On campaign

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Since sharpshooter skirmish work made the individual walk and run further and work harder than the average infantryman of the line, sharpshooters burned more calories in the field. One of the main problems sharpshooters reported when on the march or camped in the field was a lack of proper rations. Private Henry Crowell, Company E, 1st USSS, wrote home on September 29, 1863, during the Army of the Potomac's fall campaign,

We are all well I believe to day, but are short of rations and the boys are almighty cross this morning. They have porked and hard tacked us to death for about a week past. We have not drawn a bean or any molasses, potatoes, onions, rice or a durned thing but pork & hard bread, coffee & sugar, fresh beef twice for over 3 weeks, but 1 guess we shall get soft bread to day or to morrow if we don't move.

In the beginning, men often got sick from this food, which thev prepared poorly. "For while the Americans were great hands to fry everything - fried pork, fried beef, fried hardtack swimming in grease." Stevens recalled, "[Swiss national and Crimean War veteran Captain] Trepp's men boiled their meats and, with plentv of vegetables, made soups, rarely if ever, eating fried food. It was really forbidden. This, the captain claimed, was the principal cause of their reallv small sick list. The others understood this after awhile, and resorted more to boiled food than formerly."

Men also supplemented their food with items obtained, by means fair or foul, from local civilians. Corporal William Kent wrote home from the Peninsula on July 28, 1862, that he had been on the march

Richard Carlile
This volunteer wears the horizontal horn Inslgria worn by members of the 1st Michigan Sharpshooter Battalion, although his exact organization is today unknown. The insignia originated with tho US Army's mounted rifle regiment. (Richard Carlile collection)

and "under the circumstances foraging was not considered unpardonable, and rebel cattle, poultry and pigs did good service with more impunity to the eaters than former general orders would give us reason to believe." After another long march, "A short halt enabled some of the boys to forage a little, and they got a little pig which they ate without salt and without much preparation." Still later Kent "made a good meal of raw wheat as an article of diet together with garlics. Can't recommend it except in cases of extreme hunger." Finally, a couple of days later. Kent "made a respectable dinner of sugar and garlic."

One interesting item the Union Army issued in an attempt to get vegetables to its men in the field was called "desiccated vegetables." a dried compressed block of mixed vegetables, including turnips, the only identifiable vegetable, that was to Ik* soaked to expand and then cooked to form a sort of pea soup. Kent received a square of this item and it "answered for our supper, when one got time to eat it."

Coffee was one item that the Union Army made sure its men got in sufficient quantity. This also came premixed with sugar and dried milk in it as a sort of I9th<entury instant coffee. It was greatly appreciated, and many men became known as "coffee boilers" from their habit of starting small fires at every hall of the line of march to lx>il water for coffee. *

At the head of the column, sharpshooters found their marches were often long and hard. Kent recalled in one such march. "At every little halt on that road the men would lie down in their tracks, and would snore at a second's notice. When we started they would stagger into the ranks and sleep as they walked. Our canteens had been empty early that evening, and finding ivater was out of the question in the darkness."

Officers had their food prepared by servants, either civilians, often runaway slaves, or men from the ranks. Greene was the servant to his company's officers, even though a regular enlisted soldier, and wrote home from Virginia on March 23. 1862. "I have the* rooking to tieĀ» for the Capt. and two Lieuts. The first Lieut. has a boy here that brings the water, gets the wood. etc. ... I have sausages. beef steak, etc. We buy our bread at the Comasary's [Commissary's] and at the sutlers. I had a good sausage super [sicI tonight - 1 tell you it went first-rate. We have butter, cheese, coffee, tea, sugar, molasses, etc."

Tents disappeared after the first campaign, although in late 1862 the USSS were issued with shelter halves, each man getting half a small tent that was designed to be buttoned together with another half to form a tent for two men. Before that men simplv roughed it. Greene wrote home in April 1862 of how they had been marching and lay down under an open sky to sleep when it began to rain:

Although many sharpshooter officers did not carry swords in the feld, preferring tho riflo and pistol, officially they were to carry this type of regulation foot officor's sword. (Author's collection)

Top. the brass NCO belt plato with its silver wreath. Bottom loft, tho brass cartridge box plate not used with the Sharps' box. Bottom right, the oval brass enlisted man's belt plato was made from thin sheet brass with a lead backing. (Author's collection)

I thought I could stand it so I went to sleep and slept until midnight. When I awoke I found I was in a puddle of water, the Capt. and other fellow gone. The rain was pouring down good and 1 thought I would not be drove up so I turned over out of the water and went to sleep aguin. I woke at about 4 o'clock and through I would get up and dry myself. I went out where the rest of the boys wire and they had not slept a wink.

