It was a perfect shot —the kind that on May 9, 1864, Union Major General John Sedgwick spent the last moments of his life scorning. At least two South Carolina sharpshooters were credited with killing the beloved VI Corps commander at Spotsylvania Court House that day, including one who claimed to have accomplished the feat with a new “long range Whitworth rifle with telescope and globe sights.” It was a shot that might not have been possible a decade earlier, before the development of the Minié ball and rifled barrels.
Sedgwick was perhaps the most celebrated victim of a Civil War sharpshooter, a distinct class of soldier whose skill with a rifle earned him a place outside the massed infantry line. These marksmen from the American countryside could claim as their forebears the expert shots of England and France, who had begun the practice of long-range sniping with flintlocks decades earlier. And if most looked no different from any frontline private, they surely had more potential, and often more opportunity, to kill.
Easily the most conspicuous and famous of all Civil War sharpshooter units were the 1st and 2nd U.S. Sharpshooter regiments, founded by New Yorker Hiram Berdan. An engineer, inventor and amateur shooting champion of great repute, he formed Berdan’s Sharpshooters during the summer and fall of 1861 after soliciting recruits with newspaper advertisements across the North. Prospects were expected to be solid citizens able to place “ten bullets, in succession, within a ten-inch ring at a distance of two hundred yards,” using an ordinary rifle.
While Berdan himself proved to be a less than stellar officer, his forward-thinking advocacy of a unique green uniform for his pupils inspired unit pride, and even offered the men a modicum of camouflage in the field. As to weapons, the sharpshooters soon discarded their heavy target rifles for government-issued Colt revolving rifles, and eventually breechloading Sharps rifles. Beginning in the Seven Days’ battles, the green-coated snipers established themselves as men to be feared. One historian credits them with having “undoubtedly killed more men than any other regiment in the army. In skirmishing, they had no equal.”
In the South especially, sharpshooter units sometimes took on much more visible and dangerous duties as scouts, frontline skirmishers or “shock troops.” The Benson brothers of the 1st South Carolina Volunteers eagerly joined other crack shots of the regiment in one such battalion, which, one brother admitted, “rarely could be so well kept together in pitched battles as to prevent its members from going headlong into a charge with the line of battle.” Describing his duty with the 1st Georgia Sharpshooters, William R. Montgomery wrote: “We are always in front of the Brigade, about 300 to 400 yds., to clear out the way & I tell you we done it too, to perfection.” With limited access to high-priced weapons, Southern marksmen relied on sighted guns brought from home, powerful Whitworths smuggled through the Union blockade or the dependable Enfield rifle.
If Civil War sharpshooters lacked the sophistication and fantastic equipment of later generations, they nonetheless reveled in their unique status and abilities. Firing from behind fences, buildings or rifle pits, they could change the tide of battle by picking off officers, other skirmishers or— especially—artillery crews. And while their efforts generally widened the battlefield, sharpshooters sometimes indulged in the age-old tradition of personal combat— engaging each other in deadly long-distance duels, especially within fortifications of besieged towns such as Yorktown or Petersburg. Their success even helped render obsolete old European-style battle tactics by increasing the tendency of soldiers to take cover and build fortifications whenever possible—a traditional mark of cowardice, or perhaps just common sense.
In an age where honor still counted, sharpshooters were widely despised for their freedom to pick off unsuspecting victims from the shadows. “I hated sharpshooters, both Confederate and Union, in those days,” one Yankee private wrote, “and I was always glad to see them killed.” Sharpshooter units surely attracted a different breed of soldier—one willing to accept such revilement in exchange for the chance to bond with men of like skill, daring and desire to kill the enemy.
Originally published in the June 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.