Sharpshooters – Murder or Accepted Terms of Engagement?

Model 1862 Springfield Rifle Musket

Model 1862 Springfield Rifle Musket

The American  Civil War ushered in a new age of fighting.  Much has been written about how rifled muskets caused more lethal woundings, at a longer range.  Additionally, much has been written about the early battlefield tactics, and how they had not advanced with the modern weaponry of the the Civil War.  It did not take many battles for commanders to realize the lethality of the rifled musket and the fact that battlefield tactics would need to change.  To use Napoleonic tactics, against an enemy with rifled muskets, caused much higher casualty rates.  While all this is true, there were many limiting factors that caused the rifled musket to be as ineffective as smooth-bore muskets.

Number one: Most of the troops were civilians, in volunteer units, with very little training.  These soldiers were not trained as well as regular army infantry and in many cases would not take proper aim, making the rifled musket an impediment.  In this case, a smooth-bore musket, shooting buck-and-ball (similar to a shotgun) was very effective since the soldier could be successful shooting “at the target,” without necessarily aiming. 

Number two: During hot engagements, where a soldier may fire 40+ rounds, the minie ball would quickly become difficult to ram down the barrel, due to fouling.  Inevitably, this would cause misfires.  At numerous battles, including Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Shiloh, and especially Gettysburg, many rifles were found with multiple cartridges rammed down the barrel, making the gun unusable.

Number three: While the rifled musket was extremely accurate to well over 300 yards, in the hands of a poorly trained soldier, the rifle would not hit small formations – much less a single soldier.  Due to its parabolic trajectory, and lower muzzle velocity, the soldier would need to know the exact distance, wind direction and speed, and the movement of the target.  These intricacies were not easily trained, in the field, and the fact is that very few regiments devoted much time to target practice.

These, and many other reasons, were why the smooth-bore musket would be favored by many commanders, most notably, US Brigadier General Thomas F. Meagher of the famed Irish Brigade.  He insisted that his soldiers use the smooth-bore.

Berdan's Sharpshooter monument at Gettysburg

Berdan's Sharpshooter monument at Gettysburg

There were however some highly successful regiments, and companies, that used the rifled musket for a type of  psychological warfare.  These regiments were called sharpshooters.  These troops were highly trained, skilled marksmen, that had to prove their marksmanship to be in the regiment.  Some of the most popular sharpshooter regiments were the 1st U.S. Sharpshooters (Berdan Sharpshooters) commanded by Hiram C. Berdan, the 2nd U.S. Sharpshooters, Bridge’s Arkansas Battalion, Rapley’s 12th Arkansas Battalion, 1st, 2nd and 4th Georgia Battalion and the Palmetto Sharpshooters.¹  These special units often enjoyed rifles with windage enabled sights, and in many cases they had telescopic sights – the precursor of today’s modern rifle scopes.

With the advent of sharpshooter regiments came controversies of fair fighting – and ethical battlefield tactics.  In well trained hands, these new guns extended the effective killing range to 600+ yards.  When used during fighting, on the battlefield, the sharpshooter was very effective in neutralizing artillery batteries, skirmishers and commanders.  One of the most well known instances of a commander being killed, by a sharpshooter’s minie ball was at Spotsylvania Court House, where US Major General John Sedgwick dressed down his staff members who were ducking when hearing sniper fire, “…they couldn’t hit an elephant at this this distance.”  Seconds later, Sedgwick was instantly killed by a sharpshooter bullet to the head.  “Uncle John” Sedgwick, in command of the VI Corps, would be the highest ranking Federal officer killed in the war.  The shot that killed him was reported to been made from over 1,000 yards.

While sharpshooting regiments were accepted as an offensive tool, on both sides, during the war, they often engaged in deplorable actions.  With no fully adopted terms of engagement, for sharpshooters, it was common for the sharpshooter to cross the “gray area” between accepted practice, and immoral.  In many cases soldiers would be randomly killed, while engaged in non-combat activities such as using the restroom, eating or writing letters to loved ones.  Isaac Hadden, a New York soldier, in a letter to his family, would state, “Dear Brother, Wife and All, there was a man this moment shot in the belly 20 feet from me which is nothing unusual in this country.  It is wortha man’s life to go to shit here.”²  While clearly not a matter of self defense, this use of snipers was abhorred by both sides.

