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 Post subject: Special Service
PostPosted: Wed Apr 15, 2009 8:37 am 

Joined: Sun Jan 04, 2009 9:33 pm
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Location: Old Northwest (Michigan)
The Deadly Art: Sharpshooters and ‘Special Service’

By Bill Skillman

The U.S. Army or Marine Scout-Sniper is considered among the best-trained and talented specialists in the service today. Their skills encompass many disciplines-the foremost being expert marksmen armed with custom made, precision rifles and scopes. Trained to consistently hit targets at over 1000 yards (or if using a Barrett .50 caliber rifle, nearly two miles), they can cripple weapon systems worth millions of dollars with a single bullet. They are masters of camouflage that allows them to blend in with the surrounding terrain so as to be nearly invisible from a dozen steps away. They are skilled observers who minutely study the activities and personal habits of the enemy so to use this information to their advantage. But it is a mistake to think that these U.S. snipers are the first men to operate in this capacity. In fact, the modern sniper owes a tremendous debt to the U.S. Sharp Shooters and other marksmen of the Civil War. This latest installment of “How well did they Shoot?” will focus on how the training, weapons and battlefield experiences of the United States Sharp Shooters has contributed to the robust U.S. sniper program of today.

Although the terminology has evolved, ‘sniper’ and ‘sharpshooter’ mean essentially the same thing. The former word originated with the British experience of being ‘potted at’ during the rebellions in India (1). The snipe is a small and elusive bird that is exceedingly hard to hit, and since the men shooting at the redcoats possessed similar characteristics the term stuck. However, it was not until World War 1 that the words ‘sniping’ and ‘sniper’ gained widespread use. While the word “sharpshooter” has been in use since the Revolutionary War, to describe a skilled marksman, during the Civil War men operating as independent sharpshooters were designated as performing “special service”, special sharpshooting” or “special duty”.

While the United States Sharp Shooters organized by Hiram Berdan garnered the lion’s share of press coverage during the early days of the War, they were by no means the only men who were selected and trained as such. The state of Michigan alone fielded nearly 3,000 men who served as sharpshooters. When calculating the ratio of these specialists to infantrymen, we find that roughly one man out of every 10 was a sharpshooter. However, there were dozens to perhaps hundreds of other men within the infantry regiments who emerged as expert marksmen and were designated as sharpshooters when their officers had a job that required a steady hand and clear eye. While recognized and appreciated for their capabilities during the conflict most of these men and their exploits would fade into obscurity once the War ended.

The Men: Initially most of the men attracted to sharpshooter service were already intimately familiar with handling a rifle, either for sustenance, protection or entertainment. Unlike the tremendous range of amateur and professional (for men and women) sports available today, the closest most folks got to an organized sporting event 140 years ago was to participate in a local ‘shooting match’. Traditionally a prize (a ham, turkey, or other foodstuff) was awarded to the marksman who made the smallest ‘string’. By calculating the sum of shots (1 to 10) measured from the center of the hole to the center of the target determined the winner.

However, the old ‘turkey shoots’ survived well until the early 20th Century. The boys of the ‘Hudson Squad’ sent out invitations to their old comrades (and their wives) reminding them to ‘bring your shooting irons’; because the celebration included a competitive shooting match. The Hudson Gazette reporting on the 10th REunion of Michigan Companies of Berdan Sharpshooters (October 1891) noted: “Yesterday afternoon the boys whose unerring aim won them fame in the war, tried their skill again at target practice. The result showed they had not forgotten how to shoot. The bull’s-eye was given several mortal wounds. Dr. J. B. Welch was awarded the silver (?) medal with Capt. (Jas.) Baker a close second.”

Some of the men who joined the ranks of sharpshooters had extensive hunting experience prior to the War. For most, the transition from shooting wild game to human beings was not as difficult compared to the men whose pre-War experience had been limited to targets. The one man who epitomized the public’s notion of what a sharpshooter should be was Truman Head, better known as “California Joe” or “Old Californy”. Joe left Philadelphia in the late 1840’s to seek his fortune in the gold fields of California, but when he arrived he discovered the best claims had already been staked. Joe gravitated to hunting as a means of making a living. He traveled into the mountains to hunt grizzly bears, whose hides were used for coats and other apparel. The constant danger, hardship and exposure to the elements had conditioned Joe so well that he was probably the only man in the Sharp Shooters who was truly prepared for the hard service that lay ahead. Joe’s experience (and modest professionalism) was quickly recognized by the younger recruits, who came to worship him. As Frank Cobb noted in this letter to his family from Yorktown: “Our company are doing nothing but picketing now and that only through the day, not out nights. The Sharp Shooters are up here especially the Companys with Target Rifles and Co C in particular, as Old California as the Boys call him He is in our Co. He has got a large and big a name as Gen. McClellan around here. Every Co in the Regt (kn) owes him as their man." Even Hiram Berdan, no doubt desiring to bask in some of Joe’s appeal, arranged to have a photograph of them together.

But not everybody was enamored with the Sharp Shooters or their abilities. One such officer was Capt. Francis A. Donaldson of the 71st Pennsylvania Infantry, (also known as “Baker’s California Regiment”). At Yorktown he reported: “I never saw such a set of men as these same Berdan sharp shooters…These men speak confidently of killing, without the slightest difficulty, at a mile distant. The impression left upon the minds of the soldiers by these people is not at all a pleasant one, and as they come out each morning after breakfast strutting leisurely along, the men look in askance and rather shrink from them.”

Training: A prerequisite of a sharpshooter is to be able to consistently hit targets (within the capability of the rifle he carries) at any distance and under any condition. The USSS frequently conducted company, regimental, and brigade target shooting exercises to maintain their skills. At Camp of Instruction, newspaper accounts record the Sharp Shooters hitting targets with their personal target rifles at over 600 yards away. Caspar Trepp’s papers document the 1863 target practice records of the 1st USSS, with the men typically shooting from 200-250 yards with their open-sight Sharps.

