Sunday, May 21, 2017

'Badly cut up ' at Antietam, Sharpshooters have striking story

Captain John Saunders (far left) with soldiers in his command in the Andrew's Sharpshooters.
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While most other Antietam visitors explore Burnside Bridge or Bloody Lane, I often make a beeline to an out-of-the-way battlefield spot on a knoll overlooking busy Maryland Route 65, deep in the re-planted West Woods.  A large, bronze plaque on the reverse of the 15th Massachusetts monument there lists 106 soldiers in the regiment who were killed or mortally wounded in about 25 minutes of fierce fighting the morning of Sept. 17, 1862.

Eleven other names also appear on that plaque on the terrific "Wounded Lion" monument -- soldiers who were killed or mortally wounded fighting for one of the first units in American military history to be equipped with telescope-sighted rifles to enable long-distance targeting, The largely unheralded 1st Company Massachusetts Sharpshooters, also known as Andrew's Sharpshooters, was attached to the 15th Massachusetts at Antietam, where the 100-plus-soldier unit was, in the words of one of its men, "badly cut up."

Knocked "flatter than a flounder" by a bullet, sharpshooter Luke Bicknell was lucky to survive Antietam. A bullet grazed his throat, he wrote, and another zipped through his coat sleeve; yet another bullet went through his pants, causing a flesh wound in his leg that "itched badly for a week." A piece of artillery shell also hit Bicknell in the right arm, turning it black and blue, and another piece struck him in the side, briefly knocking the breath out of him.

"Our Aim Was Man" is available on and elsewhere.
"If the war is to continue till the South is whipped," noted the lieutenant nearly three weeks after Antietam, "it will last a great while yet."

The Sharpshooters are subject of  "Our Aim Was Man"  (University of Massaschusetts Press), a book edited by Roberta Senechal de la Roche, a history professor at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va. Published in November 2016, it's based largely on letters, diaries and memoirs of four members of Andrew’s Sharpshooters, including Bicknell. Another is Private Moses Hill, a 38-year-old stone mason when he enlisted in September 1861, who happens to be Senechal de la Roche's great-great-grandfather. She inherited more than 60 of Hill's pre-war and war-time letters from her mother, who had stored the precious family correspondence in a cardboard box.

Senechal de la Roche has a Ph.D. in history from the University of Virginia, but her concentration wasn't Civil War history. Her interest in the subject, she explained, partly resulted from the convergence of several areas of interest. She has long enjoyed the Victorian era in the United States, both before and after the Civil War. Her second major interest is, well, violence -- "especially non-state collective violence, such as lynching, rioting and terrorism." At Washington and Lee, she teaches two interdisciplinary courses, “History of Violence in the United States” and a seminar called “9/11 and Modern Terrorism.”

Besides at Antietam, Andrew's Sharpshooters saw plenty of other violence during the Civil War, in battles during the Peninsula Campaign as well as at Fredericksburg and Gettysburg. Although she admits it "sounds odd," Senechal de la Roche has yet to visit Antietam, a battle her ancestor missed because of illness.

"Perhaps I have a too-active imagination," she said. "but I cannot yet picture myself walking the course of that company up to and through the West Woods. Their captain and most of his men who died there were simply put into the ground near where they fell, with no markers."

Besides exploring the darker side of humankind, Senechal de la Roche enjoys hiking and splitting wood. She's reading up on the war against the Barbary pirates during Thomas Jefferson’s presidency and aims to dig into Theodore Roosevelt’s The Naval War of 1812 as well as read more about the role of disease in the armies of the Civil War.

Senechal de la Roche recently answered a few of my questions about the Andrew's Sharpshooters, including one on its role at Antietam, where it fought without its heavy sniper rifles. That caused a near-mutiny. Read on.

Roberta Senechal de la Roche's great-great grandfather served in Andrew's Sharpshooters.
Who were the Andrew's Sharpshooters, and what about these soldiers made their story so interesting to you?

Senechal de la Roche: The Andrew’s Sharpshooters consisted of a little more than 100 men recruited from Eastern Massachusetts by John Saunders, an avid target-shooter and friend of Governor John Albion Andrew. After the company was formed, Captain Saunders named it in honor of the governor.

