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.
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.
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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.