Civil War Sharpshooters: Col. Hiram Berdan’s Creation
At the time of the Civil War the U. S. military had no officially designated elite units such as the Navy Seals or Army Green Berets that are so celebrated today. But there was one branch of the service on both sides of the conflict that came close to that elite status: the Sharpshooters.
Sharpshooters were riflemen of extraordinary skill at the business of killing enemy troops. Man for man, they may have had a bigger impact on the course of the war than any other set of combatants. Yet today, when every facet of the Civil War experience is widely discussed, the sharpshooters to a large extent remain unknown.
I must admit to knowing practically nothing about Civil War sharpshooters myself until I ran across an article written by a Confederate newspaper correspondent named Tyrone Powers, who was embedded with Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in 1864. Ulysses S. Grant had just begun his Overland Campaign, the final push against the Confederates that would eventually lead to Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. But even at this early stage of the campaign, the Southern correspondent’s attention was drawn to the effectiveness of the sharpshooters in Grant’s army.
Southerners rarely admitted that Yankee soldiers could do anything better than their own, so I was intrigued that in Powers’ comparison of the Union and Confederate sharpshooter services, the Northerners definitely had the best of it.
Here is a portion of Powers’ article:
Daily Constitutionalist (Augusta, GA) June 1, 1864
The casualties among our officers in the encounters with Grant have been unusually heavy, so much so as to suggest the existence of some peculiar operative cause. This may perhaps be found in the existence of those corps of sharpshooters wherewith the Yankees are provided. We also have some battalions of sharpshooters, but except for the fact of their being armed with finer rifles, and employed to a great extent as skirmishers, they do not differ materially from the troops of the line.
In the Yankee service, on the contrary, the sharpshooter is required to be a thorough marksman, and a marksman with the army weapon, which is entirely a different affair from being a dead shot with a sporting rifle.
To attain this efficiency these fellows are diligently exercised in shooting at marks, put up at the different ranges of the sliding scale sights, and our severe loss in officers at every battle proves this training not to have been thrown away.
One of the most noted corps of Yankee sharpshooters is Berdan’s, the same which annoyed us so incessantly while in the trenches of Yorktown…
[I]t is painfully evident that Grant had an organized body of men at his command whose function is to pick off our officers at every opportunity…
Given that he was writing as events were still unfolding, and with the disadvantage of no direct access to Grant’s army, Powers was remarkably accurate in his assessment.
For example, he correctly identifies the major sharpshooter unit confronting the rebel army as Berdan’s. That refers to Colonel Hiram Berdan, who could lay legitimate claim to being the father of the U. S. Sharpshooter service.
Colonel Hiram Berdan recruits Union sharpshooters
In 1861 Hiram Berdan was a mechanical engineer and inventor with more than 30 patents to his credit. More importantly, he was reputed to be the best marksman in the country, having won target-shooting contests every year since 1846. At the onset of war, Berdan asked to be allowed to raise a corps of skilled marksman. With the backing of General Winfield Scott and President Lincoln, he recruited the First and Second U.S. Sharpshooter regiments, and was named Colonel of the First.
Skirmishers and snipers
Berdan’s intent was for these units to function mainly as skirmishers, operating in front of the main body of the army and making first contact with the enemy. Unlike regular troops, sharpshooters operating as skirmishers did not fight in formation, but were experts at making use of any available cover while moving covertly from spot to spot.
Col. Berdan becomes a General
Hiram Berdan resigned his commission to return to his engineering work in 1864. But in 1868 he was appointed a Brigadier General of Volunteers, retroactive to March 1865, for his service leading a brigade at the Battle of Chancellorsville. He was also nominated a Major General for his leadership at the Battle of Gettysburg, but that was never confirmed by the Senate. Nevertheless, his gravestone in Arlington National Cemetery lists him as a Major General.
