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Sharpshooting on Central Virginia's Battlefields - Part II

Updated: Feb 12


If you missed it, you may read Part I here.

 

The Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia continued to utilize sharpshooting units following Chancellorsville. Sharpshooters from both sides gained additional experience during the Gettysburg Campaign and throughout the armies’ operations between the Rapidan River and northern Virginia in the fall of 1863.

The Mine Run Campaign that late autumn, and the Overland Campaign the following spring, brought a number of changes, new units, and many challenges to Federal and Confederate sharpshooters. We will share some of their accounts with you in this CVBT history email.

 

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Mine Run

Although Col. Hiram Berdan used his keen organizational skills and strong political connections to get the 1st and 2nd United States Sharpshooters (USSS) established, equipped, and recognized, from the beginning of his service it was clear that Berdan had little combat acumen and an apparent aversion to the dangers of the battlefield. Almost never leading his men from the front, and often criticized for that by his officers, noncommissioned officers, and enlisted men, the 38-year-old Berdan took a leave of absence following the Gettysburg Campaign. Receiving extensions to his leave, and beginning work on developing a new breechloading rifle, Berdan never returned to the field. Few of the men were upset with his departure.

Remaining in the Army of the Potomac’s Third Corps, but after Chancellorsville divided among two brigades in Gen. David B. Birney’s division, the two USSS regiments were active during the Mine Run Campaign. Lt. Col. Casper Trepp commanded the 1st USSS, and Lt. Col. Homer Stoughton led the 2nd USSS.

Crossing the Rapidan River at Jacob’s Ford on November 26, 1863, the 1st USSS fought the following day at Payne’s Farm. After arriving, they were “ordered forward to a fence a little distance in advance of the main Union line, and hold that position at all hazards.” Five times the Confederates advanced on the 1st USSS’s improvised defensive line, and five times they were repulsed. In the fighting, the 1st USSS lost about 35 casualties.

Not engaged on November 28, the USSS moved to the left on November 29, serving as skirmishers. On November 30, along with 3rd Michigan and 124th New York, the two USSS regiments “advanced across the [dammed up Mine Run] swamp . . . driving the rebel pickets into their works and pressing their way to within a few rods of the enemy’s front. . . .” While fighting from this position, Lt. Col. Casper Trepp, commanding the 1st USSS, received a mortal wound to the top of his head, “the bullet entering at the red diamond [corps badge] of his hat.” In addition, on Nov. 30, the 2nd USSS’s beloved chaplain, Lorenzo Barber, also known as the “Fighting Parson,” was wounded in the leg while on the skirmish line. Both men were significant losses to their regiments.

Lt. Col. Casper Trepp (1st USSS), a Swiss immigrant, was killed in action

at Mine Run on November 30, 1863. (Public domain)


On November 27, Gen. Robert Rodes’ Confederate sharpshooters met Federal skirmishers from Brig. Gen. Alexander Hays’ brigade, who were moving west, near Robinson’s Tavern. The sharpshooters from Ramsuer’s, Battle’s, Daniel’s, and Johnston’s brigades, moving east, created a sharp firefight within close confines that seesawed back and forth. Sharpshooter Pvt. Jim Branscomb, 3rd Alabama, wrote, “They got so close to me at one time that I did not know whether to run or be taken prisoner.” However, the thought of capture prompted Branscomb to “sift through a heavy shower of balls” to make his getaway.

The Confederates eventually fell back to the east side of Mine Run and started digging in. Many of the sharpshooters served as pickets in rifle pits through the freezing temperatures. On November 28, Pvt. Louis Leon, a sharpshooter in the 53rd North Carolina recorded in his diary, “The sharpshooters are out in front, my corps out to-day. We made ourselves small pits to lay in as a protection from Yankee bullets. These pits are just about large enough to hold two or three men.”

