Sharpshooters at Chancellorsville

ECW welcome guest author T. J. Bradley….

“Confederate sharpshooter taking aim from a tree.” Century Magazine, 1885.

“Sharpshooter” tends to be a word that grabs a Civil War enthusiast’s attention. Thoughts are conjured of green coats and leather gaiters, Whitworth rifles, and the ability to hit elephants at a given distance. Perhaps we even think of the movie Gettysburg and a Confederate soldier with a telescopic rifle resting his weapon against a tree and squeezing off his shot at General John F. Reynolds.

If we take the performance of the sharpshooters of the Army of Northern Virginia as a whole, nearly everyone would agree that their most high-profile kill was surely Major General John Sedgwick at Spotsylvania in 1864. Their mark for most casualties inflicted in a single engagement is probably at Cold Harbor (however you define the start and end of that multi-day struggle). Their ability and effectiveness at Gettysburg has been thoroughly demonstrated.[1] Yet, the performance that should be asserted in the same sentence, if not above those already mentioned, was in May of 1863 at a crossroads in Spotsylvania County called Chancellorsville.

The story of the Confederate sharpshooter at Chancellorsville remains an untold story in a battle with many untold stories. Two division commanders, a Medal of Honor recipient, countless soldiers and artillery horses, and nearly a corps commander, all fell victim to the sting of rebel sharpshooters. Part of understanding this unheralded dimension to the battle lies in exploring the terrain on which it occurred.

The wooded terrain in and around Chancellorsville is uniquely suited to a 19th Century sharpshooter. The Plank Road corridor (modern Route 3) and the clearings at the Chancellor House, Fairview and Hazel Grove provide a would-be sharpshooter with the ability to achieve concealment and elevation (with the clear line of sight that comes with elevation).[2] Usually, a sharpshooter firing a shot from the ground would not have the clear sight of officers, artillerymen, and others that the trees at Chancellorsville afforded them. All of these potential targets are usually, with notable exception, concealed by infantry in line of battle; thus complicating the job of a sharpshooter. With the abundance of trees in the area, it would not be terribly difficult to find a tree that afforded a full view of the Union position and looked over the infantry lines and their attendant smoke. With a position and opportunity like that, a sharpshooter could wreak havoc.

Major General Hiram Berry was a promising and courageous Federal officer who led a division of Dan Sickles’ Third Corps during the sanguinary morning fighting on May 3. Preferring to issue orders in person during the chaotic struggle on either side of the Plank Road, Berry crossed the road to confer with one of his brigade commanders despite warnings from his staff about sharpshooters in the trees sweeping the road with their deadly fire.[3] After conferring with his brigadier, Berry recrossed the road and had nearly made it back safely when a sudden downward shot from the trees felled him.[4] Hiram Berry died right there in the road on that bloodiest of battle mornings.

“Brigadier General Amiel W. Whipple.” Brady Image Collection, National Archives and Records Administration.

Brigadier General Amiel Weeks Whipple was one of the finest topographical engineers of his generation, but his career was tragically cut short by a Confederate sharpshooter on May 4.[5] At Chancellorsville, Whipple commanded another Third Corps division under Dan Sickles, who had just lost Berry the morning prior. The regimental history of the 124th New York relates his death as so:[6]

About two o’clock I met General Whipple, who, on seeing me, inquired as to how  seriously I was wounded, and congratulated me on my fortunate escape from the picket line on Sunday morning. He then walked on a few yards and entered conversation with a lieutenant of the 86th New York, who was leaning against a large tree with his arm in a sling. Presently I heard another thud, and hastily turned round to learn if any of the 124th had been struck, saw the general, who was not more than five rods away, reel and fall…

Amiel Whipple was mortally wounded by a Confederate sharpshooter and would die a short time later.[7]

Nelson Miles, in command of Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock’s advanced Second Corps skirmish line east and south of the Chancellor House, was the victim of another Confederate sharpshooter.[8] Miles’ performance throughout the battle was excellent and his skill at handling skirmishers was sorely missed in that sector of the field after he went down seriously wounded.[9] Many feared he would not survive the serious torso wound, but Miles went on to have a long and celebrated career and was later awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions at Chancellorsville.

The rebel marksmen nearly bagged an even bigger prize than all the others though: the commander of the Union Twelfth Corps, Major General Henry Slocum. Slocum was inspecting his front on May 4, not far from where Whipple was shot, and turned to move away, when a soldier where he had just been standing was struck dead by a sharpshooter’s bullet.[10] A narrow miss for the senior corps commander.

“Major General Hiram G. Berry.” Bangor Public Library.

The Army of Northern Virginia’s sharpshooters were particularly effective against the leadership of Dan Sickles’ Third Corps, killing or mortally wounding two out of its three division commanders (Berry and Whipple). As Sickles’ Third Corps was so bloodily engaged in the defense of Fairview, the Plank Road, and later the Bullock position, it would be fair to assert that sharpshooters being responsible for the death and mortal wounding of two of his three division commanders in the space of about 32 hours is a noteworthy impact on Union operations.

Confederate sharpshooters ratcheted up the pressure on May 3 and 4, most notably, along the Plank Road and the Union position at Fairview.[11] Many of the Army of the Potomac’s infantry and artillery commanders engaged in the vicinity of the Plank Road, on May 3, mention the detrimental effect of sharpshooter activity.

