The Essex Sharpshooters


From December 1863 until the end of February 1864, the 55th served in the Shenandoah Valley defending against Union cavalry raids. In April, 1864, Gen. Heth ordered each brigade in his division to set up a sharpshooter battalion. The 55th provided about 25 men to this elite unit within the brigade.

Ulysses S. Grant, now commander of the Union Armies, moved into Spotsylvania County in May 1864, where the armies clashed in the Wilderness. Heth’s Division advanced with Walker’s Brigade on the extreme right flank. The 55th was initially pushed back, lost its colors, but rallied and inflicted severe damage.

At Spotsylvania Courthouse, Heth’s Division and the 55th turned the Union right flank and met a Union attempt to turn the Confederate left. Walker was severely wounded and command of the brigade went to Col. Robert Mayo of the 47th. The 55th and its brigade was eventually deployed on the east face of the “Muleshoe Salient” and decisively repulsed Federal attacks on May 12 in their own salient known as the “Dead Angle” . Col. Christian, having been exchanged, resumed command of the 55th. Brig. Gen. Birkett Davenport Fry took command of the brigade from Mayo.

The 55th played a minor role in the Battle of North Anna and was not involved at Cold Harbor, except for some skirmishing with Union cavalry. The 55th was generally deployed south of the Appomattox River and to the right of the Petersburg Line in June-July. Fry became ill and Mayo again took command of the brigade. The 55th was then sent north of the James River and involved in the clash at Deep Bottom. The 55th was not engaged at the “Crater” in Petersburg in July, but was deployed to the right of it after the failed Federal assault.

When the Union struck at the Weldon Railroad in August, the 55th and its brigade were at the forefront of Heth’s counterattack. Brig. Genl. James Archer took command of the brigade from Mayo. It was along the South Side Railroad that the 55th found itself defending for the rest of 1864, extending trenches, and distinguishing itself in a fight at Pegram Farm (Battle of Peeble’s Farm) in late Sept. Archer died of illness in Oct. and Mayo again took command of the brigade. In Dec. 1864 the brigade, along with the 55th, was transferred to Genl. Ewell’s Richmond Defense Force, Maj. Gen. G.W. Custis Lee’s Division, and Brig. Gen. Seth Barton took command of the brigade.