- The Washington Times - Friday, January 5, 2007

SHOCK TROOPS OF THE CONFEDERACY: THE SHARPSHOOTER BATTALIONS OF THE ARMY OF NORTHERN VIRGINIA

By Fred L. Ray, CFS Press, 414 pages, $34.95

When Fred L. Ray discovered that his great-grandfather had commanded a Confederate sharpshooter company, he wanted to learn more about this method of combat. Since little had been published about Confederate sharpshooters during the Civil War, he decided to research Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, which had done pioneering work with light infantry tactics.

In “Shock Troops of the Confederacy,” Mr. Ray shares the results of this research in a comprehensive account of how Lee’s army came to depend on sharpshooter units to augment the firepower of its outnumbered forces and to scout and infiltrate enemy positions. The author begins with a description of light infantry operations as practiced by armies throughout history and how Civil War sharpshooters followed in the footsteps of the American rifleman dating to the Revolutionary War.

To acquire information about the enemy’s strength and disposition and prevent opponents from learning the size and deployment of their own forces, commanders typically relied on a line of skirmishers sent forward to “feel” the enemy. “Shock Troops” describes the organization, training and operations of units within the Confederate army assigned to this hazardous duty.

The term “Sharpshooter Battalions” in the subtitle may be misleading to some, since it implies that their job was to serve as snipers who picked off designated enemy personnel. Although this function was within their area of responsibility, the role of sharpshooters was varied and included serving as advanced guards, pickets, scouts and skirmishers. This book deals primarily with Southern soldiers, but it also includes information about how the Union army employed sharpshooters for similar duty.

Although the Confederate Congress had authorized creation of sharpshooter battalions for each brigade on a discretionary basis as early as May 1862, the Confederate armies were slow to adapt to light infantry tactics and virtually left the field to Union troops until 1863. It was then, through the initiative of Lee and one of his division commanders, Gen. Robert E. Rodes, that the Army of Northern Virginia began to experiment with the use of sharpshooters.

Rodes formed a sharpshooter battalion to be intensely trained as skirmishers. He chose a man who was “conspicuous for gallantry and coolness in action,” Maj. Eugene Blackford of the 5th Alabama, to command this unit. Rodes soon directed each brigade within his division to establish a corps of sharpshooters. This proved so effective that the idea began to spread armywide.

A typical sharpshooter battalion was composed of “one commandant, eight commissioned officers, 10 non-commissioned officers, 160 privates, four scouts and two buglers,” the author says. Rodes created a more effective organizational structure through the establishment of a division-level unit composed of all the sharpshooter battalions. In all, the Army of Northern Virginia had a corps of sharpshooters numbering some 7,000 trained in marksmanship and skirmish tactics.

During the battles of Chancellorsville and Gettysburg in mid-1863, Blackford’s skirmishers proved their worth by conducting reconnaissance and engaging in combat with considerable effect against the Army of the Potomac. The sharpshooters also operated effectively during Lee’s retreat from Gettysburg. At Manassas Gap in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Blackford’s unit stymied much larger Union forces, preventing them from overrunning Rodes’ division.

Late in 1863, Rodes decided to put Blackford in command of a completely independent mission at Orange Court House, Va., with a three-battalion force forming a skirmish line a mile in front of the division. From that point on, Rodes frequently depended on the sharpshooters to oppose or delay the stronger enemy forces. At this stage of the war, the Confederate sharpshooters had become the equal of their counterparts in the Union army, particularly the vaunted regiments of Col. Hiram Berdan.

The success of the sharpshooters was seen in early 1864 when Lee called for all Army of Northern Virginia infantry brigades to form their own sharpshooter battalions. Conversely, Army of the Potomac commanders failed to appreciate the value of Union sharpshooter units, resulting in their decline. This divergence would permit the Confederates to compensate for the steady attrition of their regular forces through the advanced tactics and intensive firepower of these special units.

The author narrates the expansion of the “shock troops” and the vital role they played throughout 1864 and early 1865 during Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign in Virginia at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, North Anna, Cold Harbor, and during the siege of Petersburg. He also discusses how Gen. Jubal A. Early effectively employed sharpshooter battalions during the 1864 Shenandoah Valley campaigns, and includes a chapter on Confederate sharpshooters in the Western theater.

Mr. Ray concludes his analysis with a section on sharpshooter weapons and uniforms, and another on how the Union sharpshooters were organized, trained and deployed. He then describes how the light infantry tactics developed during the Civil War were applied in later years on up to World War I. The author wraps this all together in a final chapter that evaluates the weapons, leadership and tactical innovation of the Confederate sharpshooters and, for good measure, attaches appendices on weapons testing, sharpshooter unit orders, and a discussion of the key battle at Fort Stedman prior to the fall of Richmond.

“Shock Troops of the Confederacy” is a tour de force that fills the information vacuum that existed regarding these unique troops. This account is oriented primarily toward the combat role of sharpshooters and less so on their scouting, reconnaissance and counterintelligence duties. More emphasis on the latter aspects would have been welcome.

Fred L. Ray has put together a study that complements C.A. Stevens’ in-depth portrayal of “Berdan’s United States Sharpshooters in the Army of the Potomac.” Together they provide a comprehensive account of sharpshooter units and tactics during the Civil War. While this book will be a welcome addition to the specialist’s library, it also is an opportunity for the general reader to enter the world of a little-known, yet uniquely effective, branch of the Confederate military service.

Thomas J. Ryan of Bethany Beach is president of the Central Delaware Civil War Round Table.

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