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Shock Troops of the Confederacy: The Sharpshooters of the Army of Northern Virginia

by Fred L. Ray, CFS Press, 432 pages, $34.95.

The technology of war evolved dramatically between the Seven Years’ War of the mid-18th century and the end of World War I in 1918. Perhaps the most important change, and one of the least appreciated, was the development of the rifle, both in artillery and small arms.

The rifled musket, with an effective range of over 400 yards, proved that the infantry tactic of advancing on the enemy to fire mass volleys at close range was obsolete. Civil War soldiers paid a heavy price in the early years of the war because their leaders had not yet adapted to the devastating effects of a rifled musket.

Fred L. Ray explores one solution to this problem in Shock Troops of the Confederacy: the development, in early 1863, of sharpshooter battalions in the Army of Northern Virginia. Since the last book on this subject was written over a century ago, his principal problem was a lack of source material. Digging through letters, diaries and official records, Ray has woven together the story of the organization, training and actual combat experiences of these unique units.

Ray traces the evolution of light infantry tactics featuring rifles from 1700 to 1918 to give a useful background to his subject matter. The genesis of the idea for sharpshooter battalions came at the Battle of South Mountain in September 1862. After the capture of most of his skirmish line, Brig. Gen. Robert Rodes determined that a specially trained group of skirmishers was needed to avoid a repeat of that disaster. He selected Major Eugene Blackford to organize the first sharpshooter battalion, and Blackford kept an extensive diary of his service.

Blackford handpicked men who were not just excellent marksmen but also adept at skirmish-line tactics: They would serve as scouts and pickets as well as snipers. They would be used to screen the movement of Confederate forces in both attack and withdrawal. This innovation was so successful that Lee eventually ordered every brigade in his army to organize a sharpshooter battalion, and by the beginning of the 1864 campaign, 7,000 men were serving in that role. The Army of Northern Virginia suffered greatly from the loss of experienced soldiers in the last year of the war. Putting the most experienced soldiers in special battalions paid off almost immediately when a sharpshooter from one of the units killed Union Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick in the opening phases of the Battle of Spotsylvania from a range of nearly 800 yards.

Shock Troops of the Confederacy is both interesting and instructive for anyone who wishes to study how the Civil War, which began as an exercise in Napoleonic warfare, presaged the cheerless, filthy trench warfare of the early 20th century.


Originally published in the June 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here