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FLS Town & Country

Also online at:
Book on sharpshooters on target.
Author to sign books. (FLS 7/22/06)

 

Shock Troops of the Confederacy: The Sharpshooter Battalions of
the Army of Northern Virginia
by Fred L. Ray
By Michael Aubrecht, FLS Town & Country
Date published: 7/22/2006 CIVIL WAR

Technologically speaking, most military historians agree that the American Civil War was an event that was unparalleled in the annals of military history. It was during this time that revolutionary developments in both firearms and munitions forced the commanders of both armies to re-evaluate their tactics as well as their deployment strategies.

As weapons became more advanced and ultimately more lethal, the traditional style of warfare that had been the foundation of the West Point curriculum became an archaic doctrine. Predominantly based on the campaigns of Napoleon, the old philosophy utilized the simple concept of amassing troops in order to increase firepower. This rudimentary fighting style was necessary in order to compensate for the limitations of traditional firearms. With the evolution of more sophisticated weaponry, the methods used when conducting a battle began to change.

Perhaps the most deadly of all innovations was the development of the Minie ball. It allowed a rifle to be loaded and fired with greater speed and accuracy than had been possible in the past. In addition, advancements to both traditional muskets and new and improved rifles, capable of reaching distances once thought out of range, opened the door to a whole new approach to killing.

Rifles themselves were not new, as they were used in the Revolutionary War and on the American frontier. But they were still considered a specialty weapon and not practical as a standard infantry long arm. They were not as mass-produced, either, and were usually reserved for those exhibiting a skill in the art of shooting.

These men were the first sharpshooters, who acted in roles of reconnaissance, skirmishing and light infantry. Their ability to scout, engage, and "pick-off" the enemy from hundreds of yards away changed the art of war forever and forged the modern-day sniper's mantra of "One shot--one kill."

Historian Fred L. Ray's latest offering, "Shock Troops of the Confederacy, The Sharpshooter Battalions of the Army of Northern Virginia," is an in-depth study of these men and their impact on infantry warfare. It encompasses three themes: the organization and employment of the sharpshooter battalions; the history of light infantry from 1700 to 1918; and the human story--on the picket line, in the trenches, and in the field. "Shock Troops" presents a comprehensive analysis of specialized riflemen during the War Between the States.

Focusing primarily on the Army of Northern Virginia, Ray recalls the successes and failures of early Confederate sharpshooter battalions and their command's reluctance at times to fully utilize them. He explains that as the war dragged on, the contributions of these soldiers became an essential part of warfare, as they were not only tactically pertinent, but also a psychological deterrent to the enemy.

Beginning with a history of both traditional and nontraditional warfare, Ray presents the evolution of the infantry, and the inventions and innovations that initiated changes in the utilization of it. He also explains the limitations of early weaponry and the difficulties of coordinating troops in the field.

Citing communication as one of the biggest liabilities, Ray details how traditional skirmish lines required a long chain of messengers to execute even the most rudimentary of troop movements. Often this dependency on runners would lead to disaster, as the din of battle interrupted their ability to move back and forth safely.

Without a clear line of battle orders, forward-deployed troops often found themselves confused in their objective and at times, shooting at each other. The need for a smaller, lighter, and more advanced force became even more inevitable with the growing frequency of woodland fighting. This need resulted in the birth of the shock troops, which later evolved into snipers.

Ray explains that during the Civil War it became obvious to commanders on both sides that a more independent force would be better suited to this type of close-proximity fighting. The role of this "special" force would require a blend of both light-infantry and guerilla-style tactics as well as less leadership in the field. This required fewer troops, but ultimately "better" troops who possessed not only marksmanship, but also a good deal of initiative.

Two of the first men to explore solutions to this tactical dilemma were Confederate Brig. Gen. Robert Rodes and one of his subordinates, Col. Bristor Gayle of the 12th Alabama infantry. They established the Confederacy's first sharpshooter battalions. As a result, farm boys with a "knack for shootin'" began to be singled out and assigned to specialized duties. The position quickly became one of prestige and most infantrymen jumped at the opportunity to participate, despite the increased risk.

"Shock Troops" then takes the reader through the entire course of the war, while highlighting the contributions of sharpshooter battalions and the engagements that were altered as a result of their efforts. Locals will be especially pleased with Ray's detailed accounts of the Battles of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania.

