American inventor Hiram Berdan was born on this day in 1824. A mechanical engineer by profession, Berdan held patents on over 30 inventions. Berdan invented a reaper, a mechanical bakery, an amalgamation machine that separated gold from ore, a repeating rifle, a collapsible boat, a center fire cartridge with a primer design that is still in use today. His inventions made him a very wealthy man. Berdan’s hobby was target shooting and by the 1850’s, he had achieved worldwide renown as an expert marksman.
In 1861 the Civil War would rip the nation apart. The Union debacle at First Bull Run in August of 1861 indicated that the war was going to be a prolonged affair and the Lincoln Administration sent out the call for volunteer units to flock to the Union cause. Berdan’s reputation as an inventor and marksman enabled him to have friends in high places, so he was able to wrangle a face to face meeting with President Lincoln to pitch a unique idea for an elite fighting unit. Berdan wanted to raise a regiment, or two, of skilled marksmen to act as skirmishes or snipers to wreak havoc on their Confederate foes. The idea would be to target Confederate officers and non-com’s (sergeants & corporals) and artilleryman to disrupt operations. Lincoln was intrigued by the proposal and gave his approval.
Berdan got to work immediately to recruit marksmen for his elite units. The recruits had to pass a rigorous marksmanship test of placing 10 shots in a 10 inch circle from 200 yards away. They were permitted to use weapons of their own choosing during the test. Lincoln himself came to witness the testing. By the end of September 1861, Berdan completed the qualification of enough marksmen to create two regiments, officialy known as the 1st & 2nd Regiments United States Sharpshooters, and were formed into a brigade with Hiram Berdan being appointed a Colonel in command of the brigade. Swiss immigrant and Crimean War veteran Casper Trepp was appointed Lt. Colonel and second in command.
The weapon that Berdan wished to outfit his sharpshooters with was the Sharps breechloading rifle. The Sharp’s rifle fired a .52 caliber conical bullet with a linen cartridge. The breechloading feature allowed the marksman to fire 8 rounds per minute, vs. the 3 per minute that a skilled muzzle loader could fire. It was accurate up to 600 yards. Berdan also permitted the marksmen to use their private weapons, of which a number utilized the newly developed long range scope.
To enhance the uniqueness of this elite unit, Berdan would outfit the Sharpshooters in uniforms that were forest green in color, vs. the standard Union blue. This was most like a suggestion by Casper Trepp who would have knowledge of similar elite marksmen units in European armies were outfitted with forest green uniforms. The green uniforms also did not have any brass buttons, rather they were made of a dark brown leather. All of this was an attempt at some type of camouflage.The Sharpshooters would become famous for their exploits on many battlefields in the Eastern field of operations during the Civil War. One of the legends attributed to the Sharpshooters occurred during the battle of Yorktown during the Peninsula Campaign in 1862. The story is told that the Sharpshooters, by aiming at the embrasures for Confederate artillery pieces and causing dirt to accumulate in the cannon barrels caused them to prematurely explode and rupture the tubes. It is more likely that their skills resulted in a large number of Confederate artillery men becoming casualties.
Although a reputable inventor and engineer, Hiram Berdan’s exploits as a leader were dubious at best. His Civil War exploits are most remembered for the Gettysburg battle where he shouted the command “Advance, firing” to the Sharpshooters, given their type of weapons was something that that could do with ease. Much of the success of the 1st and 2nd U.S. Sharpshooters can be attributed to Casper Trepp. Sadly he was killed in early 1864. However, the Sharpshooters would pass into history being known as Berdan’s Sharpshooters, one of the legendary Union organizations of the Civil War.
Sources: Coddington, Edwin: “The Gettysburg Campaign”, Catton, Bruce “The Army of the Potomac Trilogy: Mr. Lincoln’s Army, Glory Road, A Stillness At Appomattox”, Stevens, Captain C.A. (Historian 1st & 2nd U.S. Sharpshooters): “Berdan’s Sharpshooters in the Army of the Potomac”
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Please keep these interesting and informative stories coming! I’m truly amazed by the “behind the scene” sagas you publish. Keep up the good work, my friend!
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