Book on sharpshooters is on target

Civil War enthusiasts will consider Fred L. Ray's "Shock Troops of the Confederacy" a long-overdue study of an overlooked subject.

By Michael Aubrecht

Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star, July 22, 2006

SHOCK TROOPS OF THE CONFEDERACY, THE SHARPSHOOTER BATTALIONS OF THE ARMY OF NORTHERN VIRGINIA, by Fred L. Ray. CFS Press. 450 pages, 43 maps, 59 illustrations. $34.95 (Order online at cfspress.com/sharpshooters/index.html.)

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.

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 at angelfire.com/ny5/pin stripepress. Send e-mail to his attention to

Email: gwoolf@freelancestar.com.

Author 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.