Sharp Shooters

Object Number: 
Painted plaster
Overall: 12 x 11 3/4 x 8 in. ( 30.5 x 29.8 x 20.3 cm )
inscribed: front of base: "SHARP SHOOTERS"
Genre figure.
Gallery Label: 
The year 1862 was a busy one for Rogers: he issued three Civil War-related groups before releasing Sharp Shooters. Whereas his earlier groups, Camp Life: The Card Players (not represented in the N-YHS collection), The Camp Fire: Making Friends with the Cook (1936.714), and The Town Pump (1932.101, 1941.917), depicted innocuous scenes of camp life, for this work Rogers chose a subject directly related to the fighting, drawn from stories of Hiram Berdan's regiment of sharpshooters. A story in the Boston Post of May 24, 1862, provided a direct inspiration: "Two of the 'dead-shots' are skulking behind a stone wall; one hoisting a figure, made up of a stuffed coat and cap, just above the wall, while his companion, with rifle in rest, 'draws a sure bead' upon the unlucky wight away yonder who may happen to show his head while aiming at the dummy target." Kirk Savage, a scholar of Civil War sculpture, has written wonderfully of this group: Like his preceding groups, this was a two-figure composition arranged around a central prop, but, unlike all of his other work, the orientation of the group presented a paradox to the viewer. Rogers' Groups always had a clear front and back; the primary side in front carried the title of the work on its base, while the rear was squared off so that it could be pushed flush against a wall if need be. In Sharp Shooters, however, front and rear are reversed. From the front, the figures are turned away from the viewer, rendering their action puzzling. From the rear, we look directly into the face and gun of the sharpshooter and realize that the middle figure is a dummy, a fake soldier, thrust in the air to lure the enemy to come out and shoot. The two perspectives are radically different, the front corresponding to the Union side, the rear to the enemy side, and both are necessary to grasp the meaning of the Group as a whole. Is this a black-comedy moment of camp life or a deadly scene of combat? It could be either or both. The presence of sharpshooters within the army lines, equipped with highly accurate long-range rifles, blurred the distinction between battle and encampment. They could and did fire at unsuspecting enemy soldiers at any time, often making them hated even by their own troops, because they extended the psychological stress of combat into what had been peaceful breaks. In Rogers' Group the ghastly ruse of the dummy looks like a comic note from the Union side (the front) and a tragic note from the Confederate side (the rear). The disjunction in mood and perspective is surely deliberate; Rogers was struggling to represent the new conditions of warfare and the disorientation they caused in the ordinary soldier. Though fascinating in its multiple meanings and its intriguing combination of menace and humor, Sharp Shooters was neither a commercial nor a critical success. It drew little attention compared with his other subjects, perhaps because of public concerns about the practices of this new breed of soldier. The few press notices it earned express this ambivalence: the soldiers' actions in the sculpture were described as a "wise trick" and ingenious but intended to deceive the enemy, who was, after all, a fellow countryman. The sculpture sold poorly and was withdrawn from Rogers' stock before the publication of his first catalogue in 1866. As a result, the group is extremely rare today and offers an illuminating view of the artist's daring attempt to chronicle the new conditions of this unprecedented conflict.
Article, Scrapbooks of miscellaneous clippings, etc. about John Rogers, Vols. 1, 2, 3, New York Historical Society. The Evening Post, New York, Oct. 16, 1862, p. 2. The Evening Post, New York, Nov. 8, 1862, p. 1. Daily Evening Transcript, Boston, Nov. 10, 1862, p. 2. Daily Evening Transcript, Boston, Dec. 1, 1862, p. 1. Wells, Samuel R., ed., "John Rogers, the Sculptor," American Phrenological Journal and Life Illustrated, Vol. 49, no. 9, September 1869, pp. 329-30. Smith, Mrs. and Mrs. Chetwood, Rogers Groups: Thought and Wrought by John Rogers, Boston: Charles E. Goodspeed & Co., 1934, pp.64-5. Wallace, David H., John Rogers, The People's Sculptor, Middleton, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1967, pp. 91, 99, 148, 204, 295, 299, 304. Bleier, Paul and Meta, John Rogers Statuary, Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 2001, pp. 78-9.
Credit Line: 
Gift of Miss Katherine Rebecca Rogers
Due to ongoing research, information about this object is subject to change.
Creative: Tronvig Group