Occasionally the Sharp Shooters took a professional interest in the infantrymen’s shooting abilities. Darius Starr (Co. F. 2nd USSS) wrote on April 21, 1864: “The boys are practicing target firing now, and it is fun to see the difference between our regt. and the Infantry regts about us. After seeing them fire at a target one will not wonder that so few men are killed in a battle, for I have seen a great many of them fire at a target at a distance of only twenty rods (5.5 yrds. =1 rod), and not come within a rod of the mark. There are but few in most of the New York regiments who can shoot at all…Our boys laugh at them”. Despite the USSS boy’s low opinion of the bluecoats’ shooting abilities, occasionally the infantrymen could become dangerous at times. Starr continued: “Our surgeon was out today the other side of a hill from a squad of Infantry who were firing, and one of their balls went clear over the hill and hit him, the ball could not have gone within twenty feet of the target. Luckily the force of the ball was spent, and It did him no harm beyond a bruise which will lame his wrist for a few days. Two or three of the boys were hit, too, but none of them received any serious injury.”

In the June 14, 1861 Lt. Col. Schuyler Hamilton wrote a complimentary letter to Hiram Berdan: “..that a regiment of such Sharpshooters as are proposed by you, and instructed according to your system, would be of great value..” In light of Hiram Berdan’s expert handling of a rifle, his knowledge of range estimation and other factors that influence the flight of a bullet over long distances, this information would have been invaluable to the new recruits assembling at Weehawken and Camp of Instruction. Stevens notes: “In the target practice, a matter of the greatest importance, many excellent scores were made, and under the supervision of Col. Berdan great improvement was made in their marksmanship; the colonel…putting himself to the test on many occasions..”

A preliminary qualification of modern sniper-candidates is that they must be rated Expert (95% accuracy out to 500 yards from all positions) on the shooting range. But that is but the first step, for they then undergo weeks of intensive training to increase the range and accuracy of their shots out to1000 yards. Considering Hiram Berdan’s original concept was to have his Sharp Shooters operating like modern day snipers (small, highly mobile teams mounted on horseback, carrying telescope-mounted target rifles, and operating independently) it is logical to assume that his instruction would be to enhance his men’s first-hit probability at extreme distances.

Unfortunately, beyond Stevens’ comments nobody has ever discovered a manual or even rough field notes that describe the nature of the instructions Hiram Berdan taught—at least to the Michigan, New Hampshire and smattering of Wisconsin and Vermont men who brought their own rifles into service with them. Doug Wicklund, curator of the NRA museum, recently informed me that he had met Berdan’s great-great granddaughter and she informed him that the family had burned many of Berdan’s personal and professional papers as ‘trash’.

I suspect that Berdan might have enjoyed a few opportunities to introduce the men to his ‘system of marksmanship’ until other pressing matters pulled him away. By September, 1861 Berdan became embroiled in what was to turn out to be an 8-month ‘war’ between himself and the Ordnance Department to obtain the Sharps rifles. Another setback came when the War Department refused to accept his original proposal to have his men operate like modern snipers, and instead ordered them to be reorganized along the lines of European (95th Rifles) skirmishers. Berdan, who no doubt felt that the regiment that he personally had brought to fruition was being stripped away, must have been bitterly disappointed. Despite these setbacks, Hiram Berdan appears to have remained unshaken in his determination to stress accurate, long range shooting by his Sharpshooters, as demonstrated by his personal directions to the Sharps Rifle Mfg. Co. to add set triggers and the improved Lawrence 800 yard ladder sights to each rifle.

Another man who has become a legend for passing along shooting advice was Lorenzo Barber, the ‘Fighting Parson’ of the 2nd USSS. Barber was a favorite of both regiments as his religious services also featured valuable shooting tips to the men. Last November (2002), Thom Winter came into possession of Lorenzo Barber’s original wartime Bible and Testament. Thom and I excitedly flipped each page from Genesis through Revelations in both Good Books, looking for any shooting references that Barber might have penciled in the margins. Unfortunately we discovered nothing. I have concluded that whatever marksmanship tips that Hiram Berdan, California Joe, William W. Ripley, Lorenzo Barber, and others passed along to the new recruits, they consisted of spoken words, demonstrations and individual coaching.

By way of comparison, when the original cadre of USMC Scout-Sniper instructors were tasked with recruiting and training new snipers in Vietnam they only had a short time to condense their peacetime shooting expertise into a bare-bones syllabus. As the War heated up and the demand for more snipers arose, the instructors devoted their time and energy to turning out trained marksmen, but at the expense of paperwork (particularly documenting techniques and field-adaptations gleaned from their graduates who returned to re-qualify). Thus, most of the general publics (and historians) knowledge about the U.S. snipers service in Vietnam has come from post-war memoirs written by the men themselves.

A few men were not content to confine their shooting to the static targets on the rifle range. Major Mattocks wrote: “One of our men fired a rifle in camp tonight as Genl. Hays was riding past. The Genl. saw it and rushed for him. The man darted in among the tents of Co. B., whereupon the Genl. waxed wroth, and told me to hold the company commander responsible. I have done so, and Lieut. Wilson has found out that the piece was fired by a man of Co. C., Captain Clark.” A similar incident happened two years earlier, when a Wisconsin sharpshooter spied a squirrel in a distant tree and promptly shot him. General A.J. Smith ordered the Sharp Shooter placed under arrest and brought before him. The Badger avoided punishment by showing the general that he had shot the squirrel clean through the head. The general reminded him of the order of no firing in camp and asked that he confine his sharpshooting to the rebels, and then released him.