Near the trenches, of Petersburg, twelve union sharpshooters would be taken prisoner, in 1864.  The local newspaper would print, “…in our estimation they are nothing but murderers creeping up & shooting men in cold blood & should receive the fate of murderers.”

After enduring over three weeks of sharpshooter fire, at Port Hudson, Louisiana, Captain John W. DeForest of the 12th Connecticut Infantry would state, “I could never bring myself to what seemed like taking human life in pure gayety.”  Going on, DeForest viewed it, “…sickening, murderous, unnatural, uncivilized way of being.”

In this blogger’s opinion, under the right circumstances, during battlefield action, the use of sharpshooters was tactically useful and moral.  An excellent example would be Hiram Berdan’s usage of the 1st U.S. Sharpshooters, on the second day of Gettysburg, to determine Confederate force dispositions and movements.  III Corps commander, US Major General Daniel Sickles was making good use of his resources.  Berdan’s companies would keep the Confederates busy, until they were forced to retire, late in the day, after running out of ammunition.  However, when sharpshooters were used to shoot soldiers engaged in non combat activities – eating, reading, using the restroom or writing letters - they pushed the limits on what was acceptable, even during the Civil War, and were rightfully judged to be nothing short of murderers.

What is your opinion?  Was it murder – or accepted terms of engagement?  I would like to hear your opinion on this article.  Please sign up, and leave a comments.

¹ For more information on sharpshooting regiments, see Confederate Sharpshooters or Civil War Sharpshooters.  Both web sites were used to research this article.
² Drew Gilpin Faust, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, p. 42.

About Michael Noirot

I grew up in the Central Illinois farming community, of Dunlap. Growing up, I played sports, tinkered with cars and enjoyed photography. While I did well in school, I did not become passionate about history until my early 30's. I have built a large library, of books on early America, politics and the Civil War. I am an avid reader. Fortunately, I have had plenty of opportunities to travel, over the years, and have been to most of the Civil War battlefields. I work while I travel, so more often than not, I am up, in the middle of the night, to get sunrise pictures, or I will be out until well after dark, exploring Civil War battlefields. I have other hobbies, and passions, that I really enjoy. Number one on the list would be guitar. I play my guitars on a regular basis, and enjoy the Bluegrass, and Contemporary Christian (CCM) genres. I play a style of guitar, called FLATPICKING, where using a flat pick, you play lead solos, similar to the way a fiddle would have been played during the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Laura, my wife, and I also enjoy scuba diving, travel and spending time at our property, in the country. Lastly, we spend as much time with our families, as possible. Thanks for stopping by.
This entry was posted in General Musings, Infantry Regiments. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Sharpshooters – Murder or Accepted Terms of Engagement?

  1. Art Reid says:

    I think far from murder, sharpshooters were a reflection of the changing face of battle over the course of the war, as much as combat in the Wilderness and soldiers digging in every chance they could get in the last months of the war had come from the birght orderly ranks of Zouve’s at First Manassas. Sharpshooters are nothing more then the tactics catching up to the equipment.
    Shooting at troops engaged in non-frontline activities does two things, it drops the spirits of those troops (as read in those letters) and hopefully thier effectiveness, and any solder shot in this fashion would be one less in the ranks come the next engagement.
    The equipment always dictates the terms of engagement in the long term, despite what ever outcry may happen at the time.

  2. Stephen DeHart says:

    As a civilian, I’ll defer to those who have served and smelt powder, but I do believe there is a gray area where decisions have to be made on the spot:

    Wars are fought to resolve differences when diplomacy fails, and killing or otherwise neutralizing the enemy should serve that end.

    If brutality is committed beyond the necessity of “neutralizing threat,” then informed decision makers in the field should weigh the cost/ risk / benefit ratio. Needless cruelty and brutality can sew the seeds of another war or of escalated atrocities on both sides.

