Discussion Union Generals killed by Whitworth Sharpshooters

thomas aagaard

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 19, 2013
Location
Denmark
I live near the Spotsylvania battlefield. The marker where Reynolds supposedly fell is at an elevation of 257 ‘. Laurel hill, where sharpshooters were posted is 282’. Add a possibility that the marksman was in a tree would boost the elevation on Laurel hill at least 10-15 feet.
I said supposedly where Reynolds fell because the exact spot was in question when the marker was placed, but assuming it was within a dozen or so feet doesn’t change the elevation one iota.
no were near sufficient to get a bullet to fly close to straight down.
If we where talking straight lines. Then at 900yards the shooter would need to be 900 yards up in the air to get a 45 degree downwards angle.

Obviously a bullet fly in a parabolic arch so a bit less can do it, but it still don't change the physics. For a bullet to hit the head and then the body the shooter would have to be way higher than a hill and a tree.
Or the target was bending forward...
or most likely the bullet got deflected by the skull down into the body.
 

Story

Sergeant Major
Joined
Aug 5, 2011
Location
SE PA
Yes, you are correct. I used this source here, merely for the convenience of the reference.

There are plenty of other credible websites that refer to Ben Powell’s letter.

My point was your transcription of dates (1980 / 1907).

Furthermore, Benson died on January 1, 1923 and his daughter-in-law Susan Williams Benson published portions of his war journal under the title Berry Benson's Civil War Book in 1962 (https://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/history-archaeology/berry-benson-1843-1923).
Confederate sharpshooter, Berry Benson, in his biography, ‘Berry Benson’s Civil War Book: Memoirs of a Confederate Scout and Sharpshooter’ (2007)

Note that there was another version published in 1993 (https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt46n61m ).

ETA / You should get a JSTOR account - they're free - and do the same searches as detailed below.

As for getting better period accounts, I suggest you thoroughly scour newspapers.com

1) Set your dates for 1863 to 1866 at first.

2) Both Northern and Southern newspapers may yield results, as they frequently copied each others' articles (often with but sometimes without attribution). Be sure to check London papers as well - they loved lurid tales, particularly when it came to one of their products killing Yankees.

3) Search terms should be run in this sequence. Successful results using newspapers.com requires a two pronged approach - thinking "smart" (correctly spelled words, narrow focus of search terms) and then 'stupid' (misspellings, vague parameters).
Whitworth
Whitworth Sniper
Whitworth Sniper General
Whitworth Sniper General (specific name)

4) Repeat the previous search, in five year blocks (1867 - 1872, 1873-1878, ad nauseum).
 
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Story

Sergeant Major
Joined
Aug 5, 2011
Location
SE PA
A fair point.

The surest way to discover what occurred is to obtain direct evidence, like eyewitness contemporaneous accounts (including corroborations), ballistic tests and visual footage.

Unfortunately most of these evidential forms were not available at the time.

Instead, we have to largely rely on often unreliable witness accounts and imperfect information, as well as the circumstantial evidence.

Many eyewitness and other witness versions of events are recalled long after the event. Their recollections often contain twists and embellishments of facts or fanciful notions, and were frequently done with failing memories. Subsequent publishers of these reproduced witness accounts would commonly distort their stories further to sell more publications.

Even later commentators writing about these past events tend to interpret the available information according to their own biases and predilictions.

It is on the basis of this mainly imperfect information and the circumstantial evidence that we can make sensible suggestions about what possibly happened – but unless you were there, you can never know for certain.

You might want to pretend you're a prosecuting attorney and we are the (first) jury.
Try to prove means (being issued a Whitworth), motive (named individuals and their assigned units) and opportunity (within range at that date). Post-event claims count as confessions of guilt.

Start with the low-hanging fruit first.

