In January of 1861, spurred by deep political and societal differences, Mississippi became the second State to secede from the Union. Soon after, Mississippi combined with others to form the Confederate States of America. In April of that year, the Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter, and the Civil War was truly underway.
Strategically located at a bend in the Mississippi River, Vicksburg was recognized by both President Abraham Lincoln (Union) and President Jefferson Davis (Confederate) as a key to ending the War Between the States. In 1862, Vicksburg was vital to the supply of deliveries for the South, providing food, etc. to the neighboring States. Lincoln knew that Federal control of the Mississippi would provide a lifeline to the Northern supply lines as well, while cutting off half of the Southern States, for both the military and civilians.
Confederate General Pemberton was in charge of the military presence in the Vicksburg area and was ordered to hold the river and surrounding countryside at all costs. Union General Grant was tasked with taking control of the southern section of the Mississippi (Cairo, IL, and southward). Pemberton, motivated by duty and allegiance to the Confederate cause, was fully aware of the Vicksburg geographical advantages and was determined to mount a great defense. With swamps and bayous on one front, 170+ cannon overlooking the river approaches, and 50,000 Confederate troops scattered throughout the region, he was sure that he would prevail.
But, Grant was relentless. By October, 1862, his armies had secured the Mississippi south of Cairo, IL, and up from the Gulf, with only Port Hudson, LA, and Vicksburg, MS still under Confederate control. Vicksburg was the stronger of the two, so Grant focused his efforts on it.
Naval warfare took on a new look during the Civil War. In December, 1862, the U.S.S. Cairo (one of the Union’s first ironclad ships) was assigned to unblock the rivers of obstructions near Vicksburg and disable the batteries as well. But the Confederate forces weren’t just blocking the rivers with debris. They placed mines in strategic locations. The Cairo came to a quick end, sunk by two mines that ripped holes in the hull. (Remarkably preserved under sand and mud, it was recovered in 1956 and sits in an open-air museum in Vicksburg National Park.)
Unable to defeat the formidable Vicksburg defense system, Grant resorted to a siege of the town. Cut off from any incoming supplies and constantly bombarded by Grant’s artillery, the civilians moved underground to caves beneath the houses, living there for weeks. Food was rationed, but ran out, the water was unsafe to drink, and living conditions were intolerable. After 47 days, Pemberton knew that the military and civilians under his protection would not survive the siege and he surrendered to Grant.
The damage in the Vicksburg region went beyond the physical destruction to the buildings and farms. After Pemberton’s surrender, the Union soldiers stayed around for another ten years, enforcing order amid the chaos of Reconstruction.
The young Union soldier, his face damp with sweat, blinked a couple of times to clear his vision, and braced the rifle against his shoulder.
Looking downrange, he squinted, aimed at the distant target, and squeezed the trigger. His accuracy would determine his qualifications to join an elite regiment of army sharpshooters.
A well-known marksman by the name of Colonel Hiram Berdan arranged regional shooting competitions to identify the most skillful shooters.
The competition involved two phases. Participants were required to place ten consecutive shots in a circle ten inches in diameter from a distance of 100-yards.
The second part of the event required the same accuracy but at a distance of 200 yards.
Anyone who missed the targets by an average of more than five inches from the center faced disqualification.
After evaluating the results, Berdan decided who displayed the necessary skill to qualify for an elite unit of crack riflemen he was forming for the Union Army.
Those recruited for Berdan’s Sharpshooters in 1861 had to be cool-headed men with eagle-eyed vision and steady hands capable of calculating each shot’s trajectory and wind velocity.
For fifteen consecutive years, most people considered the New York City mechanical engineer the top rifle shot in the country.
The politically connected self-made millionaire had invented a repeating rifle, a patented musket ball, a twin-screw submarine gunboat, and a torpedo boat.
