Berdan's Sharpshooter History

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 was disqualified. 

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 officers, some 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".

sharp_54.jpg (16070 bytes)


    They were open sighted, shot a .52 caliber conical ball, using a linen or "skin" cartridge.

sharpscartridge1.jpg (30202 bytes)

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 sabre/sword bayonet.

pbayonetpic.gif (3497 bytes)             sword_bay.jpg (22209 bytes)

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.
 In 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.

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