Weehawken, New Jersey
September 4, 1861
Hiram Berdan, a native New Yorker, is a wealthy entrepreneur, manufacturer, and inventor. For 15 years prior to the Civil War, he also is known as one of the best marksmen in America. When the war begins, Berdan has an idea to recruit at least one, and, possibly, two, regiments of highly skilled riflemen – Sharp Shooters – from northeastern states. The men would be equipped and paid by the federal government, not by the states, and would be mustered into the Regular U.S. Army.
Recruits "at rest" had to fire 10 bullets at a 10 inch target at a range of 600 feet. The shots had to hit within 5 inches of the center of the target, the bulls eye. The marksmen had to be equally skilled firing "off hand," from 300 feet.
After some practice, the men also need to fire accurately 10 rounds within one minute.
Berdan has other innovative ideas.
To camouflage the men and protect their legs in thorny underbrush, the Sharp Shooters are issued dark green uniforms, instead of regulation blue; and they wear knee-high leather leggings, tanned, with the hair on the outside. Their uniform buttons and other insignia are made of non-reflective black gutta percha (an early type of gum rubber).
He orders specially made rifles from the Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company in Hartford, Connecticut.
(The term "sharp shooter" described any good marksman long before the founding in 1855 of the Sharps Manufacturing Company. The company was named for its chief engineer, Christian Sharps.)
The Sharps Rifle was an accurate, breech-loading carbine. Its accuracy and ease of use also made it the favored weapon of cavalrymen. Because the weapons were so superior to conventional muskets, the Sharp Shooters reportedly accounted for more deaths by gunshot than did the much more numerous regular infantry.
As Berdan puts his unit together, some of Maine’s best marksmen are recruited. They become Company D, 2nd Regiment, of the United States Sharp Shooters.
In a September, 1861, letter to Maine Governor Israel Washburn, Col. Berdan asks for the identity of the Captain of the Maine Sharp Shooter Company. Washburn soon appoints James Fessenden, a son of Maine’s U.S. Senator William Pitt Fessenden.
- Sharp Shooters usually operated while concealed in small groups or as single individuals hidden away from Regimental formations. As a result, ordinary soldiers often loathed them, even though they were fighting on the same side. Why might this be so?
- Do armies maintain similar units today?