The Sharps Rifle of Berdan’s Sharpshooters
By Brian Beck
With a Sharps Rifle New Model 1859 that was issued to Berdan’s Sharpshooters available September 8th in our Premiere Firearms Auction, it seems only right that we get to know the elite fighting men that carried these rifles. The arms used by these legendary units of Civil War marksmen have long been desirable to collectors thanks to their use in several well-known battles, their impact on battlefield strategy, and the admirable performance of the men who carried them. This particular example will be of special interest to collectors as it is mentioned specifically by serial number in Wiley Sword’s book as a special order variant and in Frank Seller’s book as in the correct serial number range to have served with Berdan’s Sharpshooters. The story of the 1st and 2nd U.S. Sharpshooters begins with the controversial man whose name most commonly identifies these famous units, Hiram Berdan.
Rally ‘Round the Flag: The Creation of the U.S. Sharpshooters
Berdan was born in New York on 6 September, 1824 but moved with his family to a Michigan farm at just six years of age. This upbringing on the farm introduced Hiram to firearms and marksmanship at a young age. While in Michigan he gained an education, which eventually led him back to New York to Hobart College where he studied mathematics and mechanical engineering. His prowess in these fields showed through various inventions including a threshing machine, a folding lifeboat, a machine for laying telegraph cables under water, and a machine for extracting gold from raw mined ore. These inventions led to a multitude of lucrative contracts for Berdan and introduced him to many well-to-do circles in New York, which would later be of great use when trying to raise a regiment of sharpshooters. As with many men of the time, Berdan’s upward trajectory as an inventor was abruptly interrupted by the outbreak of the Civil War.
The firing on Fort Sumter in 1861 prompted the federal government to call for thousands of supplemental volunteers to bolster the lack-luster numbers that made up the standing army at the time. With some encouragement from some of his more bourgeois associates, one of these early calls for volunteers prompted Berdan to put his skills as a marksman to use by collecting together the best marksmen from each state into a regiment of sharpshooters that would operate in the field as skirmishers. The earliest evidence of his efforts can be found in a New York Post article from 4 June, 1861, in which the role these sharpshooters will play in the war is a bit glorified for dramatic effect, but not terribly far from the reality that would eventually play out.
“The Corps of SharpShooters will be used not in the midst of battle, but on the outskirts, where, beyond the smoke and fury of the engagement, they will act independently, choose their objects, and make every shot tell. Posted in small squads at from one-eighth to three-eighths of a mile from the field, firing a shot a minute, and hitting their mark with almost dead certainty, they will be a great annoyance to the enemy. They will combine their attention to the officers, and by picking these off, will bring confusion into the enemy’s line.”
The intention to excite in this article is quite clear, as it makes no mention of the stringent selection process, or the extreme hardships the unit would eventually face. Shortly after word of Berdan’s intentions began to spread, he started to receive favorable responses from many amongst the upper echelon of the military, and soon turned his attention towards gaining federal approval to raise the regiment. His letter to the commander-in-chief of the United States army in June of 1861 outlined some of the selection process to which recruits would be subjected. First and foremost being the test of marksmanship stating, “No man is to be mustered in who cannot, when firing at rest at a distance of 200 yards, put ten consecutive shots in a target, the average distance not to exceed five inches from the center of the bulls-eye, to the center of the bull.” After a meeting with President Lincoln himself, as well as various correspondence with high ranking officials, Berdan’s request to raise the regiment was granted. His upward social mobility played a role at this point as he turned to some very prominent businessmen and associates in various Northern states to help him with the recruitment process. An Article from Harper’s Weekly in August of 1861 illustrates the very strict nature of the selection process, stating, “In testing applicants at Albany, about two-thirds were found unfitted…” as well as claiming that generally the number turned away was much higher, which was obviously due to the most skilled hunters being found in the Northeast and West. This claim may not be entirely conjecture as by the time the whole of the 1st regiment was raised in September of 1861, the companies had been pulled from New York, Michigan, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Wisconsin. Recruits continued to pour in however, and a 2nd regiment was later organized with companies from Minnesota, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire.
Arming the Sharpshooters
Initially new recruits were offered $60 if they furnished their own rifles upon joining the regiment, a policy that was never adhered to, though many personal, often specialized target rifles were put to use by the regiment throughout the war. However, it didn’t take long for Berdan to realize the importance of uniformity in the weapons of his regiment, as well as amongst the Union army as a whole, for ease of procuring ammunition. This led to a fairly long road filled with many failed attempts at finding the right rifle for these elite marksmen. This path included standard Springfield 1861 rifled muskets, which were never issued, a handful of Hall Model 1841 breechloaders, and eventually the Colt New Model Army Rifled Muskets (Colt Model 1855 Military Revolving Rifle), which would be the first arms carried into battle by the sharpshooters. It became clear quite early on that the men of the regiment were not happy with these revolving rifles, probably due in part to their previous experience with the Sharps through an exhibition by the company in September of 1861. With the beginning of the spring campaign season in 1862 however, there was still no sign of the promised Sharps rifles, and so the Colt rifles with their reputation for inaccuracy and being unreliable would have to do. A private in the 2nd regiment of sharpshooters explains some of these issues:
“To commence with, it is too light for the size and weight of the lead. Second, when the ball leaves the cylinder and enters the barrel, there are small shavings of lead that escape from between the cylinder and barrel, and fly six or eight feet, endangering a person.” -Private Theodore Preston, Company B, 2nd U.S.S.S.
