Last updated: November 30, 2017
Sharpshooters in the USA & CSA
“It was the province of the sharp shooter to shoot some body[i]”
When the American Civil War broke out in the spring of 1861, neither the North nor South were prepared for it. Both sides quickly began to build up extensive forces, many of these new companies and regiments had elaborate nicknames and titles showing off the prestige they hoped to have in the field. Units like the “Raccoon Roughs, the Palmetto Guard, the Lincoln Guard or the Invincibles” were raised in their hundreds from communities large and small across the divided nation. Another honorific that was often used was “sharpshooter”, but what exactly was a sharpshooter, and what was their role?
The sharpshooting tradition in what would be the United States dates back to at least the French and Indian War when Rogers’ Rangers operated against the French and their American Indian allies. Rogers’ attempted to resurrect his command (and the financial benefits of command) during the American Revolution, offering his services first to England and later to the struggling rebels under Washington. Though rejected, the lessons that Robert Rogers had begun were expanded on by both Colonial and Crown forces during the war with the adoption of marksmen and jaegers as light infantry. These talented shooters were often given use of rifles, as opposed to the more common smoothbore muskets. While the rifles were considered much more accurate, the tradeoff was that they were slower to load[ii].
This rifle tradition continued in the United States Military after the successful conclusion of the Revolution. The 1st United States Rifles was raised just prior to the War of 1812 and several regiments of rifles took part in that conflict[iii]. As the 19th Century progressed, so did the amount of rifles in service. In Europe the flank companies were often designated as rifle companies and the United States soon followed a similar structure. The break from smoothbore muskets really got going after the Mexican-American War and the adoption of an improved version of the French conical round, better known as the Minie Ball. This conical bullet could now be loaded with much the same ease and speed as a smoothbore musket[iv]. As such the rifled musket began to be issued in greater and greater numbers. When war broke out between the North and South, the rifled musket was the ideal sought by almost every infantryman.
Now with an ever increasing number of rifles, and units being raised with the name sharpshooter, it was not long until the idea of raising specific sharpshooting units once more became popular. What though would these units actually do? Tradition held that sharpshooting units, like those in the Revolution before them, used tactics similar to the modern skirmish line. That is advance in a dispersed formation, usually five paces apart, taking advantage of the terrain around them, using it to conceal themselves as best as possible[v]. The difference between a dedicated sharpshooting unit, such as the 1st and 2nd United States Sharpshooters or Confederate Major General Robert Rodes’ Sharpshooter Battalions, and the infantry’s skirmish lines, was how the unit acted once the skirmish line was established. The infantry skirmish line was deployed to feel out the location and strength of an enemy force, acting much like an early warning system for the main line of battle. Skirmishers were supposed to fall back onto the main body when pressed. The Sharpshooters on the other hand deployed and aggressively moved into favorable firing positions, pushing forward the advance with their deadly accuracy, often focusing on ideal targets, such as officers or artillerymen.
Here at Monocacy National Battlefield there are numerous stories related to the sharpshooters. Rodes’ Sharpshooter Battalions saw action here, nearly cutting off the escape route of Union Major General Lew Wallace’s command at the northern most bridge over the Monocacy River. Though the fighting at Jug Bridge, north of the National Park Service’s protected property, often plays second fiddle to the fighting on the Thomas Farm or around the bridges near the Georgetown Pike, this important part of the field saw Rodes’ Battalions push back the skirmishers of the 144th and 149th Ohio National Guard. These aggressive sharpshooters were only driven back and the Jug Bridge secured by the arrival of addition Ohio National Guardsmen from the 159th. Rodes’ sharpshooters continued to keep the pressure on throughout much of the day, though his line infantry were never deployed to support them. These Confederates finally succeeded in crossing the Monocacy River south of the Jug Bridge. This advantageous position allowed them to unhinge the Federal line from the bridge around 6pm[vi]. Fortunately for Wallace, this was well after the majority of his troops had retreated down the Baltimore Pike heading East.
Elsewhere on the battlefield, Confederate sharpshooters supporting Major General Stephen D. Ramseur’s Division along the Georgetown Pike took up positions in the Best Barn, on what is today tour stop 1. From this elevated position they focused on the gunners of the Baltimore Light Artillery on the high ground beyond the covered bridge and the skirmishers of the 10th Vermont Infantry who were guarding the bridge. This affective fire caused great consternation among the Federal troops. One Vermonter, Private George Douse was shot through the cheek during this action, the bullet wedging in his back teeth[vii]. It was only when Federal gunners noticed the puffs of smoke coming from under the shingles of the Best Barn roof that they were able to concentrate their fire and affectively drive off the sharp eyed Confederates.
Finally, while there were not any dedicated sharpshooter units on the field of Monocacy for the Union, there are always those in a regiment whose proficiency with a rifle is well known. That was the case of Sargent Lyman Pike, also of the 10th Vermont, who was with the majority of the 10th Vermont Infantry, fighting on the Thomas Farm. Following the withdrawal of Brigadier General James Ricketts federal line east to the Georgetown Pike, Confederate troops under Major General John Brown Gordon took the Thomas Farm and used the buildings to their advantage. Colonel William H. Henry, of the 10th Vermont, described how he directed Pike to fire at a Confederate in a second story window of the Thomas House and that both men seemed to fire at the same time. The Colonel felt a round pass just under his chin and he was quickly pulled to the ground by the 10th’s Color Sargent. A moment later Sargent Pike fell across him dead, his Confederate opponent had also been struck and fell from the window[viii]. Both men were a testament to the deadly accuracy of sharpshooting in the Civil War.
[i] Fred L. Ray, Shock Troops of the Confederacy: The Sharpshooter Battalions of the Army of Northern Virginia, (Asheville, NC: CFS Press, 2006) 21.
[ii] Shock Troops of the Confederacy, 4.
[iii] Ibid., 8-10.
[v] Editor: Russell C. White, The Civil War Diary of Wyman S. White: First Sargent, Company F 2nd United States Sharpshooters, (Baltimore, MD: Butternut and Blue, 1993) 24-25.
[vi] Brett Spaulding, Last Chance for Victory: Jubal Early’s 1864 Maryland Invasion, (Gettysburg, PA: Thomas Publications, 2010) 121-125.
[vii] “A Soldier’s Story”, Monocacy National Battlefield, last updated, April 10, 2015, https://www.nps.gov/mono/learn/historyculture/soldiers_story.htm
[viii] Last Chance for Victory, 114.