Union Generals killed by Whitworth Sharpshooters

Nathan Stuart

Private
Joined
Apr 14, 2020
I have made a list of Union generals (excluding brevet ranks) who I believe were killed (kia) or died of wounds (dow) from a long-range targeted shot by a confederate whitworth marksman during the war.

These include:

Major-General Amiel Whipple - (dow May 7, 1863)

Brigadier-General William Lytle - (dow September 20, 1863)

Brigadier-William William Sanders - (dow November 19, 1863)

Major-General John Sedgwick - (kia May 9, 1864)

Brigadier-General Thomas Stevenson - (kia May 10, 1864)

Brigadier-General James Rice - (kia May 10, 1864)

Three of the above (Lytle, Sanders, Sedgwick) are commonly understood to be victims of whitworth shooters. The other three are highly possible. In all these cases, whitworth riflemen were actively operating in the vicinity and within range at the time of the deaths.

Whipple was shot in the stomach while sitting on his horse supervising construction of earthworks by a confederate sniper on May 4, 1863, at Chancellorsville. He died three days later. It is quite possible that a whitworth weapon fired the shot, although I could find no accounts of a whitworth sniper being involved.

Lytle was known to be the victim of directed fire by a group of whitworth riflemen operating as skirmishers at Chickamauga on September 20, 1863. An unidentified whitworth sharpshooter fired the probably fatal head shot. He died that same day.

Sanders was mortally wounded at Knoxville on November 18, 1863 while walking away after standing on earthworks. It was believed he was shot in the side by one of several whitworth sharpshooters perched high in the tower of the Bleak (Armstrong) House nearby.

Perhaps the most famous whitworth shooting is of Sedgwick at Spotsylvania on May 9, 1864. It’s fairly well documented and widely accepted. While striding around in the open shouting orders to his men the Union general fell to a targeted shot to the head by a whitworth sharpshooter. He died shortly afterwards. Several identified whitworth riflemen present at the time were attributed with the kill.

Given the active whitworth sniping performed at Spotsylvania, it's likely that Stevenson was also singled out as a target by one of these marksmen. The following day he was killed almost instantly by a shot to the head, while resting on the ground and sitting upright, to issue orders. It’s possible too, that Rice, on that same day and in a proximate location, was mortally wounded by an aimed whitworth round.

I have excluded from this list the controversial death of Major-General John Reynolds at Gettysburg on July 1, 1863. After examining extensive evidence of this incident, I think it can be fairly safely concluded that he was not killed by a whitworth marksman, although I believe he fell to a targeted head shot by a skilled rifleman at relatively short range. In my view, it’s most likely that the deadly bullet was fired by a line infantryman or skirmisher in Archer’s brigade located close-by in the Herbst woods in front of Reynolds. I would not rule out entirely, though, the much lesser possibility that the source was an infantry member of Davis’s brigade positioned adjacent and north of the woods. Some accounts and modern day commentators believe that the lethal discharge was a random hit by a fired volley of shots out of the woods. It’s a possibility, but I do not think a probability. I think the described nature of the fatal wounding indicates it was a dedicated shot that ended Reynolds life almost instantly. It also appears that it might have been made from a high elevation, say by a shooter temporarily positioned in a tree inside the woods cluster. I am not aware of any whitworth rifleman being attached to either of the two confederate brigades of Archer or Davis at the crucial time. Similarly, it is unlikely there any whitworth-armed scouts loosely connected with other units, were operating freely within close enough proximity to have the opportunity for a clear shot. Any other Confederate units at this moment were too far away or inappropriately placed, even allowing for the roaming movements of their scouts.

Any comments or remarks are welcome, as is further enlightenment on this subject.
 

Lanyard Puller

Sergeant
Joined
Nov 29, 2017
Location
South Carolina
Assuming all of these hits were from a Whitworth rifle may be a bit presumptive, unless there is proof of a hexagonal bullet, or a cylindrical Pritchett bullet marked by hex rifling being recovered.

There were other long range rifles in Confederate States and Government service; L.A.C. Kerr, Thomas Turner, George Daw, and personally owned rifles.
 

thomas aagaard

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 19, 2013
Location
Denmark
But Is that actually any solid evidence of any of it?

