During the Civil War there were two green uniformed
regiments in service of the Union Army. These were the First and Second Regiments of
United States Sharpshooters, very much celebrated and publicized units in their time,
though almost completely forgotten today.
For fifteen years before the Civil War,
Hiram Berdan was one of this country's leading
marksmen. When Fort Sumter was fired upon, Berdan developed a plan to form a unique
regiment made up of the country's best marksmen. Because of Berdan's political
connections, he had little difficulty in getting his idea approved by the War
Department. By July 1861, his idea had become a reality, and he was appointed the
Colonel of the 1st Regiment United States Sharp Shooters.
Announcements were circulated calling for the formation of
companies of sharpshooters. There was one major requirement;
" No man would be enlisted who could not put
ten bullets in succession within five inches from the center at a distance of six hundred
feet from a rest or three hundred feet off hand".
A potential recruit was required to fire his own open
sight rifle, fire ten consecutive rounds, reloading as fast as possible, at two
targets. The first target was 200 yards away and fired at using a rest, the
other target was paced at 100 yards and fired at offhand. A contestant missing the
targets or averaging more than five inches ( known as the string of 50) from the center
Two regiments were eventually filled, the 1st
Regiment under the command of Col. Berdan, consisting of the regulation ten companies (four
from New York, three from Michigan and one each from Vermont, New Hampshire and
Wisconsin). The 2nd Regiment was commanded by Col. Henry A. Post consisting of only
eight companies, (two from New Hampshire, two from Vermont and one each from
Minnesota, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Maine).
The original recruits were told to
bring their own rifles if they wished, with the promise, that the government would pay
($60) for each suitable weapon (a promise that was never kept). This created a problem of
ammunition supply because of the different types of weapons they brought with them.
Col. Berdan felt that the breech-loading Sharps rifle was the most reliable and the best
weapon available for his men. This was not well liked by General Winfield Scott of the
Ordinance Department, whose attitude was that "the breech-loader would spoil
Berdan's command". On President Lincoln's personal intervention, after
witnessing a spectacular exhibition of marksmanship by Col. Berdan, the Sharpshooters were
promised their Sharps rifles.
Do to supply problems, they were not immediately issued
the Sharps rifle, instead they were issued the Colt five shot revolving rifle, which
almost caused a mutiny in camp. Once the men became familiar with these rifles they found
them reasonably accurate and reliable, though there were some gas and flash leakage
causing the danger of multiple discharge (a hazard to the rifleman's extended arm).
The 1st Regiment received their sharps rifles in May 1862, the 2nd regiment
received the sharps in June.
Colt Model 1855 Revolving Rifle with 37 1/2 inch barrel
During the Fall and
Winter of 1861 - 1862 one of the most popular attractions in the Nation's Capital was the
training camp (Camp of Instruction) of the First and Second United States Sharpshooters .
Local citizens, political dignitaries, even President Lincoln made several visits to
the camp, for there, was gathered some of the best marksmen from the northern
states. In addition to endless hours spent drilling and pulling guard duty, the
sharpshooters put on daily demonstrations of their shooting skills before large
crowds of camp visitors for whom target shooting was a popular sport.
There was one Sharps rifle in
the regiment at the time, which was the personal property of Truman Head, better
known as "California Joe". This particular Sharps rifle was purchased
while at Camp of Instruction, and had a sabre bayonet and a single trigger. The
men, after careful examination of the rifle, decided while they unanimously
endorsed the rifle, they preferred the angular bayonet over the sabre bayonet.
While having no prior military
background, Col. Berdan surrounded himself with experienced
of whom were European. At "Camp of Instruction" with the help of these
experienced officers, the Sharpshooters' training seems to have been practical and tough,
being taught never to expose themselves recklessly, using any available cover and to waste
no ammunition for the sake of shooting. All commands were given by the bugle, this and
such aspects as their tactics and the styling of their uniforms, showed how much the
commanders were influenced by Prussian Light Infantry and Riflemen.
Captain C.A. Stevens: the Sharpshooters' historian,
described their uniform as being;
" of fine material, consisting of a
dark green coat and cap with black plume, light blue trousers (later exchanged for
green trousers) and leather leggings, presenting a striking contrast to the regular
blue of the infantry. The
knapsack was of hair covered calf-skin, with cooking kit
attached, considered the best in use, as it was the handsomest, most durable and complete.