Their task, in addition to providing intelligence about the enemy's whereabouts and numbers, was to harass the foe and impede his progress by laying down accurate fire on individual enemy soldiers as they advanced. The effect would be not unlike that of a mine field. Each oncoming soldier, knowing that one unwary step could cost him his life, would naturally move more slowly and carefully. In the same way, troops confronted by well hidden sharpshooters in front of them who did not just indiscriminately blaze away like regular troops, but who took deadly aim at any individual who came within their rifle sights, would move more slowly than otherwise.
But there was another, more sinister aspect of the sharpshooter’s mission. An August 1861 New York Times article was quite explicit about it:
It is the design of the Colonel to have the regiment detached in squads on the field of battle to do duty in picking off officers and gunners on the European plan, by which they take the risk of being cut off by cavalry, or executed, as they certainly would be, if taken. (Emphasis added).
In other words, some sharpshooters, though not all, would operate as what we today call snipers.
Only the very best need apply
Col. Berdan set a very high and rigid standard for recruits wishing to join his sharpshooter regiments:
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.
In other words, an applicant had to hit 10 straight times within 5 inches from the center of the target without missing, either from a distance of 200 yards using a support to steady the rifle, or at 100 yards firing from the shoulder. Miss the target once, or average more than 5 inches from center, and you were disqualified.
Berdan insisted on such strict qualifications because of the level of effectiveness he expected his troops to achieve. As Roy M. Marcot notes in his book U.S. Sharpshooters: Berdan's Civil War Elite, Berdan was very clear about the proficiency he expected his sharpshooters to exhibit in battle:
When on the battlefield, such a Corps would be relied upon, firing at rest, to hit a man every time at one-eighth mile, hit him two out of three times at a quarter mile, and three out of five times at a half mile.
Berdan's Sharpshooters: An elite unit
Having to meet such qualifications just to get into the sharpshooter regiments, successful recruits from the beginning considered themselves to be part of an elite unit. And the army seemed to back them up in that conclusion. These men were given special treatment that set them apart.
First, Berdan clothed them not in Union blue, but in forest green with non-reflective black buttons, the closest thing to camouflage uniforms used in the Civil War. In addition to having the very best and most expensive weapons available, sharpshooters were usually excused from routine camp duties. Instead they spent their time practicing their craft.
The Sharps Rifle - tool of the Sharpshooter's trade
In his article Powers noted that Berdan’s sharpshooters were required to be expert marksman with “the army weapon.” That weapon in the Union army was the Model 1859 Sharps rifle. It became so identified with Berdan’s sharpshooters that it was nicknamed the Berdan rifle.
Invented in 1848 by gun-maker Christian Sharps of Hartford, Connecticut, the Sharps was a single-shot, .52-caliber breech-loader. It was not the most accurate long-range rifle of the war – that distinction goes to the Whitworth rifle used by Confederate sharpshooters – but it was the most effective.
The Sharps was deadly accurate up to about 600 yards. As importantly, it was a breech loader that could be loaded and fired from a prone position at a rate of eight to ten rounds per minute, three times the rate that could be achieved with the standard issue muzzle-loading Springfield rifle.
Shooting a Sharps Rifle
In skilled hands, the Sharps’ 600 yard accuracy rating was more of a floor than a ceiling. That fact is illustrated by the story of one of the most famous of Berdan’s men, an eccentric character whose name was Truman Head, but who was popularly known as "California Joe." Although Joe was 52 when he enlisted, he became known as a marksman second only to Berdan himself. He is said to have hit enemy soldiers at 1500 yards, well over three-quarters of a mile. One such exploit was reported in Harper’s Weekly for August 2, 1862.
A rebel sharp-shooter had been amusing himself and annoying the General and other officers by firing several times in that direction, and sending the bullets whistling in unwelcome proximity to their heads.
"My man, can't you get your piece on that fellow who is firing on us, and stop his impertinence?" asked the General.
"I think so," replied Joe; and he brought his telescopic rifle to a horizontal position.