Much marching was done in hot weather under a broiling sun. Many men put wet leaves in their forage caps to cool them down during the march.

Sharpshooters, whenever marching through potentially dangerous territory, tended to keep more alert than did line units. Greene wrote home from Northern Virginia on July 27, 1862. that his unit's line of march halted for the night:

And all of them were making coffee with their guns stacked and belts off, all except our company's. The Col. woidd not let them take them off. but made them stay within reach of their rifles.

Thus they were (the 2nd Wis. washing their feet, a part of them) when the spy, or rather scout, of Gen. Gib[b]on's came dashing down the road with the news that a body of cavalry was coming down on them. But he was not quick enough for scarcely had he told it when down out of the Hoods came a large Ixxly of rebel, or Ash by cavalrv. All was in confusion.

The major of the 2nd Wis. ordered his men to run for the woods hut the shaq) shooters, like men, grasped their rilles and not waiting for orders, poured a most deadly lire into them killing 5 men and wounding the officer commanding. Upon receiving this volley, the enemy wheeled and dropped on to their horses necks. Another volley started them on a retreat with the Indiana cavalry (now mounted) at their heels.

At other times the two sides suspended hostilities. Greene noted in his diary on June 5. 1864:

An Issue canteen made after July 1862 and supplied through the Philadelphia Quartermaster Dopot that has "circular indentations on each side" for added strength. Canteens issued through this depot habitually had strings to retain tho cork, a wide variety of cloth covert, and, until 1862, a russet leathe' strap. (Author's collection)

In battle

In battle the sharpshooters were generally used as Berdan originally planned, in small groups no larger than one or two companies. New commander Charles Mattocks wrote home in March 1864. on taking command of the 1st U.S.S.S.. to say their function was to "go ahead and 'kick up the muss"'.

Private William Kent wrote home on July 28. 1862 from Harrison I-anding. Virginia, about his first combat experience:

We piled our knapsacks and blankets and then formed the line of skirmishers in the

At about 3 o'clock we made the agreement to have no more shooting & then, we that had done all in our power to kill one another (hiring the day. met & in a friendly manner exchanged coffee, tobacco, etc. & while we were between the two lines we buried a dead horse which had been rather offensive to lx>th sides. The Johnnys remained on their side & the yanks on the other side. After talking to them for nearly two hours we retired to our places & every thing remained quiet until dark when the enemy opened along the whole line.

Tobacco, a southern staple, was often hard to obtain by Federal soldiers and many of them picked up the smoking habit in the service. Occasionally one could trade northern newspapers for southern tobacco but more often one had to patronize the sutler. Asclunann mentioned a rare lime when.

For several days there had been a lack of tobacco. This inconvenience was remedied by accident, for not far from our plare tlu* man found a barn filled with good Virginia tobacco which was immediately confiscated and distributed among the smoker*. We had a few cigar-makers in our company who went to work without delay and supplied us with aromatic Virginia cigars. Moreover, everyone took along a g<KKllv quantity of the long-craved-for leaves.

An issue canteen as provided by the New York Quartermaster Depot, which was the only quarlermastor depot to have chairs that retained the corfc to the canteen. It has a brown jeans cloth covor. (Author's collection)

edge of ihe woods, parallel with the valley, and then advanced down the hill, through the swamp and up the other side to the edge of the woods where we could see the approach of the rebels. ... The "ninth" [Massachusetts] was now drawn in l>ehind us. and drawn back half way up the hill on our side, where we took cover behind trees and stumps, and so watched until 3 P.M.

Then a-brisk firing commenced 011 our right [the battle of Gaines' Mill] and scattered along until it come opposite of me. Tremendous volley of small arms, and the peal of heavy guns were the last things I heard before 1 went in. We fought pretty much 011 our own hook the officers being far to the right, and the human voice was of 110 account. The rebels rushed down the hill in line of battle, but it wasn't quite so easy rushing across a swamp, waist deep in thick mud, and as they tried it we tried Sharp's rifles at eight rods, firing as fast as we could put in cartridges, the distance being so shorr'that aim was unnecessary. We couldn't help hitting them and our vigorous fire held them in check for some minutes - minutes are hours at such a time - and they were thrown into some disorder. Meanwhile, things were not very still. The bullets came like hair, and the trees looked like nutmeg graters, but our cover was pretty good and their aim. feet too high, so that our company lost only one killed and three wounded.