Being in close proximity to the Federal sharpshooters and skirmishers offered unique opportunities. A Confederate soldier in the 4th North Carolina related that a comrade and a Union soldier butchered a sheep that the Yankee had shot. Comrades witnessed the two friendly enemies “chattering good-humoredly and as much unconcerned as though there were neither abolitionists nor Negroes in America.” Each took an equal share of the mutton and returned to their rifle pits.

After Gen. Meade decided to call off the Mine Run assault, and as the army started its withdrawal, Confederate sharpshooters from Rhodes’ division followed closely gathering up over 250 straggling Federals as prisoners.

"Battle of Mine Run, VA - Position of the Armies of Lee and Meade, December 1, 1863"

From a sketch by Edwin Forbes (Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper)

 

The Battle of the Wilderness

"Army of the Potomac - Picket Guard" (Harper's Weekly)

By the spring of 1864, the Army of the Potomac consolidated some of its corps. The two USSS regiments transferred from the heavily reduced and now eliminated Third Corps to the Second Corps. In addition, the Ninth Corps soon accompanied Meade’s army and brought some sharpshooter units with it as well. The 1st USSS served in Gen. Alexander Hays’ brigade and the 2nd USSS operated in Gen. J. H. Hobart Ward’s brigade.

After crossing the Rapidan River with the Second Corps at Ely’s Ford on May 4, 1864, the USSS proceeded through the Chancellorsville battlefield and down the Brock Road. When they heard heavy firing they countermarched and moved toward the Brock Road and Orange Plank Road intersection. Fighting there beside the Vermont Brigade, the USSS moved forward as the rest of the Second Corps arrived. “The musketry . . . was continuous and deadly along the whole line. The roar of battle was deafening. . . .” related the historian of Co. F, 1st USSS. The combat continued until darkness ended the fighting.

Pvt. William Greene, 2nd USSS, noted in his journal on May 6 that when he started on a charge that morning, “I felt I could fight & do any thing for my bleeding country. But after I had got out [safe] the first time, my patriotism had died & I thought of nothing but to keep clear of the enemy’s bulletts—zip, zip, zipping around me.”

Fighting into the afternoon, when flanked by Longstreet’s Confederates, Greene explained, “then away we went to the rear.” Falling back to improvised breastworks they reformed, and “Down they came & met our well directed bullets without a falter.” The works caught fire, causing Greene and his comrades to fall back to a secondary line where after meeting the sharpshooters’ fire “the enemy soon retreated in confusion, leaving many, in fact all, of their killed & wounded in our front.”

Among the Ninth Corps troops arriving on May 5 at the Wilderness was Company K, 1st Michigan Sharpshooters. Composed of Anishinaabe Indians from the western Great Lakes region, they served in Col. Benjamin Christ’s brigade of Brig. Gen. Orlando Willcox’s division and immediately went on the picket line. On May 6, the 1st Michigan Sharpshooters led the advance of their brigade, who eventually, with the rest of the Ninth Corps, occupied a position in the center of the Union line. These men understood the advantage that camouflage could provide. They daubed their uniforms with dirt and tucked small branches in their belts and caps to help keep concealed.

Facing some of Ramseur’s Brigade—one of the Army of Northern Virginia’s best—Co. K caught devastating rifle and artillery fire from high ground near Jones’ Field and received orders to retreat. Federal infantry support checked the Confederate advance, but at least one Confederate thought, “The Indians fought bravely in the woods.” He was not as impressed with them in the open where he thought “they ran like deer.” Several of the wounded Anishinaabe sharpshooters received treatment in Fredericksburg after the battle where a photographer captured them recovering.

Photograph of some of the wounded members of Co. K, 1st Michigan Sharpshooters recovering on the grounds of Brompton (Marye House) at Fredericksburg.

(Library of Congress)


While some Army of Northern Virginia brigades had formed sharpshooter battalions either before or following Chancellorsville, others had not. Some disbanded after Gettysburg, and others continued. However, in January 1864, Gen. Lee issued an order requesting all of his brigades to form sharpshooter battalions.

