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Shock Troops of the Confederacy, Part 11

Shock Troops of the Confederacy: The Sharpshooter Battalions of the Army of Northern Virginia
by Fred L. Ray


ISBN-10 0-9649585-5-4
ISBN-13 978-0-9649585-5-5

6 x 9 inch hardback - 450 Pages
43 Maps, 59 Illustrations
Footnoted / Indexed / Complete Bibliography
Publication date: Winter 2005

Price $34.95

In my last post, I covered sharpshooter weapons and other Civil War sharpshooter units. This week, in the last entry for Shock Troops of the Confederacy, we'll take a look at the evolution of weapons and tactics from 1865 to the end of World War I, take a look at Ray's conclusions, and briefly discuss the bilbiography, notes, etc.

Chapter 25: The Open Order

Muzzle-loading muskets, along with their slow reload rate and telltale smoke, limited the effectiveness of the Civil War sharpshooter. Soon after the Civil War, rifles made massive leaps forward. The British converted their Enfields to a breech-loader designed dubbed the Snider-Enfield, while the Americans converted their surplus Springfields into a breech-loading design of their own. In 1871, only six years after the war, the British designed their first breech-loader from scratch, the Martini-Henry. Both nations had settled on a .45 caliber weapon, but Ray stresses that this caliber continued to shrink. Hiram Berdan became a firearms designer, and his center-fire primer is still in use today. In 1888, the British created the .303 Lee-Metford, a bolt-action rifle with an eight-round box magazine. The rifle was originally a black powder weapon, but it was soon converted to smokeless powder ammunition, recently invented. By 1907, the English had created the SMLE (Short Magazine Lee-Enfield), a weapon British infantryman continued to use through the end of World War II. Smokeless powder was a real advance. Visibility on the battlefield improved, and muzzle velocity was doubled. “Stripper” clips allowed infantrymen to quickly load ammunition five rounds at a time. Ironically, says Ray, these improvements led to a bloody war in South Africa against the Boers. In it, the British faced a foe similar to the Confederacy. The Boers “were small farmers with a tradition of independence, self-reliance, and marksmanship from an early age.” These mounted sharpshooters, as Ray calls them, caused the British major headaches. At battle after battle, the British suffered heavy casualties at the cost of very few Boers. The British ended up bringing in a half million troops to defeat an enemy “who never put more than forty thousand men in the field.” In the first fourteen years of the 20th Century, armies continued to change their tactics. Many started to discard their colorful uniforms of centuries past for uniforms remarkably similar to the browns and the grays of the Confederacy. The German Army started to experiment with open order formations on the attack, but command and control made this difficult. Some pointed to the Japanese closed-order massed assaults during the Russo-Japanese as successful, though opponents pointed to the large casualties they incurred. The Germans were struggling with these ideas at the time World War I started. As the Great War started, the French followed the idea of élan vital in which the French soldier advanced with spirit, overcoming all obstacles. Needless to say, the French were slaughtered! The British apparently hadn’t learned the lessons of the Boer War, at least on the offensive, and sent their men forward in columns of platoons, only to suffer the consequences. They did better on defense, however, using trenches and barbed wire and training their infantrymen in the art of rapid fire. The Germans had some leeway in their official tactics, allowing officers to use open order formation if they so chose and some did. However, the Germans wanted a knockout blow and massed many men in a sector, too many in most cases. The Germans basically advanced “in thick skirmish lines reminiscent of those of the American Civil War.” Soon both sides were dug in, and trench warfare started. However, only the Germans tried immediately to fix their tactical issues. The German had some units descended from the old jaeger units of earlier wars, and one such unit used tactics similar to Confederate Captain Dunlop’s at Petersburg, moving forward silently, splitting left and right, and then swinging back to their own trenches with many captured Allied troops. Captain Willy Rohr, who was to become the Major Blackford of the Germans, “distinguished himself in the action.” The Germans could cross no man’s land with fewer casualties due to their open order formations, but they needed a way to subdue the enemy fortifications once reached. Enter improved weapons and Captain Rohr. Hand grenades, flamethrowers, and portable trench mortars were just a few of the weapons available to the Germans that were not yet in general use at the time of the Civil War. Captain Rohr was the driving force behind organizing sturmabteilungen, or “special assault detachments to be especially trained and equipped with these weapons”. Rohr gave his NCOs more authority and responsibility, led all of his men forward I open order without the use of skirmishers, used careful rehearsals prior to attacks, and stressed marksmanship and “a rigorous training program.” Rohr’s men were first used at Verdun, and while they performed well, a battle of attrition was no place for stosstruppen (shock troops). General Erich von Falkenhayn liked the idea and permanently approved Rohr’s battalion (Sturmbatallion Rohr). Other jaeger battalions were then converted to shock troops on Rohr’s model, much like the Confederate sharpshooter battalions based on Major Blackford’s unit. These men were exempted from normal duty, lived in comfortable quarters, and were kept in reserve at the army level to be sent to decisive points when needed. The Germans soon realized that they would need larger numbers of shock troops, and soon Rohr was teaching the rest of the German Army his methods. Like the Confederates, there was no standard organization, but many times the typical setup was a stosstrupp company per regiment, with these companies able to be grouped together at the division level. Some divisions simply made these division level units permanent. Like the Confederates, the Germans picked their best troops to be stosstruppen, and the men ate and slept with their regular units except when they were needed for special duty. The Germans also emphasized sniping, and they were better than their counterparts through most of the war. In addition, they continued to develop weapons that could help their storm troopers make decisive gains. Lighter machine guns were made and light portable artillery designed for direct support fire was also created. One major difficulty was the unwieldy rifles in close quarters, so the Germans actually created “machine pistols” capable of firing 450 rounds per minute. General von Falkenhayn was replaced after Verdun by General Erich von Ludendorff, who became a fan of the shock troops. Ray writes that Ludendorff wanted no less than to train the entire German Army as shock troops! However, he soon found this idea unworkable, but remained convinced that Rohr’s ideas could be used to break out of the trench warfare gripping the Western Front. Late in 1917, the Germans knocked Italy out of the war at Caporetto, and they successfully counterattacked against a British tank offensive at Cambrai. The Germans were losing the war, and Ludendorff decided to train one-fourth of his best divisions in the new tactics. His “second line” or “trench” divisions still had their stosstruppen battalions as well. Ludendorff launched his “attack” divisions against the British in an attempt to knock them out of the war in his early 1918 Kaiserschlact offensive. His men bypassed strong points, driving deep into the British rear, and opening a gap 80 km wide in their lines. However, British supply dumps caused hungry Germans to stop and eat, much like their Confederate counterparts in the Civil War, and railroads were used to rush reserves to the threatened areas. The shock troops “had proven devastatingly effective in ripping open the Allied front”, but “they did not restore a war of maneuver.” The Austro-Hungarians basically copied the German pattern, as did the Italians. The British took much longer to adapt, enduring the bloodbath on the Somme in 1916 before finally using tactics similar to the Germans by 1918. The British, led by Major Hesketh Hesketh-Prichard, also began to close the gap with the German snipers. Hesketh-Prichard was a big game hunter, and he used some of the methods learned from that practice. The British also used two-man teams of one scout and one sniper. The French and Italians were mainly using artillery as their offensive weapon by 1918, having never adapted fully to the German innovations, and Ray says the French Army was institutionally incapable of making the change. The “scar on the French national psyche” would take “physical form in the Maginot Line.”