General John Sedgewick (KIA May 9, 1864 Spotsylvania Court House, VA)
- witness to death: Brevet Major-General Martin T McMahon, U.S.V. [Chief-of-Staff, Sixth Corps],

- Suspect 1
Ben Powell 12th South Carolina.
He claimed credit, although his account has been discounted because the general he shot at was mounted, possibly Brig General William H Morris (shot and wounded in the right knee by a sharpshooter, May 9th 1864 Spotsylvania Court House)

Supporting accounts -

Confederate sharpshooter battalion commander, Major W. S. Dunlop, in his authorative work, ‘Lee’s Sharpshooters’ (1889) was present at the scene and claimed Powell shot Sedgwick (at page 49).

Confederate sharpshooter, Berry Benson, in his biography, ‘Berry Benson’s Civil War Book: Memoirs of a Confederate Scout and Sharpshooter’ (2007) who was also at the scene, attests (at page 68) that Powell reported to him that day his lethal shot on Sedgwick which was confirmed later that night by Union pickets.

See https://www.jstor.org/stable/41395894?seq=1

- Suspect 2
Thomas Burgess 15th South Carolina, cited by some veterans.

&etc, &etc...
 
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Story

Sergeant Major
Joined
Aug 5, 2011
Location
SE PA
Note @Southron 's post on what rifle Benson returned with in 1865

Your previous thread on Whitworths at Franklin, for reference in this conversation.
 

Story

Sergeant Major
Joined
Aug 5, 2011
Location
SE PA
A good topic for discussion and trying to sift out the know facts and supposition.

David

Now I know why I recognized your avatar name. Duh.
  • Whitworth Rifle Warnings - Bill Curtis and De Witt Bailey have an ongoing research project concerning original Whitworth rifles. Warning! - The Whitworth Research Project has identified problems with several rifles that have appeared on the open market from time to time.

See this one?
 
Joined
Jul 19, 2016
Location
Spotsylvania Virginia
no were near sufficient to get a bullet to fly close to straight down.
If we where talking straight lines. Then at 900yards the shooter would need to be 900 yards up in the air to get a 45 degree downwards angle.

Obviously a bullet fly in a parabolic arch so a bit less can do it, but it still don't change the physics. For a bullet to hit the head and then the body the shooter would have to be way higher than a hill and a tree.
Or the target was bending forward...
or most likely the bullet got deflected by the skull down into the body.
Thanks. I didn’t mean to imply that it was a sufficient angle given the height. I was just trying to clearly the different heights from where Sedgwick stood and Laurel hill.
Have any fired Whitworth bullets been recovered in the vicinity of Sedgewick's demise?
yes sir. I have one I personally dug.
 
Joined
Jul 19, 2016
Location
Spotsylvania Virginia
Thanks. I didn’t mean to imply that it was a sufficient angle given the height. I was just trying to clearly the different heights from where Sedgwick stood and Laurel hill.

yes sir. I have one I personally dug.
Also had two dropped ones from near Laurel hill. A friend dug both. I purchased both from him and traded both in separate deals.
The property where Sedgwick fell is NPS. But there is private property immediately close by to the west and north. Most of the immediate area at the top of Laurel hill is also NPS. But most of the south side of Laurel hill is private property that my wife’s company once owned.
 

Nathan Stuart

Private
Joined
Apr 14, 2020
Sorry guys my major goof. I meant Sedgwick in my earlier reply in elevation between Sedgwick ‘s position and Laurel hill. Only had 1/2 cup of coffee this morning 😳
Thank you for sharing your insights.

I believe that a vital part of attempting to put together the puzzle of what happened is to visit (if possible) the battlefield to witness and experience its topography and physical features. Ideally, reasonable reading should be done beforehand, to become more familiar with these past events. After any visit, all the gathered information can be referred to again, to reflect upon. This is one way to gain a better appreciation of what occurred there.
 

Nathan Stuart

Private
Joined
Apr 14, 2020
Thanks. I didn’t mean to imply that it was a sufficient angle given the height. I was just trying to clearly the different heights from where Sedgwick stood and Laurel hill.

yes sir. I have one I personally dug.
Thanks for this information.
I remember reading somewhere that spent whitworth rounds were recovered in the vicinity.
Given the frenetic activity of this battle and the known presence of a number of whitworth riflemen operating in the area, it is reasonable to expect that discharged whitworth projectiles would be found on this field.
 