In March 1864, Sgt. Marion Hill Fitzpatrick, 45th Georgia (Thomas’ Brigade), wrote to his wife noting “We have established a regular sharp shooting or skirmishing Battalion in our Brigade. I joined them immediately.” At the end of April, Fitzpatrick wrote about one of his sharpshooter practices: “We shot two rounds apiece at the distance of 600 yards. Out of 98 shots, only five hit the board. I was one of the five and I missed the cross [bullseye] some distance.”

A Confederate sharpshooter battalion that had formed and then dissolved was in Gen. Samuel McGowan’s South Carolina brigade. It lost its leader, Capt. William Haskell, at Gettysburg but reformed under Capt. William Dunlop in March 1864. Like other sharpshooter battalions, Dunlop’s men trained in judging distance and took target practice. They did not have to wait long to get into action.

On May 5 at the Wilderness, Dunlop’s sharpshooters advanced on the left of McGowan’s Brigade attempting to help fill the void between Gen. Richard Ewell’s corps and Gen. A. P. Hill’s corps. One of Dunlop’s sharpshooters, Sgt. Berry Benson, had a marksman’s duel with a Federal soldier early in the contest. Benson remembered: “Some few hundred yards down the road on the edge of the woods was an abandoned caisson or cannon. A man stepped to it, and sheltered behind it, fired his rifle, the bullet just missing me lying in the ditch. I returned the shot. Four or five times he fired at me, barely missing me, I firing in return. Finally a shot grazed the back of my shoulder, striking the wooden bar across my knapsack, indenting it deeply.” One wonders, had Benson had been matching skills with a USSS soldier in the Second Corps?

On May 6, Sgt. Benson and his fellow sharpshooters were about 200 yards in front of the brigade. Seeing the advance of the Federal Second Corps, Benson reported to Dunlop, who sent him to inform McGowan. Returning to the skirmish line, Benson remembered “we fought stubbornly, dropping back slowly, to give the line-of-battle behind us good time to meet the enemy with a full volley.” But they did not, “they ran like deer through the wood, leaving the enemy far behind.” Gen. Lee halted McGowan’s Brigade’s retreat and the fighting continued fiercely as Gen. James Longstreet’s corps soon appeared and counterattacked.

William R. Montgomery, 3rd Georgia Sharpshooters, Wofford’s Brigade, was one of Longstreet’s men who counterattacked near the Widow Tapp Field. In his diary for May 6, Montgomery wrote “Came upon the Yankies on the [Orange] Plank Road at Parkers Store. They were driving A. P. Hill back. We were put in immediately & drove them back after a hard fight of 3 hours. Our brigade flanked & drove them from their works.”

On the evening of May 7, 1864, Gen. Grant maneuvered the Army of the Potomac south toward Spotsylvania, where the fighting soon resumed.

Sgt. Berry Benson served in the sharpshooter battalion of

Gen. Samuel McGowan's Brigade. (Public domain)

 

Battle of Spotsylvania Court House

"Army of the Potomac - Sharp-shooter Improvising a Rest for His Rifle"

Sketched by A. R. Waud (Harper's Weekly)


From the beginning of the almost two weeks of fighting at Spotsylvania until the end, sharpshooters played prominent roles.

After the Battle of the Wilderness and still assigned to the Second Corps, the USSS moved from their position at Todd’s Tavern to the Federal right near the Po River. On May 9, 1864, temporarily detached from the 1st USSS, some of Co. F saw a Confederate signal station operating out of a treetop observing their movements. Unable to hit their targets and put a stop to the flow of information at such extreme distances frustrated the marksmen. The distance being about 1,500 yards, and their accurate Sharps rifle’s graduated sites only extending to 1,000 yards, did not allow precise shots so far away.

To solve the problem, the sharpshooters relied on a little ingenuity. They whittled sticks to fit in their rifle’s sights increasing the shot elevation. A few aimed shots with an officer spotting with field glasses indicated that the elevation was still not high enough. The crack-shot soldiers whittled and fitted longer sticks and then fired a few rounds, but these shots flew over their targets. They then cut the sticks down just a bit. This proved true, making the enemy signal crew duck and dodge. Once all the sharpshooters had their sticks cut properly, the Confederates had to abandon their signaling efforts, pleasing Second Corps commander Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock greatly.

