Incredible Shots

"Most soldiers knew little of ballistics or even basic marksmanship techniques - and never learned otherwise. Although they drilled relentlessly, Civil War soldiers rarely practiced shooting, and junior and senior officers generally knew little about firearms."
Civil War Firearms
by Joseph G. Bilby

One of the most singular and remarkable instances of random shooting we remember to have heard, occurred during Farragut's run of the blockade. Just as his flagship, the Hartford, reached the river midway opposite the city, a shell struck one of her guns which was being loaded, fair in the muzzle, and, passing into it, exploded, and exploding the charge, burst the gun and killed the gunners.

I had shot my gun so often (and wiped it but once) that when I had rammed down one Minie ball and nine buckshot I thought I would put in some more. I put in nine more buckshot and some paper. In ramming down the extra charge the ramrod stuck fast. I could not move it up or down. Augustine said: "If you fire your gun in that condition, it will burst. Turn it up and drive the ramrod down on that  rock." I did so, but as the enemy were about to charge I had to leave the ramrod in. Thinking the gun might kick me over , I knelt down so I wouldn't have far to fall. It was well I did.

When the enemy came out of the woods, moving straight toward us, I said to my cousin: "Watch that Yankee on the dark sorrel horse." Well, when the shot went off, I fell one way and the gun another, the horse had no rider, and a gap was cut through their lines. That ramrod, the eighteen buckshot, and the Minie ball did the work. My captain said: "See here, young man, where did you get that piece of artillery?" I replied that it was a gift from General Jackson. "Well now," said he meditatively, "General Jackson should have had it mounted on wheels, so it wouldn't kick you over."

Confederate Veteran
Pvt. William W. Patteson

Col. Hugh McNeilDuring the battle of South Mountain, the Rebels held a very strong position. They were posted in a mountain pass, and had infantry on the heights on every side. Our men were compelled to carry the place by storm. The position seemed impregnable.
A band of Rebels occupied a ledge on the extreme right, as the Colonel approached with a few of his men. The unseen force poured upon them a volley. Col. Hugh McNeil, on the instant, gave the command:"Pour your fire upon those rocks!"
The Bucktails hesitated, it was not an order they were accustomed to receive; they had always picked their men.
"Fire!" thundered the Colonel; "I tell you to fire on those rocks!"
The men obeyed. For some time an irregular fire was kept up, the Bucktails sheltering themselves, as best they could, behind trees and rocks. On a sudden McNeil caught sight of two rebels peering through an opening in the works to get aim. The eyes of the men followed their commander, and half a dozen rifles were levelled in that direction.
"Wait a minute," said the Colonel;"I will try my hand. There is nothing like killing two birds with one stone."
The two rebels were not in line, but one stood a little distance back of the other, while just in front of the foremost was a slanting rock. Col. McNeil seized a rifle, raised it, glanced a moment along the polished barrel; a report followed, and both the rebels disappeared. At that moment a loud cheer a little distance beyond rent the air.
"All is right now," cried the Colonel;"charge the rascals."
The men sprang up among the rocks in an instant. The affrighted rebels turned to run, but encountered another body of the Bucktails and were obliged to surrender. Not a man of them escaped. Every one saw the object of the Colonel's order to fire at random among the rocks. He had sent a party around to the rear, and meant thus to attract their attention. It was a perfect success.
The two rebels by the opening in the ledge were found lying there stiff and cold. Col. McNeil's bullet had struck the slanting rock in front of them, glanced, and passed through both their heads. There it lay beside them, flattened. The Colonel picked it up, and put it in his pocket.

Anecdotes, Poetry and Incidents of the War: North and South, 1860-1865
Frank Moore, editor

NOTE: Col. Hugh W. McNeil commanded the 13th Pennsylvania Reserves (1st Rifles) at the Battle of South Mountain. Col. McNeil was killed days later at Antietam.

I had a Sergeant Driscoll, a brave man, and one of the best shots in the brigade. When charging at Malvern Hill (July 1, 1862) a company was posted in a clump of trees, who kept up a fierce fire on us, and actually charged out at our advance. Their officer seemed to be a daring, reckless boy, and I said to Driscoll, "If that officer is not taken down, many of us will fall before we pass that clump."
"Leave that to me," said Driscoll; so he raised his rifle, and the moment the officer exposed himself again bang went Driscoll, and over went the officer, his company at once breaking away.
As we passed the place I said, "Driscoll, see if that officer is dead, he was a brave fellow."
I stood looking on, Driscoll turned himover on his back. He opened his eyes for a moment, and faintly murmured "Father", and then closed them forever.
I will forever recollect the frantic grief of Driscoll; it was harrowing to witness. He was his son, who had gone south before the war.
And what became of Driscoll afterwards?
Well, we were ordered to charge, and I left him there; but, as we were closing with the enemy, he rushed up, with his coat off, and, clutching his musket, charged right up at the enemy, calling on the men to follow. He soon fell, but jumped up again. We knew he was wounded. On he dashed, but he soon rolled over like a top. When we came up he was dead, riddled with bullets.

