Company C First Regiment Berdan's Sharpshooters

The US Sharpshooters and the Original Company C

sharpshooter pin

A Brief History

In the spring of 1861 a wave of patriotism was sweeping the north in response to President Lincoln's call for volunteers to fight for the Union. One person who felt the call was Hiram Berdan. Berdan, an engineer, inventor and one of the best marksmen in the United States, believed that he could raise a contingent of the best rifle shots from each of the loyal northern states.

After receiving approval from General Winfield Scott, Berdan went about the task of recruitment. So many volunteers came forward that the First Regiment was soon filled.

The regiment was divided into 10 companies. One of the companies, Company C, was organized in the state of Michigan on August 21, 1861. The company was mustered into Federal service in late September, at the Sharpshooters' Camp at Weehawken, New Jersey. From there the company went to the Camp of Instruction, located north of Washington, D.C. It was there that the Sharpshooters were to receive the uniforms that would earn them the nickname "Green Coats".

Berdan, now a colonel, believed that a uniform of green cloth would "better correspond in the leafy season with the colors of the foliage." Clad in their distinctive new uniforms, the Sharpshooters were trained intensively in the art of skirmish drill and physical conditioning. Even though all recruits has already passed a strict marksmanship test, competitive rifle shooting was staged constantly to keep the men in top form. Frequently local dignitaries and members of the press visited the camp to witness the remarkable exhibition of sharpshooting.

The Sharpshooters were now ready for action in all respects except one: they had no rifles. Only Companies C and E were fully armed with heavy telescopic target rifles. A replacement was needed for these cumbersome weapons. Berdan had been lobbying the War Department to obtain the Sharps Breechloading Rifle. But the War Department was resisting, offering instead the standard muzzle-loading Springfield Rifle. Only after threat of a mutiny from the troops, and intervention by President Lincoln, were the Sharpshooters properly armed. First with the Colt Revolving Rifle and finally with the Sharps Breechloading Rifle.

In March of 1862, the encampment came to an end as Company C and the rest of the regiment were ordered to join the Army of the Potomac for General McClellan's Peninsular Campaign. The Sharpshooters fought at the Siege of Yorktown, the Battle of Williamsburg and the Seven Days Battle. At Manassas, Antietam and Fredricksburg, the Sharpshooters proved the superiority of aimed fire with their breechloading rifles.

In 1863, the Sharpshooters fought at Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, and the Mine Run Campaign. In these engagements, the Sharpshooters suffered high casualties. Of the original 33 commissioned officers and 981 enlisted men in the First Regiment, only 11 officers and 261 enlisted men were left at the close of the year. The Sharpshooters were used with great effectiveness at the Battle of the Wilderness, Spottsylvania and Cold Harbor. At the Assault on Petersburg, they made life miserable for the Confederate defenders.

On the last day of 1864, the members of the regiment who had reenlisted for the duration of the war were consolidated into the Second Sharpshooter Regiment. Each of them served as part of that unit until it was disbanded on February 20, 1865. The men that were left were reassigned to various units from their home states.

Out of 2570 Sharpshooters mustered into service, nearly 1300 were killed or wounded. However, these losses were not surprising. Armed with the Sharps rifle, they were posted time after time far in front of the main body of Federal troops, and were the first to encounter the enemy. The Sharpshooters truly earned the reputation of having "inflicted more casualties upon the enemy than any other unit in the Civil War."

article originally posted on the NCWA website


Hiram Berdan

Born in Phelps, New Yoyk in 1824, Hiram Berdan was a mechanical engineer who had been a top rifle shot in the country prior to the Civil War. Berdan recruited two regiments of sharpshooters for the Union army that required the potential recruits to pass rigorous marksmanship tests. Both regiments served the Union well despite stories that Berdan may have been less than competent in his command role, sometimes conveniently being away from the battlefield. In 1865 he was awarded the brevets of brigadier and major general for Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, at each of which he led a brigade. He invented a repeating rifle and a patented musket ball before the war. He also developed a twin screw submarine gunboat, a torpedo boat for evading torpedo nets, the Russian Berdan rifle, and a long distance range-finder. One of his inventions that has had a lasting legacy is the Berdan primer for metallic cartridge firearms. Berdan died March 31,1893 while playing a game of chess at the Metropolitan Club in Washington D.C.


California Joe

Almost as famous as Hiram Berdan himself, Truman Head of Company C of the First Regiment was unquestionably the most famous among Berdan's Sharpshooters. Nicknamed "California Joe", "Old Californy", and "Old California," Joe came west from New York to seek his fortune after a failed romance. Joe was 52 years old at the time he enlisted, but stated his age as 42, otherwise he would have been rejected.Joe brought to the sharpshooters a background of a hunter and gold miner which could have made enough fodder for interesting news stories but Joe was found to have a keen eye and a great marksman without any embellishments by the press. Joe's image and his exploits made for good reading in a time where the Union was sorely lacking heroes and good news from the war.One of the greatet impacts Joe had on the Sharpshooters themselves was his private purchase of a Sharps rifle. It may have been Joes experience that made them want their own Sharps' as well. Sadly, Joes time in the sharpshooters was quite limited. His age caught up with him and his sight was starting to fail him. Joe was discharged November 4,1862 for "senility and impaired vision." Joe returned to California and became a customs inspector in San Francisco. He died November 24,1874.

Other Berdan Sharpshooters from California?

While Truman Head, aka California Joe is well known for his exploits, he is not alone in heading East and being a member of Berdan's Sharpshooters. Two men, Pvt. Sexton Williams and Pvt. Daniel Buckingham, left California and became members of Company F of the Second Regiment, but for different reasons than those of Old California. Both men deserted from the Second Regt. California Infantry and went East and were sent to the Sharpshooters after surrendering themselves. Buckingham died shortly after going on leave following the Gettysburg campaign and Williams died during the siege of Petersburg.

Berdan Research Resources

If you would like to do additional reading on the Berdan sharpshooters, please feel free to download this reading list . This list was originally compiled and posted on the USAMHI website, so I am giving credit and thanks for the information. I have added a few publications that have come out since the original publication back in 1998

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