"Why, my man, I am ashamed of you, dodging that way," said Union Major General John Sedgwick, commander of the U.S. Sixth Corps, after seeing one of his men throw himself to the ground to avoid ritle bullets coming in from the enemy position on Laurel Hill, some 500 yards away. "They couldn't hit an elephant at this distance." A moment later a Confederate marksman disputed his estimate by putting a bullet through the general's cheek, killing him almost instantly. By the time of Sedgwick's death on May 9, 1864, the sharpshooter was an established presence on the battlefields of the Civil War and would continue to exact a heavy toll for the duration of the conflict.
The term sharpshooter had a more general meaning in the mid-19th century than it does today. It could mean either a roving precision rifleman like the modern sniper (a term that did not come into use until late in the century) or a light infantryman who specialized in the petite guerre: scouting, picketing, and skirmishing. The modern sharpshooter appeared in Central Europe around 1700 (the term comes from the German Scharfschiltze) where he specialized in harassing the line of battle with rifle fire in an age where most infantrymen carried smoothbore weapons. As such, riflemen exercised a considerable psychological effect: "Destroy the mind," observed one British rifleman, "and bodily strength will avail but little in that courage required in the field of battle." He might have also added that killing or wounding the enemy's chain of command, particularly officers, greatly aided in breaking up his attacks and generally upsetting his plans.
In the United States, the Union army began the Civil War with some very effective light infantry units, thanks to the efforts of Hiram Berdan, a wealthy inventor and businessman with extensive political connections. Berdan, who had a reputation as the best rifle shot in the country, required each volunteer to shoot a satisfactory "string" before being accepted. A born promoter, he moved easily in the circles of official Washington, and on Aug. 2, 1861, he received his commission as colonel of the 1st United States Sharpshooter Regiment. So many marksmen responded to his call, in fact, that another regiment of eight companies, the 2nd U.S.S.S., was formed as well. Berdan established a training camp near Washington D.C. where he regularly staged rifle matches and demonstrations for the press and dignitaries, including President Abraham Lincoln. Turned out in their green uniforms, leather leggings, and kepis with an ostrich feather plume, the sharpshooters cut dashing figures on the parade ground. The regiment's training proceeded along the lines of European light infantry, including the use of terrain for cover and bugle calls for maneuver.
It soon became obvious that their civilian target rifles (some of which weighed upwards of 50 lbs.) were not suitable for serious campaigning. Berdan procured, over the objections of the chief of ordnance, a custom-made Sharps breech-loading rifle with special sights and a double "set" trigger. Manufacturing these custom arms required time, so the Sharpshooters had to temporarily accept Colt Revolving Rifles instead - something that nearly provoked a mutiny. The 1st U.S.S.S. joined the Army of the Potomac for the 1862 Peninsular campaign, where they dominated the skirmish line, made life miserable for Rebel artillerymen, and prompted urgent calls in the Confederacy for more rifle-armed troops. Berdan, however, was not a man who led from the front. He was usually to be found behind the lines tending to administrative tasks, something that did not prevent him from making exaggerated boasts about his role in various battles and ensuring that he and his men got an inordinate amount of press coverage.
Tactically, Berdan's sharpshooters seldom operated as a unit - in most cases they operated in groups of 15-20 men, engaging high-value targets like officers and artillery batteries with their Sharps rifles, which had an effective range of about 800 yards. …