In terms of their background, Andrew’s Sharpshooters were more urban than the average Union recruit, and also were far more likely to be factory workers or independent skilled craftsmen than farmers. One contemporary writer called the majority of the men “old gunners,” since so many of them – well over a third – were 30 years old or older. Moses Hill would have qualified as one of them – he was 38 years old when he enlisted. One of his fellow riflemen was well into his 50s when he volunteered. And the men were large for this era. As Hill wrote home: “The Smartist & largest lot of men I never saw. We have a good meny men that weigh over two hundred pounds and some are six to six 3 in. high.” They had to be large because of the rifles they carried – “target rifles.”

Captain John Saunders was
killed at Antietam.
(Image courtesy Bob Carlson)
I eventually realized that these sharpshooters were not just men who were skilled with a rifle over long distances. They were part of new species of rifleman. They were among the first true snipers in the American military. Andrew’s Sharpshooters were all equipped with target rifles -- heavy weapons (15 to 30 pounds) with long-distance telescopes that extended the entire length of their thick, octagonal barrels. They claimed they were able to sometimes hit targets as far off as 1/4 to a 1/2 mile away. Hill served as a shooting instructor in the Company and mentioned that they sometimes practiced shooting at those distances.

I confess I succumbed to the (apparently widespread) fascination with elite riflemen like sharpshooters in general, and with snipers with telescoped rifles in particular. Some historians suggest that snipers were a little weird, a little abnormal, socially isolated, brooding loners, not like other people, somehow. Perhaps mentally ill, even. These views greatly added to my interest in researching the character, experiences and social life of the Andrew’s Sharpshooters. What were these men like? How did they view their role as snipers?

The four sharpshooters whose writings provide the story of the Company’s experiences over time paint a very different picture of what snipers were like. One of the things I noticed from the beginning about these men is how completely ordinary they were. They were professional and workmanlike. Like any soldier, they didn’t want to be fighting and shedding blood, but it was a job to be done, and they went about it in a very disciplined fashion. Moses Hill, for instance, wrote that he only shot people when it did some good for the country. He made it very clear that the snipers’ role was to protect the troops — especially from enemy artillery. His concept of what they were doing was not picking people off for the fun of it. Rather, he felt bad about the men he wasn’t able to protect. There were a few of the younger men who apparently bragged about how many they killed. But the four sharpshooters I studied seemed perfectly normal. They had lots of friends back home, and they were very sociable as they moved through the war.

Finally, I enjoyed the challenge involved in trying to find sources written by other members of the Company beyond my own great-great-grandfather’s letters. Writings by Civil War sharpshooters are very rare, and sources from snipers rarer still. I feel very fortunate indeed to have been able to locate three more Andrew’s Sharpshooters’ diaries, letters and one memoir. I was excited, too, because I realized that historians knew very little about how Union snipers were trained and deployed. We knew little about the weapons they used and how they performed their combat roles. The four Andrew’s Sharpshooters represented in “Our Aim Was Man” have, I believe, helped shed much- needed light on the experiences of genuine snipers in the Civil War.

At the 15th Massaachusetts monument at Antietam, collector Bob Carlson holds the revolver
 and field glass used by Andrew's Sharpshooter's Captain John Saunders.
(For a post on Carlson and his impressive Civil War collection, go here.) 
You had rich documentation to dive into for the book -- diaries, letters and memoirs. Describe the process as editor of determining what to include in the book.

Senechal de la Roche: When you edit documents such as these, you have try to keep the reader in mind at all times. The average reader for this volume is likely interested in military history first and foremost. But I am also a social historian, so I was interested in the questions of what the men’s home lives, work and community ties were like before the war, and the impact of the war on the women, children and others left behind on the home front. I hoped to help broaden the appeal of the book by linking the men to their domestic settings and personal involvements. Nonetheless, I felt I had to cut out large amounts of trivial detail that might confuse or bore the average reader because they were irrelevant to the larger (military) story line. For example, many of the men’s letters mentioned or asked about numerous people on the home front: “Has Uncle X gone fishing again? Has Cousin Y’s hay ripened yet? Is Molly the mare over her lameness?” A little bit of such everyday matters goes a long way. While many soldiers longed to hear about such homey details, good editing demanded that many of them be left out.