Sedgwick was most likely killed by a random bullet. He was behind a union regiment that was under fire... with the usual large number of bullets going high.
That a number of different men, post war claimed to have made the shot only undermine their claims.



oh,. and the elevation thing with Reynolds make no sense at all. You need to climb a very very tall tree to get that kind of effect.
Having him bend a bend forward is a much more logical explanation.
 

johan_steele

Regimental Armorer
Retired Moderator
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Feb 20, 2005
Location
South of the North 40
I believe the Whitworth gets far more credit that it’s due. There just weren’t that many of them in CS service. The men using them weren’t snipers but professional skirmishes and the P56/60 was far more prevalent and frankly a more effective arm.

the Whitworth has the cool factor but it’s game has only truly come about in our lifetime.
 

David Knight

First Sergeant
Joined
Feb 26, 2012
Location
Pontefract, Yorkshire.
The British Army rejected the Whitworth rifle for general use because it cost 4 times as much at the Enfield and it was also prone to the barrell getting clogged up unlike the Enfield. Therefore it is a specialist weapon best with a telescopic sight. I think trying to prove someone was killed by a specialist sniper without solid proof is a great game but ultimately difficult to be certain.
 

wausaubob

Lt. Colonel
Joined
Apr 4, 2017
Location
Denver, CO
The British Army rejected the Whitworth rifle for general use because it cost 4 times as much at the Enfield and it was also prone to the barrell getting clogged up unlike the Enfield. Therefore it is a specialist weapon best with a telescopic sight. I think trying to prove someone was killed by a specialist sniper without solid proof is a great game but ultimately difficult to be certain.
Nice quote from Shaw. 🇺🇸🇬🇧
 

ResearchPress

Private
Joined
Feb 10, 2011
Location
UK
What sources did you use, in each case?
. . . and what are the distances involved in each case?

I don’t know home many here have fired Whitworth or other such small-bore rifles at long range, but it’s a hard enough game on a rifle range with wind flags and when shooting at a big black circular aiming mark at a known distance. That’s left me somewhat sceptical about claims of some targeted shots - for Sedgwick for example walking around to rally his men, it seems just as likely he walked in front of the bullet rather than it being aimed at him.

A good topic for discussion and trying to sift out the know facts and supposition.

David
 

Story

Sergeant Major
Joined
Aug 5, 2011
Location
SE PA
Here's an example of what counts as a legit primary source, albeit published 20 years after the war.

Of note to this topic,
1) Solid account, albeit a Reb General officer
I was within ten steps of Gen. Doles when he was killed. A Federal sharpshooter had been picking off our men all day, and I had been trying for hours to locate him, but had failed to do so. I was in advance of our line a hundred yards, and was concealed behind a rock. Several times he had shot at me. About fourteen hundred yards in front of us was a strip of woods. I knew the sharpshooter was in them somewhere, but the tree tops prevented my seeing the smoke of his gun. He hadn’t shot at me in two hours, but confined his fire to the line in my rear.

“Gen. Doles advanced to where I was and asked me if I couldn’t silence that fellow, as he was doing terrible execution in his lines. I told him I had been trying to do it all day, but had failed. He asked me to do my best. He then stepped in front of me, and faced the woods, exposing his entire person. I told him he had better look, out as that fellow had shaved me very close several times, and it was dangerous to expose himself.

“I had scarcely spoken the words when a ball struck him in the right side, passing through his body and coming out under his left arm. Gen. Doles turned half around and fell forward, face downward, and never spoke –being killed instantly. I carried him off the field, and was detailed to carry his remains home. Gen. Doles was a fine officer.
"


2) "Mebbe"
I was shot through the body once. While I was in the hospital Charley Grace of LaGrange, Ga. Used my gun, and is said he killed Gen. Sedgwick, but others doubt it.
 

Story

Sergeant Major
Joined
Aug 5, 2011
Location
SE PA

Nathan Stuart

Private
Joined
Apr 14, 2020
Assuming all of these hits were from a Whitworth rifle may be a bit presumptive, unless there is proof of a hexagonal bullet, or a cylindrical Pritchett bullet marked by hex rifling being recovered.

There were other long range rifles in Confederate States and Government service; L.A.C. Kerr, Thomas Turner, George Daw, and personally owned rifles.
Agree that it could be considered a bit presumptuous, as you say, that all of these hits were from whitworths. I am saying that three of these hits were likely by whitworths; the other three were lesser possibilities with varying degrees of confidence.

Agree that the best proof will always be a hexagonal bullet or a cylindrical pritchard bullet marked by hex rifling being recovered at the scene (preferably from the body of the victim). In the absence of this best evidence, I have based my assertions on probabilities or likelihoods in the particular circumstances, including taking into account eyewitness accounts where applicable. My assertions are not certain though.