By our dress we were known far and wide, and the appellation of "Green Coats"
was soon acquired. When fully uniformed and equipped, the sharpshooters made a very
handsome appearance, more so upon the whole than many others".
The Sharpshooters' first action was
a two company ( Co. C and E 1st Regt ) skirmish at Lewinville, Virginia, on the 27th of Sept. 1861, against enemy
foragers. From then on they claimed participation in sixty-five actions and battles,
especially distinguishing themselves at South Mountain, Chancellorsville and at Gettysburg.
The long-awaited Sharps rifle were finally delivered in May and June of 1862, and gave
great satisfaction as " a perfectly safe and reliable arm, combining accuracy
with rapidity, just what a skirmish line needed for effective work".
They were open sighted, shot a .52 caliber conical ball, using a
linen or "skin" cartridge.
Though these rifles were equipped for using a primer
system, the men thought these less reliable then the issue, or "hat" percussion
caps. Being breech-loaders, the Sharps had the great advantage of being able to be loaded
and fired from a prone position.
The preferred bayonet was the "angular"
type, as being "less cumbersome and more to the point", then the showy
Each man normally carried the usual
forty rounds of ammunition in his cartridge box, with twenty more in his knapsack. This
issue might be increased to 100 rounds if action were expected shortly, since the Sharps
could fire ten rounds a minute in emergencies.
Heavy target rifles such as this were
carried in the supply wagons and brought forward when the situation required it.
The two regiments usually were designated as a brigade, but seldom
could be employed as such, being constantly scattered as detached companies and used for
skirmishing, picket duty or even sharpshooting (sniping) details, much to Col. Berdan's disappointment.
They were often called upon to act as individuals, who equipped
with rations, water and ammunition sallied forth in the morning to the front
line, where hidden by the terrain, foliage and trees, they looked for worthwhile
targets such as enemy sharpshooters, Officers and artillery men.
Sometimes climbing trees to observe and spot targets for sharpshooting.
This work was demanding, as it involved constant contact with the enemy, and loses were
therefore continual. However, the usual trickle of recruits were all volunteers and were
soon absorbed as good soldiers.
The storied exploits of the Sharpshooters were equally
extraordinary; possibly some were even true.
One claims that they had exploded a Confederate cannon in the Yorktown
fortification by knocking sand from the embrasure into the muzzle by a series of well
placed shots. And then there was "California Joe", a mild-mannered
dead shot who bought himself the first Sharps in the regiment and was much lionized by the
illustrated weeklies of the day. Or even, Lorenzo Barber the "Fighting Parson"
of the Second Regiment; he often picked up a rifle and joined in the action; his services were always well attended.
One of the most well known stories
was the noted twenty-minute fire fight in Pitzer's
Woods, around noon on the second day of Gettysburg. The four companies of
Sharpshooters engaged expended an average of ninety-five rounds per man. Because of this
firepower, Confederate General Wilcox is supposed to have reported the force opposing him
there (actually 100 Sharpshooters and 200 men of the 3rd Maine Infantry armed with
muskets) as two full regiments.
The First Regiment was mustered out of service beginning August,
1864 mostly due the Sharpshooter's term of enlistment having expired. In
September the greatly reduced First Regiment was formed into a battalion which
lasted until December 31 1864, then the men whose enlistment had not expired transferred to
the Second Regiment (except for the men from Michigan who were sent to the 5th Michigan
infantry regiment). The Second Regiment, in turn was mustered out in February, 1865. It's
men whose enlistment were not yet up, transferred in companies or as individuals, to
regiments of their respective states.
These two regiments were, in a sense, modern infantry. Their
morale seems to have been generally excellent. Very few ever became prisoners of
war. Though their employment was not fully understood, they could boast that they killed more
Confederates than any other two regiments in the Union Army.
the book Regimental Losses in the Civil War by Colonel Fox, he states this about
the Sharpshooters, "They were of a high grade in physical qualifications and
intelligence. They were continually in demand as skirmishers on account of their
wonderful proficiency as such, and they undoubtedly killed more men then any
other regiment in the army. In skirmishing they had no equal".
In passing, some comment should be made
on the erroneous story that the word "Sharpshooter" derives from the use of the
Sharps rifle, this fact is far from true. The "Scharfschtze" existed in Germany
and the "Sharpshooter" in America decades before the Sharps rifle was invented;
indeed even before it's inventor had been born.