Nathan Stuart

Private
Joined
Apr 14, 2020
You might want to pretend you're a prosecuting attorney and we are the (first) jury.
Try to prove means (being issued a Whitworth), motive (named individuals and their assigned units) and opportunity (within range at that date). Post-event claims count as confessions of guilt.

Start with the low-hanging fruit first.

General John Sedgewick (KIA May 9, 1864 Spotsylvania Court House, VA)
- witness to death: Brevet Major-General Martin T McMahon, U.S.V. [Chief-of-Staff, Sixth Corps],

- Suspect 1
Ben Powell 12th South Carolina.
He claimed credit, although his account has been discounted because the general he shot at was mounted, possibly Brig General William H Morris (shot and wounded in the right knee by a sharpshooter, May 9th 1864 Spotsylvania Court House)

Supporting accounts -

Confederate sharpshooter battalion commander, Major W. S. Dunlop, in his authorative work, ‘Lee’s Sharpshooters’ (1889) was present at the scene and claimed Powell shot Sedgwick (at page 49).

Confederate sharpshooter, Berry Benson, in his biography, ‘Berry Benson’s Civil War Book: Memoirs of a Confederate Scout and Sharpshooter’ (2007) who was also at the scene, attests (at page 68) that Powell reported to him that day his lethal shot on Sedgwick which was confirmed later that night by Union pickets.

See https://www.jstor.org/stable/41395894?seq=1

- Suspect 2
Thomas Burgess 15th South Carolina, cited by some veterans.

&etc, &etc...
Thank you for the extra information about the search tools.

I appreciate your legal analogy and use of analysis.

Upon closer examination, I now think that the evidence presented suggesting Ben Powell was the shooter is suspect.

The accounts by Dunlop and Berry, although both present at the scene at the time, are hearsay – they heard it said/reported by Powell or others at the time (Dunlop and Benson are witnesses, not eyewitnesses – that’s indirect evidence).

In Dunlop’s previously reported reference to Ben Powell (at page 49), he wrote:

..…”We discovered an angle protruding from their main line towards the right of the battalion, which brought a four gun battery with its infantry supports placed there for the defense of the salient, barely within reach of our long range rifles. And to these Ben Powell with his “Whitworth” and a few files on the right paid their respects. Presently an officer of rank with his staff approached the salient, and adjusting his field glasses began to take observations of the front. 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 , commandant 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; which fact, so published at the time, has gone into history, but the name of “the man behind the gun” has never before been mentioned.”…..

We can dissect Dunlop’s description above to learn the following:

- the shots were at long range;

- multiple shots was made by both Ben Powell (with his whitworth) and rank soldiers;

- the shot target was a high ranking officer, among a group, approaching an artillery

battery placed in a salient (no mention of whether or not he was mounted);

- the shot officer was making observations with his field glasses at the relevant time;

- the distinctive loud sound of Powell’s whitworth being fired was heard some

distance away at the relevant time;

- Powell reported soon after his shot that he killed a Federal general (unidentified);

- Northern newspapers, a few days later, reported that Sedgwick was killed by an

unknown Confederate sharpshooter.

This information does not provide much support for Powell’s later assertion that he shot Sedgwick. The described officer killed was probably not Sedgwick. Sedgwick was known to be standing shouting orders, not making observations through field glasses, at the relevant time. There were also various shots concurrently made, including Powell’s whitworth, at the time at whomever was the target.

In Benson’s previously cited biography, it was written (at page 68),

…..”This day Ben Powell came in from sharpshooting and told us he had killed (or wounded) a Yankee officer. He had fired at long range at a group of horseman whom he recognized as officers. At his shot, one fell from his horse, and the others dismounted and bore him away. That night the enemy’s pickets called over to ours that Major General Sedgwick, commanding the 6th​ corps, was killed that day by a sharpshooter.”…..