Agree that there were these other long range target rifles used by the Confederacy. But limited quantities too of such weapons were in southern use during the war. For example, I understand there were less kerrs than whitworths possessed by the South. Of these assorted target rifles, the costly whitworths were tested and considered to be the most accurate of them for the purpose of long range sharpshooting at the time. If these different rifles were known to be present in an area, the chances of a long-range sniper hit were more likely to be made by the highly skilled handler of the more accurate weapon, the whitworth.

Two websites that conveniently list Union generals (including brevets) killed or mortally wounded in action are:

1. civilwarhome.com/uniongenerals.html

This site lists 38 killed in action and 29 died of wounds for a total 67 Union general deaths.

2. thomaslegioncherokee.tripod.com/listofuniongeneralskilledormortallywoundedinbattle.html

This site lists 50 Union generals killed and mortally wounded in battle.

From this total number of Union general battle deaths, I identified 3 as likely, and 3 as possibly, due to whitworth fire. This is statistically quite plausible, given the number of whitworths in use, as well as the purpose they were acquired and the targets they chose. I have seen estimates of the number of whitworths in confederate service (in both eastern and western theaters) varying between 50 to 250. Without the perfect evidence (the spent bullet), all the available information can still be considered, as imperfect as it is, to formulate a viable conclusion. With statistics and the gathered circumstantial evidence at the time, such as contemporaneous eyewitness accounts, it is feasible to construct a likelihood, rather than certainty, of occurrence.
 

Nathan Stuart

Private
Joined
Apr 14, 2020
I believe the Whitworth gets far more credit that it’s due. There just weren’t that many of them in CS service. The men using them weren’t snipers but professional skirmishes and the P56/60 was far more prevalent and frankly a more effective arm.

the Whitworth has the cool factor but it’s game has only truly come about in our lifetime.
I agree that the whitworth has a cool factor, as you say, and it has been somewhat romanticized by a few modern writers.

The estimates vary that between 50 to 250 whitworths were in confederate use during the war. The more reliable estimates I’ve seen suggest between 75 to 150.

These were expensive imported rifles ($1,000 each) and the most accurate long-range rifles at the time. Only the best shots earned the right to carry these prized weapons by participating in target shooting competitions. Reported eyewitness accounts indicate that their acquisition were keenly sought by marksmen. Chosen riflemen then engaged in vigorous drilling (over several months) in handling them, including estimating target distances, to become proficient and effective in their use.

It is reasonable to believe that these very accurate long-range target rifles operated by trained highly skilled marksmen would have, at some time or other, inflicted casualties on chosen high-end targets, like Union generals.
 

Nathan Stuart

Private
Joined
Apr 14, 2020
The British Army rejected the Whitworth rifle for general use because it cost 4 times as much at the Enfield and it was also prone to the barrell getting clogged up unlike the Enfield. Therefore it is a specialist weapon best with a telescopic sight. I think trying to prove someone was killed by a specialist sniper without solid proof is a great game but ultimately difficult to be certain.
Agree entirely with what you say. It's difficult to be certain, without solid proof.
The best evidence would be authoritative certification of the spent round recovered from the target.
 

Nathan Stuart

Private
Joined
Apr 14, 2020
But Is that actually any solid evidence of any of it?

Sedgwick was most likely killed by a random bullet. He was behind a union regiment that was under fire... with the usual large number of bullets going high.
That a number of different men, post war claimed to have made the shot only undermine their claims.



oh,. and the elevation thing with Reynolds make no sense at all. You need to climb a very very tall tree to get that kind of effect.
Having him bend a bend forward is a much more logical explanation.

Death of Union Major-General John Sedgwick

It is widely recorded that eyewitnesses around Sedgwick at the time of his fatal shooting heard the distinctive long shrill whistling sound of whitworth bullets travelling through the air. These references are easy to find.

Although at least five whitworth marksmen claimed the kill, the most likely candidate is Ben Powell, a reputedly decent and honest person. The reported shot was estimated to be over 900 yards.

