Sharpshooting on Central Virginia's Battlefields - Part I
"Sharpshooter" by Winslow Homer (Public domain)
Along with the long lines of infantry, batteries of artillery, and regiments of cavalry, sharpshooters played an important yet largely underexamined role on central Virginia’s battlefields. Operating at times in large groups, smaller squads, and even individually, sharpshooters found themselves in many vital yet often unenviable positions at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Mine Run, the Wilderness, and Spotsylvania Court House.
Become a member and help save history. CVBT members enjoy our popular magazine, "On the Front Line," and exclusive opportunities. Your membership also helps fund educational initiatives such as this CVBT history email!
Col. Hiram Berdan, a noted marksman, formed the 1st and 2nd United States Sharpshooters, also known as Berdan's Sharpshooters. (Library of Congress)
The best-known sharpshooters in the Army of the Potomac were the 1st and 2nd US Sharpshooters (USSS), also known as Berdan’s Sharpshooters, named for their commander, Col. Hiram Berdan. Formed in 1861 and early 1862, Berdan’s men initially wore distinctive forest green uniforms. While Berdan’s Sharpshooters wielded weapons of various types (including civilian target rifles and Colt Revolving Rifles), the majority eventually carried issued Sharps rifles, a .54 caliber breechloading weapon that combined a fast rate of fire with impressive accuracy.
Berdan only enlisted men who displayed keen marksmanship. In fact, recruits had to demonstrate they could hit a ten-inch ring from two hundred yards away, ten times in a row. Many of the soldiers who came to fill Berdan's ranks were from New York, Michigan, New Hampshire, Vermont, Wisconsin, Maine, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania.
The Army of Northern Virginia eventually followed the lead of the Federals after keenly observing the effectiveness of Union sharpshooters in the Peninsula Campaign, the Seven Days’ Battles, and other 1862 battles. Robert Rodes proved a bit of a pioneer for the Confederates developing sharpshooting units in his brigade, and later his division’s brigades. By early 1864, the Army of Northern Virginia contained sharpshooter battalions in the majority of their various brigades.
"Berdan's Sharpshooters picking off the enemy's gunners" [at Yorktown] (Sketch by Homer Winslow in the May 3, 1862, issue of Harper's Weekly). A primary reason the Army of Northern Virginia started experimenting with sharpshooter units was the effective work of Berdan's soldiers during the Peninsula and Seven Days' Battles Campaigns.
Although occasionally operating in the role of the modern sniper, more often than not, sharpshooter units served most effectively as “light infantry” and skirmisher groups, principally fighting in a dispersed style out in front of the main battlelines and or protecting the flanks of larger units, and as pickets. While some soldiers preferred sharpshooter service where they often fought spread out and were able to take advantage of cover when possible, others did not like being so far advanced of their main infantry lines, susceptible to capture, and often within close distance of enemy skirmishers. Confederate Lt. Gen. A. P. Hill reputedly once said that "Sharpshooters, like fiddlers, are born, not made." Not everyone was cut out for the work they were asked to do, and most sharpshooter units had standards that soldiers had to meet to be included.
In this CVBT history email, we will take a look at some of the sharpshooter actions in the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia during the battles of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. We will follow next month by examining sharpshooters at Mine Run, the Battle of the Wilderness, and Spotsylvania Court House.
"On the Skirmish Line" (Battles and Leaders of the Civil War)
By the Battle of Fredericksburg, the 1st and 2nd USSS were veterans. However, those that commanded them were still trying to work out how to use their skills most effectively. The 1st USSS served at Fredericksburg with the Federal forces in the Center Grand Division on the northern end of the battlefield, while their comrades in the 2nd USSS fought in the Left Grand Division on the southern end.
The 1st USSS did not actually cross the Rappahannock River until December 14, 1862, and remained in Fredericksburg until the following day when they moved to the forward picket line to keep an eye on the Confederates. With their skills, one wonders how they might have assisted in the work to span the pontoon bridges on December 11, but they did not receive that call. Regardless, early on December 16, they relieved forward units to start the evacuation process and were among the last soldiers to leave Fredericksburg. They were fortunate in suffering no casualties.
Historian for Company F, 1st USSS, Lt. Col. William Y. W. Ripley, a Medal of Honor recipient, wrote about the picket detail’s experience among the numerous Federal dead and wounded at Fredericksburg: “many a brave man, who can cooly face actual danger, turns deathly sick as he looks upon the result as shown in the mangled and blood stained forms of those who were so lately his comrades and friends.”
