STONE COLD KILLERS
By Doug Coleman
In Ambrose Bierce’s short story One of the Missing, we have a hint of how Civil War soldiers felt about snipers. Bierce fought for the Union and speaks first-hand. The subject of the story is a Union scout sent out to reconnoiter retreating Confederates. I won’t spoil the story for you, but let’s just say that karma finds our sniper and there is a sense “he had it coming.”
The Civil War soldier, like soldiers of all ages, despised snipers. Sharpshooters were a breed apart. Regular soldiers after the first few months of the war honored an understanding that they would not be shooting at each other unless actively engaged – hence the many stories of opposing pickets getting along and exchanging newspapers, coffee and tobacco. Snipers did not take a day off and were perfectly aware that counter-snipers, artillery and ordinary soldiers were going to try hard to obliterate them once their position was discovered. If captured, it would probably not go well for them. At Appomattox, a Whitworth was recently found smashed and buried – certainly its owner did not want the accurate weapon turned against the Confederacy, but also probably appreciated that stacking that rifle on the pile might single him out for “special attention.” His apprehension is supported by remarks from soldiers in Sherman’s army, who swore death to any Confederate captured with a Kerr rifle.
The Union army copied earlier Napoleonic units of riflemen in Hiram Berdan’s regiment of sharpshooters. To gain entry into this elite unit, each man had to put ten bullets within five inches of center shooting from a rest at 200 yards and the same offhand at 100 yards. Like the Napoleonic Jaegers and British rifle units, Berdan adopted a green uniform and black hat. Some men kept their own specialized target rifles, but standard issue after May 1862 was the .52 caliber breech loading Sharp’s rifle, fast-firing and easier to reload from the prone position than a clumsy muzzleloader. These could reliably hit a man out to about 400 yards, a little better that the standard muzzleloader’s 300. Berdan’s men were particularly effective at Yorktown, where they took credit for silencing the artillery in the enemy fortifications. In one case they kicked up sand from a sandbagged embrasure into a cannon’s muzzle; this caused a barrel obstruction and burst the gun upon discharge. But mostly they silenced the artillery the old-fashioned way – every time a gunner (often a conscripted slave) stepped into the embrasure to load or swab, they shot him.
It does not appear that the Yankees took full advantage of Berdan’s men, as they tended to fight as a regiment rather than being dispersed to best advantage; generally they acted as skirmishers on their own front. Once, though, this was good – they, together with the 3rd Maine, broke Longstreet’s advance at Gettysburg with accurate fire from their fast-firing breech loaders and arguably were the decisive factor in turning the tide of that battle. The regiment dispersed when enlistments ran out in late 1864.
The Confederates were a little late catching up, but in 1863 General Rodes experimented with a battalion of sharpshooters for each of the brigades in his division. In early 1864, Lee expanded the concept to his whole army. Now it was the Yankees caught by surprise and Grant soon adopted the battalion per brigade system in his army. These troops would have been armed primarily with standard Enfields and Springfields; though they were distinguished by their superior marksmanship, they should be thought of as light infantry, mobile skirmishers more than designated marksmen.
In practice, all Confederate infantry was light infantry and uncommon marksmanship was common in the Confederate ranks. Sam Watkins, who was regular infantry in the 1st Tennessee, writes how he and his buddy Tom dealt with a Yankee sharpshooter that was killing every man assigned to a certain picket post. After both were narrowly missed, Watkins “saw a smoke rising above a tree and about the same time I saw a Yankee peep from behind the tree, up above the bushes.” Pointing out the location, they waited. “Finally we saw him sort ‘o peep round the tree, and we moved about a little so that he might see us, and as we did, the Yankee stepped out in full view and bang, bang! Tom and I had both shot. We saw that Yankee tumble out like a squirrel.” According to his autobiography Company Aytch, Watkins would kill a lot of Yankees before it was over, some at spitting distance.
The true sharpshooters – elite snipers – in the Confederate army were issued Whitworth or Kerr rifles when available. These were English rifles of .45 caliber, often scoped. Firing a paper-patched hexagonal bullet with a fast twist, high sectional density and a muzzle velocity of 1400 feet per second, the Whitworth was marvelously accurate, capable of 12 inch groups at a mile. Firing one from a machine rest in 1860, Queen Victoria’s shot hit 1.5 inches from center at 400 yards. Not many modern rifles will do this. The Kerrs were only slightly less accurate.
But the Whitworths were expensive and rare, with probably no more than seventy or so in service in Lee’s army at any time. Watkins, who served in the Army of Tennessee, writes about his regiment’s competition for a small number of Whitworths: “We all wanted the gun, because if we got it we would be sharpshooters, and be relieved from camp duty, etc.” The test was to see who could get the smallest group with three shots at 500 yards; “every shot that was fired hit the board.” But one guy did just a little better and became an elite sharpshooter. On the way back to camp, one of the guys who did not win shot a running rabbit with his service rifle at 250 yards, leading the commander to lament that he did not have more Whitworths to hand out.
Operating in small groups of two to four, camouflaged in gray and butternut, they would stake out a position no closer than 400 yards – just a little beyond the accurate retaliatory range of the standard issue rifles firing .58 caliber minie balls. Using an instrument called a stadium to estimate range, they prioritized officers, artillerymen, and other sharpshooters, but any soldier who exposed himself could suffer for it. They were in fact quite capable of silencing enemy batteries, conserving Confederate ordnance for other purposes.
The Yankees were right to fear the Whitworths, whose bullets made a whine instead of the angry bee buzz of the minies as they passed. Federal troops at Spotsylvania, taken under fire at long range and recognizing the whine of Whitworths, were dodging about so as not to present stationary targets. General John Sedgwick rode up to admonish the men for acting silly, pointing out that the Confederates “could not hit an elephant at this distance,” estimated as 800-1000 yards. About thirty seconds later he was knocked off his horse with a bullet to the face, dead before he hit the ground.
Not all Confederate snipers were white. Berdan’s men had to contend with a lone black sharpshooter who constantly harassed them with accurate fire. After many days he was discovered in the chimney of a destroyed house, having knocked a small hole in the bricks for a firing port. He was not taken alive.
Not all Southern snipers were soldiers. Jack Hinson was originally a Unionist from Tennessee, but his politics changed after two of his sons were captured while hunting, summarily tried as guerillas and shot. The Yankees cut off their heads and left them on the posts of his front gate – not much of a “hearts and minds” program. Unhappy about this, Hinson had an 18 pound .50 caliber target rifle custom-made. Then he picked out a hide on the Tennessee River at a spot where the current was strong and passing boats travelling upriver were almost stationary. He took his time killing every Yankee officer and pilot he could put in his sights, estimated at around 100 by war’s end. His first two kills were the lieutenant and sergeant who had impaled his sons’ heads on his gatepost. Sic semper tyrannis.
Sources: Sam Watkins, Company Aytch; Robert Loring, reviewing Tom C. McKenny’s Jack Hinson’s One-Man War; https://www.mca-marines.org/leatherneck/bookreview/jack-hinson-s-one-man-war-civil-war-sniper; C.A. Stevens, Berdan’s United States Sharpshooters in the Army of the Potomac, https://archive.org/stream/berdansunitedsta00stev/berdansunitedsta00stev_djvu.txt; Geoffrey R. Walden, The Kentucky Sharpshooters, http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~orphanhm/sharpshooters.htm
Doug Coleman is an attorney and amateur historian in Alexandria; comments and corrections are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.