and South magazine October 2006. Wagenhoffer also reviewed the book on his blog, Civil War Books and Authors.

For years, the work of the sharpshooters of the Army of the Confederacy has been largely ignored in favour of the more glamorous Berdan's Sharpshooters of the Federal army. They have been the subject of several books and countless articles but finally Fred Ray's book has redressed the balance. Because of their infantry organisation and lack of post-war records, the southern regiments of sharpshooters have been difficult and in some cases near impossible to document. Shock Troops has managed to provide a balanced and very well researched account of their use, organisation and training from 1861-1865. Much of the text uses first-hand accounts from hitherto little known accounts and it is a credit to Fred Ray that he has managed to gather so much material from such a paucity of sources. For anyone who wants to know more about the Confederate use of sharpshooters and the tools of their trade, this book could not come more highly recommended.

Martin Pegler, author, Out Of Nowhere, A History of Military Sniping

A very good history of light infantry units — generally designated “sharpshooters” by both sides — in the Confederate Army, with a focus on the Army of Northern Virginia. ... Acting as scouts, skirmishers, pickets, and even raiders, these units often proved quite important, but their operations have generally been neglected. The work ends with some treatment of Union light infantry forces and takes a quick look at light infantry operations in later wars. Well written ... this is a valuable contribution to the literature on the war.

The NYMAS Review, a publication of the New York Military Affairs Symposium, annual Civil War Issue Summer 2006

There was a time in warfare when it was considered ungentlemanly to take deliberate aim at a specific foe, hence lines of men fired barely aimed volleys at each other and did mercifully little damage. By the time of the Civil War, however, the gentlemanly business of war had become very personal and very deadly, nowhere more so than on the battlefields where trained and experienced sharpshooters very much took deliberate aim at specific foemen. In Shock Troops of the Confederacy, Fred L. Ray provides our first and most detailed to date look at the development of the concept and practice of sharpshooting, its goals, the men who became killers, and their impact on the course of battle. In Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia it reached its highest state of development, paving the way for specialist marksmen in the military of the world.

William C. Davis, author, The Orphan Brigade: The Kentucky Confederates Who Couldn’t Go Home; Look Away!: A History of the Confederate States of America; Jefferson Davis: The Man and His Hour

Ray succeeds admirably in his task of giving the sharpshooters their proper due, recognizing their achievements and the truly revolutionary way in which they were used, and comparing their efforts to those of the German Army fully 50 years later. To make matters even better, Ray keeps the reader interested throughout, never losing sight of the main picture while going into tactical detail in the proper places. The numerous and excellent maps and illustrations add greatly to the text, and they are placed well throughout. ... I also found the comparisons to the German Stosstruppen to be well done, and the conclusions the author draws regarding these two separate but similar units make sense and are based on solid research. Ray shows equal adeptness discussing the Civil War and the evolution of the rifle before and after that conflict. This is an important new study of the sharpshooter units, one that hopefully leads to more unit histories on some of the individual battalions and also a similar study for the Army of Tennessee. If you are interested in the evolution of open order tactics and the rifle or in the development of light troops used in the attack, I highly recommend this groundbreaking new study. It is one of the best books on the Civil War that I have had the pleasure to read.

Brett Schulte American Civil War Gaming and Reading blog

Read the entire review as well as a complete summary of the book here

Fred Ray adroitly tells the story of the Army of Northern Virginia's sharpshooter battalions here for the first time, based on a very strong range of primary material. The sources include some thirty manuscript collections, scores of arcane articles and narratives, and numerous obscure contemporary Southern newspapers.

Robert K. Krick, author, Stonewall Jackson at Cedar Mountain; Lee's Colonels; The Smoothbore Volley That Doomed the Confederacy: The Death of Stonewall Jackson and Other Chapters on the Army of Northern Virginia

Fred Ray has given students of the Civil War a most welcome and long overdue study of a neglected subject-the sharpshooter units of Robert E. Lee' renowned Army of Northern Virginia. He recounts their story in detail and with authority.

Jeffry D. Wert, author, The Sword Of Lincoln: The Army of the Potomac; From Winchester to Cedar Creek; Mosby's Rangers

Mr. Ray discusses how the need for a more professional skirmisher capable of screening the line of battle led to raising of sharpshooter battalions in the Confederacy. He identifies the early proponents of whom Major Eugene Blackford, Fifth Alabama, figures prominently. In describing their battles, the author shows how they influenced battles and in so doing, influenced Lee to raise similar battalions throughout his army. What follows is an exhaustive but highly readable study of the actions of the sharpshooter battalions in the Overland Campaign, Early's Raid on Washington and the Siege of Petersburg. Shock Troops of the Confederacy fills the gaps left by W. S. Dunlop's work of a century earlier.

Gary Yee, author, Sharpshooters (1750-1900), The Men, Their Guns, Their Story

Shock Troops of the Confederacy is without doubt the most significant small unit tactical analysis of the Army of Northern Virginia ever written.

The Army of Northern Virginia's sharpshooter battalions, authorized for every brigade in the army, were armed for the most part with two-band Enfield rifles, and were among the few units in either army that actually practiced long-range rifle shooting. The sharpshooters served as shock troops for Lee's army in the campaign of 1864, were first into the fight and last to withdraw, and no doubt assured the army's survival that bloody year.

