The History of Berdan's Sharpshooters

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History of Hiram Berdan

Hiram Berdan was a talented inventor with over 30 patents to his name. These range from a collapsable life boat (a patent that was donated to a charity, and never built) to machines to automate the production of bread (these machines were used by some companies at the time of the Civil War to make Army Bread, or Hardtack) to post-war weapons modifications sold to the Russian military. Through these patents, Berdan became a very wealthy man with contacts in important governmental and business positions.

Berdan was a likely choice to form a regiment of expert marksmen because of hid influence, and because he was known to be the best rifle shot in the United States at the time, in formal competition. Target shooting was a popular sport in the northern United States for affluent and common men alike. President Lincoln was also known to be a fair shot. Most of the men who formed the Sharpshooters were not wealthy business men, like Berdan, but rather men who had learned to shoot through hunting, competition shooing, or previous war experience. The call to a Sharpshooter regiments was well received, so well in fact, that the states began keeping their marksmen for volunteer sharpshooting regiments, to the dissatisfaction of Berdan.

At the beginning of the war Hiram Berdan used his recognition to persuade the Federal government to allow him to establish a regiment of Sharpshooters recruited from each of the loyal states and meeting specific marksmen restrictions. It is currently debated by historians and scholars whether this idea actually belonged to Hiram Berdan. It possible that Casper Trepp, who served as Captain of Company A, 1st U.S. Sharpshooters and later Major to Hiram Berdan, brought the idea of rifle regiment from Europe. Trepp came from Switzerland after serving in the Crimean war. He was an experienced infantryman and had witnessed both Napoleonic tactics (a method of fighting developed during the Napoleonic war to intimidate the enemy, still used during the civil war when weapons had surpassed the tactics) and the rifle regiments of the European armies. The tactics used by the Sharpshooters (operating in small teams, using stealth and cover, trying to maintain distance to the enemy) are believe to be the direct parent of later American fighting tactics. Other aspects of the Sharpshooters with European flavor are the green uniforms (tradition European uniform color for riflemen - possible the origin of the Green Berets as a symbol of an elite fighting force), the leather leggings and the hairy calf-skin knapsack that the Sharpshooters carried.

It is likely that Trepp knew he did not have the clout needed to persuade the Union to form these rifle regiments, and so gave Berdan the push needed to campaign for the regiments. There is some evidence of this in the writings of other Swiss Sharpshooters. Regardless of this, there grew a significant level of animousity between the two men, leading Trepp to attempt resignation (Berdan refused to accept Trepp's resignation, several times) and both men to file legal claims against each other.

The claims against Hiram Berdan were largely centered around the fact that he was seldom, if ever, seen on the field of battle. Though Berdan spent a great amount of time and effort to gain the ranks of Brigadier-General and Major-General, these were fought largely on the grounds that Berdan had not actually aided the battles. Berdan was not a military man by nature, and was possible the most difficult Sharpshooter to be taught drill. It was Lieutenant Colonel Frederick Mears who taught the Sharpshooters how to drill and to fight, largely against his will. Mears left the Sharpshooters to command the 4th U.S. Regulars.

Hiram Berdan stayed in Washington (D.C.) for several months of the war, recovering from a wound (that the military records do not mention) and attempting to draw more recruits to fill the ranks of the two Regiments, now depleted by war-time losses. After Gettysburg, Berdan petitioned for discharge and left the army January 2nd, 1864. After the war, Berdan took his family to Europe, where he was successful with several weapons patents.

Casper Trepp was officially given command the 1st U.S. Sharpshooters after Hiram Berdan officially became the Chief of Sharpshooters. He was killed at the Battle of Mine Run, November 30, 1863.

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History of the 2nd U.S. Sharpshooters

Hiram Berdan's dream was to form and lead a brigade of Sharpshooters, expert marksmen with extremely accurate weapons, in the civil war. To determine the quality of the recruit, a test was devised that each applicant must fire ten consecutive rounds free standing at a ten inch diameter target one hundred yards away and then fire an addition ten rounds at a ten inch diameter target two hundred yards away from a resting position, without missing a single shot. He recuited officers and enough men who could pass the marksmen test to field a full regiment, the 1st U.S. Sharpshooters, and the eight (instead of ten) company 2nd U.S. Sharpshooters. Berdan served as Colonel of the 1st Regiment, and Henry A.V. Post was Colonel of the 2nd regiment. Berdan eventually gained the rank of Brigadier-General over both regiments.
Of the eight companies forming the 2nd U.S. Sharpshooters, they were formed as follows:

Most, but certainly not all, of the men serving in a company came from the state in which it was mustered. Some states, however, were not able to provide enough soldiers for a whole company and do their recruits were mustered into a company with a neighboring state.

The states did not like losing control of their best marksmen. This, combined with the lack of organization in the driving force behind the Sharpshooters, led the states to begin refusing to allow Berdan to recruit their soldiers. Eventually, lack of replacements for fallen soldiers took it's toll on the regiments.

The 2nd Regiment was part of the Army of the Patomac in the Eastern Theater. Because of the uncertain regimental status of the Sharpshooters and the need to put the marksmen in tactically advantageous positions, they were frequently reassigned. The official assignments were as follows:

The movements of the 2nd U.S. Sharpshooters and associated battles are as follows:

The 2nd U.S. Sharpshooters were "discontinued" (the organization as a whole disbanded, and the soldiers reassigned to other companies and regiments) on February 20, 1865. Companies were consolidated as follows:
The 2nd Regiment lost during service: 8 Officers and 117 Enlisted men killed and mortally wounded and 2 Officers and 123 Enlisted men lost to disease. Total 250.

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History of Company D

Company D was organized in Augusta, Maine on November 2, 1861, to serve for three years. They left the state November 13, and on their arrival in Washington, D.C. were sworn into service with the Second Regiment of U.S. Sharpshooters at the Sharpshooters School of Instruction.

On December 31, 1863 all the men present reenlisted for an additional term of three years. On January 6, 1864, left for Maine, having been granted a furlough of 30 days. They reassembled in Augusta, where the remained until February 24. They left for the front and rejoined their regiment at Brady's Station, Virginia on March 1, 1864.

They remained attached to the Second Regiment, U.S. Sharpshooters participating in all the actions and movements in which the Regiment was engaged until February 18, 1865 when in accordance with the War Department Special Order #47 of January 30, 1865 the Company was then transferred and consolidated with several companies, to the Seventeenth Infantry Regiment, Maine Volunteers.

Go to the History of Sergeant Luther Grover Davis of Company D

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