The Rifles: In June 1861 Col. Berdan encouraged men joining his regiment to bring along their personal target and hunting rifles and that they would be compensated by the Federal Government. However, after the War Department declined to honor this inducement. Later recruits decided to leave their weapons at home. In a letter to the Ordnance Dept. dated October 22, 1861, Hiram Berdan noted that the 1st USSS had 200 personal target rifles in the ranks. Within three years only a small fraction of these remained. Most were sent home when their owner took up one of the NM1859 Sharps rifles. Others were lost to the enemy when the rifle’s owner was killed or injured in combat. Capt. Donaldson (of the 118th Penn Inf.) noted just such an instance at Chancellorsville: “…At 11 a.m., whilst momentarily standing in an exposed place talking to Lieutenant Thomas, he was struck in the shoulder by a bullet which having traveled such a long distance was spent and did not penetrate his clothing, but just gave him a severe blow and then fell at our feet. Upon examining the missile we found it to be of the peculiar elongated pattern used in the Berdan rifle and most likely was fired from one of those terrible globe sighted weapons captured from our people.”

Other ‘Berdan rifles’ met a more ignominious fate. Frank Cobb noted in a post-war reminiscence: "Well do I remember those hot days on the Peninsula, when the boys (of Co. ‘C’) had to break up their fancy target rifles and take up the common infantry musket”. As I drove along the Chickahominy River and White Oak Swamp this Spring I wondered where that pile of rusted target rifles lay, waiting to be rediscovered.

The rifle most often selected for “special service” duty was a handmade civilian target rifle. They might weigh anywhere from 18 to as much as 30 pounds, although a few ‘bench rifles’ tipped the scales at twice that weight. The barrel averaged 30 inches in length and between one and 1-½ inches in diameter. The bore diameter ranged from .35 to .50 caliber-although the accepted measurement was the number of balls to a pound of lead. The rifles featured a ‘false muzzle’-which consisted of a 2-inch section of the barrel that was cut off and reamed slightly so the patched bullet could be started down the barrel before encountering the rifling. The false muzzle spouted 4 metal pegs that fit into corresponding holes drilled in the barrel. The false muzzle prevented damage to the rifling or deforming of the bullet. It also protected the crown (where rifling and the barrel terminate); any nick or deformation of the crown would degrade the accuracy of the weapon. The false muzzle was always removed before the weapon was fired. Those rifles fitted with telescopes featured a vertical post soldered to the false muzzle that blocked the objective aperture of the scope. This optical reminder prevented the marksman from accidentally shooting away this valuable piece of equipment.

The shooter would ‘start’ the patched ball down the barrel by striking it with a short wood rod or mechanical starter. Once set into the rifling a longer wooden ramrod eased the ball down onto the powder charge.

The target rifles were fitted with ‘set triggers’, whereby front trigger tension was adjusted by activating a second trigger behind it. The sensitivity of the fore trigger was adjusted by manipulating a tension screw. The need for the shooter and rifle to remain nearly immobile for accurate long range firing is critical. The ‘set trigger’ allowed the rifleman to reduce both the trigger pull and the release time of the hammer; both reduced the amount of time a sharpshooter had to remain immobile. Although denied by the Ordnance Dept. the last minute ‘add-on’ of the set triggers to the Berdan contract Sharps rifles greatly contributed to his men’s ability to outshoot anybody else on the battleground.

The civilian target rifles were typically equipped with a ‘globe sight’. This sight was a small tube about one inch in length and soldered atop the barrel. Inside the protective tube was a boar’s hair set in a metal stud, the hair served as the front sight. A peep sight attached to an elevating screw was set into the wooden wrist of the stock. Adjustment of the elevating screw allowed the shooter to adjust the sights and hence acquire the correct distance to the target. Other sights, while more expensive, improved the ability of the shooter to see his target with greater clarity over longer range. These were telescopes-their length could extend from the wrist of the stock to the very end of the barrel-well over 30 inches. Inside the telescopes were tiny cross hairs made from spiders silk-as this was the only substance that could be strong enough to survive a rifle’s recoil and retain their shape. Other scopes featured tiny horizontal ‘stadia lines’ etched into the glass so the shooter could adjust for distance in by simply raising or lowering the angle of the rifle to the target. This same feature is found on modern sniping scopes, but as a series of dots superimposed along the vertical and horizontal axis. The telescope mounts consisted of a screw/pan combination at the wrist of the stock and a pivoting mechanism mounted at the front sight groove, allowing for great precision in adjusting the scope. The magnification power of the telescopes could range from 1.5 to 10 power. Although considered crude by today’s standards (modern sniper scopes feature 50mm objective lenses, adjustable magnification from 3.5-14 to power, and are impervious to fogging and shock), one need only look back as far as the Vietnam war to find our snipers being issued scopes that were not much more advanced than their Civil War forebears (Roberts).

Due to the ponderous weight of the target rifle, the complexity of the trigger and sighting arrangements, and the need for meticulous maintenance of the weapon, only a select few soldiers were allowed to carry these rifles. When detailed for ‘special service’ a Sharpshooter would retrieve his rifle from a hand-made wooden carrying case that held all of the associated components, (rods, patch cutting knife, screwdrivers, bullet starter and bullet mold) from the regimental wagon.

“A Mark of Honor” To issue a Sharp Shooter a ‘heavy’ telescope-mounted rifle was to immediately set them apart from their peers as a man of distinction and honor. Stevens reports “as a sharpshooter thus armed was considered an independent character, used only for special service, with the privilege of going to any point of the line where in his own judgement he could do the most good”.