Obviously this account is pure hearsay, and carries little evidential weight. If this recollection is accepted as accurate, the reference to the target being a mounted officer eliminates entirely the possibility that this was the shot that killed Sedgwick (he was on foot at the time).

Because neither of these witness accounts, including Powell’s own, could identify who was shot at the time, it is very tempting and convenient for them to form the conclusion that it was Sedgwick, after learning later he was killed that same day. It seems Powell, who post-war was reputedly an honest person of good character, came to believe this upon acquiring this knowledge afterwards (hence the claim about his rifle in the letter to his wife after the war).

I am prepared to accept, on the basis of this information, that it’s less likely (without ruling out entirely) Ben Powell shot Sedgwick. I think the other suspected whitworth shooters need to be investigated further to look for an answer.
 
Joined
Jul 19, 2016
Location
Spotsylvania Virginia
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.
@Nathan Stuart - what an interesting and thought provoking thread. Keep ‘em coming.
 

hrobalabama

First Sergeant
Joined
Aug 12, 2014
Location
Andalusia, AL
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.
Also, the P-53 was accurate at long range when fired by a marksman.
 

Nathan Stuart

Private
Joined
Apr 14, 2020
Berry Benson’s earlier hearsay claim that Ben Powell killed General Sedgwick with his whitworth by shooting the General off his horse is authoritatively refuted in a published first-hand account by a Union soldier present at the death scene.

An eyewitness account of the killing of General Sedgwick was provided by, as he then was, Lieutenant Thomas A. Prideaux (138th​ Pennsylvania, Company E) of Edensburg, Pennsylvania in the ‘Confederate Veteran’, Vol. 26, (1918) at page 197.

Prideaux said, …”I was within sixty feet of General Sedgwick when he was killed in the Spotsylvania battle, in May, 1864, and if the officer to whom was referred to (by Benson) as being killed was on horseback it was not General Sedgwick, as he was not on horseback when killed. The General was sitting at the bottom of a large tree with his back against its trunk, the limbs and boughs of the tree coming within five or six feet of the ground. A few minutes before he was killed General Morris had been shot in the leg supposedly by a Confederate sharpshooter. When General Morris was shot, Adjutant General McMahon said to General Sedgwick that he had better get away from where he was sitting , as the Confederates had a range on him, and it was dangerous to stay there. General Sedgwick replied that ‘those chaps over there could not hit an elephant over here’; but very soon after this a bullet struck him under one eye, and he died immediately. I was ordered to take his body in one of the ambulance wagons to the landing to be sent home”….
 

Nathan Stuart

Private
Joined
Apr 14, 2020
Regarding the killing of Union Brigadier-General Lytle by a whitworth sharpshooter, there is an account from a secondary source published four years afterwards.

A relevant written excerpt from the work, ‘Shelby And His Men’ or ‘The War in the West’ by John N. Edwards (originally published in 1867) at pp 158 - 159, is reproduced below:

…” Commanding a corps at Chickamauga, he (Hindman) was moving up to engage under a terrific fire….

…Hindman knew his danger and he knew the remedy. In his ranks was a company of skirmishers armed with the Whitworth rifles, and, fortunately, not ten rods away, a Lieutenant of this company was operating with a dozen marksmen. Hindman called him up , ordered him to fire upon the Federal commander and kill him possible, well knowing the effect of his death upon the men. Cooly, as if on dress parade, the young officer stepped out with his men to the front and took deliberate aim under a galling fire. Twelve rifles cracked simultaneously. Rider and steed went down together, and the black mane of the horse waved over Lytle. Three bullets struck him – seven his horse – a wonderful fire and remarkable for terrible accuracy.This daring and gallant officer was Major General Wm. H. Lytle.......His fall had the desired effect. His division, no longer inspired by the heroic example of its leader, halted and retreated in disorder…....Kind and generous to the body of his fallen enemy, he (Hindman) placed a guard over it, removed Lytle’s saber and pistols, and afterwards sent them, together with the body, under a flag of truce, to his sisters in Cincinnati”….
 
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