The men in the 2nd USSS operated on the far Federal left and were more engaged in skirmishing with the enemy and protecting their own artillery from December 13-15 than their sharpshooter comrades on the other end of the field. On the 14th, the 2nd USSS advanced and drove away a group of Confederate cavalrymen guarding the right flank of their line. Of the action, Capt. Dudley Chase reported that: “We killed a large number, took 10 prisoners and eight horses.” The same day, while in prone position to avoid Confederate artillery fire, a shell ripped Pvt. George Clay’s knapsack off his back “sending the man’s clothing, etc. 20 feet in the air, and a pack of envelopes . . . 70 feet in the air,” which cascaded around the men as the paper fell to the ground. Apparently, Clay went untouched but surely shaken up.
The efforts of the 2nd USSS at Fredericksburg received praise in the reports of several officers. Col. Walter Phelps, who commanded the brigade in which they served, commended Maj. Stoughton and his sharpshooters. Likewise, Col. William Rogers, commanding another brigade in the division, noted, “I take pleasure in testifying to the very efficient service rendered by the Second U.S. Sharpshooters, under Maj. Stoughton.”
Maj. Homer R. Staughton received praise for his handling of the 2nd USSS at Fredericksburg. (Library of Congress)
What would soon become the Army of Northern Virginia briefly employed a special battalion of screening skirmishers during the spring 1862 Peninsula Campaign under Col. Archibald Gracie. However, the ad hoc unit was dissolved before the end of the campaign.
Following the Battle of Fredericksburg, Confederate Maj. Gen. D. H. Hill noted the disadvantage they were working under “without regularly trained sharpshooters.” Tabbing Gen. Robert Rodes, a brigade commander in Hill's division, to head up this initiative, Rodes in turn sought out Maj. Eugene Blackford (a Fredericksburg native) of the 5th Alabama to oversee its implementation.
Rodes and Blackford developed a system of choosing the best marksmen in each regiment to form a group of sharpshooters who could be detached when called upon and then return to their regiments when not needed. As Blackford described the selection process: “I was to have one man in every 12 of the Brigade. This man was to be 1st picked by his Capt. and Col. & then subject to my approval after trial—I was at liberty to send any one back I pleased. They were to be commanded by me absolutely and organize them as I pleased.” To increase their effectiveness, Blackford attempted to get his men all armed with either Springfield or Enfield rifle muskets and he trained them how to judge distance, use cover, load from different positions, and perform skirmish drills using bugle calls.
Gen. Robert Rodes, shown here, delegated the formation and training of his brigade's sharpshooters
to Maj. Eugene Blackford. (Public domain)
Berdan's Sharpshooters at Chancellorsville (Berdan's United States Sharpshooters in the Army of the Potomac, 1861-1865, published in 1892)
Attached to Maj. Gen. Dan Sickles’ Third Corps at Chancellorsville and operating in Gen. Regis De Trobriand’s brigade, Berdan’s men crossed the Rappahannock River at US Ford on April 30, 1863. Held in reserve with the rest of the Third Corps near the Chancellor House, the USSS did not engage on May 1.
However, fighting as a “light brigade” on May 2, Berdan’s men put in good service. First, they battled the rear guard of Jackson’s flank march column near Catherine Furnace and the unfinished railroad bed, capturing almost the whole 23rd Georgia. Then, later, after the Third Corps received orders to fallback, the USSS led the way. Col. Samuel Hayman, 37th New York, praised their work: “The Sharpshooters understand the true tactics of skirmishers, are possessed of enterprise and courage, and were maneuvered with great skill.”
Normally used to fighting at great distance, during the May 2 withdrawal, the sharpshooters had to rely heavily on their rapid-firing Sharps breechloaders. Company F, 1st USSS historian William Ripley noted that the sharpshooters “pushed on until they were fairly mingled with the rebels, and in may instances, a long distance inside the enemy’s line, every man fighting for himself—for in this confused melee . . . many shots were fired at distances no greater than a few feet.”
On May 3rd, while some of Berdan’s men saw heavy fighting in the woods pushing Confederate skirmishers back into their infantry lines, others in groups of four protected Federal artillery while also harassing Confederate gunners at long distance. At one point in the chaos the Sharpshooters, charging without bayonets, checked a determined Confederate brigade. Gen. Sickles complemented Berdan's men in his Chancellorsville official report: "These splendid light troops rendered the most effective service."
Some of the 1st USSS served as pickets on May 4 and 5 as the army prepared to recross the Rappahannock River at US Ford. Tested several times, occasionally against Rodes’ Confederate sharpshooters, the Federal marksmen brushed them back. About 90 of the USSS fell as casualties during the Chancellorsville Campaign.
Pvt. Sherrod Brown, 1st USSS. Pvt. Brown wears the distinctive green cap, frockcoat, trousers, and brown leather leggings of Berdan's Sharpshooters. He carries a .52 caliber Sharps rifle with bayonet. (Library of Congress)
The Chancellorsville Campaign was Maj. Eugene Blackford’s first true opportunity to try out his sharpshooter battalion. As part of Gen. Rodes’ Brigade, they advanced at the head of Gen. Jackson’s massive flank march and attack. Blackford wrote to his mother on May 2, 1863, “Today we resumed the march & have been feeling for the enemy all day. My battalion being out all the time, we are half dead with fatigue, caused by scrambling over fences and thro’ thick woods.”