On May 10, 1864, while leading his regiment, the highly respected Lt. Col. Homer Stoughton of the 2nd USSS was wounded. He soon returned, but was later captured June 21 at Petersburg.

Covering the flank and part of the front of Gen. Birney’s division, the 1st USSS participated in the massive May 12 attack on the “Mule Shoe” salient. Capt. John Wilson reported that two of his companies “were the first to confront the enemy’s works at that point where four pieces of artillery were taken.” From 200 yards out, Wilson and his comrades sent “a rapid and accurate fire,” which prevented “the work of this battery, in a manner rendering excellent service and doing good execution.”

Pvt. William Greene and his comrades in the 2nd USSS also fought on May 12. Greene noted in his diary: “surprised the enemy in their works, which we immediately charged & . . . succeeded in driving the enemy from their entrenchments.” Greene wrote, “never did I see so many men in one pile dead before.” The intensity of rifle fire astonished Greene: “I never saw bullets fly so as they have today.” In a letter to his brother on May 18, Greene explained that on May 12, “The fight lasted all day,” and that the dead of the enemy were “pretty near torn to pieces. . . .”

The two USSS regiments continued serving primarily as skirmishers for the operations of the Second Corps throughout the remainder of their time at Spotsylvania.

Capt. Charles Dwight Merriman, Co. F, 1st USSS. Capt. Merriman led his company at Mine Run, the Wilderness, and Spotsylvania. He served until September 1864 when he mustered out. (Library of Congress)


Among the Confederate troops that greeted Gen. Gouverneur Warren's arriving Fifth Corps at Laurel Hill on May 8, were sharpshooters from Joseph Kershaw’s Brigade. Their determined stance and accurate fire helped hold off the Federal assaults as more Confederates came on line and dug in to hold the vital position near the Spindle House. Gen. Robert Rodes’ division eventually came in on the right of Kershaw and his sharpshooters in Gen. Cullen Battle’s brigade pushed Federal skirmishers back to their main line.

Federal assaults continued at Laurel Hill while artillery from both sides shelled each other. Federal artillerist Charles Wainwright noted in his diary, “the rebel sharpshooters opened a very ugly fire on us” from about 400 yards. Wainwright estimated that the Confederate sharpshooters worked from concealed positions in groups of a “dozen or twenty” firing “by command at the same object.” One of the objects was Wainwright, who had to dismount and use his horse as a shield. As soon as he let down his guard, “a score of minies [bullets] whistled around my head.” None of the shots hit him but his horse was wounded.

The following day, May 9, Sixth Corps commander, Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick, was not as fortunate as Wainwright. He fell victim to a sharpshooter’s bullet. In his memoirs, Sgt. Berry Benson hints that he believed a fellow South Carolina sharpshooter, Pvt. Ben Powell, who Gen. McGowan apparently allowed to operate independently, shot Sedgwick. Powell, according to Benson, utilized a Whitworth rifle [.45 caliber] with a telescopic sight. However, Powell’s story told of shooting a mounted officer, which does not match with Sedgwick’s situation at the time, as he was on foot when shot.

"Skirmishing" by Keith Rocco


On May 12, Confederate sharpshooters fought both as skirmishers and along the earthwork lines as the situations they encountered determined. One of the brigades sent to counterattack the Federal assault was Ramseur’s. John Bone, 30th North Carolina, who had previously served as a sharpshooter, remembered: “We now passed the sharpshooters, and men were being wounded all along the line. We had orders to charge and charge we did. Just before we reached the first line of works, I was . . . wounded by a ball striking me in the right breast passing through my lungs and coming out beside my backbone, and lodging in some clothes that I had on my back.” Amazingly, after a recovery period, Bone survived to return to service.

