Confederate Sharpshooters

During the War Between the States, Hiram Berdan's United States Sharpshooters gained fame and notoriety on the battlefields of America's bloodiest conflict Not so well known are the Confederate sharpshooters. There are many myths and misconceptions about these Southern marksmen, their training, organization and equipment

     After the opening battles ' of the Civil War in 1861, it was soon realized by the many forward-thinking Confederate commanders that the use of rifles and sharpshooters was going to prove vital in what was increasingly looking to be a long, drawn-out war. After much lobbying by senior officers such as Generals Earl Van Dorn, Robert E. Rhodes and Cadmus Wilcox, in April 1862 the Confederate Congress passed an act to permit the raising of several battalions of sharpshooters consisting of "Not less than three nor more than six companies [per regiment] to be composed of men selected and armed with long-range muskets or rifles."

     Initially at least, supplies of the required arms were going to prove to be a problem, and the act went on to add: "The government has not at its command a sufficient number of approved long-range rifles [or] muskets wherewith to arm the said corps. Requisitions will be made upon the Ordnance Department for the arms and until such requisitions can be filled such exchanges and transfers of long-range muskets and rifles to be made as may be necessary to arm said battalions, returning surplus arms when such requirements are filled to the Ordnance Department." In simple language, there were no rifles available to equip the sharpshooters, so they had official sanction to beg, borrow--but not actually steal--the rifles they required to enable them to function.

     In total 16 Confederate sharpshooter battalions were raised, these being the 17th and 23rd Alabama, 1st and 12th Arkansas, lst, 2nd, 3rd and 4th Georgia, 14th Louisiana, lst, 9th and 15th Mis­sissippi, 9th Missouri, 1st North Carolina; 2nd South Carolina and 1st Texas. In many respects the men recruited were superior to those of the Federal sharpshooters, for they had already been serving as line infantry and were battle-hardened. Their farming backgrounds usually meant that they were markedly better at using their rifles. Lieutenant William Ripley (no relation to the Ordnance general), in his contemporary history of the lst U.S. Sharpshooters, wrote of the Confederate troops that their predominantly rural backgrounds allied to skills at hunting and tracking meant they were often to prove better than the Federal sharpshooters. "It became painfully apparent that, however inferior the Confederate armies were in point of education and general intelligence to the men of the Union, man for man they were the superiors of their northern antagonists in the use of arms" and "their armies were composed mainly of men who had been trained to the skilful use of the rifle [in] that most perfect of schools, the field and forest."

     The Southerners began to organize sharpshooter battalions on a more formal basis. No single regiment could provide sufficient men who had the skills required for sharpshooting, so units were raised through their own state regiments from the selection of men serving as regular line infantry. This system provided the material to form sharpshooter battalions, and some were raised very quickly. The 17th Alabama and 9th Missouri sharpshooters were serving in the field by April 28,1862. Unlike the Northern Berdan's U.S. Sharpshooters, though, there was considerable reluctance to join Southern sharpshooter battalions from men who had already made close friends and fought together. Their state regiments were their homes, and the sharpshooter units were an unknown quantity staffed by strangers. While some were extremely keen to join the new units (Sgt. Barry Benson recalled that a friend willingly gave up his stripes to join a new unit as a private soldier), many commanding officers had to detail men to join the sharpshooter battalions, as Col. John Pressley of the 25th South Carolina wrote: "Every regiment in the department was invaded and where volunteers could not be obtained [and very few were found willing to go] compulsory details were required." As a result the inept, lame, and in some cases even partially sighted were found to have been transferred into sharpshooter units. Much time and effort had to be spent weeding them out.

     By the fall of 1863 a training manual for the men had been drawn up by Maj. Calhoun Benham, and a manual of arms had also been produced by Maj. Gen. Cadmus Wilcox. Between them, the two men covered all of the necessary skills, although training was simplified to a great extent by their familiarity with their rifles and previous military experience. The disciplines of picketing, skirmishing, and very long-range shooting, however, all had to be learned. Then, as now, estimating of ranges was always a difficult skill to teach and master, and one officer of Gen. William Mahone's brigade wrote of their training, "the spring of that year [1864] was spent in perfecting ourselves in the skirmish drill by signals and in rifle-target practice at different ranges--from 50 to 1,000 yards--and so proficient did the men become in estimating distances that [check-measuring the distance] was finally discontinued as being unnecessary." At the end of their training, the majority of men were capable of hitting a man-sized target with their first shot at ranges of up to 800 yds., given good weather conditions. Those who were not able to meet the exacting standards were soon returned to their units, as there was no room for slackers.