These substandard revolving rifles, at least according to the sharpshooters, were used throughout the Peninsula campaign. Finally, by 1 June, 1862, all of the Sharps rifles had arrived for both regiments. Sources differ greatly on the exact specifications of these rifles, however it seems fairly agreed upon that at least some of them were delivered with double set triggers, a modified breech lever, and possibly a matte finish applied to the barrels. The rifle available in this auction shows many of these features. Through correspondence between the Chief of Ordnance and the Sharps Rifle Company these changes had not been approved by the government and should not be applied to the rifles from then on. This correspondence seems to take place at a time when as many as 1,000 of the rifles were already complete, though it was probably less than that. There is of course the possibility that Sharps continued to make the rifles to Berdan’s specifications that cost more money and time to make. It is more likely that after receiving the letter from Chief of Ordnance Ripley, they made the rifles to ordnance standards from then on, as there are examples found within the generally agreed serial ranges for Berdan rifles that do not show these modifications.
The role of skirmishers or sharpshooters on the battlefield was not a new concept, as regiments such as these had been utilized in Europe for decades, as well as in a less organized fashion in North American conflicts. They were often deployed far ahead of the main battle line to test the enemy’s strength or to locate them on the flanks. They were also important in slowing enemy advances and harassing their retreats. This led to the sharpshooters utilizing small unit tactics, which were still in their infancy. It was rare throughout the war to see either of the regiments deployed as a whole, but rather in squad sized detachments or companies, often loosely attached to other units in a supporting role. This new role in combat along with their specialized set of skills and weapons, led to the sharpshooters being involved in most of the major battles of the war, suffering a higher casualty rate than most units of the war, as well as inflicting more casualties than most other units.
Their first real taste of action was in and around the Siege of Yorktown, Virginia, where they filled many of the roles previously mentioned. Initially they were charged with moving in advance of the Army of the Potomac as scouts and skirmishers, where they engaged the enemy multiple times. When the advance ground to a halt and became a drawn out siege, the sharpshooters were tasked with targeting enemy officers and gun crews, which they did with deadly effect. Even this early in the career of the sharpshooters, they were beginning to be feared by Confederate forces. It should be mentioned of course that they managed to be effective to a noteworthy extent during this campaign even with their lack of proper weaponry. At this time, they would have still been carrying the Colt revolving rifles as well as an assortment of the heavy target rifles brought along by the recruits.
The Berdan Controversy
At this point the controversy surrounding Hiram Berdan himself begins to come to light. It is often noted by his peers, and even his men, that he seemed to be nowhere near the fighting whenever it occured. However, before questioning the man’s bravery it should be noted that prior to the war he had no military experience, let alone any experience in military command. So, like many of the non-military men that found themselves in leadership positions during the Civil War, often due to political or social connections, it is reasonable to assume that Berdan felt a significant lack of confidence leading men in combat. This is compounded with the fact that Berdan was tasked with leading a unit quite unlike any other involved in the war. He was not dealing with a regiment that was deployed together in a specific area of the battlefield, but rather fragments of a regiment scattered all over the field, often engaged in many different areas and tasks. This is probably partially what led many of his officers to feel that he was detached, or cowardly in the face of the enemy, as they would often have little to no contact nor direction from him during the battle. This defense of Berdan hardly holds water when up against the multiple criticisms put forward by the men under his command, and it seems a general consensus that he liked the idea of being in command, just not the actual commanding, specifically the danger of battle. Eventually, all of this boiled over with formal charges being brought against him by a handful of his own officers. These charges generally being “misbehavior before the enemy” and “conduct unbecoming of an officer and a gentleman.” Berdan was found not guilty in court on 13 March, 1863, though the men under his command and history may judge otherwise.
By 1 July, 1863, the 1st and 2nd sharpshooters had already gained quite a reputation, however, their actions over the following few days would certainly help to solidify it. At Gettysburg the sharpshooters were attached to Sickles’ III Corps who arrived in the evening of the first day, and by the morning of 2 July were positioned along Cemetery Ridge forming the left of the Union line which extended to the Round Tops. In the afternoon of the same day General Sickles ordered a reconnaissance mission of the ground in front of his position be carried out by the sharpshooters. It did not take long for them to come into contact with a brigade of Alabama infantry which were moving into position to strike the Union left flank. They engaged this brigade for a short time, sending word to Sickles of the enemy threat, before retreating. During this exchange they lost 3 officers and 16 enlisted men were killed or wounded. This engagement wasn’t with the whole of Longstreet’s Corps, though Sickles seemed to believe it was, causing him to advance the whole III Corps to the area of the Peach Orchard and Rose Woods, ground he believed more advantageous for defense. This advance broke the compact Union line and arguably placed Sickle’s corps in an isolated position, where they were fairly quickly overrun by Longstreet’s advance. The 1st U.S.S.S. were involved in the thick of the fighting in this area and suffered further casualties. The 2nd U.S.S.S. had remained in their positions around Devil’s Den and played a significant role in slowing Longstreet’s continued attack on the Union left. The gap left by Sickle’s advance was plugged by Meade, the Union commander, with the V Corps in the nick of time which led to a bloody afternoon on Little Round Top, as Longstreet’s Texans tried to push Union forces from their positions there.
By the end of the Civil War Berdan’s green jacketed sharpshooters had become one of the most well-known and recognizable units of the war and their lasting legacy on small unit tactics and modern warfare is without question. One needs only to take a glimpse of combat from then on to see the true influence they truly had.
U.S. SharpShooters Berdan’s Civil War Elite by Roy M. Marcot
Sharps Firearms by Frank Sellers
Civil War Guns by William B. Edwards
Sharpshooter: Hiram Berdan, His Famous Sharpshooters and their Sharps Rifles by Wiley Sword
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