Capt. Donaldson observed: “They are armed with the telescope sighted rifles peculiar to their calling, some of which weigh the extraordinary heft of 57 to 60 pounds. As far as I am able to judge, although receiving general order to occupy certain portions of the line, it is left discretionary with them to select their own position. So that good service is done, the method is with the individual.” Donaldson must have observed what were the few ‘bench rifles’ brought to service. The weight of the rifles Donaldson describes would have been impossible for active field use, (Berdan specified target rifles to weigh between 12-15 pounds).

But just how many of these ‘heavies’ did the Sharp Shooters have to issue to their select riflemen? Just prior to the onset of the Overland Campaign (1864), Major Chas. Mattocks wrote: “We have ten telescopic rifles on the way from Washington. Some weigh 30 or 40 pounds, and are to be carried in the Ammunition train”. No doubt a similar number were retained by the 2nd USSS.

Wyman White described two of these rifles that he used for ‘special sharpshooting’ during the Overland Campaign. Remarkably one is described as a “breechloading Sharps rifle weighing close to 30 pounds and mounted a telescope”. This may have been one of the prototype Sharps target rifles requested by Hiram Berdan and mentioned in a September 1861 Detroit Times article: “.the a cost of sixty to seventy dollars each, are Sharps Improved target rifles, with globe sights, rifle stock, octagonal barrel, double triggers” (Marcot). Berdan was favorably impressed with the rifle during trials at Camp of Instruction: “In my judgement these are to be greatly superior to any guns”. He judged it “has beaten all the target rifles at anything over 60 rods (330 yards). The new guns will be much finer sighted, of course,..and will be in any judgement, a very superior gun for sharpshooters.” This rifle (or one like it) is on display at the museum at Gettysburg.

The second rifle White used was a heavy-barreled, muzzle-loading target rifle. In his book Wyman described the differences in shooting over long distances between his target rifle and the standard issue Sharps rifle. At Cold Harbor some of White’s comrades asked him if he could reach a rebel fatigue detail at work on some earthworks. When they fired a couple ranging shots White noted the Sharps balls ‘knocked up dust on a dusty flat’ a couple hundred yards short. White then fired his big rifle and was pleased to see through his telescope the dust fly, “right amongst the workmen”. Momentarily confused, the workers stopped and then returned to their labors. White fired 4 more shots and noted with satisfaction that they: “quit their job.”

Weighing more than thirty pounds, White’s rifle packed “4 inches of powder a good flannel patch and a bullet that weighed more than a ounce that was wedged into the grooves of the rifling inside by the use of a false muzzle”. White reported that the charge would cause the bullet to travel ‘more than a mile and do good execution’. He estimated that the working party was close to a mile away (or 1760 yards!).

While some men volunteered for ‘special service’ because of the recognition and privilege afforded them, there was at least one fellow who wanted a ‘heavy’ for a completely different reason. Willie B. Greene wrote his mother from the trenches before Petersburg: “Tell Marl to see what he can buy me (in) a good telescope rifle for if I had one I could keep out of all the charges.” (Greene/Hastings)

“Special Service”What was it like to be a sharpshooter performing ‘special service’ duties? Unlike the dozen or so books published by, or about, former snipers from the Vietnam War, remarkably few individual narratives have passed down from the Civil War. Some accounts are by infantry officers who witnessed sharpshooters in action. Their reactions to these men and the duty they performed provide us with an invaluable insight into the sentiments of that era.

During the siege at Yorktown (1862) Capt. Donaldson had the unique opportunity to observe some Berdan Sharp Shooters who occupied the same trench as he. His loathing for them is now quite evident: “Yesterday four of these demons occupied the post with me, and after busying themselves with suitably and satisfactorily adjusting their rifles, sat down to await a victim. They had not long to wait however, as soon were seen four men leaving the enemy works…At their distance they would have been perfectly secure from our muskets, but were in easy range of the murderous Berdan rifle. The sharpshooters consulted a moment, and three of them, removing the rear most support from their rifles, brought them to bear upon the men, and at the word from the forth, fired. Three of them dropped instantly, while the forth, after standing in apparent bewilderment suddenly (fell) beside his dead comrades, adjusted their bodies as a protection, and stayed there all day long.” Donaldson was disgusted by what he considered wanton slaughter of the three men, but he became more chagrinned when the rebel artillery let loose a retaliatory barrage and his own men abandoned the trenches and fled for the safety of some nearby woods.

The Berdan men didn’t budge from their posts and took advantage of this opportunity to pick off a number of the exposed gunners. Then, to Donaldson, the sharpshooters did the unthinkable: “the artillery ceased fire, four stretcher bearers emerged from the rebel works and approached the dead men...but these inhuman fiends, these vaunted brave Berdan sharp shooters, murdered these poor fellows also. I will add there was a good deal of feeling displayed by my men, and Mr. Rifleman was requested to go somewhere else, as their presence was distasteful”.

Private Robert Knox Sneden was an illustrator/map-maker attached to Porter's Headquarters at Yorktown. The nature of his duties allowed him to roam the countryside sketching rebel earthworks and the siege operations of the Army of Potomac. On April 23 he went to the front lines carrying a large map intending to note any errors or pencil in additions. "I met California Joe in a dry ditch near the chimneys and admired his six foot rifle with telescopic sights on it. It was very heavy in weight, had an octagon shaped barrel and silver mounted ornaments. Two weeks ago, before we had advanced our line of pickets to the chimney a Rebel sharpshooter had climbed inside the flue of it at night, and by a stick set crosswise had fixed himself near the top from whence he shot several of our fellows from his covered perch. Joe came along and at the fourth shot brought the enemy down at 500 yards distance...The sharpshooter tumbled down the chimney flue in a doubled up position and stuck thus in the fireplace of the second story of the house before it had been burnt. Some days afterwards when our picket line was pushed forward the body was taken down and proved to be an Indian. He had been shot between the eyes and the back of his skull was blown out. He was buried near the ruins. Joe was a dead shot and had often kept the enemy from firing a gun for half an hour at a time by shooting five, six and seven balls, one after the other..through the embrasure.”