In an e-mail interview with me, Ray explained his motivation that led to this book. "I got into this as a family history project," he stated. "One of my great-grandfathers, it turned out, had commanded a sharpshooter company in the Army of Northern Virginia. When I started looking for more about what he did, however, I was surprised to discover that there was virtually nothing about the sharpshooters in print-- an astounding state of affairs when you consider the number of books written about the Civil War."

He added, "The last book about the sharpshooters had been written in 1899. This led to a lot of research, trips to various archives and battlefields, and a lot of eyestrain looking at microfilm. Eventually I ended up with a pile of research notes, which became an article and eventually a book."

By quoting a myriad of letters, battlefield reports and memoirs from combat veterans, readers are presented with a very well-rounded look at the evolution of light-infantry, the effect of "sniping" and the fear that both instilled in their enemies. The inclusion of rare photographs, 59 period illustrations and 43 battle maps complement this work. Civil War enthusiasts will consider it a long-overdue study of an overlooked subject. And military history buffs will appreciate Ray's meticulous attention to detail.


FRED L. RAY will sign copies of his new book, "Shock Troops of the Confederacy," tomorrow from 1 to 4 p.m. at the Eastern National Bookstore at the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center at 1011 Lafayette Ave. 540/372-3034.

MICHAEL AUBRECHT of Spotsylvania County is the author of "Onward Christian Soldier: The Spiritual Journey of Stonewall" and "Christian Cavalier: The Spiritual Legacy of J.E.B. Stuart." Visit his Web site atů

 

 

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Also online at:
Local battle story told in
novel form (FLS 10/7/06)

No Greater Courage: A Novel
of the Battle of Fredericksburg
by Richard Croker
By Michael Aubrecht, FLS Town & Country
Date published: 10/7/2006 CIVIL WAR

Among the many perks that we enjoy as residents of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania and Stafford counties, perhaps the most noticeable is the remarkable sum of history that surrounds us. One can hardly go to the store without passing a roadside monument or marker that testifies to some special incident of historical significance.

In short, our soil is hallowed soil, and for that we should all feel very fortunate. Why else would thousands of tourists travel here from all over the world to experience our little patch in the fabric of American culture?

From the American Revolution to the War Between the States, no other event in the history of our town is more significant or notable than the Battle of Fredericksburg, a terrible clash of epic proportions that was fought in, over and around the city on Dec. 13, 1862.

This mêlee, between Gen. Robert E. Lee's Confederate Army of Northern Virginia and the Union's Army of the Potomac, commanded by Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside, is remembered as one of the most one-sided battles of the American Civil War. It put Fredericksburg "back on the map," so to speak.

One of the most disturbing factors in this particular engagement was the staggering loss of life suffered by the invading Union forces. The end result was the senseless sacrifice of thousands of Federal soldiers in frontal assaults against entrenched Confederate defenders on the heights behind the city, bringing to an early end their campaign against the Confederate capital of Richmond.

The Richmond Examiner described it as a "stunning defeat to the invader, a splendid victory to the defender of the sacred soil."

Civil War novelist Richard Croker's newest effort, "No Greater Courage: A Novel of the Battle of Fredericksburg," presents the events leading up to, during and after this engagement, in all of its futility and glory. As with his first book, "To Make Men Free: A Novel of the Battle of Antietam," the author takes the reader on a whirlwind journey, from the battlefield to the boardroom and beyond. For Free Lance-Star readers, this book hits especially close to home.

First and foremost, I must admit that as a resident of the Fredericksburg area, I was anxious to read this particular novel. As the story takes place in our own backyard, I felt that I had a personal interest in how our town's history was portrayed. I even went so far as to personally visit a few sections of the battlefield, in order to read an account while staring at the exact spot where it transpired. Now that's a very cool way to read a Civil War book, and I recommend it highly.

As a result, I can attest to both the accuracy and completeness of Croker's portrayals, as well as his continued commitment to meticulous research that we have come to expect. Much as in his Antietam study, this author took the time to work with some of our own local experts in order to assure that the story was told with integrity. While still acknowledging the book as a novel, Croker likes to refer to his work as "unfiction" and has labored to tell the truth in an artistic form.

The story opens well before the actual battle, as we are presented with an intimate look at the day-to-day struggles between President Abraham Lincoln, his Cabinet and the supreme command of the Union army.

Immediately following his replacement of Maj. Gen. George McClellan with a reluctant Ambrose Burnside, both political and military opinions begin to clash and we begin to understand just how difficult Lincoln's job really was. Far beyond the monumental task of managing a war, this leader was surrounded by adversaries on the inside and thus had to wage a campaign of his own within the White House.