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Chapter 26: Evaluating the Sharpshooters

Ray first discusses “killers, fillers, and fodder.” The Confederate sharpshooter “concept made good use of the unique strengths of many Confederate soldiers, especially their innate spirit of independence, self-reliance, and initiative. U.S. Army Colonel Thomas Horner observed in the early 1980’s that a certain percentage of fighter pilots were killers, men who inflicted a disproportionate amount of casualties for their small numbers. In his study, 5% of pilots inflicted 40% of losses in World War II and Korea. The vast majority of men were filler, those who neither killed nor were killed. And the last group called fodder, which made up a small percentage like the killers, were those who were sure to be shot down in one of their first encounters with the enemy. Ray extends this concept to talk about the Confederate sharpshooters and German shock troops. The Confederacy and the German Empire used their “killers” where they would be the most effective. The author points out that a battalion of these men in the right place might be worth an entire brigade of “fillers.” Ray does concede that the sharpshooter idea had some negatives. Commanders had to be careful to use their sharpshooters when they were truly needed lest they strip their front line of badly needed skirmishers. Also, the best men were taken from the line units, and by the end of the Civil War, the quality of Confederate regular infantry regiments suffered as a result. Lastly, these best men by default would suffer the most casualties proportionately speaking since they were always in the worst part of the fight. Ray then briefly discusses the evolution of weapons from the 1700s to World War I. He says that the “quality and variety of weapons available to the light infantrymen improved steadily”, but some items, such as grenades, “remained remarkably consistent”. He points to rifles as the main area where weapons improved. In 1700, very few units were armed with rifles, but by World War I, the only limiting factor on rifles was the eyesight of each individual. Weapons destined for assault troops such as grenades, machine guns, trench mortars, and others, were available in 1865, but Ray reminds the reader that they were too heavy for the men to carry forward easily (if at all) on the attack. The demand grew for lighter, shorter, handier weapons, and that demand started to be met in World War I. Ray’s last discussion involves leadership and tactical innovation among the sharpshooters. He stresses that tactical innovation needed to be rewarded in order for these tactics to work. Lower level officers needed to be trusted implicitly as the ordered lines of past centuries were changed to open order formations. Men such as Blackford, Rodes, and Rohr had to have the approval of high level leadership to make this all work. The Army of Northern Virginia and the German Army, says Ray, were “bottom-up” organizations, while their counterparts in the Army of the Potomac and the British Army were strictly “top-down”, by-the-book units. The author points to John Gordon’s use of mixed groups of pioneers and “storming parties” to clear the way at Ft. Stedman as a precursor to the German sturmblocks of 1917. The Confederate idea of trench-raiding, such as Captain Wooten’s “seine-hauling” technique, was also later used by the Germans. Ray also makes the interesting comparison of the Confederate Battle Flag being used by racists and the term “storm trooper” having a Nazi connotation, something I never really thought about before. Interestingly, the Soviets used the term “shock” extensively in World War II without the negative connotation. After World War I “light infantry fell into disuse in Europe”, though “the concept remained viable elsewhere.” The Chinese used these tactics in Korea, and the Viet Cong practiced these tactics in Vietnam as well, using “sapper” units. Starting in the 1970’s most armies moved from longer-range rifles to short range assault rifles, though lately longer ranged sniper fire is making a comeback. The U.S. Army is using these tactics in Afghanistan and Iraq today in order to reduce civilian casualties and collateral damage to the extent possible. Ray concludes by noting that the U.S. Army is “considering a designated marksman with a specially adapted rifle in every squad, and sniper squad in every battalion. If they were to group these men into a specialized unit, the Americans would have a unit very similar to what the Confederates organized in 1863.