    Hard to define “needless brutality” in wartime.

    Various massacres and atrocities provide volumes for debate, but lets compare sniping to say, shelling. It kills people just as dead as sniping, but is a little less personalized in its application. Are artillerists subjected to the same sideways looks a sniper gets? Probably not. Our notions of moral responsibility for our individual choices puts the sniper under a microscope, which may not be a bad thing, especially in Civilian Law enforcement.

    Another example: KIlling wounded Al Quaedas and Talibans? “Security rounds” to finish them off are probably a justified necessity, since nearly each one can be a human bomb (i.e. not to take justice in our own hands). Fits the definition of ” need to neutralize threat.”

    But, back to our Greencoats in the USSS and their Confederate counterparts. My own opinion is that shooting the enemy during the Petersburg seige while he takes a leak ought to be limited to areas where it does some tangible good beyond just reducing the enemy by one more man. A Southern sharpshooter was reported ceasing fire when he learned the man they just winged and pinned down was merely fetching water for his comrades. He perhaps missed a chance to inflict thirst, misery and bad morale on on his enemy. But if you make your enemy MAD FOR VENGEANCE, doesn;t he become more dangerous, not less(compare to the SS killing our captured GI’s at the Bulge)? That Reb made his own informed decision, and I’d be surprised if he felt bad about it, even after the war was lost. And who am I to second-guess him?

    Not much of an answer, I admit.

    Or, maybe the real question is “how many of my own do I save by doing this?” Somebody figured up how many Johnnny Rebs the USSS killed, but I wish we knew how many Union Soldiers they SAVED. At Catherine’s Iron Furnace(?), where they captured some 200 or so Georgia infantry, it was apparently because they decisively showed anyone trying to break out was a dead man They shot x number of the enemy, precipitating a surrender that saved maybe 200 of the enemy, plus who knows how many of their own. Maybe that’s surgically applied deadly force at its best.

    And I wish I knew how many GI’s Carlos Hathcock saved. A lot more than the enemies he killed I’ll bet.

    Sorry about the flip-flop response, but I really believe different answers apply in different situations. To be merciful or pitiless and deadly in wartime may need to be viewed through the lens of useful prosecution of the war toward its resolution, versus merely motivating the enemy survivors want to kill you even more, while only reducing his number by one or two. Somewhere, there’s a different ratio for each instance, where the moral cost is justified by the greater good of lives saved, risk averted, etc.

    “If you’re not confused by now, you weren’t paying attention.”


  3. Very interesting post, Stephen. Thank you for commenting.

  4. Thomas Gressman says:

    The issue is as Steven said. “If I take this single life, I may save a thousand more.” If a sharpshooter, or modern sniper kills an enemy officer, he disrupts the enemy’s plans, and sometimes that whole attack falls apart.
    John Reynolds was killed at Gettysburg during the fighting in the morning of the First. It was probably one of those “to whom it may concern” shots, rather than “a bullet with his name on it”. But, had Reynolds not been killed… well, he vowed to “barricade the streets” if need be. How many more Rebs would have died forcing their way through the barricades? How many civilians would have been caught in the crossfire?
    As a reenactor with 2nd Berdan’s, I’ve rather made a study of military sharpshooting.
    Even today, if an Army or Marine sniper kills a terrorist, setting up for an RPG shot, or planting an Improvised Explosive Device (more brutally known as a “roadside bomb”) He can save the lives of three, six or ten of his comrades.
    There is also the morale factor of the sharpshooter to consider.
    If the sharpshooter picks off an officer, or sergeant, or color bearer, or veteran soldier, the effect on those who may be less than solid in their morale will be profound. Especially if that shot comes unexpectedly. One man with a good rifle and a keen eye can hold up a company. And that also saves lives.

    The term used today is “force multiplier”. If one man can neutralize a hundred, by shooting one, that one man’s effect is far out of proportion to his physical presence on the battlefield.

Leave a Reply