Eugene Blackford opposed secession and, coming from an abolitionist family, the institution of slavery. He was a Unionist and resisted joining the “Cotton Confederacy” until the secession of his home state of Virginia made up his mind, after which his loyalty to the cause never wavered.
While a teacher in Clayton, Alabama, Blackford raised and trained a company of men, the Barbour Greys, which eventually became part of the 5th Alabama Infantry, part of Rodes’s-Battle’s brigade. Blackford participated in, and penned vivid accounts of, First Manassas, Seven Pines, Gaines’s Mill and Malvern Hill, miraculously escaping each without injury. He left descriptions not only of the battles but also of the marches, the hardships, food, camp life and the oft-divisive politics of his regiment. He also left indelible and sometimes acerbic sketches of his leaders, including Earl Van Dorn, D. H. Hill, Jubal Early and Robert Rodes. Laid low by Typhoid fever at the end of the Seven Days’ battles, Blackford received a promotion to major. Returning to his regiment just before the battle of Fredericksburg (his home town), he wrote a first-hand account of the battle and its aftermath in the city.
After the battle General Robert Rodes assigned Blackford to organize and train a picked unit of skirmishers and marksmen, the Sharpshooters. Drawn from the best men in the brigade and intended for scouting, screening, and picketing, the Sharpshooters assiduously practiced marksmanship and skirmish drill, attaining an unprecedented level of skill and proficiency in both. Blackford’s battalion, the first so constituted in the Army of Northern Virginia, received its baptism of fire at Chancellorsville, screening Stonewall Jackson’s famous flank march around the Union flank and providing security while he organized his attack, something his letters describe with justifiable pride. So successful were they that eventually General Lee ordered sharpshooter battalions to be organized in all his infantry brigades. They became the elite of the army, covering its advance and retreat, protecting it at rest and on the march, as well as picking off enemy officers and artillerymen.
Author Fred Ray quoted extensively from Blackford’s writings in his previous Civil War book, Shock Troops of the Confederacy (CFS Press 2006) and became interested in the man himself. He spent several years tracking down Blackford’s papers and memorabilia in various archives, auctions, and private collections. In addition to his military commentary, Blackford’s letters address politics, family matters, society and the social relations of upper-class Virginia.
This volume, the first of three, covers the period from January 1861 (just before the beginning of the war) to the end of the Chancellorsville campaign in late May 1863. Two forthcoming volumes will cover Blackford’s letters from the rest of the war, his court martial and reinstatement, and his diary-memoir.