Thursday, April 25, 2013
Yankee Captain James McKnight’s regular battery had already been overrun once that foggy morning at Cedar Cree, losing a gun and several men. Now as part of Getty’s Division they waited on a low hill outside Middletown, Va. As another Rebel attack materialized out of the mist, the gunners gaped at the Confederate skirmishers loping wolf-like up the hill, howling their trademark yell.
“I could not believe they were actually going to close with us,” said one “until the men on the remaining gun of the left section abandoned it and retreated toward the old graveyard wall. Their front line was not in order, but there was an officer leading them and I distinctly heard him shout: Rally on the Battery! Rally on the Battery!”
The Yankee gunners managed to fire off a last shot of double canister, “but as the Rebel veterans understood this kind of business they opened out so that the charge did not hit any of them.”In a moment the Southerners fell in amongst the gunners, as one recalled, “amid smoke, fog, wreck, yells, clash and confusion…man to man, hand to hand, with bayonets and musket butt on their side and revolvers, rammers and hand spikes on ours!”
The gunner’s confusion is understandable. Skirmishers were simply not supposed to close with a strongly defended enemy position, much less assault it. They did not know that they faced Ramseur’s Division’s elite Corps of Sharpshooters, the shock troops of the Confederacy.
They were, as one former member put it, “the spike head of the Toledo Steel” that led both the advance and retreat of the army. The sharpshooters served not only as skirmishers in the usual sense, but instead as powerful combat units in their own right. As a tactical innovation, the Confederate sharpshooters were years ahead of their time, presaging both the “open order” of the late nineteenth century and the German Stosstruppen of World War I.