An extract from Ben Powell’s letter written to his wife in November, 1980, states:

…”I served until a few days before the battle of Gettysburg when I was presented with a long-range Whitworth rifle with a telescope and globe sights and with a roving commission as an independent sharpshooter and scout. This rifle killed Gen. Sedgewick at Spotsylvania Court House.”…

Powell’s account is corroborated by another Confederate sharpshooter, Berry Benson. Benson wrote an article, ‘Who Killed General Sedgwick’ which appeared in the ‘Augusta Chronicle’, Augusta, Georgia, on November 25, 1917. Relevant extracts from this article are shown below:

WHO KILLED GENERAL SEDGWICK

…”About 10 o'clock in the morning of the 9th of May, 1864, three days after the battle of the Wilderness, and three days before the battle of the Bloody Angle, Major-General John Sedgwick, commanding the sixth corps of Grant's Army, was killed, near Spottsylvania, by a single shot from a Confederate sharpshooter, over a half mile distant. History thus records, but history does not record who fired the fatal shot. Nor is it generally known, but we of the battalion of sharpshooters of McGowan's South Carolina Brigade, of which I was first sergeant, knew….

…In the distribution to Lee's Army of these Whitworth rifles two fell to our brigade; one a walnut stock, was given to Ben Powell, and one, an oak stock, to a young fellow of Edgefield district, named Cheatham. Both of these men were excellent shots, and they now became independent sharpshooters, to go where they pleased. and carry on war at their own sweet will….

On this 9th of May, Ben came in about noon, and walking up to me, he said:

"Sergeant, I got a big Yankee officer this morning."

"How do you know it was an officer?" I asked.

"I could tell by the way they behaved; they were all mounted; it was something over half a mile; I could see them good through the telescope; I could tell by the way they acted which was the head man; so I raised my sights and took the chance; and, sir, he tumbled right off his horse. The others dismounted and carried him away. I could see it all good through the glass."

"Oh Ben," I said, "you shot some cavalryman, and you think it was an officer."

"No, sir, he was an officer, and a big one too. I could tell."

That night the enemy's pickets called over to ours:

"Johnny, one of your sharpshooters killed General Sedgwick today."

So we knew that Ben did what he said.”…

The flaw in Benson’s corroborating account, however, is that he claimed Powell’s shot hit a mounted officer (Sedgwick was on foot at the relevant time). However, it is quite possible that his memory was hazy and his recollections of the finer details of the story were inaccurate, after so long a period.

Major W. S. Dunlop, commander of a battalion of sharpshooters in Lee’s Third Corps at Spotsylvania, also attributes the shot to Powell when he states in his authoritative work, ‘Lee’s Sharpshooters(1889) at page 49 that….”A few shots only had been fired at the group , when the ringing peal of Powell’s “Whitworth” was heard some distance to the right, the officer was seen to stagger and fall; and the brilliant career of that gallant and distinguished soldier, Maj. Gen. Sedgwick , commander of the fifth Federal army corps, was closed and closed forever. Powell reported at once that he had killed a Federal general, but we knew not his name or rank until it came out a few days later in the Northern papers, announcing that Gen. Sedgwick had been killed by a Confederate sharpshooter”…

Interestingly, Dunlop’s account correctly refers to a standing not a mounted target.

Death of Union Major-General John Reynolds

Some notable historians do claim that a sharpshooter’s minie ball fired from an elevated position killed Reynolds. I will not bother with their commentaries here.

Some of the contemporaneous accounts describing Reynold’s death at the time are shown as follows.

Major Joseph Rosengarten, who served on Reynold’s staff, was nearby but not present, at the time of Reynold’s death. He says of the general’s death in ‘Annals of War(1879) in the following extract:

…"The suddenness of the shock was in itself, perhaps, a relief to those who were nearest to Reynolds in the full flush of life and health, vigorously leading the attack of a comparatively small body, a glorious picture of the best type of military leader, superbly mounted, and horse and man sharing in the excitement of the shock of battle, Reynolds was, of course, a shining-mark to the enemy's sharpshooters. He had taken his troops into a heavy growth of timber on the slope of a hillside, and, under their regimental and brigade commanders, the men did their work well and promptly. Returning to join the expected divisions, he was struck by a Minnie ball, fired by a sharpshooter hidden in the branches of a tree almost overhead, and killed at once; his horse bore him to the little clump of trees, where a cairn of stones, and a rude mark on the bark, now almost overgrown, still tells the fatal spot.” ...