At Gettysburg, sharpshooters from both sides had numerous opportunities to ply their trade. Just south of town, skirmishing between Union sharpshooters situated near Ziegler’s Grove and Mississippi marksmen at the Bliss farm became a source of interest for the inactive infantry. Capt. B. Thomas (111th NY) observed a sharpshooter (belonging to Andrews Massachusetts sharpshooters), hiding behind a stump and looking out over the open fields. He was armed with a target rifle mounted with a telescope. Capt. Thomas talked with the man for a few minutes, then pulled out his binoculars and asked the sharpshooter if he could hit a distant rebel horseman. The sharpshooter fired and Thomas saw the rider drop from his saddle. An artillery shell came whistling back in reply and dropped among the infantrymen behind them. Fortunately only a drum and knapsack were destroyed, but Capt. Thomas withdrew from the exposed position and left the sharpshooter to his duty.

Not far away, Capt. Thompson (12th NJ) spied a group of sharpshooters armed with heavy target rifles 'mounted on tripods' sniping at Mississippi marksmen firing from the windows of the Bliss barn. For a time the Yanks had little success, as the Confederates would watch for the smoke from a sharpshooter’s rifle and duck out of sight to avoid the slow-moving bullet. Then the sharpshooters began to work in groups of three. One fired his rifle followed by the other two about three seconds later. Thompson looked through his field glasses as one rebel, some 700 yards away, dodged the first bullet only to step back to the window when the other two reached their destination.

The Union troops situated along the northern terminus of Cemetery Hill were confronted with a unique situation. Rebel sharpshooters occupied a number of churches, public buildings and homes in town. With dawn on July 2nd sharpshooting contests began in earnest. The steeple of the German Reformed Church was found to be a particularly advantageous spot for confederate sharpshooters to shoot at Union artillerymen posted nearly a half-mile away. They quickly wounded two officers of Wiedrich’s Battery, along with a of score horses. The artillery replied by firing a solid shot that struck the steeple and temporarily stopped the firing. But other rebels had reoccupied the steeple and the annoying fire continued. A more permanent solution was needed. General O.O. Howard detailed a group of “12 Swiss sharpshooters toting telescope-mounted target rifles” to silence the rebels. Capt. Von Fritsch recorded that the Swiss fired 20 shots and drove the surviving rebels from the church for the rest of the day. (Phanz)

These ‘Swiss’ sharpshooters might have been from Co. A. 1st USSS (the Swiss-German Company), as it was common for small details of Sharp Shooters to be detached for ‘special service’. However, I recently located information written by David M. McGlaughin that suggests that the Massachusetts Company of Sharpshooters (Governor Andrew) were most likely the men detailed for this duty. Captain Plummer (C.O. of Andrew’s SS) wrote: “Shortly after I had detailed Lt. B., (Bicknell) I was ordered to take a position opposite the town of Gettysburg, where the Co. did very effective service against the enemy’s sharpshooters stationed in the front and the houses near, from which they killed and wounded many of our men. It was here that Sergeant Edward Hutchins of my Co. was mortally wounded.” Today the Andrew’s Sharpshooters monument is located near the Bryan barn featuring a bas-relief of a marksman aiming his scoped target rifle with the motto: “In God we put our trust; But kept our powder dry!” However, most the Sharpshooters preferred the less politically correct and more fitting epithet: “Our aim was man; We rarely missed a mark”.

It was often difficult for a sharpshooter to determine whether the shot he fired actually killed his opponent. The rifle’s recoil, powder smoke and the tendency of the intended target to dodge out of sight made confirmation almost impossible. Usually the lack of return fire was the best a sharpshooter could hope for. Occasionally a bystander would witness the effectiveness of a sharpshooter, but they weren’t in a position to pass along the good news. Pvt. Rueben Ruch (a Union soldier wounded and held captive in town) watched as a rebel sharpshooter emerged from a trapdoor of a nearby house and climb out onto the roof to begin shooting at Cemetery Hill. Using the chimney as cover to reload, the rebel had fired four shots before he was suddenly struck and tumbled off the roof, landing in the street a lifeless heap. Ruch discovered the sharpshooter had been shot through the forehead.

The body of Cpl. Wm. Poole (9th Louisiana) was discovered inside the McCreary House after the fighting. Poole had pulled a table in front of a doorway to use as a barricade as he fired at Union gunners. But the tabletop proved too thin to stop the bullet that bored through the wood and killed him instantly. The table with the finger-sized bullet hole is on display at the Museum. (Phanz)

Tricks of the Trade

Decoys: During the Civil War when you wanted to discover the location of an enemy sharpshooter, a soldier would place his cap on a ramrod and slowly raise it above cover. When the enemy fired at the cap the soldier would mark the location of the white puff of smoke and direct return fire (artillery or aimed rifle) at that position. Remarkably, Russian sniper Vasili Zaitzev and his partner incorporated this CW tactic (combining a Soviet helmet and some realistic screams) during the siege of Stalingrad to get German master sniper, Erwin Konig, to reveal his position.

Wyman White encountered a grisly, but effective, decoy when performing ‘special service’ near Spotsylvania. Some comrades complained that they had been shooting at a particularly bold rebel marksman standing at the edge of some woods. Despite their firing the man appeared to be bulletproof. Every shot they fired at him was returned by one of his. Wyman took a look through his telescope. Sure enough, there was a rebel-a very shot-up and dead rebel- lashed to the tree. A moment later a second rebel sharpshooter appeared from behind tree and fired his rifle over the deceased’s shoulder.