The Irish Brigade and It's Campaigns
Capt. D.P. Conyngham

Lieutenant G- was in command of the sharpshooters attached to the regiment, but who were not under its absolute control. They form an independent organization, going where they can most injure the enemy. We had been fighting for several days in the most advanced trenches amidst persistant firing from both sides, which, however, did little damage, except to prevent all rest and sleep. Finally both armies saw the folly of such warfare and desisted. Towards noon yesterday, weary, I suppose, of the inaction, a Confederate sharpshooter mounted his earthwork and challenged any one of our sharpshooters to single combat. Lieutenant G-, a fine fellow, standing at least six feet two in his stockings, accepted the challenge, and they commenced what to them was sport. Life is cheap in this campaign! Both fired, and the Confederate dropped. G-'s great size was so unusual that his opponent had the advantage, and our men tried to make him give way to a smaller man. But, no! He would not listen, became very excited as his successes multiplied, and when darkness stopped the dueling he remained unscathed, while every opponent had fallen victim to his unerring aim.

The Lieutenant was so exhilarated that he claimed with much bluster a charmed life; said nothing would kill him; that he could stand any amount of dueling, and this he would prove in the morning. When he was in his tent for the night, we officers used every argument and entreaty to convince him of the foolishness and criminality of such a course, and also assured him of the certainty of his death. But the man seemed crazed with the faith in his charmed life. He would not yield his determination, and when we left him he was simply waiting, as best he could, for daylight, to begin the dueling again.

As we foretold, he was finally killed, but his death was due to treachery. In the morning, true to his  mistaken conviction, he sttod upon the works again and challenged his opponent. Instantly one appeared, and as both were taking aim, a man from another part of the Confederate line fired and shot G- through the mouth, the ball lodging in the spinal vertebrae, completely paralyzing him below the head. We dragged the poor, deluded fellow to his tent, where, after uttering inarticulately, "I hit him anyway, Doctor," he died.

We then heard a tremendous uproar outside, and found that our men were claiming the murderer of their lieutenant; but the Confederates shouted that they had already shot him for a cowardly villain, and then came praises across the line for Lieutenant G-'s pluck and skill.

Letters From a Surgeon of the Civil War
John Gardner Perry

When a daring charge of the North Carolina brigade had temporarily checked that portion of the Federal forces struck by it (Spotsylvania May 12, 1864), and while my brigades in the rear were being placed in position, I rode with Thomas G. Jones, the youngest member of my staff, into the intervening woods, in order, if possible, to locate Hancock's position. Sitting on my horse near the line of the North Carolina brigade, I was endeavoring to get a view of the Union lines, through the woods and through gradually lifting mists. It was impossible, however, to see those lines; but the direction from which they sent their bullets soon informed us that they were still moving and had already gone beyond our right. One of those bullets passed through my coat from side to side, just grazing my back. Jones, who was close to me, and sitting on his horse in a not very erect posture, anxiously inquired; "General, didn't that ball hit you?"

"No", I said; "but suppose my back had been in a bow like yours? Don't you see that the bullet would have gone straight through my spine. Sit up or you'll be killed."

The sudden jerk with which he straightened himself, and the duration of the impression made, showed that this ocular demonstration of the necessity for a soldier to sit upright on his horse had been more effective than all the ordinary lessons that could have been given.

Southern Historical Society Papers
Gen. John B. Gordon

By some hook or crook the Confederate States government had come in possession of a small number of Whitworth guns, the finest long range guns in the world. They were to be given to the best shots in the army. One day Capt. Joe Lee and Co. H went out to shoot at a target for the gun. We all wanted the gun, because if we got it we would be sharpshooters, relieved from camp duty, etc.

All the generals and officers came out to see us shoot. The mark was put up about 500 yards on a hill, and each of us had three shots. Every shot that was fired hit the board, but there was one man who came a little closer to the spot than any other, and the Whitworth was awarded to him; and as we just turned round to go back to camp, a buck rabbit jumped up, and was streaking it as fast as he could make tracks, all the boys whooping and yelling as hard as they could, when Jimmy Webster raised his gun and pulled down on him, and cut the rabbit's head entirely off with a minie ball right back of his ears.