An issue canteen as provided by the New York Quartermaster Depot, which was the only quarlermastor depot to have chairs that retained the corfc to the canteen. It has a brown jeans cloth covor. (Author's collection)

After the campaign was done, he added, "As far as I can remember I was perfectly cool, though sometimes I had a most ardent desire to try my legs, instead of my eyes, and 1 would have to pray most earnestly for strength, to do my duty. 1 did not exactly like to say. 'Oh God, help me to shoot that man' but substituted 'do my duty' and shot at men as well as I knew how."

This became the standard method of combat for the sharpshooters. Lieutenant Thomas Connington, Company K, 1st USSS. wrote home:

If the Gen. comm;inding has an idea the enemy is in a certain place and don't know their strength or position exactly, he orders skirmishers thrown out and in our corps it comes 011 the Sharpshooters because we have better guns and have drilled more in that than anything else.

It depends upon the front they want to cover as to the number thrown out, sometimes one or two Co's and sometimes half the Regt. always saving half the Regt. as reserve. Those thrown out deploy 5 paces apart and move forward in line, always keeping that together. We advance cautiously and are allowed to take the advantage of trees, stumps or anything that will make a cover.

The men of Andrews' Sharpshooters possibly received Massachusotts-issue haversacks such as this one. The food bag on the right buttoned nside the bag by the same type of bone buttons used to button the flap closed. (Author's collection)

Captain CA Stevens later described how skirmish warfare changed the role of the individual soldier in warfare:

Going into action as skirmishers five paces apart (oftener ten), and frequently in brushy places of thickets out of sight of the comrade right and left, often far ahead of the regular battle line, each man looking out for himself, making of each skirmisher a separate and distinctive body or force, taking the place in a measure of a company, is a performance that brings out to the fullest intensity all the perceptive qualities of the individual: while the enemy in the largest possible formation, watches this isolated skirmisher with the same degree of interest for the time being, as they do afterwards the approaching columns. So that the skirmisher becomes a very much noted character in spite of himself.

Their Confederate opponents were well aware the sharpshooters' abilities, and treated them with great respect. Private Alexander I hinder. 17th Virginia Infantry, recalled their being across the lines from their defenses at Williamsburg in 1862. "Some of these sharpshooters had holes dug in the ground close to our trenches, within which they had every comfort, while they kept a close and constant watch over us. We used to place a hat on a stick and lift it above the embankment just to see them put a bullet in it." he wrote. "We lost in the Seventeenth, by these sharpshooters during our occupancy of the trenches, a sergeant killed, one private killed, and two wounded."

Still, two killed and two wounded is not a great number of casualties out of an entire regiment, leaving one to wonder how effective the sharpshooters were in battle. Some evidence suggests that they were not as effective as originally believed. For example, on the second day of Gettysburg the 1st USSS ran into remainders of the lOtXand 11th Alabama Regiments. At a distance of some 300 yards, the 11th Alabama t<x>k cover

Most sharpshooters served in smalt groups such as this pickot post. {Harper's Weekly)

behind a rail fence in an open field - hardly fully protective cover. Even so, the regiment lost only one officer and 17 men wounded at this range to the sharpshooters' ballets. In fact, in that fight some 66 Federals and 56 Confederates were reported killed, wounded, and missing.

The two regiments of US Sharpshooters suffered from another problem at the highest command level. Berdan himself, while an excellent manager and organizer, quickly earned the dislike of all ranks. Totally without military knowledge, he was forced to bring in a regular army officer to train his troops in basic drill. Moreover, he was arrogant, temperamental, and dictatorial. Above all. he appeared to be cowardly, in an age when bravery was considered vital to a man. In heavy fighting in the Peninsula Campaign he often found excuses for going to the rear to "protect the sick," or "procure ammunition." Despite this, his official reports exaggerated his own role greatly.

On July 4, 1862 five company-grade officers sent a petition to Berdan's superior asking for his relief. Although he managed to avoid this, he was placed under arrest on March 2, 1863 by his divisional commander and court martialled. Berdan again escaped a guilty finding. On the other hand, the 1st Regiment's commander, Caspar Trepp. a professional Swiss soldier who had seen action in the Crimean War and Garibaldi's Italian campaign, was an excellent officer. The two were bound not to get along, and Berdan eventually arrested Trepp on a trumped-up charge. The court martial found Trepp not guilty and he returned to do excellent service.

On August 7, 1863 Berdan was placed on medical leave for a relapse of a minor wound thai he had received at the second battle of Bull Run. when he was struck in the chest by a stray shell fragment while in the rear, as usual. He would never return to active duty and was honorably discharged on January 2. 1864. Trepp continued in action, only to be killed by a shot through his red corps cap badge at Mine Run in November 1863.

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