Camouflage: While decoys served to ‘draw out’ enemy sharpshooters, it was equally important for a sharpshooter to ‘blend’ into the natural surroundings or risk becoming a target himself. While Berdan’s Sharp Shooters were provided with a rudimentary camouflage uniform that would “correspond to the leafy season of summer”, my preliminary research shows that during the summer many sharpshooters wore blue blouses instead. Unless hidden among dark terrain/foliage, the men’s blue uniforms would stand out against any lighter surroundings. The Confederate uniforms, especially the dun-colored butternut, were particularly well-suited blend in with the terrain of Virginia. A number of contemporary reports by Union officers note being surprised by Confederates who suddenly appeared as if “rising up from the ground like specters”.

Wyman White describes one of the best examples of the application of natural foliage as camouflage during his encounter with a “Michigan Indian”. White wanted to silence a rebel artillery battery posted behind some light earthworks. But to reach the brush pile ‘hide’ he would have to cross over a field of newly planted corn, barely a foot tall. The corn was too short to pass through without attracting attention and the battery was beyond the range of his rifle at the present position. White mentioned his dilemma to an Indian who had arrived on the scene. White was baffled when the Indian began cutting corn leaves and placing them into his cap and equipment. The Indian told White to “make self corn” like he was doing. Wyman followed the Indian’s example and they successfully crawled through the field to their intended ‘hide’, from which they effectively silenced the rebel battery until nightfall.

While novel to Wyman White, the Indians of Co. K. (1st Michigan Sharpshooters) were experts at using camouflage to break up their silhouette and allow them to blend into the natural surroundings. This ability grew out of their hunting tradition in the dense forests of the Leelanau Peninsula and Saginaw Valley. According to Lt. Buckbee, Adjutant of the 1st Mich. S.S., the Ottawa and Chippewa Indians of Company ‘K’ were among the “very best skirmishers and rifle shots in the regiment”.

Although the name of the Indian who White encountered has been lost to history, he could have been one of two distinguished men: Sgt. Thomas “Big Tom” Ke-chi-ti-go or Sgt. Mok-we-naw. Just prior to his company deploying into the Wilderness, Ke-chi-ti-go instructed his men to cover their breast and head with twigs and leaves to break up their silhouette and blend in better with their surroundings. A similar story has Mok-we-naw ordering his men to do the same.

Adjutant Buckbee further observed that the Indians would go into a field to find a dry spot of earth and roll in it until their uniform was the color of the ground. If it had rained they would take mud and rub it over their uniform, which when dry made a very effective camouflage. Buckbee reported, “This custom was adopted by my whole regiment: and it was often remarked that our Regiment could do the closest skirmishing at the least cost of any Regiment in the Division.”

Unlike the sophisticated development and use of camouflage during the 20th Century (the Ghilli suits used by modern snipers for example), no such formal training existed in either army at the time of the Civil War. What makes Wyman White’s account so interesting is that prior to his encounter with the Michigan Indian, Wyman made no mention of any of his comrades in the USSS doing anything to blend in better with the surrounding terrain.

Sgt. Frank Cobb recalled one of the instances of the enemy using camouflage during the Battle of the Wilderness. As he was leading his men forward through the smoky woods during the second day of fighting, Cobb was surprised to have a line of rebels pop up from earthworks that they had ‘covered with leaves to make them look like the rest of the ground’. The rebels delivered a blistering volley that wounded Cobb and sent the rest of his skirmishers skittering back to cover. (Cobb Letters).

“It takes a thief to catch a thief”
While this phrase was coined by Major E.J. Land to describe the strategies used by his USMC snipers during ‘counter-sniper’ operations in Vietnam, many sharpshooters were called upon to perform the same duty during the Civil War. Truly, who better to ‘catch’ an elusive enemy sniper than a soldier who possesses the same level of training, experience, and nerve.

At Chancellorsville, one rebel sharpshooter was particularly effective. He pinned down a Union artillery battery and killed an infantry colonel. The call went out for a sharpshooter. When he arrived an artilleryman observed: “ First he took off his cap, and showed it over the earthwork. Of course, Johnnie Reb let go at it, thinking to kill the careless man under it. His bullet struck into the bank, and instantly our sharpshooter ran his ramrod down the hole made by the Johnnie’s ball, then laid down on his back and sighted along the ramrod. He accordingly perceived from the direction that his game was in the top of a thick bushy elm tree about one hundred yards in the front. It was then the work of less than a second to aim his long telescopic rifle at that tree and crack she went. Down tumbled Johnnie Reb like a great crow out of his nest, and we had no more trouble from that source.” (Gilbert) Remarkably, this same method is taught to today’s snipers to locate the position of an elusive enemy sniper. (Plaster)

During the vicious sharpshooting duels near Cold Harbor, Wyman White observed a rebel raise his head above some earthworks then drop out of sight. He bobbed up and fired his rifle. He then ducked down and popped again, firing his rifle a second time. White concluded the man was using a double- barreled rifle; but for all his bobbing and ducking the Confederate 'sharpshooter' shots flew wild. White concluded that the man was a civilian. Pvt. Morse began timing the man’s up and down movements and discovered he could predict when the fellow would pop up again. Morse aimed his Sharps and fired—the bullet arriving at the exact same moment the rebel stuck his head up. The rebel “ pitched headlong out of our sight”. White marveled: “Comrade Morse was a genius”.