"Do you see him?" inquired the General.
"How far is he away?"
"Fifteen hundred yards."
"Can you fetch him?"
And Joe did try. He brought his piece to a steady aim, pulled the trigger, and sent the bullet whizzing on its experimental tour, the officers meantime looking through their field glasses. Joe hit the fellow in the leg or foot. He went hobbling up the hill on one leg and two hands, in a style of locomotion that was amusing. Our General was so tickled—there is no better word—at the style and celerity of the fellow's retreat that it was some time before he could get command of his risibles sufficiently to thank Joe for what he had done.
Interestingly, it was at the Siege of Yorktown in April of 1862 that California Joe first made his reputation. He was almost certainly one source of correspondent Powers’ complaint about the sharpshooters “which annoyed us so incessantly while in the trenches of Yorktown.”
Fighting the army bureaucracy to get Sharps rifles
Brigadier General James W. Ripley was the U. S. Army’s chief of ordnance. In 1861 he was 67 years old, which may have contributed to the very conservative procurement policy for which he is chiefly remembered today.
Until he was removed from his position in 1863, Ripley adamantly opposed putting breach-loading and repeating rifles into the hands of Union troops. He feared that if they had fast-firing weapons, they wouldn’t bother to carefully aim, and would waste ammunition.
Ripley’s resistance to providing modern weapons to the soldiers extended even to Berdan’s regiments of expert marksmen, who by the very nature of their training and mission would certainly take careful aim and not waste ammunition. When Colonel Berdan requisitioned the Sharps rifles he was convinced were the best available weapon for his men, Ripley refused, insisting that the Sharpshooters use the same Springfield muzzle-loaders the rest of the army employed. It didn’t help that each Sharps would cost the government $45, more than twice the cost of a Springfield.
Even when the commanding general, George McClellan, urged the purchase, Ripley, who answered directly to the War Department rather than to McClellan, refused to comply.
Berdan even called on California Joe for help. Joe, unwilling to wait for the army bureaucracy to move, had purchased his own personal Sharps. Berdan sent him to Secretary of War Simon Cameron to demonstrate the weapon. Cameron agreed to write directly to General Ripley requesting the procurement. Ripley again refused.
President Lincoln steps up to the firing line
Berdan was finally able to make his point where it counted. In late September of 1861 President Lincoln, along with three cabinet members and several generals, including McClellan, attended an exhibition put on by Berdan’s Sharpshooters. Lincoln himself took a turn shooting, and according to one of the sharpshooters, “handled the rifle like a veteran marksman, in a highly successful manner, to the great delight of the many soldiers and civilians surrounding.”
But it was another demonstration of expert marksmanship that day that had lasting consequences.
Thomas Scott, the Assistant Secretary of War, had no use for Colonel Berdan, and in an attempt to show him up, challenged the sharpshooter commander to make an impossible shot. A target was set up at 600 yards (that’s six football fields laid end to end). It was the figure of a man with the legend “Jeff Davis” painted above the head.
Hitting such a target would normally be well within the capabilities of a marksman like Berdan. Scott apparently hoped the pressure of shooting with the President and other dignitaries looking on might cause the colonel to miss. But just to be sure, Scott told Berdan he must shoot from a standing position (with no support to steady the rifle) and should aim for the right eye!
Here’s how Berdan later recounted what happened next:
I was then taking aim and made no reply, and it is hardly necessary for me to say, that at that distance — 600 yards — I did not aim at the eye, but I did fire at the head. The target was brought in, and as good luck would have it, I had cut out the pupil of the right eye.
No man knew better than President Lincoln how to turn what he knew to be an accident to good account. He began to laugh, and kept on laughing until he got into his carriage and then said:
"Colonel, come down to-morrow, and I will give you the order for the breech-loaders.”
Mr. Lincoln visited us once or twice later, and spoke of that “remarkable shot” as a good joke — a lucky hit.