Captain James O’Beirne of the 37th New York described the situation at Hazel Grove on the morning of May 3 as one in which, “…the tree-tops [were] alive with [Confederate] sharpshooters,”[12]

Second Corps brigade commander Colonel Samuel Carroll’s subordinates reported continuous harassing fire from sharpshooters posted in trees along their front. Carroll even went as far as to include in his report a request for two companies of his brigade to be armed with Merrill rifles as they had nothing else that could adequately deal with the sharpshooter threat.[13]

Additionally, Union artillery around the Chancellor House reported constant harassment from sharpshooters on May 3.[14] Their activity was noted in Gen. Hancock’s official report.[15] Captain Thomas Ward Osborn, Chief of Artillery for Second Division, Third Corps, commented that Battery H, 1st U.S. Artillery was, “…under a most galling fire from the rebel sharpshooters…” during their gallant action near the Plank Road on May 3.[16]

Part of the Confederate tactical effort to keep Union commander Joseph Hooker pinned down on May 4, while they dealt with John Sedgwick’s force, included harassing fire from Confederate sharpshooters as evidenced by the activity throughout the day on Sickles’ front (and others), to include the mortal wound delivered to Gen. Whipple.[17] Hiram Berdan (founder of the U.S. Sharpshooters) wrote that he led a detail out beyond the lines on May 4 in order, “…to go out and endeavor to silence the rebel sharpshooters, who had occasioned considerable loss in our lines by shooting over into them.”[18] A soldier from the Fifth Corps commented that rebel sharpshooters were, “…making it as much as life is worth to walk along our line.”[19]

The Confederate sharpshooters at Chancellorsville clearly made an impression on the Army of the Potomac. Ultimately, their contributions to Lee’s victory are overshadowed for the same reasons that Hiram Berry isn’t a household name among Civil War scholars and Amiel Weeks Whipple remains largely unknown; Chancellorsville is tragically understudied and overshadowed. It’s important to continue to tell its stories and the stories of the men that fought and died there, some of whom still lie in its tangled woods.

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T.J. Bradley is an international development professional with a specialization in civil wars, conflict and reconstruction. He’s worked in several major conflict zones in the past decade and has been a lifelong student of the American Civil War. He has a Bachelor’s degree from Heidelberg University and a Master’s degree from American University. T.J. has presented on Civil War topics to a wide variety of public, student and volunteer groups, including military staff rides in Virginia. T.J. is also a member of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War and Sons of Veterans Reserve. He is an active participant in several Civil War Roundtables in the Northern Virginia area.

[1] Eric A. Campbell, “I Could Tell You a Thousand Stories of Their Heroism…,” in The Tenth Gettysburg National Military Park Seminar, (Gettysburg, PA: Gettysburg National Military Park, 2005), 73; Timothy J. Orr, “Sharpshooters Made a Grand Record This Day,” in The 2008 (12th) Gettysburg Seminar, (Gettysburg, PA: Gettysburg National Military Park, 2010), 62, 69, 75.

[2] Note: I refer to modern Route 3 the way the Union source material refers to it and use the name “Plank Road” for the purposes of this article.

[3] John Bigelow Jr., The Campaign of Chancellorsville (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1910), 350.

[4] Bigelow, Campaign of Chancellorsville, 351.

[5] Mary McDougall Gordon, “Whipple Expedition,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed July 7, 2021, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/whipple-expedition.

[6] Charles H. Weygant, History of the 124th Regiment, N.Y.S.V. (Newburgh: Journal Printing House, 1877), 121.

[7] Weygant, History of the 124th, 122.

[8] Nelson Miles, Serving the Republic: Memoirs of the Civil and Military Life of Nelson A. Miles. (New York: Harper & Brothers 1911), 56; Official Records, XXV, Pt. 1, 316.

[9] “Nelson Appleton Miles,” Congressional Medal of Honor Society, accessed July 7, 2021,  https://www.cmohs.org/recipients/nelson-a-miles.

[10] Stephen W. Sears, Chancellorsville. (New York: Houghton Mifflin 1996), 403.

[11] Bigelow, Campaign of Chancellorsville, 358.

[12] Kevin M. O’Beirne, “The Irish Rifles At The Battle of Chancellorsville,” Warfare History Network, accessed July 7, 2021, https://warfarehistorynetwork.com/2015/09/15/the-irish-rifles-at-the-battle-of-chancellorsville/

[13] Official Records, XXV, Pt. 1, 367, 373.

[14] Official Records, XXV, Pt. 1, 302.

[15] Official Records, XXV, Pt. 1, 314.

[16] Official Records, XXV, Pt. 1, 484.

[17] Official Records, XXV, Pt. 1, 497, 503, 522, 643; Weygant, History of the 124th, 121.

[18] Official Records, XXV, Pt. 1, 503.

[19] Sears, Chancellorsville, 403.

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1 Response to Sharpshooters at Chancellorsville

  1. Henry Fleming says:

    Very detailed, good stuff. The Wilderness is just down the road and has similar treed topography. Were Confederate sharpshooters as effective there, too?

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