P1853 Enfield
     The rifles required by the men came from anywhere they could be sourced; regiments were combed for rifle-muskets, shipments of foreign arms were sorted through with good rifles being put aside and, of course, as with the Federal sharpshooters, some men carried their personal rifles. Certain rifles were held as superior to all others, these being the British Pattern 1853 Enfield and Whitworth long-range target rifle, the US. Model 1861 Springfield and the Sharps long rifle (as opposed to the Sharps carbine, which, as one veteran rifleman said, "served no purpose but to frighten horses and scare folk"). Except where they had acquired Sharps rifles through capture, Southern sharpshooters primarily used rifle-muskets, generally preferring the Enfield above all others. Although no less well made than the Springfield, Enfields had a well­deserved reputation for accuracy at extreme ranges, and they had been extensively tested by officers and men of the Sharpshooter Brigade.

1859 Sharps Rifle
     In his interesting account of life in a Confederate sharpshooter unit, Maj. William S. Dunlop wrote of the Enfield: "The Minnie rifle, the Enfield, the Austrian, Belgium, Springfield, and Mississippi rifles were put to the test, and while each of them proved accurate and effective at short range, the superiority of the Enfield rifle for service at long range, from 600 to 900 yards, was clearly demonstrated while other rifles could only be relied on at a distance of 500 yards."

     The biggest problem for the South was in obtaining enough of these rifles, for the Federal naval blockade dramatically pushed up the prices for any arms smuggled into the South. This meant that a $25 Enfield could cost the Confederate government over double that price as the rates charged to run the blockade were high. It should be stressed, though, that none of these Enfields was a British military-issue rifle, despite many opinions to the contrary. All of the rifles purchased were commercial contract arms, for at no time did the British government ever sanc­tion official sales to either the Fed­eral or Confederate governments.

     Some Kerr rifles were also purchased from England and were highly prized, so much so that Gen. John Breckinridge presented 11 to men who had proved themselves particularly adept shots, sensibly warning them to use their rifles to target Federal artillery from 400 yds. behind their lines, so as not to put themselves and their precious rifles in unnecessary danger. 

     Of all the rifles supplied by Britain, without a doubt those most highly sought after were the Whitworths. Probably more folklore has sprung up around these rifles than any other used in the war, but their scarcity and cost certainly made them very rare and exotic beasts even by contemporary standards. A Whitworth at first glance looked similar to a contemporary Enfield, but on closer inspection the resemblance ended, for they were chambered for a .45-cal. bullet and had a hexagonal bore and polygonal­grooved rifling. The Whitworth Co. of Manchester, England, had mastered the art of manufacturing the finest possible target rifles. Its skill lay in absolutely precise quality control, fine workmanship and ammunition produced so that each bullet would perform nearly identically to the previous one. Whitworth clearly understood that no matter how good a rifle might be and how adept the shooter, poor-quality ammunition would produce mediocre results. 

     The combination of fine engineering and high-quality ammunition produced incredibly accurate rifles. They were also materially assisted by the use of optical sights, although the number of rifles so equipped was very small, possibly fewer than 50 out of a total of around 250 Whitworths purchased. The match-quality ammunition was unique, and every cartridge supplied was manufactured to the highest possible specifications, as one sharpshooter recalled: "The cartridge was made with great care, the bullets of compressed lead, 1 1/2 inches long, and of precisely uniform weight; the charges of powder precisely of the same weight of uniform size, finely glazed; the cartridge wrapped in parchment and coated with paraffine [sic]."

