Joseph P. Byrd IV grew up listening to his father recount childhood memories about "Uncle William," a "Confederate War hero" (p. vii). Aided by a previously unpublished manuscript produced in the 1960s by a second cousin, an unreconstructed Byrd proudly recounts the Civil War experiences of his ancestor, Major William E. Simmons.
In the first two of twenty-five very short chapters, Byrd briefly relates the early life of Simmons, who was born to a prominent family in Gwinnett County, Georgia, received his education at Emory College, and edited the Lawrenceville (Georgia) News, established by his father, himself a prominent attorney, politician, slave owner, and cotton mill owner. In contrast to his Unionist-leaning father—an interesting individual deserving of greater attention—the younger Simmons took an uncompromising stance on the expansion of slavery and supported John C. Breckinridge's candidacy in the presidential election of 1860. Byrd moves hurriedly through secession and employs only one direct quotation from Simmons's newspaper, noting that secession was "the only safe and honorable course left to the South" (p. 9).
Simmons's service in the American Civil War constitutes the bulk of this conventional military biography. In the spring of 1861 Simmons was elected a lieutenant in the Gwinnett Volunteers, which became part of the Sixteenth Georgia Infantry. As part of the Army of Northern Virginia, Simmons's regiment saw action in most of the war's major engagements, including the [End Page 430] Seven Days, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Chattanooga, Knoxville, the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, and Cold Harbor.
In 1863 Simmons received promotion to captain of the newly formed Third Georgia Sharpshooter Battalion, commanded by a fellow Georgian, Brigadier General W. T. Wofford. Byrd provides some interesting details about sharpshooter training exercises, particularly range finding; however, beyond noting that the Third Battalion was "in the thick of the action," Simmons's battlefield activities remain rather amorphous (p. 143). During Wofford's poorly planned attack on George Armstrong Custer's Union cavalry at Front Royal in 1864, Simmons, recently promoted to major, was captured and sent to Fort Delaware. He remained in prison until well after April 1865 for refusing to take the oath of loyalty after the surrenders of Robert E. Lee and Joseph E. Johnston.
The final four chapters recount Simmons's postwar experience. Byrd relates that "the Major" put the war behind him and looked to the future (p. 178). That future included a stint in the Georgia General Assembly during the 1870s, a career as a successful attorney, involvement in the newspaper business, an appointment to the Georgia University Board of Trustees, and familial responsibilities as a generous and devoted husband and uncle.
Byrd makes use of the Official Records in detailing the movements and activities of the Sixteenth Georgia Infantry and the Third Sharpshooter Battalion and the actions of the generals who served under James Longstreet. As a member of Longstreet's regiment, Simmons indeed may have been present, but his personal experiences and individual voice are largely lost in the minutiae of troop movements and battle descriptions. In describing the soldier's perspective of life in the regiment, Byrd provides numerous block quotations derived from other personal accounts. With few exceptions, such as Simmons's compassion toward injured enemy soldiers and his postcapture meeting with Custer, the reader never really gets a sense of Simmons's personal experience.
Confederate Sharpshooter Major William E. Simmons: Through the War with the 16th Georgia Infantry and 3rd Battalion Georgia Sharpshooters is generally well written. The author utilizes the most common official sources, several personal memoirs, and a few of the most recent secondary works. While specialists will find little that contributes to our overall understanding of the role of sharpshooters during the American Civil War, general readers and buffs will find a lively, quickly moving, and interesting narrative.