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Battle of Gettysburg: Major Eugene Blackford and the Fifth Alabama Sharpshooters

By Noah Andre Trudeau 
Originally published by America's Civil War magazine. Published Online: July 12, 2001 
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On the hot afternoon of July 1, 1863, a 24-year-old Confederate officer and his elite unit stood very much in harm's way. Major Eugene Blackford ordered his corps of sharpshooters to deploy off the eastern side of Oak Hill to screen and protect the division of Major General Robert Rodes as it tackled the Union I Corps west of Gettysburg. Along with the brigade of Brigadier General George Doles, Blackford's men had to maintain a connection across more than a mile of open valley floor that stretched eastward to the Harrisburg-Heidlersburg Road, the avenue of approach for Major General Jubal Early's division. The Federal XI Corps, determined to prevent the capture of the town, advanced north of Gettysburg to contest the Confederate assault.

Blackford was a Virginian by birth, born in Lynchburg, and was the youngest of five brothers, all of whom rose to positions of rank and responsibility in the Confederate military. Miraculously, they would all survive the Civil War. He moved to Alabama before the conflict, beginning his Southern military service on May 15, 1861, as a captain in Company K of the 5th Alabama Infantry, just 10 days after the regiment was organized at Montgomery. He was made major of the regiment on July 17, 1862. In an era when a certain amount of flamboyance seemed required of regimental officers, Blackford carried out his duties with quiet competence. The few mentions of him in The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies are positive and praiseworthy. In a memoir of Stonewall Jackson, James Power Smith speaks approvingly of the 'well-trained skirmishers of Rodes' division, under Major Eugene Blackford,' and he places Blackford alongside Jackson when Stonewall gave his fateful order to Rodes at Chancellorsville: 'You can go forward then.'

By the Battle of Gettysburg, Blackford had been placed in charge of a select battalion of marksmen culled from the ranks of the 5th. The first day of that fight may have been his finest hour as a combat commander. His sharpshooters were instrumental in driving back Colonel Thomas C. Devin's cavalry videttes thrown north of the town to guard the approaches from Carlisle, Harrisburg and York. Throughout the early afternoon, Blackford's thin screen did yeomen's work parrying efforts by the XI Corps to gain advantageous positions north of town. In the general attack begun upon Early's arrival on the field, Blackford's command initially assisted Brig. Gen. John B. Gordon's brigade, entered the town and then attached itself to Brig. Gen. Stephen Ramseur's brigade. After standing in reserve during most of July 2, the sharpshooters were slated to take part in Rodes' miscarried attempt to launch an attack on the east face of Cemetery Hill. Blackford's handpicked men then earned their pay by infiltrating and occupying homes as close as possible to the enemy's lines during the night, and at dawn on July 3 opening a galling fire upon Union artillery and skirmishers. In his report of the action, Blackford claims his men even drove off a Federal battery after they shot down most of its crew.

Captain William W. Blackford, the oldest of the Blackford boys, served on the staff of Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart at the time of the Gettysburg battle, and the cavalry commander ordered him to take a message to General Robert E. Lee on July 3. After delivering the communication, the elder Blackford rode into the Confederate-controlled town, where he managed to find Eugene and his marksmen. William recounted their visit in his memoir, War Years With Jeb Stuart, remembering that he encountered his brother and his fellow officers in a home along 'main street on the side next Cemetery Ridge' where, in a room 'pervaded by the smell of powder … and the growl of musketry,' they were incongruously 'lolling on the sofas,' enjoying wine and 'all sorts of delicacies taken from a sideboard.'

After sharing some of the food and drink with his brother, Eugene obligingly took him on a tour of the sharpshooting lair, which consisted of the second floors of several houses. William described the location in detail: 'Eugene's men had cut passways through the partition walls so that they could walk through the houses all the way from one cross street to the other. From the windows of the back rooms, against which were piled beds and mattresses, and through holes punched in the outside back wall, there was kept up a continuous rattle of musketry by men stripped to the waist and blackened with powder. It was a strange sight to see these men fighting in these neatly … furnished rooms, while those not on duty reclined on elegant sofas, or … upon handsome carpets.'