     The rifles were also frighteningly expensive, with a standard Whitworth costing $600, a cased one with 1,000 rounds of ammunition $1,000, and a  cased one with optical sight $1,200.The issue of these rifles was split between the two armies, in the North and West, and in both locations they gave excellent service. The rifles were normally awarded to the best company shots after stiff competi­tion. Private Sam Watkins of the 1 st Tennessee explained how his sharpshooter battalion decided on who would get a Whitworth: "Soldiers who wanted the guns shot three rounds at a small marker board 500 yards away and "Every shot that was fired hit the board, but there was one man who came a little closer to the spot than any other one and the Whitworth was awarded to him."  Despite the legends that have grown up of the individual prowess of the sharpshooters, much of their combat was undertaken in company order with perhaps one or two specially positioned companies of sharpshooters on the battlefront.  Yet it was the occasional, albeit less public, long-range shooting for which sharpshooters were mostly remembered, the tales of their prowess retold over campfires by the Union and Confederate armies.

     For their part, the Confederate sharpshooters gave a good account of themselves. Although their employment was more often in the traditional role of line infantry, they were normally the first troops in action during an engagement. They were usually on picket duty and were expected to establish skirmish lines well ahead of their main lines to occupy the Union forces. This use of their skills, while understandable, was not the best method of employment and, as a result, their casualty rates were to be far higher during the course of the war than those of infantry units. "The proportion of killed and wounded in the sharpshooters was exceedingly large, probably without a parallel. The battalion went into the fight with 104 men and officers, and of these ninety-four men and officers were killed or wounded." So wrote Maj. George Bernard, then commanding a sharpshooter unit during the siege of Petersburg in 1864-65.

     During the siege of Chattanooga, Confederate marksmen of Gen. Longstreet's brigade were ordered to prevent a Federal supply column from crossing a river behind enemy lines. Equipped with scoped Whitworths, they managed to produce, according to an eyewitness, a "road left choked with dead and dying men and mules, and overturned wagons."

     One of the most enduring stories of the prowess of the Confederate sharpshooters is that of the shooting of Union Maj. Gen. John Sedgewick on May 9, 1864, near Spotsylvania, Va. Sedgewick is sadly remembered to posterity not for his thoughtful compassion toward his men (he was universally known as "Uncle john"), but for an unfortunate comment a few seconds before he was shot that the Confederate riflemen "couldn't hit an elephant at this distance." Lieutenant-Colonel Martin McMahon, standing next to Sedgewick, wrote of the events: "For the third time, the same shrill whistle [of a bullet] closing with a dull heavy stroke, interrupted our talk as I was about to resume, the general's face turned slowly to me, the blood spurting from his left cheek under the eye in a steady stream. He fell in my direction, I was so close to him that I fell with him."

     Usually cited as the candidate for firing this shot is Confederate sharpshooter Pvt. Ben Powell, at the time equipped with a scoped Whitworth in the rebel lines some 800 yds. away. However, Powell's company officer, Barry Benson, recalled Powell saying that he had shot a mounted officer from his horse, and Sedgewick was on foot at the time. Powell had probably accounted for Gen. Morris, shot earlier in the day. It is unlikely that anyone will ever know who the sharpshooter really was, but, alas for Gen. Sedgewick it was immaterial for it was very fine shooting.

     So what did the sharpshooters achieve on the battlefields of Virginia, Tennessee, and elsewhere? It is well nigh impossible to ascertain exactly how effective they were, nor how many casualties fell to their rifles. Perhaps one example from the Union troops encamped opposite Charlestown sheds a tiny glimmer of light on the subject, as it specifically mentions casualties at the rate of 10 per day from Confederate rifle fire. One Army engineer wrote, "the least exposure above the crest of the parapet will draw the fire of his telescopic Whitworths which cannot be dodged. Several of our men were wounded by these rifles at a distance of 1,300 yards." While this shooting is specifically attributed to Whitworths, bear in mind there were so few in the Confederate army and it is perfectly likely they were fired from Enfields (over 281,000 of which were supplied to the South during the war) or even Springfields.

     The sharpshooters certainly provided considerable tactical benefit to their respective armies, but with the cessation of hostilities they were quickly mustered out of service and their rifles put into store. Their use, it was believed, had merely been a necessary response to a peculiar set of circumstances, and there was to be little gained in retaining them or their rifles. It was unfortunately an attitude that was to cost the U.S. Army dearly over the coming years.