I did occasionally include other very detailed home front material. A good example here, I think, are the courtship letters sharpshooter Luke Bicknell sent home. Their content is pretty evenly divided between military details pertaining to the sharpshooters on the one hand, and florid expressions of affection, fantasies and fond memories on the other. I had to decide whether to -- as I thought of it -- take the love out of the love letters and focus on Bicknell’s military experiences alone. I decided to keep all of the sentimental details. Those who read early drafts of the book said they enjoyed the love letters. I also thought that such material might modify widespread negative stereotypes concerning snipers -- help humanize and normalize them. One of the early anonymous reviewers of the book manuscript remarked that by the end of the book, he or she had “come to care about the men” – all four of them. I took that as a promising sign.

Featured in "Our Aim Was Man," Private Ferdinand Crossman died as a POW 
at Andersonville, where he is buried. The cenotaph above is in Sutton (Mass.) Cemetery.
Of the soldiers in Andrew's Sharpshooters mentioned in the book, who do you find most compelling, and why?

Senechal de la Roche: That is a very difficult question! The four men were very different, each with a unique perspective and unique voice.

One was bound for Harvard when the war broke out and changed his plans. He was very literate and cultured. He made a fearless (and sometimes reckless) young lieutenant. In addition to his wartime letters to his fiancĂ©e, he produced a 100-page typescript memoir of his service with Andrew’s Sharpshooters. Another was a shoe factory worker who made brief diary entries. He worried constantly about his wife and ended up being deathly sick and deserting, only to re-enlist with an Ohio regiment. My relative, Moses Hill, was a skilled stonecutter, who, among other things, cut and lettered gravestones for his deceased townsmen and women. In his letters he expressed almost an artist’s eye for details of camp life and training. The fourth was a young, up-and-coming farmer who wrote letters home to his wife. (Read more about that farmer, Ferdinand Crossman, here on my blog.) His letters and his wife’s diaries bring to life the challenges posed by the war for small farmers and their families. He was the proverbial tough “salt-of–the earth” type: practical, independent, brave, and seemingly immune to the storms of violence he passed through. These four constitute a real cross-section of Eastern Massachusetts’s society.

I find them all compelling, each in his own distinctive way. It is my hope that those who read about them feel that way as well.

15th Massachusetts monument in the West Woods at Antietam. 
Given the interest in Antietam by a certain Civil War blogger, tell us about  the experience of the Sharpshooters during the battle.

Senechal de la Roche: In my opinion, the Battle of Antietam was the pivotal moment in the history of Andrew’s Sharpshooters. Just a few brief words of background. In August 1862, after General George McClellan’s failed attempt to capture the Confederate capital at Richmond, Andrew’s Sharpshooters were ordered to give up their sniper rifles and take Sharps breech-loading rifles instead. The company nearly mutinied over the change, for it meant they were no longer an independent company of elite riflemen, but part of an infantry regiment. They would also have to serve as skirmishers – those who went out beyond the major body of troops to perform reconnaissance, probe enemy lines and battle enemy skirmishers.

At Antietam, the Andrew's Sharpshooters were
armed with breech-loading Sharps rifles instead
of their heavy sniper rifles (above). The switch caused a
near-mutiny. (Photo courtesy Bob Carlson)
The company was attached to the 15th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, a regiment that belonged to Major General John Sedgwick’s II Division. On Sept. 17, the 15th was at the far left of the first of Sedgwick’s lines to step out of the West Woods moving west. Andrew’s Sharpshooters anchored their far left. Moments later, concealed Confederate troops fired on their front and left flank. Very quickly, the 15th took fire from the rear as well. In the space of a few minutes, the 15th Massachusetts lost more than half of their men. Andrew’s Sharpshooters lost their captain, a lieutenant, and many of the men were killed, wounded, deserted or otherwise unaccounted for.

