Roy Marcot on Berdan’s Sharpshooters

by Fred Ray on April 19, 2008 · 1 comment

I’ve bought a number of books lately on the Late Unpleasantness and will posting reviews as time permits. Speaking of which I should have a bit more now that my house is more or less completed (still working on the landscaping) and I have finished the awards process for a non-profit on whose board I serve.

Given my interest in CW sharpshooters, I picked up a copy of Roy Marcot’s new tome U.S. Sharpshooters: Berdan’s Civil War Elite, published by Stackpole. Marcot, known primarily as a firearms historian, has done a previous book on Berdan and his boys in green, but I’m happy to say that this effort includes new scholarship and for those of us who are visually oriented, lots of pictures. In fact the book is a large format 9”x12” picture book, and though the text is small on those 128 pages it’s still quite readable. Don’t mistake this for a lightweight book – Marcot has done a great job digging out information on Berdan’s men, including correspondence and especially photos, and it’s obvious that he has spent years doing this. In the back of the book, for example, is an extensive gallery of the sharpshooters themselves, as well as numerous photos of the arms that they carried. I consider myself fairly well informed on the subject, so $30 is well spent if, as here, I learn a thing or three that I didn’t know before I picked it up.

In the opening chapters Marcot gives a virtually hour by hour description of the formation of Berdan’s sharpshooters, complete with correspondence between Berdan, the Secretary of War, and even President Lincoln himself. Hiram Berdan was a rich and influential man thanks to his inventions, and moved easily in the official circles of Washington. Time and again he was able to use his money and influence to get what he wanted, and his feat of raising two sharpshooter regiments and arming them with special weapons (a modified M1859 Sharps breechloader) was impressive by anyone’s standards. He was also a master publicist and even today when one thinks of Civil War sharpshooters, Berdan’s outfit invariably springs to mind, even though their Confederate counterparts had a much greater on the outcome of the war. In fact, I would venture to say that Berdan’s Sharpshooters is probably the most written-about single unit (and I mean both the 1st and 2nd regiments) of the war. Doing a quick check on the web I found a dozen books devoted entirely to them and at least as many in which they were prominently featured.

The sharpshooters showed up at their camp of instruction in Washington in 1861 armed only with heavy target rifle, and some had no arms at all. After realizing the target rifles were impractical in the field Berdan initially wanted to arm his men with Springfields (he considered the Spencer as well), but his men, always an independent, high-spirited lot, decided they wanted the Sharps after seeing one purchased by a unit member, Truman Head (better known as California Joe). Marcot details the political jockeying that enabled Berdan to not only get his Sharps, but to have them modified with special triggers, sights, and bayonets.

More to come…

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Paul Stisser February 4, 2010 at 10:15 am

I have a student in need of a model or replica of a Spencer Repeating Rifle for a history project. I was hoping to find a replica non-firing as a prop and so he can model the ease of the 7-shooter. However I can find it anywhere. Can someone help.

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