Although badly battered, the sharpshooter battalions were still functioning through Appomattox. I am eagerly awaiting the publication of Fred's book, which, like Regimental Strengths and The Bloody Crucible will be another "must buy" for the Civil War scholar interested in the nuts and bolts of how its armies functioned and fought. Civil War News August 2005

CS Sharpshooter Book

Fred L. Ray's long-awaited book, Shock Troops of the Confederacy: The Sharpshooter Battalions of the Army of Northern Virginia (CFS Press, 2006), is now in print. I reviewed the manuscript version of Fred's work several years ago and reported in these pages that it was without doubt the most significant small unit tactical analysis of the Army of Northern Virginia ever written.

I still stand by that assessment. His diligent research and thorough understanding of small unit tactics and small arms use during the Civil War, skill sets rare among many historians, allow us to get down into the trenches and prowl the skirmish line with the men of the Confederate sharpshooter battalions.

Shock Troops of the Confederacy is a great companion piece to J. Tracy Powers' now classic Lee's Miserables (UNC Press, 1998). I, for one, am kind of bored by the seemingly endless stream of books on Union and Confederate generals and their ego problems and personality disorders.

To me it is time the soldiers and the way they actually lived and fought get some detailed attention. Fred Ray contributes to this cause in a splendid manner. Civil War News July 2006

Joseph G. Bilby author, Civil War Firearms; The Irish Brigade in the Civil War; Three Rousing Cheers: A History of the Fifteenth New Jersey

Since the last book on this subject was written over a century ago, his principal problem was lack of source material. Digging through letters, diaries and official records, Ray has woven together the story of of the organization, training, and actual combat experiences of these unique units. ***

Shock Troops of the Confederacy is both interesting and instructive for anyone who wishes to study how the Civil War, which began as an exercise in Napoleonic warfare, presaged the cheerless, filthy trench warfare of the early 20th century.

Jerry W. Holdsworth, from a review in Civil War Times June 2006

Hard as it may be to believe, there are still areas of study regarding the American Civil War that need filling in. The evolution of combat tactics is one. Everyone knows that during the Civil War the use of rifled muskets coupled with stout field earthworks marked the beginning of the end for Napoleonic attacks built upon massed formations. How operational methods changed during the Civil War to overcome this new reality, how successful these efforts were, and how the changes were incorporated (or not) into Confederate military doctrine is an important sub-text of Ray's study. ***

A number of individuals emerge as real heroes in Ray's canon. Sitting unchallenged at the top of the list would be Eugene Blackford, who with the active support of Brig. (later Maj.) Gen. Robert Rodes, developed a remarkable sharpshooter training regimen from scratch. Among the fascinating aspects of the Blackford program were employing a series of specialized bugle calls for controlling his widely dispersed skirmishing formations, schooling to sharpen his men's ability to accurately gauge distances and extensive firing practice using a target spot-marking paddle (white on one side, black on the other) to maximize the value of time spent on the range. ***

Ray does a standout job exploring the use of sharpshooters during the months of trench warfare at Petersburg, especially the aggressive tactics employed by North Carolina's Major Thomas J. Wooten, whose regular scooping up of Federal pickets became known as "seine-hauling." Ray's coverage of the battles of Fort Stevens (outside Washington) and Fort Stedman (outside Petersburg) is especially detailed and illuminating regarding the services performed by sharpshooter units.

Shock Troops demonstrates an impressive level of research. I suspect that if the words "sharp" and "shooter" appear together in any published text of Civil War memoirs or history or official record, Ray has tracked it down. He gets extra points for following the trail into the manuscript realm, and his use of these sources is adept. Also praiseworthy is Ray's deployment of maps (more than 40) and the inclusion of ample pictures throughout.

Noah Andre Trudeau author, Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage; Like Men of War; The Last Citadel; Out of the Storm

from a review in America's Civil War magazine July 2006

To tell the story of sharpshooters, Ray had to travel back in time in the book, to find the origin of the army's use of specialized troops.

The Austrians, British and French all had "light" units in the 1700s, he noted. The rifleman was famed on the early American frontier and another Winchester personality, Daniel Morgan, made him feared during the American revolution.

In the Civil War, sharpshooters were all volunteers, Ray noted, and performed some of the most vital, and dangerous, jobs: picket lines, skirmishing and scouting. Their long-range shooting skills, up to 600 yards, helped them dominate the skirmish line, Ray said.

Late in the war, the Federal troops also began to develop sharpshooter battalions.

But Ray also includes stories of the sharpshooters themselves, as he found them in those letters and diaries.

Val Van Meter, Winchester Star July 20, 2006. Read the entire review here.

By quoting a myriad of letters, battlefield reports and memoirs from combat veterans, readers are presented with a very well-rounded look at the evolution of light-infantry, the effect of "sniping" and the fear that both instilled in their enemies. The inclusion of rare photographs, 59 period illustrations and 43 battle maps complement this work. Civil War enthusiasts will consider it a long-overdue study of an overlooked subject. And military history buffs will appreciate Ray's meticulous attention to detail.

Michael Aubrecht author of Onward Christian Soldier: The Spiritual Journey of Stonewall and Christian Cavalier: The Spiritual Legacy of J.E.B. Stuart from a review in the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star on July 22, 2006. Read the entire review here.

CFS Press Copyright 2005