Was Hiram Berdan really Flashman?

by Fred Ray on April 20, 2008 · 1 comment

Roy Marcot has wisely refrained from passing judgment on Hiram Berdan, preferring to present the evidence and let the reader make up his own mind. Still, the evidence is damning and I found myself wondering if I was not reading an early draft of one of James McDonald Frazier’s novels about Flashman:

a self-described and unapologetic ‘cad’—[who] constantly betrays acquaintances, runs from danger or hides cowering in fear, yet he arrives at the end of each volume with medals, the praise of the mighty, and the love of one or more beautiful and enthusiastic women. Ultimately, Flashman becomes one of the most notable and honoured figures of the Victorian era.

Except for the womanizing – Berdan seems to have been happily married – the rest pretty much fits. When battle loomed Berdan’s method was to hand over command to a subordinate and head for the rear for administrative tasks like securing ammunition, attending to the wounded, etc. Yet this was never enough – Berdan also wanted to be a hero (and a general), and frequently claimed not only acts of personal bravery but of saving the army in several battles.

At Gaines’s Mill, for example, Berdan was nowhere to be found when the shooting started, but later claimed to have rallied the army single-handed and formed to 12,000 men into 11 lines, stopping a shameful rout. Marcot found letters telling the real story: Berdan had tried to “rally” a retreating regiment, only to be dressed down by its colonel, who was following orders, and had to apologize. He then became so excited he shot an artillery horse and tried to convince the canoneers that it had been hit by a shell fragment.

The Brigade of Sharpshooters, under Berdan’s nominal command, was sent forward at Chancellorsville for a reconnaissance in force to investigate reports of a Confederate flanking column. They did defeat and capture a Georgia regiment forming Stonewall Jackson’s rear guard, but as Marcot points out Berdan failed in his real mission – to find Jackson’s column. In fact, Berdan’s report that the Confederates were retreating contributed materially to the Union defeat.

At Gettysburg Berdan took an even bigger flight of fancy. Sent out for a reconnaissance to Pitzer’s Woods, Berdan’s men fought a battle with Wilcox’s Confederates and reported that they were indeed there in force. After the war Berdan inflated this skirmish into an attack by himself and 300 valiant Sharpshooters against Longstreet’s flanking column, which delayed it long enough for the Round Tops to be occupied, thus saving the Federal left flank, the battle, and by extension, the Union itself. Naturally he put himself at the head of the attack, riding in between the lines encouraging his men, although no one remembered seeing him there at all.

What amazed me, however, was how Berdan managed to build his myth after the war so that it went pretty much unchallenged until researchers like Marcot and Wiley Sword found the real facts. Marcot also details several attempts by various commanders and by Berdan’s own officers to tell the true story of his cowardice, yet Berdan beat back each attempt and emerged stronger than before. When five of his officers circulated a memo about their commander at Gaines’s Mill, Berdan had them arrested and threatened to court martial them until they retracted it. His division commander, Brig. Gen. George Morell, at first criticized Berdan for a “highly exaggerated” statement about his role there, yet recommended him for promotion. One sees this with other commanders also, which makes you wonder what went on behind the scenes. Only in late 1863, when Berdan had tired of the army and his second in command, Caspar Trepp, had authored a damning document against him, did he resign. This did not, of course, keep him from inflating his postwar reputation.

More to come…


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