The Western Sharpshooters at Fort Donelson

     One of General John Fremont’s special projects during his tenure as commander of the Union army in Missouri was the formation of a dedicated regiment of sharpshooters. In the fall of 1861, nine companies of this regiment had gathered at Benton Barracks in St. Louis where Colonel John M. Birge was placed in command of “Birge’s Sharpshooters,” eventually known as the 66th Illinois Volunteer Infantry. The sharpshooters came from throughout the midwestern states; Ohio sent three companies, Michigan sent a company, Missouri provided three companies and Illinois provided three more. The Missouri companies also had men in the ranks from neighboring states. The arrival of General Henry W. Halleck in Missouri soon put the kibosh to most of Fremont’s pet schemes, but as organization was too far advanced to abandon the effort, the "Western Sharpshooters" were mustered into service and went into the field under Birge’s command.

          “The arm was the American deer and target rifle,” T.M. Eddy wrote in 1866. “The accoutrements were not the kind prescribed by army regulations but consisted of a bullet pouch with a bear skin covering, a powder horn, or in some cases a flask. In the bullet pouch was a compartment where the soldier carried his tools such as screwdrivers, bullet molds, and a patch cutter- singular implements for a soldier, but Birge’s boys molded their own bullets, greased them, and patched them with as much care as an old hunter would, and used them as effectively. It was the design to give them a complete hunter’s dress, but this was vetoed by Halleck; and the only thing peculiar about the dress was the hat which was a gray sugarloaf-shaped affair with three squirrel tails running both from front and back and meeting at the apex of the crown in an indescribable knot.” Horace E. Dimick of St. Louis built 1,000 of what we called Plains Rifles for the regiment, and the sharpshooters carried them until 1863 when they were replaced with privately purchased .44 caliber Henry repeating rifles. 

          With distinctive arms and a somewhat distinctive appearance, the “Squirrel Tails” went into service in Missouri in December 1861 and found ample work within the army. Scattered in detachments around Centralia, the men spent their time “hunting Rebels.” Their first real fight was on December 28, 1861 at Mount Zion Church under the command of General Benjamin Prentiss; but soon the regiment was sent east to take part in the Federal operations against Forts Henry and Donelson. Attached to Colonel Jacob Lauman’s brigade, the 66th Illinois marched to Fort Donelson on February 12, 1862 and took up their position on the Federal left and commenced their work. “The squirrel tails scattered themselves out along the entire front of General Charles F. Smith’s division and crawling stealthily up, would sometimes get into position within 50 yards of the Rebels works,” Eddy recalled. “Every man had his hiding place and keeping a sharp lookout and aiming with a steady hand, they kept the guns in front of the division silent the entire three days of the siege. Although the regiment performed good service here, the loss was very light.”

          To provide some further insight into the regiment’s services as Fort Donelson, I’d like to highlight three accounts from different members of the regiment.


Corporal George L. Childress, Co. I, 66th Illinois Volunteer Infantry. His company was raised in Lawrence Co., Illinois. 

“The sharpshooters opened the fight in the morning at 7 o’clock and did excellent service. We silenced the cannon of the enemy at three different places by killing their gunners. At one battery, we killed every gunner they put at it. It was an awful sight to see the shot and shells flying in every direction tearing off trees and dealing out death and destruction everywhere. We were in the fight every day but kept among the timber which the Rebels had cut down around their entrenchments. Our regiment gained some reputation in this engagement, but the Secesh did not like our rifles at all.” ~ Private Jacob A. Smith, Co. G

A Horace Dimick-produced Plains Rifle. "The Secesh did not like our rifles at all," one private wrote.

“At 8 o’clock our boys were ordered forward and went in with a will. The fort is on a hill with timber all around it which the Rebels had cut down for about 200 yards from the fortifications. The boys secreted themselves behind this fallen timbers and it would have done you good to have seen them picking off the Rebels. They poured grape shot among us but it did no good. The boys were down among the timber so there was no danger of them getting hurt. We soon made them leave their cannons and seek shelter behind their embankment. There were but five in our regiment wounded, two of whom have since died. We seem to be protected by some means for our boys were in the fight the whole time though they were not so exposed as the infantry. I have slept but little the past five days. We left our tents at Fort Henry and we have had to sleep in the woods as best we could. I took a ride over the battlefield this morning as they were burying the dead. The sight was awful. Our men and theirs lay in all directions around the fort.” ~First Lieutenant Thomas D. Mitchell, Co. H


“There is a grandeur in a battle one cannot express, and yet from the very bottom of his heart he can feel it. The whiz of the musket ball, the loud screech of the shell, and the dull, heavy sound of the cannon ball and grape makes one fully realize his dangerous position, and yet drives all fear from his mind. When he feels there is danger and that his life is so very insecure comes the noble thought ‘my country, my glorious country must be saved.” ~ Captain Ensign Concklin, Co. C

A dropped Dimick bullet molded by one of the Western Sharpshooters. This particular example was dug in the vicinity of Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee. 


Eddy, T.M. The Patriotism of Illinois: A Record of the Civil and Military History of the State in the War for the Union. Chicago: Clarke & Co., Publishers, 1866, pg. 65

Letter from Private Jacob A. Smith, Co. G, 66th Illinois Volunteer Infantry, Dayton Daily Journal (Ohio), February 24, 1862, pg. 2

Letter from First Lieutenant Thomas D. Mitchell, Co. H, 66th Illinois Volunteer Infantry, Dayton Daily Journal (Ohio), February 25, 1862, pg. 2

Letter from Captain Ensign Conklin, Co. C, 66th Illinois Volunteer Infantry, Rock Island Evening Argus (Illinois), February 25, 1862, pg. 2


  1. George Childress is an ancestor, I have a typescript of his diary kept throughout the war.

    1. You should digitize it, if you haven't already! Transcribe that thing for others to read


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