As we are transported from the hostile halls of Washington into the field, we begin to see an imminent collapse in the Federal forces' chain of command and the difficulties with coordinating the movement of troops and supplies. A feeling of doom lies on the horizon, and the tremendous advantage that this bestows upon the Confederate forces becomes apparent.

In short, if anything could have gone wrong with the North's preparations leading up to the fight, it did. This would lead one to think that the implementation of an alternative plan would be in order. Unfortunately for the Union, Burnside didn't agree and the toll for being stubborn was costly.

In a nice change of pace for historical novels, Croker's story line includes all of the big names that are to be expected, but recalls the majority of events through the eyes of very minor characters. No less authentic than their superiors, these individuals depict the grunts' perspective and the misery of Civil War campaigning.

The author has also once again provided the reader with a detailed cast of characters in the beginning, as well as a complete biographical index that explains what will become of each major character and what events are factual and which ones are embellished. This should be mandatory in all historical novels.

Even those with a casual knowledge of the battle are probably familiar with the "usual highlights" that Croker has used as a foundation. These include the Union army's being delayed too long at the river as the soldiers awaited the arrival of pontoon bridges; Gen. Lee's brilliant strategy of temporarily abandoning the town in favor of deploying to the high ground beyond the city; the disastrous charges toward the famous stone wall; and the merciful acts of Sgt. Richard Kirkland, the "Angel of Marye's Heights."

These facts and more are covered in Croker's wonderfully descriptive manner, and he does a nice job of keeping the story line moving in cadence with the battle. As important events unfold on both sides, we begin to understand the total sense of chaos and carnage that confronted the Union and Confederate commanders.

As the combat at the stone wall progresses, it is hard not to acknowledge both the gallantry and ignorance of Napoleonic warfare. It seems almost too much to bear at times, as wave after wave of Union troops march straight to their death. Particularly noteworthy is the suicidal charge by the Irish Brigade, which was exceptionally costly. According to reports, not a single blue shirt made it to within 50 yards of the wall. There is a moment of hope for the Federals, though, as Gen. George Meade's men are able to break through a section of Gen. "Stonewall" Jackson's line, but the victory is short-lived and the Confederate forces are able to close the gap. The rest of the engagement is covered in vivid and at times disturbing detail.

While these events are transpiring, the story shifts back to the capital and into the sometimes depressing mind of Abraham Lincoln. We see, through his eyes, how the events in Fredericksburg are either being intentionally miscommunicated or politically spun, in accordance with an agenda. Strategically poor management and inflated egos may have heavily influenced the outcome of the battle.

Politically, the blame lies with party partisanship. It appears that, much as today, Republicans and Democrats were not willing to work together. Unfortunately, this resulted in a tremendous loss of life and massive damage to the town. For the president, it was a blow that would haunt him for months.

The Confederate forces deserve credit for their brilliant deployments, steadfast bravery and an unwavering commitment to defending the local population. The Union may have fallen victim to undermining circumstances, but the Rebels fought valiantly and earned just as many accolades on the field as the "Yankee invaders."

As a result, Croker makes a concerted effort to recognize the outstanding actions of several less-heralded soldiers, such as Col. Edward Porter Alexander, whose artillery performed magnificently on the heights above the stone wall.

In an e-mail interview with me, Croker explained his inspiration for writing the book. He recalled: "Back when I was only a 'buff' and I made my first sojourn to Fredericksburg, I got up early in the morning and asked directions from the hotel clerk to the Battlefield Visitor Center. She was cute, and nice, and about 17 years old, and her response was, 'What do you want to go there for?' I was speechless."

He added: "Now that I know more about the significance of the battle, I find her response that much more disturbing. The book is entitled 'No Greater Courage' for a reason. It was in your town that American soldiers demonstrated astonishing bravery unsurpassed in any fight in any war ever fought. We must honor them, these magnificent men on both sides, and learn from them how ordinary men become heroes."

Thanks to "No Greater Courage," readers can now see the Battle of Fredericksburg from various viewpoints: the good, the bad and the ugly. With an equal emphasis on glory and futility, Croker has written a novel that is very educational and highly entertaining. I feel that he has given me a new perspective on what transpired here in 1862.

To quote the author himself: "These are the real-people folks--doing what they really did."


MICHAEL AUBRECHT is a Civil War author and historian who lives in Spotsylvania County. For more information, visit his Web site at pinstripepress.net. Send e-mail to his attention to gwoolf@freelance star.com
 


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