Roberta Senechal de la Roche, ed. "Our Aim Was Man": Andrew's Sharpshooters in the American Civil War. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2016. 320 pp. $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-62534-248-5.
Reviewed by Evan C. Rothera (Sam Houston State University)
Published on H-War (February, 2019)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)
John Saunders played an important role in the history of sharpshooting during the US Civil War. After the rebels fired on Fort Sumter, Saunders, with the support of Governor John Albion Andrew of Massachusetts, formed a one-hundred-man company of specially equipped elite sharpshooters. Saunders wanted men who would specialize as snipers, “extremely accurate sharpshooters who fire from concealed positions and over long distances, using a rifle suitable for that purpose” (p. 1). Most scholars associate Civil War sharpshooting with Hiram Berdan’s First and Second United States Sharpshooters. This is likely due to two factors. First Northern newspapers tended to focus almost exclusively on Berdan’s regiments when discussing sharpshooting. This bias led many historians to replicate the focus on Berdan and pay much less attention to other units. The second problem has to do with sources. “Whereas primary sources such as letters, diaries, and memoirs are typically extremely scarce for sharpshooter units, Colonel Berdan’s two regiments left a wealth of firsthand accounts, which, combined with the generous press coverage of the time, has allowed them a fuller portrayal” (p. 3). Roberta Senechal de la Roche, currently professor of history at Washington and Lee University, seeks to “recapture some of the character, experiences, and social life of the men who were among the first of a long line of American snipers armed with long-range weapons with telescopic sights” (p. 7). She focuses on four men in particular—Moses Hill, Luke Emerson Bicknell, Ferdinand Joseph Fuller Crossman, and Egbert Oswald Hixon—and, as necessary, employs other accounts to provide additional context.
People tend to think of snipers as lone wolves. However, as Senechal de la Roche notes, “the normality of their lives clearly helps counter the notion that snipers were often aloof, antisocial loners” (p. 25). The sharpshooters in this volume wrote to friends and family on a regular basis. Their letters brim with love and affection, playful humor, and, occasionally, some of the grimmer realities of camp and army life. Hill, for instance, informed his wife, “I do not want to come home and leave the Country in the state it is now in. I should not feel contented at home to stay long until the war is through” (p. 44). Like many of his fellow soldiers, Hill felt that he had a duty to perform, in this case saving the Union. Although he desperately missed his wife and children, he put his country first and, in so doing, mirrored the actions of countless other soldiers. Hill’s letters covered matters as general as seeing the sights when in Washington (“I went into the Capitol and up on the top of it which is very high. The top is not finished yet. It is a very large building”) to antiwar sentiment in Baltimore (“the Captain saw one man in a Chamber that was just a going to throw a junk Bottle at him, but he drawed his sourd and he dare not throw it. Captain said if he had, he should have gone up after him”) (p. 48). Bicknell never ceased reminding his sweetheart, Lucretia Pierce, how much he loved her and wanted to be with her. As he noted, “Patriotism Duty and all sorts of things is well enough. But a fellow can’t help thinking about the Dear Ones at home. I hope it will not take much longer to save the Union” (p. 99). Bicknell also discussed his advancement in the ranks and noted, as he saw it, how he did a better job leading the men than other officers. Senechal de la Roche includes Bicknell’s letters as well as a memoir he wrote decades after the war to allow readers to see how Bicknell’s ideas evolved over time. Sharpshooters had a different skill set and different weapons than other soldiers, but they were like their comrades in many ways; they complained about army life, gossiped, chided relatives for not writing as often as they thought they should, missed their families, and tried to do their duty as best they were able.
“Honorable warfare in the Western world,” Senechal de la Roche observes, “had long involved open, reciprocal combat with roughly equal risks for the soldiers engaged in it. The fighting was symmetrical: soldiers on the field of battle exchanged bullets, blows, shells, or shot until one side retreated or surrendered” (p. 8). Sharpshooters, on the other hand, engaged in a different enterprise. Their fellow soldiers regarded them with wildly divergent attitudes. To be sure, infantrymen liked sharpshooters when they suppressed artillery fire. But many soldiers also believed sharpshooters to be skulking cowards who slaughtered men for no particular purpose. The artist Winslow Homer, for instance, considered sharpshooting “as near murder as anything I could think of in connection with the army & I always had a horror of that branch of the service” (p. 10). Homer’s analysis found many adherents among non-sharpshooters. Even the sharpshooters themselves sometimes expressed ambivalence about their activities. Bicknell noted, in a letter to Pierce, “at one time during the fight I fought a duel with a rebel in this way for half an hour. At last I saw no more of him. I am afraid his friends will never hear from him either” (p. 125). Hill assured his wife, “I do not shoot Rebels for money or by the head. I shal not nor I have not shot anyone unless it is agoing to do some good for the Country” (p. 146). On the other hand, one sharpshooter, David Temple, was so infuriated about the death of one of his fellows that he volunteered to “kill a few God damned Johnnys in revenge for the death” and, when he came back that evening, rejoiced “over the fact that he has caused 20 of the damned Skunks of Hell to have a reckoning with their Eternal Creator” (p. 244). Sharpshooters, in other words, performed vital tasks, but their fellow soldiers, not to mention civilians, believed they engaged in a form of combat that was of questionable morality. Here it might have been useful to hear from some of the opponents sharpshooters faced. Did they consider sharpshooters savage or barbarous? If so, did they draw comparisons between the activities of sharpshooters and other forms of “uncivilized” or “barbarous” warfare?
“Our Aim Was Man” will interest scholars and a general audience. In the introduction, the author notes, “we know more about the snipers’ rifles than we know about the men who shouldered them” (p. 7). After this book, it becomes much harder to make this claim. Senechal de la Roche’s judiciously edited volume brings Andrew’s sharpshooters into clearer focus and reveals a fascinating, if often overlooked, dimension of the US Civil War.
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Evan C. Rothera. Review of Senechal de la Roche, Roberta, ed., "Our Aim Was Man": Andrew's Sharpshooters in the American Civil War.
H-War, H-Net Reviews.
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