Sgt. Marion Hill Fitzpatrick fortunately missed the May 12 fight, but explained to his wife that he had “been hard down skirmishing day and night. I have run some narrow risks but not near like being in the regular [line] fighting.” Fitzpatrick noted that his battalion of sharpshooters were being used “in the rear to stop staglers.” Back in action on the skirmish line on May 18. Fitzpatrick wrote the following day that “We opened fire on them hot and heavy and fought like tigers, it being the order not to fall back until we saw the line of battle.” Flanked and nearly captured he “retreated . . . in all possible speed, while the balls came thick and fast by us.”

Sgt. Marion Hill Fitzpatrick, 45th Georgia Infantry, served in the battalion of

sharpshooters from Gen. Edward Thomas' brigade. Fitzpatrick fought in all five

of the major battles in Central Virginia. (Public domain)


Gen. Richard Ewell’s Corps, with Rodes’ division at its head, was back in action on May 19 at Harris Farm. Leading the way were the sharpshooter battalions as they crossed the Ni River. Near the Fredericksburg Road they ran into inexperienced Federal heavy artillery units fighting as infantry. Rodes’ sharpshooters initially gave the "Heavies" a blistering welcome to the battlefield, but soon the tide turned as the determined rookies held firm and more arrived. Fought out, Ewell fell back leaving hundreds of his dead and wounded on the field with no real gains to show for the day’s fight.

Within a few days Grant again moved to the east and south forcing Lee to fall back defensively. Other battles followed at the North Anna River, Cold Harbor, and then Petersburg. The 1st and 2nd USSS terms of service expired during the winter of 1864-65. Some of their soldiers reenlisted and transferred to other regiments. The Army of Northern Virginia’s sharpshooter battalions continued to provide valuable service at Petersburg, during the 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaign, and on to Appomattox.

 

Sources and Suggested Reading

The following books are in addition to those titles listed in Part I:

Susan Williams Benson, editor. Berry Benson’s Civil War Book: Memoirs of a Confederate Scout and Sharpshooter. University of Georgia Press, 1991.

S. Dunlop. Lee’s Sharpshooters or, The Forefront of Battle. Morningside (reprint), 2000.

William H. Hastings, editor. Letters from a Sharpshooter: The Civil War Letters of William B. Greene, Co. G, Berdan’s Sharpshooters. Historic Publications, 1993.

Jeffrey C. Lowe and Sam Hodges, editors. Letters to Amanda: The Civil War Letters of Marion Hill Fitzpatrick, Army of Northern Virginia. Mercer University Press, 1998.

Julianne Mehegan and David Mehegan, editors. Record of a Soldier in the Late War: The Confederate Memoir of John Wesley Bone. Chinquapin Publishers, 2014.

Sally Walker. Deadly Aim: The Story of Michigan’s Anishinaabe Sharpshooters. Henry Holt & Company, 2019.

 

Parting Shot

Muzzle bore of a Whitworth rifle. The rifle's special bullet and unique hexagonal bore design created an extremely accurate long-distance shooting rifle. Some Whitworth rifles were also equipped with four-power telescopic sights. (Courtesy of Damon Mills Fine Antique Arms)


"Having nothing to do, I went down across a field where Ben Powell, with his Whitworth rifle was sharpshooting. Ben was not attached to the Battalion, being independent in his movements. There had been a number of Whitworth rifles (with telescopic sight) brought from England, running the blockade. These guns with ammunition had been distributed to army, our brigade receiving one. It was given to Powell, as he was known to be an excellent shot."

Sgt. Berry Benson, 1st South Carolina Infantry, May 10, 1864

 


 

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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.

 

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Peter Rainey
Peter Rainey
12. Juli 2023

Battle of the Wilderness, Gordon's Flank attack:

Gordon formed 400 sharpshooters from his regiments into a flanking line looking down on Sedgwick's Sixth Corps at their campfires and destroyed two of his regiments to start the battle the evening of May 6th.

Dr. Peter G. Rainey, co-founder of the Civil War Study Group at Lake of the Woods, a community located on the Wilderness battlefield.

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