Or Just Another Tall Tale Teller
Thursday, January 8, 2015
Or Just Another Tall Tale Teller
Or Just Another Tall Tale Teller
John West could tell a tale or two. He claimed he was the Confederacy's best rifleman having killed generals and scores of officers and privates as well. Is the story of John West, alias "Kildee," an accurate story of a sharpshooting soldier or just an inflated fable of early yellow journalism to sell books, or merely the boastful reminiscences of an aging veteran of a horrible war?
West was born in Twiggs County, Georgia. When the Civil War broke out, West enlisted in the Confederate Army in Louisiana, but decided that it was best for him to transfer back his native land to fight the Yankees. On July 9, 1861, John West enlisted as a private in the Twiggs Volunteers, officially known as Company C of the 4th Georgia Volunteer Infantry. Also known as "the "Jorees" because of the resemblance of their uniform coats with their three black stripes on the tails to a beautiful bird of the era, the Twiggs Volunteers were assigned to the brigade commanded by A.R. Wright of Georgia. Their first taste of battle and blood began in the last week of June 1862. In a series of engagements along the peninsula of Virginia east of Richmond, the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac slugged it out in a prelude of the deadly battles to come. The battles, known as the Seven Days' Battles, culminated on July 1, 1862 at a small prominence known as Malvern Hill. In the fighting, West suffered his first substantial wound.
Many of the rifles which were used by Confederate soldiers had a limited range. It was in 1862 when General Robert E. Lee received a shipment of thirteen English Whitworth rifles, guaranteed to kill a man at a range of 1,800 yards and arguably the finest rifle that a soldier could possess. West was selected among an elite group of marksmen to train for three months on how to handle the coveted weapon. As the training came to end, West was ahead of the other dozen sharpshooters. In the final test a white board with a two-foot square diamond in the center was placed 1500 yards away. Shooting through a stiff wind, West scored three bulls' eyes, with the remaining shots striking the board. As the winner of the contest, West was given the choice of a horse, a rifle, a saber, a revolver and all of the finest accouterments.
Sharpshooters were an integral part of military operations. The men were often placed at strategic points to kill officers, silencing batteries, and especially picking off the sharpshooters on the other side. Artillerymen were easy targets, but when riled, would turn their canon on a sharpshooter and blow him a way. On one occasion, West and a associate killed the entire compliment of soldiers in a battery, allowing the infantry to take command of that part of the field.
West told the editors of Camp Fire Sketches and Battlefield Echoes, "I soon became indifferent to anger and inured to hardships and privations. I have killed men from ten paces to a mile. I have no idea of how many I killed, but I made a good many bite the dust." The sharpshooter's greatest fear was another sharpshooter. In the days before the advent of camouflage material, a sharpshooter would climb a tree and pin leaves to disguise his uniform. When two sharpshooters encountered an enemy sharpshooter, one would raise a hat on a stick or his ramrod to draw his antagonist's fire. Once the opponent revealed his position, the second marksman would point his sight directly at his head and fire.
"I've shot 'em out of trees and seem 'em fall like coons," West boasted. Occasionally West would be called upon to pick off targets while lying in a bed of tall grasses. Sparks from the discharge of his rifle frequently ignited the dry grasses and alerted the enemy of his whereabouts. West would then roll his body rapidly while Union riflemen poured round after round into the smoke. West claimed that he killed two Union Generals, General James Shields and Nathaniel P. Banks. The crack shot was sure he got General Shields as he was the only sharpshooter on the line that day and only a round from his rifle could have killed a man at that range. Shields was in command of a Union division near Winchester, Virginia in the late summer of 1864. He was wounded, but he was not killed. He went on to represent Missouri in the U.S. Senate and died fifteen years after his wound at Winchester. No record exists of any wounds suffered by General Nathaniel P. Banks, though his division was thwarted by Stonewall Jackson's Army at the Battle of Cedar Mountain in August 1862. Banks served ten terms in the U.S. Congress and lived for nearly three decades after the close of the war.
At Cold Harbor, Virginia, West found himself and a Colonel Brown on the wrong side of the Union lines. West and Brown, wearing blue coats, attempted to fool a Union officer into believing that they were officers and needed to pass in front of the Federal wagon train. When the ruse was revealed, Col. Brown fired his revolver striking the Yankee officer. A hail of bullets was heaped upon Brown and West, who were attempting to flee for their lives. Brown's horse went down and both men tumbled to the ground. Thought to be spies, Brown and West were put under a close guard during the night by four Union soldiers. Deciding that trying to dodge four bullets in the dark was preferable to twenty bullets of a firing squad at dawn, the captives crawled on their bellies evading the inattentive sentinels and made their way to freedom.
During the fighting at the second battle of Cold Harbor, West was positioned at the front of the Confederate lines. For hours, West futilely tried to pick off a Union sharpshooter who had been killing his comrades all day. " I was behind a large rock. Several times he shot at me. He was out there about 1,400 yards in the woods, but I couldn't see his smoke for the treetops," West lamented. After two hours of silence, General George Doles, of Milledgeville, Georgia, appeared on the scene and asked West to silence that devilish tormentor of his men. "He asked me to do my best, and I told him that had been trying to do that all day," John remembered. It was then that Doles stepped in front of West and exposed himself. West warned the general to look out and take cover. At that instant a mini ball struck the general in the right side and passed through his body killing him instantly. West carried General Doles from the field and escorted his body home for burial in Milledgeville.
Though he may have never killed a general, John West believed it was his gun which fired the fatal shot which killed Major General John Sedgwick at the Battle of Spotsylvania on May 9, 1864. While some doubted the story, West lent his gun to Charley Grace while he was in the hospital and it was true that Grace fired the fatal shot.
John West surrendered with his company at Appomattox C.H. on April 9, 1865. He tried to conceal his prized rifle in a blanket, but it was discovered and confiscated. He spent the rest of his life trying to get his gun back. After the war, West returned to Twiggs County to farm. West enjoyed attending Confederate reunions and telling stories of his days as one of the best sharpshooters in the army. He died in 1912 and is buried in the family cemetery on Fountain Road, 2.3 miles west of the intersection of Highway 18 and Fountain Road.