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The Sharpshooters of Mahone's Brigade. Some account of this gallant organization. [from the Richmond, Va., Star, April 20, 1894.]

A paper read by Captain John E. Laughton, Jr., before Pickett Camp, Confederate Veterans, Richmond, Va.

There are few men better known in Richmond than Captain John E. Laughton, Jr. He served throughout the war and was a member of the sharpshooters of Mahone's Brigade. Captain Laughton is an enthusiastic member of Pickett Camp, and takes an interest in everything that tends to interest or ease the old soldier.

At the meeting held last Monday night, April 14th, he read the following highly interesting reminiscences of his service:

Commander and Comrades of George E. Pickett Camp:

Probably the most effective troops in the late civil war, for the number of men engaged, were the sharpshooters. The value of this branch of the service became so apparent that companies and battalions were organized in most of the brigades of infantry, and possibly [99] in the cavalry. I believe the first regularly organized battalion of this character in the Army of Northern Virginia was the one attached to the Virginia Brigade commanded by General William Mahone, and it is of service in this command that this paper will treat.

Zzzbattalion of selected men.

Whilst in winter quarters at Madison Run Station, on the Orange and Alexandria Railroad, near Gordonsville, Va., in the winter of 1864, General Mahone conceived the idea of forming a battalion of selected men from the brigade, who should be required to do all advanced duty during the campaign, and, after consultation with a few of the line officers in whom he had confidence, he issued an order to his regimental commander to organize, in each of their respective regiments, a company consisting of two commissioned officers, two sergeants, two corporals, thirty privates and two men for ambulance corps duty. The officers and men were to be detailed from their regular companies for this permanent organization, and to be selected with a view of their special fitness for such service, the qualifications being that the men should be veterans of established reputation for faithful and reliable dependence while in action; capable of enduring the extra hardships expected to be entailed, and also a proper use of the rifle; the officers to be of experience and ability, and having the implicit confidence of their men.

The battalion was thus formed by special companies of equal numbers from the Sixth, Twelfth, Sixteenth, Forty-first and Sixtyfirst Virginia Regiments, composing the brigade. It was commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel E. M. Field, of the Twelfth Regiment, and First Lieutenant John E. Laughton, Jr., of the same regiment, was assigned as its adjutant in addition to his company duties.

The organization thus completed consisted of five companies, with eleven officers and 180 enlisted men, and served as a separate corps during the remainder of the war, being subject to the same regulations as the regiments of the brigade, except that they drew their rations and commutation from their original companies.

The battalion was armed with long-range, small-bore Enfield rifles, and used a long English-made cartridge. We never used any ammunition made by the Confederate Government. There were, besides, two globe-sighted rifles for use on special occasions, which were valuable additions to our armament. I have frequently fired these with entirely satisfactory results. [100]

During our occupancy of winter quarters, previous to the Mine Run engagement in May, 1864, our time was spent in perfecting ourselves in the

Zzzskirmish drill by Signals,

and in rifle-target practice at different ranges—from fifty yards to 1,000 yards—and so proficient did the men become in estimating distances that, although the chain was used to confirm their calculations, its use was finally discontinued as being unnecessary. Every day these practices were kept up under strict discipline, and systematic regulation and improvement in markmanship noted, and such men as failed to make satisfactory progress were returned to their companies and others substituted, so also, when the casualties of battle decimated the ranks, other details were made from the regiment in which the loss occurred, thereby keeping up the full maximum of strength. Thus, when the campaign of 1864 opened, this body of 180 officers and men, selected for special duty and because of eminent qualifications for such service, appeared thoroughly trained and fully equipped, and their subsequent record proved that they were absolutely invincible in every engagement in their history, never having been driven from their lines in any single engagement. The battle of Mine Run was the beginning of the

Zzzwilderness Campaign.

In this engagement the sharpshooters were deployed as skirmishers, and advancing rapidly drove the advanced enemy more than two miles to their heavy lines of reserves, and while our own line of battle was kept fully up in support there was no occasion to ask their assistance in this movement, for we did not need it. We captured at this time a large quantity of camp and other stores.

It is no part of my purpose to attempt a history of this organization in this paper, for I have not the data to enumerate the many engagements in which they participated, nor can I now recall the names of the gallant and peerless men who composed its rank and file, and made it almost the equal of any regimental organization in its army corps, but its great proficiency served as an incentive to the formation of similar bodies in nearly all of the other commands.