Cavalryman Blackford also noted that feathers pervaded every room, the results, he concluded, of Federal shells exploding in the upper floors and shredding feather-stuffed mattresses. Union snipers had also been worrying the Alabamians with gunfire, and the 'pools of blood' William noted on the floors and carpets indicated that some of their shots had been true.

After Gettysburg, Eugene Blackford receded into the curious anonymity that had cloaked him prior to the battle. Following the Battle of Cedar Creek in October 1864, he was relieved from his command for poor conduct during the fight, but was reinstated by Confederate President Jefferson Davis, who was heavily lobbied by Blackford's peers, subordinates and superiors. Although the 5th Alabama surrendered at Appomattox Court House, Blackford's name does not appear on the parole roster for either the regiment or the brigade. After the war he settled in Maryland, working as a farmer and a teacher, before dying on February 4, 1908.

The following excerpt of Eugene Blackford's memoir is located in the Civil War Miscellaneous Collection of the United States Military History Institute in Carlisle, Pa. It details the activities of a promising young officer and the marksmen of the 5th Alabama sharpshooters.

July 1st 1863. At 7 a.m. we moved on and about 10 heard firing in front, tho' some miles away. An hour after I was sent for hastily by Gen. R[odes] who told me that we were close up on the enemy in the town of Gettysburg and that [Lt. Gen. A.P.] Hill had blundered, and it was feared w[oul]d bring on a general engagement before any body was up. Early's Division was 15 miles behind and [Maj. Gen. Edward] Johnson's nine. I was directed to deploy my corps across the valley to our left, and do my best to make the enemy believe that we had heavy infantry supports, whereas there was not a man.

This we did driving off the cavalry opposing us in the pike. They repeatedly charged but my men rallying coolly & promptly sent them back every time with more empty saddles. Repeatedly during the day would they advance lines of battle against us, but our men knowing what was at stake, stood firm behind a fence, and made so determined a front that the Yankees were persuaded that we were heavily supported. All this could be seen by the whole Div. in the hills to our right, whose position would have been turned at once if the enemy had gotten [wind of] this. I was afterwards mentioned in Gen. R[odes]'s report of this battle. Thus did we fight it out until the sun was well nigh down, and I almost exhausted by running up & down the line exhorting the men, and making a target of myself. My loss was considerable, mostly however in wounded.

About 6 o'clock the enemy advanced a triple line on my left. I rushed up there and did my best, but it was useless to do more than give them what we had, and then run for it. So we kept up a terrible popping until they came within 200 yards, the Yankees not firing again, expecting to meet a heavy force of rebels over the hill. Then sounding the retreat away we went at our best speed. I was much concerned, but could do nothing against that mass. We had not gone more than 100 or so yards, when 'Halt, Halt' was heard, and just in front of me to my infinite delight could be seen a long line of skirmishers of Early's Division sweeping on to the front.

Soon afterwards we met his dusty columns hurrying up. I knew then that all was safe. Sounding the rally my men were soon around me, and allowing them a little time to [rest], I too went to the front close after Early. We overtook them as they were entering the town, and my men took their own share in the plundering that went on. I employed myself with the aid of such men as I had with me in destroying whiskey, of which there was an enormous quantity in the town. [In] half an hour many men were dead drunk, and others were wild with excitement. It was truly a wild scene, rushing through the town capturing prisoners by hundreds; a squad of us would run down a street and come to a corner just as a whole mass of frightened Yanks were rushing up another. A few shots made the whole surrender, and so on until we caught them all.

In what was the great error committed the troops should have been pushed on, but no, no one was there to take the responsibility, and in the morning the enemy were strongly fortified. The result of this day had been glorious, 5,000 prisoners for us, and much plunder. That night I slept with my men in a barn in the outskirts of the town. In it there were countless [illegible], of which we made a great soup, thickened with artichoke. This was made in the boiler used to prepare food for the cattle, but it was as good as any I ever saw.

