Monday, August 19, 2019

Review - "Union Sharpshooter Versus Confederate Sharpshooter: American Civil War 1861–65" by Gary Yee

[Union Sharpshooter Versus Confederate Sharpshooter: American Civil War 1861–65 by Gary Yee (Osprey Publishing, 2019). Softcover, maps, photos, sidebars, drawings, original artwork, notes, bibliography, index. 80 Pages. ISBN:978-1-4728-3185-9. $22]

Part of Osprey's Combat series matching historical battlefield opponents, Gary Yee's Union Sharpshooter Versus Confederate Sharpshooter describes and assesses the "fighting techniques, armament, and combat record" of Union and Confederate sharpshooters across the various theaters of war. In creating the study, Yee, who is a gunsmith, firearms museum curator, and author of the well-received 2009 book Sharpshooters 1750-1900: The Men, Their Guns, Their Story, brings both practical and documentary knowledge to the table.

Fitting as much information as possible into Osprey's long-standing format of compressed history, Yee skillfully introduces readers to Union and Confederate sharpshooter recruitment, organization, training, weapons, tactics, and coordination. Union forces were the first to organize specialized sharpshooter regiments (i.e. Hiram Berdan's 1st and later 2nd USSS), though they were misused on the firing line and suffered high attrition. Many other regiments and battalions on both sides were sharpshooters in name only, having the same training and performing the same basic roles as standard line units. During the Civil War period the term "sharpshooter" was broadly applied, encompassing those engaged in a range of activities from skirmishing (with or without specialized training) to what we would today call sniping. Though addressing the former, Yee's short study focuses more on the latter.

Yee primarily blames lack of foresight on the part of the commanders of both sides for the fact that it would be the late-war period before the combat value of using specialized sharpshooter formations on the skirmish line was fully appreciated. The height of their development would be seen on the Confederate side during the 1864 campaigns in the East, with the ANV's employment of brigade sharpshooter battalions (coordinated on divisional scale) that possessed considerable offensive punch to go along with their screening and recon roles. The author briefly discusses these attempts at using elite specialists to dominate the space between opposing lines of battle, but, as mentioned before, is primarily concerned with sniper weapons, tactics, and roles.

Through three case studies well selected for their theater and situational diversity (Fredericksburg, Vicksburg, and Morris Island), Yee effectively demonstrates in the book how snipers became prized by both sides for their ability to create noteworthy mayhem on the battlefield. While sharpshooters certainly could not win battles on their own, they could suppress batteries, inflict highly disproportionate casualties, and seriously hamper enemy battlefield activities of all kinds. They were also sources of constant fear and stress to enemy soldiers already mentally and physically taxed by their regular duties.

At Fredericksburg, Confederate marksmen firmly ensconced in buildings and cellars picked off Union engineers trying to bridge the Rappahannock River. Union attempts to match them were hindered by their own artillery fire, and the result was a delay in crossing significant enough to allow further perfection of the Confederate defenses west and south of the city.

With the siege lines so close together at Vicksburg, both sides employed sharpshooters to good effect. Though Confederate sharpshooters had an effect on harrying the Union siege approaches, their opponents, larger in number and supplied with practically endless ammunition, gradually gained the upper hand. Yee also cites the exceptional efforts of Indiana's Henry "Coonskin" Foster and the sniper tower he built and used to deadly effect during the static siege.

Though Union sharpshooter fire aided their gaining an initial lodgment on Morris Island, the battlefield addition of Whitworth rifle armed Confederate snipers (who could hit targets at extreme range) made life hell for Union artillerymen and those working on the siege approaches. This small group of sharpshooters could not stop but did appreciably slow the pace of the siege (which stretched to two months before the island was lost, allowing plenty of time for the Confederates to reorient the harbor defenses toward the new threat).

In supporting the text, the book contains the usual dense collection of photographs, illustrations, maps, and original artwork characteristic of all Osprey titles. Yee's book is a well organized and informative summary of the ways sharpshooters (and snipers in particular) impacted the Civil War battlefield and developed a combat effectiveness vastly disproportionate to the tiny numbers employed.

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