The duty expected of the sharpshooters was to establish and occupy the skirmish line, while the enemy was in front, and to serve on the picket line in all day duty—being relieved at night by one of [101] the regiments of the brigade—and to serve as rear guard when on retreat. Its officers were also required to serve as scouts when the opportunity was presented.

Zzza continuous battle.

From Mine Run, Nov., 1863, to Appomattox Courthouse, April 9, 1865, the sharpshooters were on the front line almost every day, with the exception of one day in each week, which was allowed them for cleaning their arms and ammunition, and washing their scanty supply of clothing. This was virtually a continuous battle for eleven months, for picket firing was indulged in and kept up the greater part of the time. In these daily engagements we met with losses of killed and wounded (none were ever captured), and besides, though not expected to take part in a regular line of battle with the other troops, did, nevertheless, bear an important part in most of the terrific conflicts through which the brigade passed. A few of these only will be referred to.

Zzzcolonel field's testimony.

Lieutenant-Colonel E. M. Field, in a published statement in regard to the Battle of the Wilderness, says:

I was present at the Battle of the Wilderness in command of the battalion of sharpshooters, composed of five companies of 170 picked men of Mahone's Brigade. Soon after reaching the Wilderness, on the 6th of May, 1864, we moved to the right and south of the plank road, the sharpshooters being deployed as skirmishers about 150 yards in advance of the brigade. General Mahone then informed me that General Longstreet had sent two brigades to attack the flank of the enemy, while his own brigade would attack in front, and that as soon as cheering was heard on the flank, to move the sharpshooters forward slowly, and co-operate with this movement. Soon the familiar rebel yell came from the right flank, and I moved the line of skirmishers forward as rapidly as the thick undergrowth would allow, until we came to what seemed to be the site of an old pond, on the opposite side of which was the enemies' line of battle, the order being given to charge. The advance was rapidly made, the brigade following close behind and firing over us—and through our open line—completely routing the enemy, who left many dead and wounded in our hands, among the latter General Wadsworth.

I was left in charge of the sharpshooters who remained in front [102] of the line during the night. The woods were on fire, and the cries of the wounded made the night hideous. The wounding of General Longstreet placed General Mahone in command of the division, Colonel D. A. Weisiger, of the Twelfth Regiment, in command of the brigade, and necessitated my return to command the Twelfth Regiment, of which I was Lieutenant-Colonel. I must say that it was with great reluctance that I gave up the command of the sharpshooters, the finest body of men I had ever seen, for they were the picked men of Mahone's Brigade.

Judge J. M. Bernard, of Petersburg, Va., in a recent published statement, says: ‘I was a member of the corps of sharpshooters of Mahone's Brigade at the Battle of the Wilderness, and remember well that we passed through marsh, swamp and burning woods.’

Zzzgood work of Sharpshooters.

It will therefore be seen from the statements of these witnesses that the sharpshooters not only brought on the engagement and drove the enemy, but did so notwithstanding the fire from their own troops in the rear, and the swamp, marsh and burning woods in front.

The corps was on daily duty as scouts and flank pickets on the line of march, and at Spotsylvania Courthouse were deployed on an extended line from the extreme right of our division — a position they held while the brigade was moved to the left in support of other troops where they engaged in this hard-fought battle. They subsequently were sent to the extreme left, and across the river Po to meet a flanking column of the enemy, whose intention it was to turn our left flank. General Early, who conducted this movement, pushed the sharpshooters rapidly forward, following with his line of battle, broke through the marching column, capturing a great many prisoners, and routing the remainder.

At Jericho's Ford on the North Anna river, near Verdon station, in Hanover county, the corps of sharpshooters accomplished

Zzzone of their best efforts.

The enemy had commenced crossing the ford before the head of our column, which was the leading division, had reached the locality. On hearing of this we were double-quicked nearly two miles, and immediately deployed, facing the left, the brigade continuing the direct march. We advanced, firing as we did so, taking advantage [103] of such protection from the trees as we could until we reached a point where a line could be established. Soon the skirmishers of Saunders' Alabama Brigade, of our division, were sent to connect with our right. Before the last got fairly in their places we were attacked by the returning Yankee sharpshooters, supported by a heavy line of battle. The few moments of rest we had had were used in piling up the rails of an old fence in front of the sections of three men each. (I may say here that the men in these posts of three each always fired by file, one gun always being loaded.) Such was the coolness of the men and the accuracy of their aim that this line was repulsed with great loss to them. A second and a third charge were made, with stronger lines each time, but they had

