Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Blue, The Gray & the Green?

America's Civil War, The War Between the States, The War between the North & South, The War of Northern Aggression, The War of Secession and other titles are all names associated with the conflict fought on American soil between 1861 and 1865. Another reference to this war is the War of the Blue & the Gray. This of course in a reference to the color of the uniforms worn by the two factions with the Blue being the Northern Federal Armies, and the Gray being the Southern Confederate Forces. Often overlooked and often unknown are some of the other color of uniforms seen on the battlefields. The differing colors held great significance to the units they were associated with and held much meaning if nothing more than distinguishing a certain expertise. Such is the case with the Berdan Sharpshooters.

Hiram Berdan, pictured at right, was known as the county's best marksman for at least 15 years before the war. He invented a musket ball and a repeating rifle. He apparently was a well educated man and was of some financial stature within the community. Mr Berdan has a long and colorful history all his own but what is of importance here is his service to the Union during the war. In the summer and fall of 1861 Hiram Berdan, with the blessings of General Winfield Scott and President Lincoln, form two sharpshooting regiments and he himself was named Colonel of the units. In order to gain admission to the sharpshooter corps Colonel Berdan had stringent requirements that must be met. One such requirement was that the shooter must place 10 consecutive shots in a 10 inch bulls eye at 200 yards. Not impossible but not an easy feat for the rifles of the day. When enough recruits were available the 1st USSS (United States Sharpshooters) were mustered into service with companies from New York, Michigan, New Hampshire and Vermont. Enough recruits to the corps soon followed to make the 2nd USSS a short time later. The uniforms for USSS regiments were of similar tailoring to the regular army but the frock coats, trousers, and forage caps were a distinctive green instead of the traditional union blue. These men were promised a bounty payment for supplying their own gun of sufficient quality to snipe with. The bounty was never paid. These men were promised additional pay for their expertise. This pay was never realized. The recruits were promised the new Sharps Breech Loading rifles. These rifles eventually were made available but only after the issued colt revolving rifles proved not to be as effective as promised. Still, the USSS regiment performed their duties with great precision and pride.

The 2nd USSS was sent to the Fredericksburg area in 1862 while the 1st USSS was tested the same year at the beginning of General McClellans Peninsula Campaign. The sharpshooters were called upon to man picket lines and forward rifle pits with the purpose of "picking off" unfortunate confederates, especially officers, that dared to expose themselves to the eyes of the green clad snipers. As the Union Army moved up the peninsula the sharpshooters proved their worth over and over again. Often their mission was suppress artillery fire from the confederates by "dissuading" the artillerymen from exposing themselves to load their cannon. At Yorktown a siege operation was used to take the city. The sharpshooters were called upon to protect the troops creating trenches and earthworks around the town while at the same time keeping Confederate artillery quiet and to dispatch any opposing snipers. The siege continued for several weeks with the Union constantly inching forward as the southern troops withdrew largely in part to the effectiveness of the USSS. On the morning of May 4th, the confederate defenses, many less than 50 yards away were empty. Six USSS men occupied that abandoned defensive works and that effectively marked the conquest of Yorktown.

Berdan corps was also used at Chancellorsville, Seven Days Battle, Second Bull Run and Gettysburg to name a few and remained active through-out the war.

Colonel Berdan's service however is not without controversy. He was apparently a very egotistical person and his contemporaries often refereed to him as a liar and as a coward. The Colonel chose to lead from the rear and was rarely seen at the front. He resigned his commission in 1864 and died in 1893 while playing a game of chess in Washington D.C. Colonel Berdan is buried in Arlington Cemetery.

And so, should you see a print or colorized photo of a Union soldier wearing a green uniform, look close to see if he carries an colt revolving rifle or a Sharps Breech Loading rifle both of which are pictured below. If so you are probably looking at one of Colonel Berdans Sharpshooters. These were men of exemplary shooting skill.

Colt Revolving Rifle

Sharps Breech Loading Rifle


Anonymous said...

Those revolving Colts were no where near the weapon the Sharps was, but it would be cool to have one in our collections, wouldnt it Cap?!
Great article...I've seen the green uniforms in Gettysburg at some of their shops. Neat stuff and great info.

Anonymous said...

Right you are Brother Rat! The Sharps was an exceptional rifle to own one must be a thrill.

Maybe some day!!!