In short, an already demoralized company was placed at one of the worst possible spots on Sept. 17, 1862 -- armed with new weapons they did not want and tactics they despised. Had they remained an independent company of snipers, I believe it is highly doubtful that they would have been placed at the front in an infantry line in this -- or any other battle. More than 40 new recruits were soon added to the remnants of the Andrew’s Sharpshooters, but the unit’s morale, identity and cohesion seem to have been largely destroyed.

Since the book came out, have their been any revelations from readers, new stories that you would have loved to have included in the book?

Senechal de la Roche: I have received some very kind comments about the book, but no new revelations. I did recently locate yet another descendant of an Andrew’s Sharpshooter who supposedly has his letters. But I have not heard from her after trying to contact her. I am hoping that other descendants will eventually get in touch with me, especially since I am a bit visible on the website for the 15th Massachusetts Regiment. This excellent website has a full roster of Andrew’s Sharpshooters, along with genealogical information for many of the men and a few photographs.

Illustration of a Union sharpshooter by Winslow Homer that appeared in 
Harper's Weekly during the Civil War.
If any of the soldiers mentioned in the book were alive today, what would you like to ask them?

Senechal de la Roche: Years ago I might have asked them why they enlisted as snipers. But they have more or less answered that in their writings: They volunteered to help restore the Union, to protect Union soldiers from artillery fire, and to weaken the Confederacy by picking off their officers.

Captain William Plumer, posing with a sniper's target rifle,
replaced John Saunders, who was killed at Antietam.
(Image courtesy Douglas Hodgdon, Plumer descendant)
If there were one sharpshooter I could question today, it would be Captain William Plumer (who replaced Captain John Saunders after the Battle of Antietam). At the last possible moment before I sent the book to press, I found his portrait on Find a Grave website. I was surprised to see him posing with a sniper’s target rifle. At the Battle of Gettysburg, Captain Plumer led a contingent of Andrew’s Sharpshooters – at least a dozen of them likely armed with sniper’s rifles – to suppress Confederate sharpshooter fire from buildings at the edge of the town of Gettysburg. Lieutenant Luke Bicknell led his own group – about 20 skirmishers armed with Sharps breech-loading rifles – to a different part of the battlefield.

Since hardly any evidence exists for the last year of Andrew’s Sharpshooters service, I would ask Captain Plumer: Did the company establish a division of labor – some working as skirmishers with Sharps rifles, others as pure snipers with target rifles? If so, how did this come about? And why did some still want to be snipers? Who were they?

This all might seem a bit trivial, but part of what was at stake was whether the Union army was going to pursue sniping as part of a new, modern repertoire of covert warfare. The answer seems to be no. In contrast, late in the war the Confederacy was trying to expand its sniping capacity. What held it back was the lack of cash to pay for expensive but lightweight English telescoped Whitworth rifles that might in the end have proved more effective than the Union’s old, heavy target rifles.

Senechal de la Roche has yet to
commune with Robert E. Lee, once
Washington and Lee president.
(Library of Congress)
Finally, how often do you go to Lee Chapel on the Washington and Lee campus, where Robert E. Lee is buried? Ever been tempted to pose a few questions to Lee there?

Senechal de la Roche:  Lee Chapel is a hauntingly beautiful Civil War site. I have seldom visited, even though a good friend of mine was a guide there for many years.

As for being tempted to commune with General Lee or any other dead leaders of the war interred in Lexington? No. Not because of any sense of animosity as a “daughter of the Union,” but because I think most of the leaders of the war on both sides have had – through their many words and acts – answered most of what we think we want to know.

I suppose, then, that I am thoroughly a product of more recent generations of historians who have questions for the many unknown men behind the guns, rather than the officers on horseback.

Have something to add (or correct) in this post? E-mail me here.


  1. Who was responsible for issuing the Sharps & changing the character of the regiment? If McClellan or his coterie, it was likely a matter of military politics.

  2. Hi I recently acquired some personal items that belonged to Lieutenant William Berry of the Andrew Sharpshooters who was killed at Antietam. I have his diary, a battle map, some letters including a letter of resignation written by Captain Saunders, his rifle and some other interesting items.

    1. Hi, Unknown: I'd sure like to see images of what you have. Would you mind sharing? I may want to write about William. John Banks