In the morning [July 2] the enemy now crowded on the heights, our lines were drawn around, and my men thrown out into the meadow between the lines. Here we lay in the broiling sun until about 1 p.m. when beginning to feel hungry, I sent a detail to catch chickens, which they cooked in a large pot found in a cottage, thro' which my line went. This soup contained about 60 chickens, and the entire contents of the garden in the way of onions & potatoes. Saw it was necessary to feed the men as no rations had been issued since the morning before, and none could be obtained soon. As soon as it was ready a detail from each company came up and received its share. Thus were 150 men fed.

Just after we had eaten it, that awful cannonade began between our batteries and those of the enemy, we being just between them, received the benefit of all the'shorts,' and had a vast number of shell to pass away [over] us. I have never in my life seen such things so awful. Many of the men … went to the side to get out of the range. At 6 p.m. it cleared, and I restored my line. About dusk I was recalled and joined the column marched towards the town from the heights.

I must state however an incident which occurred just after I had re-established my line as I have stated. I went back on the heights in my rear where our line had been stationed, and found that very little damage had been done by the artillery fire of the enemy, tho' as we afterwards learned, ours being converging was fearfully destructive. I went at once to a fine house on the Cashtown Road, which I had visited in the morning under these circumstances: I went to the well to get water, and noticing a greenhouse, I stopped to admire some flowers. The ladies within, observing this mark of humanity in a smoke-begrimed soldier, and being ready to grasp at straws eagerly, now sought my protection against some of the Yankee soldiers wounded within; their feeling were very intense, one had drawn his pistol and threatened to shoot them, the poor creatures were too much scared to see what they had but to keep out of the room where he lay and they would be safe enough as he had lost a leg.

I went in however and had then discovered it to be a hospital, whereat they were very artful; upon inquiring my name they were very much struck by it, and asked me at once if I were related to Mrs. Caroline B. of Lynchburg. They there told me that their name was Smooker and that they were related to the Steenburgers. After some [time] passed I asked them did they not dread the artillery fire?; this was a new idea, and threw them into much consternation. I advised them [what] … was best to be done, I asked if they had any yellow flannel, whereof a hospital flag could be made. After much search they produced a red flannel petticoat inch, which I connected to the top of the house and tied it to the lightning rod, whence I afterwards saw it waving from afar. The presence of one of the Yankees within too dangerously wounded to be moved justified me in this. I would not otherwise have done it, even for the protection of the women. From the top of the house I had a splendid view of the position of the enemy and would have enjoyed it had I not been a mark for the enemy's sharpshooters.

In the evening when I returned after the cannonade I found the house deserted. The enemy rarely respected the red flag, and indeed conducted the war in an altogether barbarous manner. I should here mention that when we advanced into the town the evening before I captured a beautiful Solinger saber, very light and elegantly made. It belonged to a Yankee Col. of infantry who surrendered it twice. I soon valued this blade more than all my other possessions, and wore it constantly until the end of the war, when I was enabled to preserve it safely.

I have said that we moved towards the town about dusk. I soon found that it was for the purpose of making a night attack. When I heard this my heart beat more quickly than I ever knew it to do before, and I had seen some cruel fights. I knew well enough what a night attack would be with troops as badly disciplined as ours, or indeed with any save veterans, and they equipped with white shirts, or some uniform visible at night. When the column was formed we moved silently with bayonets fixed close up beneath the enemy's works. There in two lines we gave our instructions to the men. I well remember what feelings I had as I fastened my saber knot tightly around my wrist. I knew well that I had seen my last day on earth … .It was to be a bayonet affair, the guns were all inspected to see that none were loaded. Then we lay silently waiting the word to advance, when to my relief I must say, I saw the dark masses of men wheeling to the rear — the idea had been abandoned. I was ordered to remain where I was with my corps & await orders.

In about 1/2 an hour Gen. R[odes] came to me saying that he wished me to draw a skirmish line as closely across the enemy's works as I possibly could, and when daylight came annoy them within all my power. I was more in my element, and went diligently to work to comprehend the ground, and mature my plan. Meanwhile the men went to sleep; I only keeping one or two with me as a guard. I found that the enemy were on a hill shaped like a V with the apex towards the town, and almost in it … .In that angle where were nearly 100,000 men, all massed densely so that every shot from our side told.