In another incident White hooked up with a Pennsylvania Bucktail near earthworks occupied by the 15th Mass. Infantry. A sergeant, (who was pre-war friend of White’s), implored him to silence a rebel sharpshooter who was steadily picking off his men. White agreed after seeing the bodies of 4 dead soldiers nearby. White and the Bucktail arranged to get the rebel ‘between our two fires’. White sprinted from tree to tree, hearing the ‘zizz’ of the rebel sharpshooter’s bullet passing behind him. When he was close enough White crawled behind a huge tree, removed his cap and raised it above one of exposed roots. A bullet zipped past and White spotted smoke emerging midway up a pine tree. Activating the Sharps ‘self-capper’, White quickly fired six shots and silenced the rebel.

A short while later White and the Bucktail cornered a second “up a tree” rebel. White watched as the rebel shot at the Bucktail and then ducked back behind the trunk of a large pine trunk to reload. But now he was now exposed to White. Wyman fired and enjoyed watching as the rebel “hustled around as if he was not pleased with the turn of affairs”. White fired again and watched as “ he got down out of the tree and did not stop to take hold of the branches as he went down either”.

In Vietnam, the U.S. doctrine called for two-man teams: one man acting as a ‘spotter’ and the other designated as the ‘sniper’. During the Civil War this practice was most often based upon the accidental meeting of two sharpshooters who agreed to work together temporarily, like White and the Indian/Bucktail.

However, sometimes these informal arrangements lead to communication breakdowns. Sam Ingling of Co. ‘I’ paid a particularly stiff penalty for one such misunderstanding. At a postwar reunion in Michigan, General Berdan was entertaining a host of ‘farmer-riflemen’ when he spotted Ingling in the crowd. He jumped off the platform and waded through the crowd: “I should throw you into the guardhouse”, he roared while slapping him on the shoulders and shaking his hand; “Yes, slap you in the guardhouse for the rest of your natural life! Yes sir, Sam Ingling, the crack shot in my whole brigade of crack shots, missing his target! I ought to put you in the guardhouse and keep you there!” Berdan explained to a startled reporter that Ingling had won a silver medal in the 1st USSS match, and then took a gold at the brigade match. Sometime later Ingling was in a riflepit with Lewis Allen when they spied a pair of rebels some distance away. Ingling agreed to shoot the man “on the left” and Allen to take the man one on the right. The pair fired but only one man dropped. When they inspected the fallen rebel both rounds had struck him. Berdan said later, “It would not do, to have my crack shot of the regiment miss his man. So I put him in the guardhouse!” No doubt Ingling confused “left” from the Confederate perspective instead of Allen's orientation (Cass County Bio).

Sharpshooters had to be aware of the inherent dangers of taking more than a single shot at an enemy without changing their position. This battlefield wisdom evolved into tactical doctrine by the Vietnam War. The USMC scout-sniper underwent rigorous training to make a ‘one shot (one) kill’. This had nothing to do with chest thumping boasts. A modern sniper significantly increases his risk of discovery by taking more than a single shot at enemy troops. Armies today are trained to zero in on the sound signature from a sniper rifle and then saturate the area with massed firepower. It is a very lucky sniper indeed who can avoid being injured or killed under those circumstances.

Another ‘trick of the trade’ is to deliberately mislead the enemy and provoke him into rash action. Albert Richardson (Co. I 1st USSS) wrote of one such incident at Yorktown: “When at Washington we changed our overcoats and got some grey ones. And the rebels could tell our sharpshooters just as far as they could see us, and you may think that they would lay low when they saw any of our boys. One morning when our pickets were put out there was no gray coats among them and the rebels thought that they would have some fun. But when they got within about a half a mile their tune changed, (I guess by the way they began to cling (to the earth). Our men had changed overcoats again and the fun was on the other side.” Like a canny hunter using a decoy, the USSS boys learned that by exchanging their distinctive gray overcoats for blue ones they could attract some overeager rebels, who thought it safe to come out of their entrenchments and take shots at hapless ‘infantrymen’. The Sharpshooters had the last laugh.

During the Civil War, sharpshooters on ‘special service’ learned to practice restraint by limiting the number of shots they fired from a single position. Typically they would spend long hours observing the enemy, sometimes not firing more than 6 shots for an entire day. At Petersburg, Wyman White was issued 100 cartridges to shoot at enemy sharpshooters each day. At first this seems like a lot of ammunition. However, if we consider that White entered a riflepit well before first light and left it well after dark (3-4 a.m. to 9 p.m.), he fired an average of 6 shots per hour-or no more than one every 10 minutes. When using a muzzle-loading target rifle, his rate of fire was further reduced.

“The End”
I hated sharpshooters, both Confederate and Union, and I was always glad to see them killed”.

Life for a Sharp Shooter was always dangerous, but after taking up a target rifle their existence might be measured in weeks or even days. He wagered that his superior marksmanship, use of natural cover, understanding the habits of the enemy, and his own basic instincts would keep him alive. But no matter how skilled a Sharp Shooter might be a number of them wound up in ‘second place’ before War’s end. Remarkably, despite the inherent dangers with the duty, there were always volunteers willing to replace the deceased. The danger of falling victim to a bullet from an opposing sharpshooter or a retaliatory artillery shell was always present. However, I have encountered a pair of accounts that starkly describe the brutal “eye for an eye” fate that awaited a few hapless sharpshooters. Just how widespread these grisly incidents occurred is impossible to determine, but no doubt happened more often than the Victorian era/post-War histories will ever reveal.

Capt. Francis Donaldson described the misfortune of one: “If you remember in my last (letter) I spoke plainly of an old Berdan sharp shooter, who was watching the chimneys. Well, he actually succeeded in killing the rifleman hidden there—his body, which proved to be that of a nigro, was found in the fireplace just as it had fallen. The old Berdan man, however, lost his life also, for as was often his custom, upon staying out all night in the pit for the avowed purpose of “catching the early bird” he was found the next morning, still in his pit, but with his throat cut and his rifle gone. Someone as bold as he had stolen in upon him during the night and murdered the poor old fellow.” Accounts by Stevens, Donaldson and Sneden all describe Berdan Sharp Shooters dispatching the rebel in the chimney. But the dead Sharp Shooter’s identity is unknown.