Even with the President himself ordering the purchase of the sharpshooters’ preferred weapon, General Ripley initially continued to resist. But Abraham Lincoln insisted, and although it would take months for the Sharps factory to fill the order, Berdan and his sharpshooters finally got their rifles.
The Sharpshooters go to war
The Union’s newly equipped elite sharpshooter units quickly made their presence felt on the battlefield.
At Chancellorsville, a force of about 100 of Berdan’s sharpshooters forced the surrender of 300 men of the 23rd Georgia, whom they pinned down by their high volume of very accurate fire at a range of 300 yards. At Yorktown a single sharpshooter, Private George Chase, deprived the Confederates of the use of one of their artillery pieces for two days by the simple expedient of shooting down any artillerymen who tried to load or fire it.
According to John D. McAulay, writing in the April 1999 issue of “American Rifleman” magazine, “It is generally acknowledged that Berdan's Sharpshooters caused more Confederate casualties than any other Union regiment.” Historian Geoffrey Perret adds, “They would be the best skirmishers the Union Army possessed, and over time they probably killed more Confederates than any other regiment."
Was sharpshooting morally acceptable in the Civil War?
Was sharpshooting “near murder”?
Not everyone was comfortable with the Sharpshooters’ ability to kill unsuspecting foes from a distance.
Winslow Homer, the artist who drew and painted famous depictions of one of Berdan’s men posted in a tree, was made distinctly uncomfortable by the experience of looking through the sharpshooter’s telescopic sight. The crosshairs were trained on the chest of a distant Confederate officer who had no idea he was just a pull of the trigger away from death. “The above impression,” Homer later said, “struck me as being as near murder as anything I could think of in connection with the army.”
A sharpshooter’s pride at a job well done
Unlike Winslow Homer, the sharpshooters themselves seemed to have few qualms about their role. The simple, patriotic pride with which many of Berdan's veterans in later years looked back on their wartime service is captured in J. W. Crawford’s 1895 poem, “The Old Kentucky Rifle.”
I am crowdin' close to eighty, gittin' mighty near the end,
My hair is white an' scattered, an' my back has got a bend.
I am shaky on my trotters, an' my eyes has got so dim
I kin scarcely see yon mountain that so of'en I have clim.
I've gathered up some treasures that I value mighty high,
An' thar's one which all the money o' the earth could never buy.
Among my goods an' chattels here I prize it more than all
That ol' Kentucky rifle hangin' thar ag'in the wall.
Thar 's one thing makes me love it as I never did afore
When I heered the ringin' summons callin' loyal men to war.
All the fire that nerved my daddy in the Revolution days
Got a-surgin' in my bosom till my heart was all ablaze.
Then I shouldered that ol' rifle, filled my bullet-pouch with lead,
Put that ol' warm cap o' coonskin sort o' keerless on my head,
An’ I offered them the sarvice of a mighty keen-eyed man
For to do some fancy shootin' under glorious old Berdan.
I'm not inclined to braggin' — quit that business long ago
But when I am called to answer fur my statements here below,
I kin face the great Commander with a conscience cl’ar an' bright,
Arter sayin' that ol' rifle done her shar' in many a fight.
Mus'n't it 'a' been surprisin', when a Reb thought he was hid.
Fur to git a sharp remembrance (as a many of 'em did).
That the optics of a Yank was penetratin' as a hawk’s
When a s'archin' fur a graycoat hid up in trees or rocks.
Through the bloody war I packed her, and brought her home ag'in
Proud an' sassy o' the record that I tuk her in to win;
An' when age was creepin' on me an' I couldn't shoot no more,
With my shaky hands I hung her up to rest behind the door.
When this ol' an' worn-out body underneath the ground they hide,
I've asked 'em fur to lay it sort o' lovin' by my side,
An' when Gabriel blows his trumpet I'll march up'ard at the call,
Hangin' on to that ol' rifle over thar ag'in the wall.
© 2014 Ronald E. Franklin