Civil War Sharpshooters
Ray, Fred L., Infantry
"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. To supplement these weapons the sharpshooters kept a few heavy target rifles, which were extremely accurate at extended ranges but stayed in the baggage trains much of the time.
The Confederates, though they had few rifles at this stage of the war, did have the advantage of having many men who had learned to shoot in "that most perfect school, the field and forest." Not until January 1863, however, did Brigadier General Robert Rodes begin organizing and training a specialized sharpshooter battalion for his Alabama brigade. Rodes' new battalion initially levied one man in 12 from across the brigade's five regiments, making it about 100 strong. Having no specialized rifles, his men used standard .577 caliber P53 Enfields, which were quite accurate out to 900 yards. The new battalion commander, Major Eugene Blackford, immediately began intensive marksmanship practice and skirmish drills. Target practice was unusual in the Civil War, and few soldiers got any sort of formal instruction. Unlike Berdan's men, the Confederate sharpshooters were expected to be not only crack shots but to operate as a tactical unit, performing light infantry missions such as picketing, scouting, skirmishing, as well as acting as advance and rear guards. They would be first into battle and the last to leave, and in combat would be expected to close with the enemy position and engage appropriate targets. To show their membership in an elite unit, Blackford allowed them to wear a small red trefoil on their pocket - the precursor of today's specialist badges.
Blackford's sharpshooters got their first test on May 2, 1863, when they acted as a flankers for Stonewall Jackson's famous march around the Union army at Chancellorsville, and as the advance guard for his subsequent attack. After the battle, Rodes, now promoted to major general and division command, doubled the size of the battalion to 200 men. Thus the battalion now had two "corps" of sharpshooters, who could readily be used as picket reliefs or as independent tactical units. Many other brigades formed sharpshooter battalions as well, and that summer each battalion received one or two long-range .451 caliber Whitworth rifles. These extremely accurate English-made weapons, which featured an unusual hexagonal bore, had an effective range of over 1,000 yards. Some models boasted a four power telescopic sight as well, and since they weighed no more than a service musket did not have to be carried in wagons.
Blackford's outfit had proven so successful that in the spring of 1864 General Robert E. Lee ordered all infantry brigades in the Army of Northern Virginia to form a sharpshooter battalion that winter. Rodes continued to innovate by grouping the five sharpshooter battalions in his division into a semi-permanent "demibrigade," 700-1,000 strong, that could operate on its own. Rodes's modus operand/ was to back his division sharpshooters with a couple of artillery pieces and feed up reinforcements from his infantry brigades if they ran into trouble. Although a shell burst ended his life at Winchester in September 1864, Rodes' sharpshooter battalions continued to operate until the end of the war.
At Petersburg the sharpshooters proved especially useful, since with the armies in close contact a nearly constant petite guerre went on in between battles. In the trenches around the embattled city they were used for what we would term special operations today: scouting, raiding, and capturing prisoners for information. One Confederate sharpshooter commander, Major Thomas Wooten, came up with an innovative tactic he called "seine-hauling" for capturing whole sections of the Union picket line. Running forward in two parallel columns. Woolen's men would penetrate the enemy picket line, then swing around and bag everyone in their path from behind.
Although they had begun the war with a noticeable advantage in light infantry, the Federals now found themselves at a disadvantage on the skirmish line. Their best sharpshooter units, the 1st and 2nd U.S.S.S., were by now severely understrength, and these two regiments (plus half a dozen independent companies) were just not enough to deal with the Confederate sharpshooter battalions. Thus in June 1864, they formed a hundred-man sharpshooter company for each infantry division, drawn from across the unit. Seventy-five of these men received 7-shot Spencer repeaters and acted as the division commander's assault troops, while another 25 men carried the heavy target rifles and provided long-range precision fire against targets like enemy artillery and officers. Although not particularly accurate at longer ranges, the Spencer (which was, in effect, the assault weapon of its day) was quite well suited to the trench warfare that characterized the last year of the war.
After the end of the war, the sharpshooters disbanded, and the concept fell out of favor in the small postwar army. Although periodically revived during wartime, the twin concepts of sniping and sharpshooting usually went dormant during times of peace. Lately, however, marksmanship has undergone a revival in both the Army and Marines. Campaigns in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere have once again shown the value of aimed long-range fire, both to demoralize the enemy ("destroy the mind") and to reduce civilian casualties. Both services now run extremely tough sniper schools that produce elite shooters who have seen plenty of action. The irregular nature of recent conflicts has also seen the resurgence of light infantry and an emphasis on small-unit tactics, which in turn has produced the designated marksman, or DM. Like the Civil War sharpshooter, the designated marksman acts as a light infantryman, staying with his unit but supporting them with precision fire against selected targets. If these men were to be grouped together into a unit, it would be very similar to what the Confederates came up with in 1863.
Major Eugune Blackford, commander of a Confederate sharpshooter battalion, allowed soldiers in his unit to wear a small red trefoil on their pocket - the precursor of today's specialist badges.
Fred L. Ray is the author of Shock Troops of the Confederacy (www. cssharpshooters.com), from which this article is adapted. He is a former soldier who spent most of his time in armored cavalry and served two tours in Vietnam.
Requests to reprint "Civil War Sharpshooters" and "A Sharpshooter's Weapons" should be sent to the author at email@example.com.…
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Publication information: Article title: Civil War Sharpshooters. Contributors: Ray, Fred L. - Author. Magazine title: Infantry. Volume: 95. Issue: 3 Publication date: May/June 2006. Page number: 18+. © Infantry Magazine Nov/Dec 1996. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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