This hill was about as high as the tallest house in the town, I soon laid my plan and began deploying my men at 'A' moving on the line designated toward 'B.' It became necessary to break passages thro' nearby houses, and thro' every thing else we met, so that there was a great deal of labor undergone ere this line was established. By daylight however all was ready. My orders were to fire incessantly without regard to ammunition and began as soon as my bugle sounded.

The day [July 3] broke clear, and as soon as it was light there lay just before us on the slope of the hill a battery of six Napoleons; they were not more than 400 yards off. Men and horses were all there, standing as if on parade. One signal from my bugle and that battery was utterly destroyed. The few survivors ran back to their trenches on up the hill. The poor horses were all killed. The guns did us no good as we could not get there, but they could not be used against our men, and that was a great deal.

The firing now was incessant. To supply them with ammunition I kept a detail busy picking up cartridge boxes full of it, left by hundreds & thousands in the streets. These they brought in a small bakers cart, found in a bakery just across the street. They were then sent along the lines and piled near each marksman. The men soon complained of having their arms & shoulders very much bruised by the continual kicking of the muskets but still there could be no rest for them. The Yankees were as thick as bees not more than 500 yards off and could not do us any great harm as they were afraid to shell us out, lest they should burn up the town, and the brick walls protected us very well from the minnies. If I had a good many casualties, it was a mere trifle compared to with the enormous damage they inflicted. The enemy's papers alluded [to] this in all their accounts of the battles. I had every thing now in good order, the line was well established, and they … .Many of the men were on the roofs of houses behind chimneys, whence they could pick off the gunners.

Complaint being made that the men had nothing to eat, I detailed my four buglers who had nothing to do to get the bakery in operation and make biscuits. The result was the manufacture of several thousand pretty fair biscuits. They then went in pursuit of meat, and after a while returned loaded with every delicacy for a soldier: hams, cheese, fish, pepper spices — and reported such a strike that I went myself to see. I found a family grocery well stocked which had some how escaped the plunderers. My men took an abundance of sugar, coffee, rice &c to last us some days, and served them out to my poor hungry fellows. I never heard such a cheer as they gave in seeing the sumptuous repast sent them. My Hd Qrs were in a pine house, thro' which the line ran, and there finding an abundance of crockery, spoons &c, the buglers prepared an elegant dinner for me, for which I wished the officers to come. There we dined luxuriously, and afterwards went to our works with renewed vigor.

About 10 a.m. an officer reported to me from my left saying that he commanded the skirmishers of [Brig. Gen. Harry] Hays' Louisiana Brig. and had been ordered to receive directions from me. I showed him where to connect with me, and left him. About an hour or more after I went over to see what he was about, and found a truly amusing scene. His quarters were in a very [nice] house, and he had selected the parlor as his own bivouac. Here one was playing the piano, which sounded sadly out of harmony with the roar of musketry. Without several men were laying around on the sofas, and the room was full of prints & engravings which the rude fellows examined, and then threw down on the floor. On the table there was have a doz. brands of wines and liquors of which all partook freely. The commanding officer thought it was very strange that I at once insisted upon his visiting his posts, and making the men fire. I ran rapidly back across the street. A Yankee fired at me, but I was behind the wall in time, the ball having struck the … post & … struck me on the knees, hurting me very much for a trice, but not by any means disabling me.

I could write a month of the nice events of this day, but must stop, only narrating my intense excitement when I saw [Maj. Gen. George] Pickett's Division during … the charge, their waver, when almost in the works, and finally fall back. How my heart ached when I saw the fearful fire with which they were received. I could scarcely contain myself. The attack made the enemy mass more than ever, and so expose themselves to our fire more plainly. I fired 84 rounds with careful aim into their midst, one gun cooling while the other was in use. My shoulder pad became so sore that I was obliged to rest. Now and then the enemy's gunners would turn a gun or two on us, and give us a shot, but this was too destructive of the lives of gunners, so it was soon stopped. A Yankee sharpshooter established himself in a pit in the street to which I have alluded, and keeping his gun ready cocked, fired away at any one attempting to cross at our end. Many of the men of mine, and of the adjoining battalion, amused themselves by drawing his fire, running quickly across, seeing how much behind the bullet would be which was sure to follow. At this reckless sort of sport, where a stumble or fall would have been almost certain death, they carried themselves as … children at play.

