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Confederate sharpshooters were usually the first to go into action when a battle began. "The duty expected of the sharpshooters was to establish and occupy the skirmish line, while the enemy was in front," noted John Laughton, Jr. of Mahone's Brigade's sharpshooter battalion, "and to serve on the picket line in all day duty - being relieved at night by one of the regiments of the brigade and to serve as rear guard when on retreat. Its officers were also required to serve as scouts when the opportunity was presented."

According to Dunlop, "When the opposing armies met upon the field it became their [skirmishers'] duty to open and bring on the fight, or to stand like ushers on the vestibule of battle and receive and welcome our friends in blue whenever they choose to visit our lines." Indeed, his battalion was mentioned bv J.F.J. Caldwell, an officer in the same brigade, who recalled at the Wilderness that in moving to the attack his sharpshooters, "deployed as skirmishers on the right flank, saw and opened fire upon the skirmishers of the enemy." Later he recalled the brigade being some 200 yards behind the sharpshooters. Montgomery wrote home:

We are always in front of the Brigade, about 300 to 400 yds, to clear out the way & I tell you we clone it too, to perfection. You ought to hear Gen Wofford praise us. Saturday evening our little Battalion charged the Yankies breast work, one whole Brigade behind it, charged three times, but the fire was hot from the enemy. We had to fall back. Our loss was quite heavy. Soon Sunday morning the Gen sent us in again. We charged again tinder the

Major Eugene Blackford

Major W.S. Dunlop, commander of the sharpshooter battalion of Gregg's South Carolina Brigade of the Army of Northern Virginia.

Montgomery was again in the besieging forces around Knoxville, Tennessee, in November 1863, when he wrote home, "We Sharp Shooters are in front all the time from 100 to 500 yards of the Yankies. We keep up a prettie heavy fire all the time, take a shot whenever a Yankie shows his head." Laughton recalled that the skirmishers moved out in groups of three, always firing by file so that one gun was always loaded.

D. Augustus Dickert, a veteran of the sharpshooter battalion of Kershaw's Brigade in the Army of Northern Virginia, recalled moving to the attack at Cedar Creek in 1864: "The James' or Third Battalion having some months before been organized into brigade sharpshooters, adding two companies to it, preceded the brigade, and was to charge the fords and capture the pickets." This was dangerous work, and Dickert paid the price at that battle when he was ordered to take the survivors of his company and head to a point on the extreme left of the division as the Federals counterattacked.

Major W.S. Dunlop, commander of the sharpshooter battalion of Gregg's South Carolina Brigade of the Army of Northern Virginia.

most deadly fire. Got within a few feet of the works, but it was fixed brush that we could not climb then & had to fall back. Our loss was again more.

When I arrived at ihe point designated, which was in thick woods, to my horror I found the place literally alive with vankees. I had double-quicked right into the midst of the "blue bellies." "Surrender," came in tones of thunder. I stood amazed, astonished beyond conception. "Surrender," again came the command. There was absolutely no alternative. There was no chance to fight and less chance to run. My brave boys and I were 56 prisoners of war.

Other sharpshooter fights were even more fierce. George Bernard, commander of a sharpshooter company at the battle of the Crater, later wrote,

I was desperately wounded in three places when within thirty feet of the breastworks, and at the first volley from a concentrated fire of several lines massed for a forward movement. The fire was not only from a direct front, but was also an enfilading fire, which came from those of the enemy in the crater, this being to our right. The proportion of wounded and killed 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 and wounded; of the nine officers present eight were shot through the breast.

Captain Wallace Broadbent, commander of the sharpshooter battalion of Mahone's Brigade, was found after the Crater fight with 12 to 15 bayonet wounds through his body.

At times sharpshooter battalions were sent forward with more than just general skirmish duties. For example, along the Weldon Railroad, during fighting in August 1864, the skirmish battalion of McGowan's Brigade was given a specific target: "The object of our sharpshooters was, principally, to disable the horses and gunners of the Federal artillery; and they are said to have succeeded beyond what was expected at the long range of fire," Caldwell recalled. Major Eugene Blackford, commanding the 5th Alabama Battalion then serving as the sharpshooter battalion with Rodes' Brigade, reported that at Gettysburg his men started picking off Federal cannoneers. "One battery near us," he reported, "after firing several shots at us, was removed out of our sight."

Sharpshooters were sometimes used to gather intelligence by taking prisoners. The commander of Lane's Brigade of the Army of the Potomac, for example, was once asked. "Can't you catch a Yankee tonight for General Lee? Some of the enemy are moving, and he wants to know what command it is." General Lane sent for his sharpshooter battalion's commander, who took some of his men out that night towards the enemy's rifle pits. As Lane described it, "the men had to crawl towards the enemv in the moonlight, but finally commander Major J.T. Wooton leaped up and shouted out, Boys, we have got them.' Away they went, at a run, in double ranks, and wheeling right and left, just as you would open the lids of a book, they came back, bringing their prisoners with them."

Sharpshooters delighted in this sort of operation. Major Dunlop wrote:

There existed an active spirit of rivalry between the different battalions of sharpshooters, as to which should perform the greatest number and the most daring feats in the line of legitimate duty, to the annoyance and damage of their opponents operating in their respective neighborhoods; and each kept a sharp lookout for opportunities to make a dash into the enemy's lines, stampede their pickets, or capture their men.

Confederate Weapons
The P1858 Enfield rifle musket was picked as the best available weapon for Confederate sharpshooters. (Author's collection)

Confederate liigli command sometimes massed their sharpshooters for special efforts. For example on March 27, 1865 Barry Benson recalled all the sharpshooter battalions of his divisions being gathered together, some 400 men. They were sent in a line into some woods and told not to make any noise until discovered. Eventually a Federal picket called for some of them in his front to halt. "In the same instant a wild Confederate yell split the air," Benson remembered. "A solid rush, and we leaped over the works amongst the half awakened foe, who barely fired a score of shots as they lied in confusion. To the right and left we swept, clearing the line as we went. A few scattering shots, and our surprise and victory were complete." No effort was made to capitalize on this victory with a reinforcing column, and after holding the line all day the sharpshooters were retired that night and line infantry regiments came to take their place.

After the battle, many sharpshooters took advantage of their posts in the front to search the dead. "I do not think there was much robbing of the dead in the beginning of the war," Barry Benson wrote, "but as time went on and the men became hardened, and their necessities greater, the pillage of the fields extended not only to the taking of articles of value, such as money, watches, and rings, but even to coats and trousers. Blackwood says that he has seen dead men stripped entirely naked, but this I am sure I have never seen."

Such front-line work always cost men, but high commands made sure their sharpshooter battalions were constantly at full strength. As John Laughton recalled, "when the casualties of battle decimated the ranks, other details were made up from the regiment in which the loss occurred, thereby keeping up the full maximum of strength."

At the same time, as the war continued to go against the south, line regiments began to suffer heavy losses from desertion. John Young, however, believed that, "There were, I am glad to say, no deserters from the sharpshooters, as was natural; for they were the elite of the army."

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  • olga
    How much money is the the army if the potomac a sharpshooter on picket duty worth?
    5 years ago

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