Thursday, August 9, 2012

Hiram Berdan (1824-1893), Inventor and Sharpshooter

Hiram Berdan (1824 – 1893), engineer and Union Army General, commander of sharpshooters during the American Civil War. Photo taken between 1860 and 1870

Hiram Berdan as an inventor after the war

Hiram Berdan grave in Section 2 of Arlington National Cemetery. He died at the Metropolitan Club in New York City on March 31, 1893. He appeared at the club around 5:00 PM, and mentioned to the club secretary that he was not feeling well. During a game of chess with “Admiral Crosby,” the New York Times reported that at 5:45 PM “suddenly his head dropped and he began to breathe heavily and expired almost instantly.” It was finally determined that his death was caused by a cerebral hemorrhage

Hiram Berdan (September 6, 1824 – March 31, 1893) was an American engineer, inventor and military officer, world-renowned marksman, and guiding force behind and commanding colonel of the famed United States Volunteer Sharpshooter Regiments during the American Civil War. He was the inventor of the Berdan rifle, the Berdan centerfire primer and numerous other weapons and accessories.

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.

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:

Company "A" - Minnesota October 5, 1861
Company "B" - Michigan October 4, 1861
Company "C" - Pennsylvania October 4, 1861
Company "D" - Maine November 2, 1861
Company "E" - Vermont November 9, 1861
Company "F" - New Hampshire November 28, 1861
Company "G" - New Hampshire December 10, 1861
Company "H" - Vermont December 31, 1861

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:

Companies moved to Washington, D.C., and duty in the Defenses of that city until April, 1862.
2nd U.S. Sharpshooters attached to Augur's Brigade, King's 1st Division, McDowell's 1st Army Corps, Army of the Potomac, March to April 1862.
2nd U.S. Sharpshooters attached to 1st Brigade, King's Division, Dept. of the Rappahannock, April to June, 1862.
Attached to 1st Brigade, 1st Division, 3rd Army Corps, Army of Virginia, June to September, 1862.
Attached to 1st Brigade, 1st Division, 1st Army Corps, Army of the Potomac, September 1862 to March, 1863.
Attached to 3rd Brigade, 3rd Division, 3rd Army Corps, Army of the Potomac, March to June, 1863.
Attached to 2nd Brigade, 1st Division. 3rd Army Corps, June to September, 1863.
Attached to 3rd Brigade, 1st Division, 3rd Army Corps, September 1863 to March 1864.
Attached to 1st Brigade, 3rd Division, 2nd Army Corps, to February, 1865.

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

Moved to Bristoe Station, Virginia, April 5-6, 1862
thence to Falmouth, Virgina, April 15-19, 1862
Duty at Falmouth until May 25, 1862
McDowell's advance on Richmond, Virginia May 25-29, 1862
Operations against Jackson June 1-21, 1862
Duty at Falmouth until August, 1862
Blackburn's Ford July 19, 1862
Reconnaissance to Orange Court House July 24-26, 1862
Pope's Campaign in Northern Virginia August 16-September 2, 1862
Fords of the Rappahannock August 21-23, 1862
Sulphur Springs August 26, 1862
Battle of Groveton August 29, 1862
Bull Run August 30, 1862
Maryland Campaign September 6-22, 1862
Battles of South Mountain September 14, 1862
Antietam September 16-17, 1862
Camp near Sharpsburg until October 29, 1862
Movement to Falmouth, Virginia, October 29-November 17, 1862
Battle of Fredericksburg December 12-15, 1862
"Mud March" January 20-24, 1863
At Falmouth until April, 1863
Chancellorsville Campaign April 27-May 6, 1863
Battle of Chancellorsville May 1-5, 1863
Gettysburg Campaign June 11-July 24, 1863
Battle of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania July 1-3, 1863
Pursuit of Lee July 5-24, 1863
Action at Wapping Heights, Virginia July 23, 1863
Bristoe Campaign October 9-22, 1863
Auburn and Bristoe October 14, 1863
Advance to line of the Rappahannock November 7-8, 1863
Kelly's Ford November 7, 1863
Brandy Station November 8, 1863
Mine Run Campaign November 26-December 2, 1863
Payne's Farm November 27, 1863
Demonstration on the Rapidan February 6-7, 1864
Campaign from the Rapidan to the James River May 4-June 15, 1864
Battles of the Wilderness May 5-7, 1864
Laurel Hill May 8, 1864
Spotsylvania May 8-12, 1864
Po River May 10, 1864
Spotsylvania Court House May 12-21
Assault on the Salient, "Bloody Angle," May 12, 1864
Harris Farm, Fredericksburg Road, May 19, 1864
North Anna River May 23-26, 1864
On line of the Pamunkey May 26-28, 1864
Totopotomoy May 28-31, 1864
Cold Harbor June 1-12, 1864
Before Petersburg June 16-19, 1864
Siege of Petersburg June 16, 1864 to February 20, 1865
Jerusalem Plank Road, Weldon Railroad, June 22-23, 1864
Demonstration north of the James River July 27-29, 1864
Deep Bottom July 28-29, 1864
Demonstration north of the James August 13-20, 1864
Strawberry Plains, Deep Bottom, August 14-18, 1864
Poplar Springs Church, Peeble's Farm, September 29-October 2, 1864
Boydton Plank Road, Hatcher's Run, October 27-28, 1864
Expedition to Weldon Railroad December 7-12, 1864
Dabney's Mills, Hatcher's Run, February 5-7, 1865

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:

Company "A" transferred to 1st Minnesota Infantry
Company "B" to 5th Michigan Infantry
Company "C" to 105th Pennsylvania Infantry
Company "D" to 17th Maine Infantry
Company "F" to 5th New Hampshire Infantry
Company "G" to 5th New Hampshire Infantry
Company "H" to 4th Vermont Infantry.

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.

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.

Berdan resigned his commission January 2, 1864, and returned to his career as an engineer and inventor. On December 8, 1868, President Andrew Johnson nominated Berdan for appointment to the brevet grade of brigadier general of volunteers, to rank from March 13, 1865, for the Battle of Chancellorsville, at which he led a brigade, and the U.S. Senate confirmed the appointment on February 16, 1869. Although President Johnson also nominated Berdan for appointment to the brevet grade of major general of volunteers to rank from the same date for his services at the Battle of Gettysburg, at which he also led a brigade, the U.S. Senate did not confirm the appointment. Despite the lack of necessary Senate confirmation of the appointment to make it official, many sources refer to Berdan as a brevet major general and even his grave stone in Arlington National Cemetery indicates he was a brevet major general.

He was considered by many to be a crack marksman and innovator, but unfit for field command. Berdan subsequently invented numerous engines of war, including a twin-screw submarine gunboat, a torpedo boat for evading torpedo nets, a long-distance rangefinder and a distance fuse for shrapnel.

Berdan died unexpectedly on March 31, 1893 and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. A recent film created by Silver Domino Productions was based on Berdan and his men.

The part of Hiram Berdan was played by Kurtwood Smith in the 1986 ABC miniseries

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