In 1864, during the battle of Spotsylvania, Union General John Sedgwick berated his cowering troops for trying to stay hidden from Confederate sharpshooters positioned over 1,000 yards away. Sedgwick marched up and down the barricades telling them, “What? Men dodging this way for single bullets. . .I am ashamed of you. They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.” Seconds later he was felled with a sniper’s shot, likely fired from the deadly, and elusive, Whitworth rifle.
The Whitworth was a British-made, single-shot and muzzle-loaded rifle that was used almost exclusively by Confederate sharpshooters. They were also rare during the Civil War as there were only about 200 imported to the States, and there are very few left in good condition today. In early trials—Queen Victoria fired the first test shot—the Whitworth outperformed the Enfield rifle by hitting targets up to 2,000 yards away and it was greatly feared by Union troops facing the well provisioned and well practiced (and nearly invisible) sharpshooters firing at them from impossible distances.
In my new historical novel, Lucinda, (to be published September 2013) the Whitworth rifle plays an important part of the narrative, both as an instrument of death as well an object of beauty and skill. In many ways it proved to be my most challenging endeavor to date: confronting authentically the violence and uncertainty of the time as a researcher and writer, and reconciling those sensibilities with my own (more modern-day) discomfort with gun play.