This brutality worked both ways. Union Gen. Rickett’s brigade assaulted the new rebel earthworks near the ‘Bloody Angle’ at Spotsylvania on May 18, 1864. But the assault quickly bogged down when it was subjected to a withering Confederate artillery barrage. As survivors sought shelter among some shallow trenches, enemy sharpshooters infiltrated a stand of pines and soon officers and men were being methodically picked off as they cowered in the dirt. Union scouts were dispatched and soon 5 captives were brought out. They were turned over to a ‘Michigan Indian’ to be led to the rear. He returned a few minutes later to say; "Me kill them.” (Rhea).

For other sharpshooters the end came after becoming a prisoner of war. Death by disease, exposure, or starvation at Andersonville was every bit as fatal as a bullet. Willie B. Greene sent a passage from a Petersburg newspaper to his family: “Arrival of Yankee Prisoners—A pack of Grant’s prowling Hell Hounds, dressed in Green were safely lodged in jail here last eve. Among them was Lieut. Col. H.R. Stoughton, Capt. S.F. Murray and twelve privates all belonging to a Regt. Called the 2nd U.S.S.S., but in our estimation they are nothing but murderers creeping up & shooting men in cold blood & should receive the fate of murderers. No quarter should be shown them by any Confederate soldier & etc” (Greene).

This sentiment was widely circulated in the newspapers on both sides during the early part of the War. Stevens reports that the Berdan Sharp Shooters had ‘gotten over that notion’ of 'no quarter' on the Peninsula. However, when a platoon of wounded Arkansas sharpshooters surrendered at Devil’s Den they expected to be executed on the spot because of the deadly fire they had rained down on Federal artillery and infantrymen on Little Round Top. Their Wolverine captors were highly amused at the overwhelming relief shown by these hapless prisoners when informed the had been: “captured by Berdan’s Sharpshooters". At least in this case professional respect and empathy outweighed the desire for revenge (Stevens).

For one Sharp Shooter danger did not come from the enemy: “...June 4th one of our men, Emery Mussell, carrying a 28 pound telescope rifle, was unceremoniously knocked headfirst into the brush by a retreating (Union) horseman.”

A sharpshooter’s best chance for survival is when he operates well beyond the range of the enemy’s rifles. If that range decreases the risk to the sharpshooter increases substantially. This happened to: “James Heath who carried a 34 pound telescope rifle, the heaviest in the regiment, was one of the first (men) shot, went down in the middle of the road.” Heath would die from his Petersburg wound. (Stevens)

Conclusion (for now): Major E. J. “Jim” Land described the attributes of a successful sniper in Vietnam: “It takes a special kind of courage to be alone: to be alone with your thoughts; to be alone with your fears; to be alone with your doubts. This courage is not the superficial brand stimulated by the flow of adrenaline…It is the courage born of Honor. Honor on the battlefield is a sniper’s ethic. He shows it by the standards and discipline with which he lives his life in combat. By the decency he shows his comrades. And by the rules he adheres to when meeting the enemy”. “The sniper does not hate the enemy; he respects him as a quarry. Psychologically, the only motives that will sustain a sniper is the knowledge that he is doing a necessary job and the confidence that he is the best person to do it.” Indeed, Major Land’s description is apropos to the original Sharp Shooters on ‘special service’ as they are for the modern sniper. And it is those qualities of courage, honor and duty that continue to inspire us today.

I welcome your thoughts and comments ~WES

(1) I have read a number of descriptions regarding the origins of the word 'snipe' and 'sniper'. Most are linked to the Sepoy Rebellion in India. Some refer to British soldiers 'sniping' at Sepoy rebels and vice-versa. However, the modern designation did not come into the military and popular lexicon until WW1.

Acken, J.G. (ed.) Inside the Army of Potomac-the Civil War Experience of Captain Francis Adams Donaldson. Stackpole Books. 1998
Hudson Gazette, October 1891.
Cass County, Michigan Portrait and Biographical Record, (1893).
Gilbert, A. Sniper
Henderson, C. Marine Sniper. Berkley Books (1986)
Herek, R. These Men Have Seen Hard Service. (2000) WSU Press
Mattocks, C.A. The Civil War Letters of Charles P. Mattocks.
Phanz, H. Gettysburg; Culp’s Hill & Cemetery Hill. U of NC Press (1993)
Plaster, Major J. The Ultimate Sniper
Rhea, G. To the North Anna River.
Richardson, A. Letters. ... ature.hmtl.
Roberts, N. The American Muzzleloading Caplock Rifle
Stevens, C.A. Berdans United States Sharpshooters in the Army of the Potomac. Morningside Books (reprint) 1984
Sneden, R. K. Eye of the Storm. The Free Press 2000
White, S. (ed). The Civil War Diary of Wyman S. White. Butternut and Blue Books 1988

Last edited by Bill Skillman on Fri Aug 07, 2009 9:29 pm, edited 3 times in total.

 Post subject: Re: Special Service
PostPosted: Wed Apr 15, 2009 5:06 pm 
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Joined: Tue Mar 31, 2009 1:26 pm
Posts: 32
Good work.

D. Bolda
Co. F, 1st USSS "F-troop"
Great Plains region

 Post subject: Re: Special Service
PostPosted: Sat Jun 06, 2009 4:19 pm 
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Joined: Thu Oct 30, 2008 9:21 pm
Posts: 60
Location: Upstate New York
A remarkably well researched article Mr. Skillman. I especially like the use of so many period quotes! :)

Mr. Jason G. Wolczanski
Co. C, 2nd U.S.S.S.

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