On May 3, Blackford’s sharpshooters still fought as an independent battalion, but within the regular lines of Rodes’ infantry. “I was exposed to the most awful fire of grape & cannister from the enemy’s batteries which were behind earthworks in the open fields. . . .,” wrote Blackford in a May 4 letter. “My Sharpshooters are now [May 4] about 300 yards in front skirmishing briskly with the enemy.” “I trust we will not be sent against another work like the one we have just taken, for the Yankees have had plenty of time to fortify,” the major added.
Unfortunately for Maj. Blackford and his men, they were not finished probing the Federal defenses near the Rappahannock River. On May 5, under orders to determine Union strength, his sharpshooters moved to within a few hundred yards of the enemy’s earthworks. “This drew upon us a tremendous fire of grape, canister & musketry, from which I withdrew my men speedily . . . tho’ not without considerable loss, and with the narrowest escapes I have yet made,” Blackford penned.
Pvt. John W. Bone, 30th North Carolina, served in the battalion of sharpshooters of Gen. Stephen D. Ramseur’s brigade. His recollection aligns with Blackford’s. Bone’s Tarheels moved forward along with Blackford’s sharpshooters. Bone remembered, “a man who was lying very near to me, and all at once a cannon ball or shell struck his head and knocked it from his body. After locating their condition we fell back to our former line and had grape-shots and canister shells thrown among them, but they made it so very hot for us that we retreated.”
"Confederate Reconnaissance" by Keith Rocco
Sgt. William R. Montgomery, fighting in the also recently formed 3rd Georgia Sharpshooter Battalion, part of Gen. William Wofford’s Brigade, wrote to his mother on May 7. Montgomery explained, “I forgot to tell you about the Sharp Shooters. Gen Wofford had 50 men detailed from each Regt in the Brigade (5) to form a battalion of Sharpshooters.” He proudly continued about their recent work at Chancellorsville, “Well, I tell you. We are always in front of the Brigade, about 300 to 400 yds., to clear out the way & I tell you we done it too, to perfection.” On May 2, fighting in McLaws’ division while Jackson’s men made their flank march, Montgomery and Wofford’s sharpshooters battled along with Gen. Paul Semmes’ brigade capturing enemy soldiers from the 27th Connecticut and 145th Pennsylvania. On May 3, Montgomery and his fellow sharpshooters battled at Salem Church and then participated in the pursuit of Gen. John Sedgwick’s Federal force as it retreated across the Rappahannock River at Banks’ Ford.
A favorite weapon among the Army of Northern Virginia's sharpshooter battalions was the short version (2-band, 33-inch barrel) Enfield rifle musket. Pvt. Gordon Bradwell, 31st Georgia Infantry, recalled, "Every short Enfield which came into possession of any of our men was taken away and given to [the sharpshooters]." (Public domain)
Sources and Suggested Reading
Earl J. Hess. The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat: Myth and Reality. Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press, 2008.
George Montgomery, editor. Georgia Sharpshooter: The Civil War Diary and Letters of William Rhadamanthus Montgomery. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1997.
Fred L. Ray, editor. Sharpshooter: The Selected Letters and Papers of Maj. Eugene Blackford, C.S.A, Volume 1. Ashville, NC: CFS Press, 2015.
Fred L. Ray. Shock Troops of the Confederacy: The Sharpshooter Battalions of the Army of Northern Virginia. Asheville, NC: CFS Press, 2006.
Capt. C. A. Stevens. Berdan’s United States Sharpshooters in the Army of the Potomac, 1861-1865. St. Paul, MN: C. A. Stevens, 1892.
Wiley Sword. Sharpshooter: Hiram Berdan, His Famous Sharpshooters and their Sharps Rifles. Lincoln, RI: Andrew Mowbray Inc., 1988.
Capt. Shepherd Pryor, 12th Georgia Infantry (History of the Doles-Cook Brigade,
Army of Northern Virginia, CSA, published 1903)
“I’ve been put on another duty that I don’t like much but my motto is to do the best I can under any and all circumstances: go ahead and do my duty. . . . It is a post of honor, not one of ease.”
Capt. Shepherd G. Pryor, writing to his wife Penelope on May 22, 1863, after being named commander of the battalion of sharpshooters for Gen. George Doles’ brigade.
If you know someone who would enjoy this email, please feel free to share it.
For additional past CVBT history emails and informative articles, visit the blog section of the website.
Central Virginia Battlefields Trust's mission is to preserve, protect, and educate about Civil War hallowed ground at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Mine Run, The Wilderness, and Spotsylvania Court House.