Zzzunderestimated the character of the men

before them, and were in turn cut down and driven back, some having been killed within thirty feet of our posts. Thus for two hours the two battalions, of less than 300 men, kept at bay their several massed lines until darkness put a stop to the fight. During this time our troops were throwing up a line of entrenchments about half a mile in rear, and seemed satisfied to leave us to act as a ‘reception committee.’ The dense woods and undergrowth prevented the use of artillery. The corps was relieved about 9 o'clock P. M., but returned at daybreak the next morning and advanced to the river, 600 yards, passing over the dead and badly wounded who had been left there during the night by their retreating troops. We returned and buried more of their dead than we had men engaged.

The piles of rails afforded us very little protection, and we lost many of our men in killed and wounded.

At Cold Harbor some of the battalion acted with a ‘forlorn-hope’ attacking party, which charged up to and over their breastworks to ascertain if they were occupied or not, while they met with only a few scattering shots from some cavalry, they did not know when they started that any of them would ever return alive. Too much credit cannot be given them for their daring, as the information obtained was of great value at the moment.

Zzzwhat Mr. Bernard says.

These, with all subsequent engagements in front of Petersburg, Va., found the corps in its daily position on the picket line.

At the battle of the Crater the corps was nearly annihilated, as [104] will be seen by the subjoined statement furnished by me in September, 1890, for a description of that battle as published by Mr. George S. Bernard in his book of ‘War Talk of Confederate Veterans’:.

At the Battle of the Crater, I commanded Company C of the brigade sharpshooters, which company was on the extreme right of the battalion. A portion of the works to be attacked by the Virginia Brigade was taken and held, and the portion of the Georgia Brigade was expected to take was not recaptured by them, even after a second attack.

‘I was desperately wounded in three places when within thirty feet of the breastworks, and at the first volley from a concentrated fire of several lines massed for a forward movement. The fire was not only from a direct front, but was also an enfilading fire, which came from those of the enemy in the crater, this being to our right. The proportion of wounded and killed in the sharpshooters was exceedingly large, probably without a parallel. The battalion went into the fight with 104 men and officers, and of these ninety-four men and officers were killed and wounded; of the nine officers present eight were shot through the breast.’

Zzztheir presence accidental.

The presence of the sharpshooters in this engagement was accidental, as they had to move with the brigade at once, and before the hour of going on picket duty, they therefore took in the brigade line the place of the right wing of the Sixth Regiment, which had relieved them the night before.

The wounds received in this battle prevented my return to the army until February, 1865, and I have no personal knowledge of the service of the corps in the engagements at Ream's Station, Hatcher's Run and other minor affairs near Petersburg. The ranks having become so decimated, it was never restored to its original strength, nor were so many men needed, as the brigade was correspondingly reduced.

Zzzat Chester.

In March, 1865, the brigade was moved to Chester, on the Richmond and Petersburg railroad, and relieved some of the troops of Pickett's Division, where they remained until the evacuation of Richmond and Petersburg.

When the troops were withdrawn, about 9 o'clock at night, I was [105] left in charge of the picket lines of the brigade front, with orders to hold them against any attack that might be made until 3 o'clock in the morning, and then, if not captured by the enemy, to rejoin the column then rapidly retreating towards Chesterfield Courthouse. The suspense and responsibility attending this midnight work during a continuous picket-firing at short range can never be fully appreciated by anyone not in a similar position. Yet I personally withdrew every picket and vidette, and rejoined the command about twelve hours afterwards, much to the surprised pleasure of my brigade commander, who said he feared he had seen me for the last time.

Zzza long and weary March.

The long and weary march to Appomattox Courthouse is familiar to many, and known of by all—and was without any special incident to the corps until the 7th of April, 1865, where, within two miles of Farmville, we fought our last fight, and, I believe, with greater desperation than at any time previously. In this engagement the

Zzzgallant Catain Hunter,

who had commanded the company from the Forty-first Regiment (I think) from the organization of the battalion, and who had never been hurt before, was instantly killed by a fragment of shell fired by one of our own batteries. It has been my object in this recital from memory to give only the generalities of the movements and conduct of the sharpshooters as a corps. A narration of the many instances of personal daring of individual members would almost necessitate a biographical sketch of each, hence, I have avoided any special references, but not because they do not each deserve it, for when the handful of the corps left Appomattox Courthouse to return to the places, once their homes, they represented all that was left of the 180 men who were always regarded as the flower of the brigade.

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