The best eyewitness account of Reynold’s death is probably given by his Orderly Sergeant, Charles H. Veil, who was with him at the time of his death. Below is a newspaper extract from Veil’s reproduced Letter written on April 7, 1864:

…“The Regiment charged into the (Herbst) woods nobly, but the enemy was too strong, and they had to give way to the right. The enemy still pushed on, and was now not much more than 60 paces from where the Gnl. was. Minnie balls were flying thick. The Gnl. turned to look towards the Seminary (I suppose to see if the other troops were coming on) and as he did so a Minnie Ball struck him in the back of the neck and he fell from his horse dead.”…

(The Gettysburg Times, Thursday, January 23, 1958, at page fifteen)

The artist, Alfred Waud, who accompanied the Union army at Gettysburg, shortly afterwards created a sketch, narrative and map detailing the death of Reynolds. This information can be digitally accessed publicly at the Library of Congress at:

https://www.loc.gov/item/2004660757/

A part of his narrative says,

…”the Iron Brigade (Meredith's), which Doubleday, who had command of the First Corps, was leading to action in a piece of wood skirting Willoughby Run, where Archer's (Rebel) Brigade, which had just crossed the Run was advancing in line of battle. At the moment when one regiment of this brigade, Fairchild's, accompanied by Doubleday, had entered the wood, and was becoming desperatley [sic.] engaged, Reynolds, with his staff, rode up to the neck of woods in Fairchild's rear, to examine the ground, and the disposition of the enemy, when he discovered the enemy advancing, and sweeping up on his left. Instantly wheeling to ride back, he received a ball in the back of his neck, from the direction in which he had seen the enemy, and was borne insensible from the field and soon after expired.”….

Perhaps the most compelling evidence supporting a possible elevated marksman shot is contained in a letter written on July 5, 1863, by Reynold’s sister, Jennie Gildersleeve, to her brother. After viewing the dead body she described the injury in this way, …“after the bullet hit him behind the right ear it passed down and around the skull and lodged in his chest”… She was indicating that the wound had a downward trajectory from the entry point at the neck. If her version is correct, then this suggests that the lethal shot was fired from a high position, like a tree, which is more probably the case because Reynolds was shot while mounted on his horse. This letter was apparently cited by Edwin B. Coddington in his book, ‘The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command, 1968. (I have not read this book).

This combination of information above reasonably suggests that the fatal shot originated from the Herbst woods (in front of Reynolds). The advancing ranks of Archer’s infantry brigade were approaching the woods from across Willoughbys Run and his skirmishers had infiltrated the tree lot at this time. I think Reynolds was felled by a targeted shot, rather than a random one. The saddled Reynolds would have made a conspicuous figure, shouting orders, as he approached the eastern edge of the trees. The fatal bullet was a precise head shot and none of his accompanying staff on horseback, Captains Mitchell and Baird and Sergeant Veil, were seriously hit, if at all (as far as I know). I believe it was fired by a skilled rifleman carrying a conventional weapon like an enfield (not a whitworth) who was probably a skirmisher in Archer’s brigade entering the woods directly in front of Reynolds. The resourceful shooter saw a tempting opportunity then temporaily perched himself high in a tall tree within the copse to get a clearer aim at his singled out target. Although one cannot be certain, this is a possible explanation.

The Bottom Line

The only way to be certain whether a whitworth was responsible for any kill is to have an authoritative account (eg in a medical autopsy report) that identifies the type of bullet recovered from the body. Without this evidence, one can only consider possibilities and likelihoods from the circumstantial evidence available, which sometimes might be unreliable.
 

Nathan Stuart

Private
Joined
Apr 14, 2020
. . . and what are the distances involved in each case?

I don’t know home many here have fired Whitworth or other such small-bore rifles at long range, but it’s a hard enough game on a rifle range with wind flags and when shooting at a big black circular aiming mark at a known distance. That’s left me somewhat sceptical about claims of some targeted shots - for Sedgwick for example walking around to rally his men, it seems just as likely he walked in front of the bullet rather than it being aimed at him.

A good topic for discussion and trying to sift out the know facts and supposition.

David
David,
From the accounts I've read, I believe Sedgwick was likely targeted by a whitworth with a telescopic sight, at a range of between 900 to 1,000 yards. This was well within the rifle's accurate range of almost twice this distance.
 

Nathan Stuart

Private
Joined
Apr 14, 2020
I study a regiment that served under Rice at the Wilderness and Spotsylvania. The accounts I've read suggest his wound was from artillery fire.
Thank you for your post about Rice.
I considered him the least likely whitworth casualty on my list. I included him because there were known whitworths in the vicinity where he was killed and I had no definitive account of his death at the time of posting.
Since then I found a record of his funeral service providing details of his battlefield death. The website link is:
According to his Pastor's narrative, Rice died of wounds received from a Minnie rifle ball to the thigh. His leg was surgically amputated almost instantly, but he lost too much blood and he died two hours later.
Hope this provides clarification.
 
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