Berdan invited President Abraham Lincoln to observe a demonstration of his units’ firepower. Following the
impressive display, Lincoln authorized the formation of twenty Sharpshooter companies.
The four-foot-long breech-loading Sharps rifle became the weapon of choice for Berdan’s Sharpshooters. Christian Sharps had designed and patented the design for the Sharps Rifle in 1848.
The term sharpshooter did not originate with the rifle.
Commanders often chose sharpshooters for specialized battlefield assignments, such as targeting Confederate officers and other high-value targets. They also provided support for combat units and conducted surveillance.
Berdan’s Sharpshooters usually wore distinctive green uniforms, a green forage cap with a black ostrich feather, and black leather brogan shoes.
The unique clothing enabled them to blend into the foliage, which they used for camouflage. But the special uniform proved both an advantage and a disadvantage.
Most important of all, the green color gave the sharpshooters a clear edge in the ability to camouflage.
However, the green color made it easier for Confederates to spot them. The South considered the Sharpshooters high-priority kills.
The Confederate Army had its version of sharpshooters.
These marksmen often served as semi-permanent detachments at the regimental level.
Rather than the breech-loading M-1859 Sharps rifle, Rebel sharpshooters used the Enfield Rifled Musket or British Whitworth rifles.
Author Fred L. Ray, in his book Shock Troops of the Confederacy, wrote: “Confederate sharpshooter battalions had a far greater effect on the outcome of the conflict.”
The Berdan Sharpshooters paid a steep price for success. Even though they were credited for a higher percentage of kills than any other unit in the war, they also suffered the highest casualties.
In 1863, the Sharpshooters fought at Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, and the Mine Run Campaign and suffered significant losses.
Of the original 33 commissioned officers and 981 enlisted men in the First Regiment, only 11 officers and 261 enlisted men survived by year’s end.
When the war came to a close, the Sharps rifle became even more popular.
Buffalo hunters, frontiersmen, and U.S. troops throughout the Great Plains and the Desert Southwest adopted the weapon because of its powerful, long-range accuracy.
Many thanks to Tom Rizzo, consummate Old West Storyteller, for bringing the story of Hiram Berdan and the army sharpshooters to Kerrian’s Notebook!
Please check out his website: https://tomrizzo.com for information about his books and more fascinating true stories of the Wild Old West.
First Battle of Manassas was the first major battle of the American Civil War. It’s also known as the Battle of Bull Run because of its proximity to the Bull Run River in northern Virginia. Manassas is located 30 miles from Washington, D.C., about a ten hour walk. There are two battles with that name: the Battle of First Manassas was fought in 1861; the Second in 1862 when the Union general decided that it was time to get revenge for the first rout.
In late June, 1861, President Lincoln, who had been elected to office only a few months before, got word that there were Confederate troops guarding strategic locations near the Manassas railway junction. This proximity to D.C. made President Lincoln more than a little nervous (he had been surprised by the fall of Fort Sumter in April) and he wanted the Confederate Army quashed. This had become an in-your-face armed conflict, not just a small rebellion aimed at the policies of the newly elected government.
Early in July of 1861, Gen. Irvin McDowell’s army of 35,000 very green, 90-day volunteers left Washington, D.C. and headed toward the railroad at Manassas. McDowell hoped to capture the junction, then travel to the newly proclaimed Confederate capital of Richmond. The goal was to capture Richmond and end the war. A Union defeat was not remotely anticipated, and as was the custom at the beginning of the Civil War, people were prepared to line up with picnic baskets to observe the show.
McDowell arrived in the area on July 18, astonished to discover that the Confederate contingent was 22,000 strong. He attempted to approach both left and right flanks for the next two days. During that time, the Confederate General Beauregard sent word to Richmond for backup. 10,000 additional troops under command of General Johnston from Shenandoah Valley, gave the Union Army the slip along the way and arrived on July 20-21. Now the two armies were essentially equal in size.