Thus the sun went down the same steady fire being kept up from my line. This evening also another tremendous cannonade occurred, the [greatest] ever known on this continent certainly, probably the greatest that ever occurred. It is a low estimate to say that 500 pieces were in action. I enjoyed its grandeur this time more than that of the day before, not being under range. At night little was done, I kept up a very vigil watch, making rounds frequently.

Towards day I was awakened by a staff officer, who told me to withdraw my men at daylight, and fall back thro' the town to the base of the ridge in which the main line was stationed and there deploy. At dawn therefore with a heavy heart I called in the men silently, and sullenly drew slowly out of the town, returning the sour looks of the citizens with others equally as stern. The enemy did not molest us at all, tho' I was in hope that they would, being in a savage mood. A heavy rain was falling too, and just then I remembered that it was the 4th of July, and that the villains would think more than ever of their wretched Independence Day.

Soon after we formed our new line, a battalion of Yankee skirmishers came out of the town and deployed in our front. They used the bugle, the first I had seen with them. Their signals sounded clear & [distant], thro' the damp air. I moved against them at once, but they slowly withdrew, and evidently were but overseeing us. A squad of them however came forward and gained unobserved a small house filled with hay midway between our lines, from which they began to annoy us with their fire. Taking a few men I went forward at a run, and came up quite close before the rascals could get out of the rear. They lost no time then in scudding away to their lines, but one of my men brought one down before they reached it … I fired the hay, and soon there was a magnificent blaze.

So we went on all the day, but seeing work ahead of me, I slept most of it away, leaving the command to one of my subordinates. At nine I reported to Gen. R[odes] who directed me to assume command of the sharpshooters from each of the Brigades (4) and line our rear when the army moved, which it would begin to do at midnight. I was to keep my line until day or longer if I saw fit, and then follow keeping a half mile or more in the rear, and acting as rear guard. Accordingly by 11 p.m. the troops all disappeared on the proscribed route and I was left in sole command at Gettysburg. It was the first time I had ever commanded more than one battalion and now I had five. My only embarrassment was in not knowing the officers but this I soon remedied, and got on quite well.

At sunrise I quitted my positions, and followed the main body. I continued my route unmolested until about 12 o'clock when some cavalry appeared, but they did not molest us. At 2 p.m. so many came up that I halted and deployed. They then brought up a field piece but did not use it. Seeing that they now wished to molest us, I hit upon this plan. All the front rank men kept their round & fired away, the rear rank men meanwhile retired to some good positions in the rear. I then formed a new line leaving vacancies for those of the first. I here would seize a favorable occa-sion after the new line was formed, and retreat at a run, suddenly disappearing before the enemy. These would then come in quickly thinking our men had been routed, they would be checked by the fire of the new line, snugly posted behind trees, stone fences &c. My worry had been that when I wished to retire, the enemy would push us so that we were in danger of being broken, but by this arrangement I [avoided] all difficulties — I had read of it in [General Sir William F.P.] Napier's Peninsular War, as being a dodge of Marshal [Nicolas Jean de Dieu] Soult.

The men towards evening became worn out for food, so seeing that we would not hear from our [commissary] for a week or more, as it had gone to the Potomac, I sent orders to the officer to take all the provisions they could find in the houses by which we passed. In one occasion, riding along at the head of my own battalion marching quickly in retreat, we passed a cottage situated some distance from the main road & not visited by stragglers — around it were countless fowls, my hungry fellows looked eloquently to me for leave, I told the bugler to sound the 'disperse,' and then shouted 'one minute.' Instantly a hundred cartridges were drawn which thrown skillfully at the heads of the fowls bringing them down by scores; these fellows were used to the work evidently, but now they knew that it was for their actual subsistence as we had nothing, and were following in the rear of a great Army, which would leave us nothing. When the 'Assembly' sounded two minutes afterwards, every man had one, two or more chickens slung over his gun, and the march was resumed with out delay.

 


This article was written by Noah Andre Trudeau and originally appeared in the July 2001 issue of America's Civil War magazine.

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