The role of sharpshooters featured in Civil War book

By Val Van Meter

The Winchester Star, Thursday, July 20, 2006

Winchester - When author Fred Ray went searching for a lost ancestor, he found a whole section of the Confederate Army that the hundreds of books written about the Civil War have completely overlooked.

In his new book, "Shock Troops of the Confederacy," Ray has retrieved them from obscurity.

It took three years to do it.

On Saturday, the Asheville, N.C., resident will be at the Winchester Book Gallery from 1 to 3 p.m. to discuss how the ancestor who was mortally wounded here in Winchester, resurrected the entire class of army sharpshooters.

Jason Patton was "a Maine Yankee," said Ray, who moved to Mobile, Ala., in the 1850s, probably with his father and brother.

"They were a big ship-building family in the north east," Ray explained, and they apparently came to Mobile to build steamships to ply the state's rivers, to transship cotton.

"He married a local girl," Ray said, and, when the Civil War broke out in 1861, he signed up to fight for the South.

The Patton family could be a microcosm for the entire conflict, Ray noted, since the sons were fighting on both sides, Union and Confederate.

During the Battle of the Wilderness May 5 to 7, 1864, Jason and his younger brother, serving in the Army of the Potoma, "got within sight of each other," Ray reported. The younger Union solider was killed there, and laid in a mass grave near Fredericksburg.

Jason Patton, who, Ray found had won a shooting prize back in Maine, became a sharpshooter with the 12th Alabama.

In trying to find service records for this ancestor, Ray was surprised to find that, although sharpshooters did yeoman's service for the Confederacy, very little had been written about them.

"There are literally hundreds of thousands of books written about the Civil War," Ray said, and "virtually nothing about the sharpshooters."

The latest book he found was published in 1899, written by a former sharpshooter, Ray said.

Finding information was like "digging history with your fingernails," Ray said, as he found little bits of information in newspapers of the time, and letters and diaries.

He was able to draw on the newly-available diary of Major Eugene Blackford, the man who organized the Confederacy's first sharpshooter battalion in Jan, 1863.

One amazing find, he added, was a letter from a sergeant who was at Fort Collier, in Winchester, in 1864, when the Confederate forces tried unsuccessfully to throw back Union General George Custer's cavalry charge.

In the letter, the sergeant described the last ditch attempt to halt the blue cavalry and how one of his men, Jason Patton, was shot in the arm.

Patton was evacuated to Harrisonburg, where he died a month later.

"It was really interesting, tracking all this stuff down."

After spending 36 months finding the facts about Patton and the importance of the branch of the army in which he served, Ray decided he had to write a book about it.

A published author, he was going outside his own field, which is white water boating and swift water rescue.

Ray began paddling in the late 1970s and became a raft guide in 1979.

Shortly after that, "a friend of mine drowned," he said. "That spurred me to get into techniques of rescue."

He later published his own book on swift water rescue techniques and went on to write eight books on aspects of white water sports.'

Ray, who describes himself as a "micro-publisher," had the background to create a book that "opens up a corner of the Civil War that nobody has looked at. I got off the beaten path," he said.

To tell the story of sharpshooters, Ray had to travel back in time in the book, to find the origin of the army's use of specialized troops.

The Austrians, British and French all had "light" units in the 1700s, he noted. The rifleman was famed on the early American frontier and another Winchester personality, Daniel Morgan, made him feared during the American revolution.

In the Civil War, sharpshooters were all volunteers, Ray noted, and performed some of the most vital, and dangerous, jobs: picket lines, skirmishing and scouting. Their long-range shooting skills, up to 600 yards, helped them dominate the skirmish line, Ray said.

Late in the war, the Federal troops also began to develop sharpshooter battalions.

But Ray also includes stories of the sharpshooters themselves, as he found them in those letters and diaries.

He's also connected to folks in far away places.

Not long ago, he heard from a woman in Australia, whose great-great-grandfather fought in the 12th Alabama. She was hoping to learn more about him.

Ray was able to help her out.

Her ancestor was the sergeant who wrote the letter describing the fatal wounding of Ray's ancestor, Jason Patton.

"I sent her a copy of the letter. she'd never seen it."

Contact Ray at

- Contact Val Van Meter at vvanmeter