Appendix A: Testing the Sharpshooter’s Weapons

In this appendix, Ray discusses the problems with establishing the accuracy of older weapons when compared with those of today, mentioning tests done by Jac Weller in the 1950s and 1970s. He goes on to discuss modern sniping, comparing Whitworth-armed scouts with today’s “snipers”, and the regular sharpshooters with today’s “Designated Marksmen.” Three major changes have occurred on the battlefield between 1865 and today. First, sighting has improved vastly since the Civil War. Second, muzzle velocity has increased. Lastly, targets have become harder to hit. Early in the Civil War, men marched in tightly packed Napoleonic formations, but by 1864, trenches made available targets scarce, and this continues to the present day.


Appendix B: Orders Issued by the Confederacy Pertaining to Sharpshooters

This appendix contains all of the orders Ray could find that discussed Confederate sharpshooters. He refers to these in the text of the book from time to time as well.


Appendix C: The Assault on Fort Stedman: Numbers and organization

The final appendix in the book discusses in great detail some of the pertinent questions involving Ft. Stedman, which is basically the battle where sharpshooter tactics came to full fruition in the Civil War. Ray presents what he believes was the strength Gordon brought into the attack, the specific organizations used, and the presence of special units in Gordon’s force among other things.


Bibliography

The bibliography contains quite a few manuscript sources, including the National Archives. Ray also uses some newspapers of the day for pertinent quotes. His “Official Publications” used include the ever-present Official Records. His primary sources include many of the writings of men who were in or close to the sharpshooters. The author used a surprisingly large number of secondary sources, considering this was only the second book in a century on the Confederate sharpshooters. In glancing through, one finds quite a few battle studies and biographies of men who were again involved with these elite troops. Ray uses unit histories as well, obviously including unit histories of some of the main regiments known to have experimented with sharpshooter tactics or which were specifically designated and raised as sharpshooters. Lastly, proving we are now fully into the internet age, the author cites several articles available online to complete the bibliography.


Notes

The notes appear form page 368 to page 396. Rather than just citing sources, Ray often goes into paragraph-long detail of stories not central to the main story. I always enjoy this sort of noting, finding the notes interesting to read when I finish a given chapter.


Index

The index runs from page 397 to page 413, a more than adequate size for the length of the book.


Maps & Illustrations

I counted over 100 illustrations, maps, and photographs, a welcome change from recent publishing trends. The maps are excellent, and I never felt lost while reading battle accounts.

I greatly enjoyed this one, and no less an authority than Bob Krick approves od the book. Fred Ray has given us an invaluable resource that future authors can use as a stepping stone for further studies of Civil War era sharpshooters, the "shock troops" of their day. Look for a review of the book (including this entire 11-part series) within the next week or so. I next plan to take a look at Eric Jacobson's for Cause and for Country: A Study of the Affair at Spring Hill and the Battle of Franklin. The first post in that series should also appear within the next week or so, but I make no promises.

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