Both Union and Confederates had excellent sharpshooters during the Civil War. The North had an advantage because the very fine Sharps rifle was produced in Connecticut. But the favored weapon of the Rebel sharpshooters was the British-made Whitworth, known as the most accurate rifle in the world. (See picture below.)
Union General Sedgwick would to find out just how true this was at the 1864 Battle of Spotsylvania Court House in Virginia.
Bullets for the Whitworth were hexagonal in shape, not round. So they made a distinctive, whistle as they sliced through the air. A soldier who heard that sound was smart to take cover.
General Sedgwick was with his aide, General McMahon, when he decided to change placement of some of his troops near an artillery unit. Just as they arrived at the position, the Rebels started firing from a range of 500 to 1000 yards. Some of those Rebs were sharpshooters, so when the Federal artillerymen heard that unmistakable whistle, they dropped to the ground.
Sedgwick teased his men for dodging at this distance. General McMahon, described what happened next:
“A few seconds after, a man who had been separated from his regiment passed directly in front of the general, and at the same moment a sharpshooter’s bullet passed with a long shrill whistle very close, and the soldier, who was then just in front of the general, dodged to the ground.”
“The general touched him gently with his foot, and said, ‘Why, my man, I am ashamed of you, dodging that way…They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.’ The man rose and saluted and said good-naturedly, ‘General, I dodged a shell once, and if I hadn’t, it would have taken my head off. I believe in dodging.’’
The general laughed and replied, ‘All right, my man; go to your place.’”
As the man walked away, another “shrill whistle, closing with a dull, heavy stroke, interrupted our talk,” Sedgwick fell, mortally wounded.
Yes, General, it’s a virtue to be brave on the battlefield, but maybe more importantly, it’s OK to know when to duck!