The Essex Sharpshooters


The term ‘sharpshooter’ had a more general meaning in the Civil War than it does now.

Back then, a sharpshooter was a light infantryman (carrying nothing into battle except his rifle, ammunition, haversack, and canteen) who specialized in scouting, picketing, skirmishing, estimating distances, and marksmanship.

Union and Confederate sharpshooter efforts during the war inversely mirrored each other. The Federals entered the war with excellent light infantry units armed with rifles (the 1st & 2nd U.S.S.S.; commonly known as Berdan’s Sharpshooters), but were allowed to atrophy due to politics, a lack of imagination, and a strict adherence to drill manuals.

The South started the war without any light infantry units but finished the war with excellent sharpshooter units, thanks to imaginative men like Gen. Robert E. Rodes and Maj. Eugene Blackford.

Confederate skirmishers fought using open order tactics out in front of, and on the flanks of their main battle line, engaging Union officers, artillerymen, skirmishers, horses and mules, and harassing the Union main battle line. As the war progressed, specialized and highly trained elite sharpshooter battalions were formed and organized in the ANV. Fighting as a cohesive unit and using the 2 and 3 band Enfield rifle-musket as their weapon of choice, Confederate sharpshooters not only were deployed to picket, scout, screen, flank, and guard the main body, but were also used on independent missions. They were fast and mobile, hard-hitting, attacked in a “swarm”, used cover, and melted away quickly when necessary. By late 1863 the Confederate sharpshooters dominated the skirmish line and had a much greater effect on the outcome of a conflict than its Union counterparts.