McDowell’s plans of distraction and surprise under the cover of darkness and from different directions might have succeeded if he’d had a more seasoned fighting force. However, unfamiliar woods and hilly terrain were the Union Army’s enemy on the 21st. The Confederate Colonel Evans figured out that the attack at his location was a diversion and was able to briefly check the forward movement of McDowell’s troops at Matthew Hill.
But then, even with help, the Confederates had to fall back to Henry Hill, a relatively high position in the area. At that point, new brigades arrived to bolster the Southern troops (the nickname ‘Stonewall Jackson’ may have originated at Henry Hill).
Timing is everything in battle, and sometimes, taking a break to reorganize can be disastrous, even if necessary. The Union side paused for about an hour to regroup, and during that time, the Confederates took advantage of the reprieve to reform their own lines. The goal didn’t change for either side: to retain claim of Henry Hill. Renewed fighting went on for several hours until new Southern troops arrived to join the fray, forcing McDowell’s men to retreat.
In the long run, July 21st did not end all that well for either side. The withdrawing Union volunteers found the road back to Washington crammed with sightseers, preventing an orderly retreat. Panic ensued. The Confederates were too tired and disorderly to follow up on their success, so by the morning of the 22nd, the defeated Union army was safely back behind their lines.
Learning from that defeat that taking poorly trained and undisciplined soldiers into battle would end badly, Gen. George B. McClellan took charge of the Washington based Federal forces, established the Army of the Potomac and whipped them into combat readiness. The Union plan was to still to stop the Confederates by attacking Richmond, the Southern capital. When McClellan was ready in March of 1862, he left D.C. and had Richmond in his sights by May.
The Southerners left the Manassas position and after a series of bloody battles and a change of Confederate leadership to Robert E. Lee, pushed McClellan away from Richmond. In the next few weeks, Lee’s tactical advantage would shift back and forth, and he knew that to finally defeat the Union troops, he would have to send Jackson to outflank and defeat them decisively. On August 27th, Jackson’s well-trained troops seized the supply depot at Manassas Junction, burned the Union supplies, and moved to the woods near the first Manassas battlefield to wait for the Confederate army to return.
General Pope was angry that his supplies had been destroyed and left a successful battleground to take revenge on Jackson at Manassas. But, Jackson was ready and attacked part of the Union line as it passed on Warrenton Turnpike in a nasty battle that lasted for several hours. On the 29th, Pope’s information was faulty and hampered by a lack of strategic planning, kept throwing his men at Confederate positions, without doing sustained damage to their lines.
On the 30th, with poor intel again, Pope thought that the Confederates were in retreat, but in fact had not gone anywhere. Pope sent more men at Jackson’s line, a group attacked at the unfinished railroad’s Deep Cut area, but the Southerners prevailed in another bloody action. The Union Army was in disarray, and the Confederates pressed their advantage. Heroic fighting by the Union soldiers saved them from annihilation, and after dark, the remaining Union forces were able to escape back across the Bull Run River to Washington, D.C.
The Second Manassas campaign opened the way for the south’s first invasion of the north.
First Battle of Manassas lasted one day. Combined forces of Union and Confederates: 59,200 Death toll: 870 Wounded: 2600 Missing: 1200+
In the year between the First and Second Battles of Manassas, the weapons became deadlier, the soldiers better trained, and the generals more determined to wipe out the opposing forces. Each side was deeply committed to the rightness of their own ideals.
Second Battle of Manassas lasted three days. Combined forces of Union and Confederates: 125,000 Death toll: 3,300 Wounded: 14,654 Missing or captured: 5,000+
Not long after, the two armies would meet again at Antietam, the bloodiest battle in American history.
Memorial Day now falls on the last Monday in May in the U.S. It is a day to honor and remember those who gave their lives in active duty military service. If you have the opportunity, a visit to one of the national battlefield parks will explain in depth why we were at war, while paying tribute to those who made the ultimate sacrifice.