He was about 250 yards off. Gen. Polk laughed very heartily at the incident, and I heard him ask one of his staff if the Whitworth gun had been awarded. The staff officer responded that it had, and that a certain man in Col. Farquhanson's regiment (4th Tenn.) was the successful contestant, and I heard General Polk remark, "I wish I had another gun to give, I would give it to the young man that shot the rabbit's head off."

Co. Aytch
Sam R. Watkins

During the battle of Port Hudson, a round from a Union battery blew off the leg of Capt. R.M. Boone. Aware that he had only a few minutes to live, the Confederate artillery officer made a dying request. Records do not indicate whether or not men of his battery complied with it. His last wish, he said, was to have his severed leg stuffed into one of his guns and shot toward the enemy.

More Civil War Curiosities
Webb Garrison

During the morning's firing, the men of the 111th from northwest Pennsylvania, who prided themselves on their marksmanship, enjoyed sniping at the enemy. First Sgt. Castor G. Malin saw puffs of smoke from some rocks down the slope. He aimed and fired carefully at the source of the smoke several times, but the puffs of smoke continued to appear. The sergeant, a deer hunter, was annoyed with his shooting until after the battle when he walked down to the rock pile and found five dead soldiers there. They had followed each other in turn until the last man shot had fallen dead upon his gun and closed the gap through which they ahd fired.

Gettysburg: Culp's Hill & Cemetery Hill
Harry Pfanz


It not infrequently happens that sharpshooters in each army are engaged in firing at each other and succeed ultimately in killing, by putting a ball through the hole made just large enough for the muzzle of the rifle, while the opposite party is looking through to watch the effect of his own shot. Some little time since we had an account from Tennessee of a case in which an expert rebel and Union sharpshooter watched each other for three days, while the Union man was looking through a ball passed into the hole and directly through his eye and brain, of course killing him instantly. The correspondent of the New York Commercial before Petersburg relates another case which occurred on Monday. A soldier got sight of a rebel sharpshooter and fired through one of the rifle holes on the breastworks, merely large enough to put the muzzle of his musket through and sight his object. Having fired he withdrew his weapon to observe what effect he had made when, from a distance of about three hundred yards, a ball passed through the rifle hole entering his head and killing him instantly.

Poughkeepsie Telegraph

Confederate SniperAt the battle of Franklin, the first shell sent from the first Union field piece to open fire killed 26 Confederates. The next 5 shells from this same gun either failed to explode or cleared the advancing lines. In this same fight the horse of a Confederate colonel was cut square in two by a shot, and the rider escaped unhurt. Ten minutes later a Union officer behind the earthworks stumbled and fell forward on the ground and broke his neck.

In one of the assaults on Ft. Wagner, the ironclad fleet, assisted by land batteries numbering 27 heavy cannon, bombarded the fort for two hours before killing a single soldier. From 78 to 80 heavy cannon were hurling three tons of iron into the fort each minute, and yet no one was hurt until more than 300 tons of 'solid death' had been wasted. As an offset to this, witness the work of a single solid shot thrown from a Federal gunboat on the Lower Mississippi. A Confederate battery was just taking position, and one piece had already opened fire. The Federal shot was directed at this piece. The big mass of iron struck the six-pounder square on the muzzle and upset gun and carriage. A piece of the muzzle weighing about 20 pounds was broken off, and this flew to the left and killed two men. Three men were wounded by smaller pieces and splinters. The big shot next struck and exploded a caisson, killing three more men and wounding two others. From the caisson it turned to the right, killed a horse, smashed the wheel of a field-piece, and crushed the leg of a sergeant to a bloody mass. The one shot so disorganized the battery that it limbered up and dashed away to cover.

A Union gunboat on the White River threw three shells into a Confederate camp, killed nearly fifty men, and routed a force of 800. Within a week after that event Confederate Gen. Shelby planted four pieces of artillery on the levee within 400 feet of that same gunboat at anchor, and without the least cover for men or guns kept up the fight for more than an hour, or until the gunboat backed out of it and steamed away.

The chance in a lottery can be figured down fine, and a certain per centum of escapes is allowed in a steamboat explosion, but he who goes to war has nothing to console him. He may dodge a 200 pound shell and be killed by two buckshot. He may receive a dozen bullets and live on, or the first one may be fatal. He may ride in the wildest charge unhurt, and he may be killed by a stray bullet beside his campfire.

Oregon College Library
Monmouth, Oregon

| Home |