The Great Skedaddle: With Berdan's Sharpshooters During the Seven Days

    It was the dog days of the summer of 1861; news was just filtering back to Michigan that the Union army had been defeated at Bull Run. Men throughout the state were opening recruiting offices to answer Lincoln's call for 300,000 men for three years to put down the Rebellion. One of the more intriguing options for service had been proposed by Hiram Berdan who had secured permission to raise of a regiment of U.S. volunteers, with one catch: only the best shots in the land need apply. Berdan's requirement for his sharpshooter regiment was that the aspiring soldier had to average hitting within 5 inches on a bulls-eye at 200 yards. It was proposed that the state of Michigan would supply one of the companies of this regiment.

    Across the state, men interested in joining Berdan's sharpshooters had to prove themselves worthy, so shooting trials were held throughout the state. In Hillsdale, Michigan, several dozen men from the area convened at the county fairgrounds on Monday, July 30, 1861. The men were given ten shots at 10" diameter targets both 200 yards out and 100 yards out. They needed to average within 5 inches on both targets over their ten shots. After each shot, measurement would be made of how far the bullet was from the bullseye and then those scores tabulated. Deputy Sheriff Benjamin Duesler of Hillsdale arranged the shoot and eventually eleven men of the vicinity met the requirement to join Berdan's regiment. "Each member has the privilege of furnishing himself with a rifle (for which he is allowed $60) or, if he prefers, the government will furnish him one when he is sworn into service," the Hillsdale Standard reported.

Berdan's Sharpshooters in action with their Sharps' rifles. During the Peninsula campaign, Company C from Michigan was armed with a mix of target rifles and rifles equipped with globe sights. As time passed, the distinctive green coats and trousers gave way to standard army issue blue, but the green caps remained and gave the celebrated unit a distinct identity amongst the Army of the Potomac. 

    The best shot belonged to H.H. Sherman of nearby Jonesville whose score was 28 7/8"- over ten shots, he averaged less than 3" off the mark! But despite being the best shot, Sherman elected to not join the regiment and records show he never enlisted in the Civil War. The second best shot belonged to Cyrus Wilcox of Adams; he scored a 33-1/2". Wilcox would join Co. C of Berdan's and would be the only man of the ten who joined the regiment who would serve his entire three term enlistment, despite being wounded May 6, 1864 during the Wilderness. Charles Button scored third best with a 39-3/4" score; he made it only a few months before being discharged for disability. Ben Duesler of Hillsdale was next, scoring a 42-5/8". Duesler was elected captain when the company organized in Detroit but resigned his commission in October 1861. Frank Whipple tied with Duesler with a 42-5/8". He would go on to become the regimental commissary sergeant on October 15, 1861, then be commissioned second lieutenant of Co. B of the 1st Michigan Sharpshooters in March 1863. He was wounded May 12, 1864 at Spotsylvania Courthouse and was again promoted a month later. Whipple mustered out in December 1864, serving the longest of anyone in this group.

Colonel Hiram Berdan

    William T. Buchanan scored a 44-5/8", sixth best in the group; he would be discharged for disability in February 1863. Two brothers also made the grade: Jacob Doty scored a 45-5/8" while his brother Travis T. Doty scored a 49-5/8"; Jacob would be discharged for disability March 28, 1863 while Travis would be killed in action November 27, 1863 at Locust Grove, Virginia. William Doyle of Ransom, Michigan scored a 46-1/4" but would die of disease the following March. Eugene Rowlson scored a 47-5/8" and went on to be appointed quartermaster sergeant of the regiment before being discharged for disability in June 1862. Archibald Storms of Jonesville scored a 49-2/3" but only lasted a few months in service, being discharged for disability in December 1861. George Zimmerman just made the grade at 50"; he died of disease in December 1861. 

    But all of that was in the future. On Friday August 16th, the recruits set out from Hillsdale for Detroit, where men from all over the state of Michigan were gathering to be organized into a company of sharpshooters. Eventually this became Co. C of the 1st U.S. Sharpshooters and joined up with the rest of the regiment in New York. "As the train started from the depot, three cheers were given for the Hillsdale Sharpshooters by the large crowd assembled to bid them God speed, to which the boys responded from the platform of the rear car with three cheers for Hillsdale," it was reported. Once they arrived in Detroit, an election for officers was held and Benjamin Duesler was elected captain. "They will be armed by the state as they prefer a light rifle to a heavy one adopted by Colonel Berdan." 

An early war uniform belonging to the 1st U.S. Sharpshooters on display at the Smithsonian Institution. Piped in light green, the uniforms were identical to standard issue frock coats with the difference of color. Some Sharpshooters chose to decorate their forage green caps with a black ostrich plume. The uniform's color gave some advantage of camouflage, but its distinctiveness also made the sharpshooters a conspicuous target for their Confederate counterparts, as Berdan's men were the only green-clad troops in the Army of the Potomac.

    In June of 1862, Berdan's Sharpshooters were attached to the Army of Potomac, doing their full duty in the Peninsula Campaign while serving in Third Division of General Fitz-John Porter's V Army Corps. The regiment would be heavily engaged during the Seven Days battles, particularly on June 30th at White Oak Swamp as remembered by Adjutant Ira Smith Brown. By this time, only Frank Whipple, Cyrus Wilcox, Bill Buchanan, and the two Doty brothers were left of the men who left Hillsdale in August 1861. 

    "Company G, Captain Edward Drew of Buffalo was detached with Company C (Michigan) and were with McCall’s Pennsylvania Reserves. On the 30th of June they were with the Bucktails and were attacked by an overpowering force. They were badly handled and lost many. At length they got an opportunity each to seek a tree and then they did dreadful execution. The Rebels turned their left flank and fired on the 10th Pennsylvania Reserves, who ran as fast as they could. [Sergeant Joel] Parker [Co. G] was shot, then poor Captain Drew, by far our best captain, then [Sergeant James W.] Staples [Co. G], all good men. 

Sergeant James W. Staples, Co. G
Killed in action June 30, 1862


    At this time, it was dark and Companies G and C found out to their alarm that they were literally surrounded by Rebels. This was in White Oak Swamp. Lieutenant Charles F. Sheppard of Company G lay beside the road when a Rebel lay down beside him. Sheppard whispered, “Which regiment do you belong to?” “Louisiana Battalion.” Instantly Sheppard struck him a powerful blow with his fist, stunning him, and took him prisoner. Old California Joe served a second in the same way. Henry Lye, bugler, had a prisoner when he a saw a lieutenant colonel coming along the road. He made his prisoner sit still, halted the lieutenant colonel, took his pistol away and carried them in triumph to the rear. The Rebels had a peculiar kind of whistle, which our men answered and thus got some prisoners. One of Company G’s men joined an infantry regiment and excited great astonishment by the rapidity of the firing. The officers sung ‘Who is that? What are you doing? What kind of gun you got?’ All crowded around to see the Sharps’ hair trigger rifle. The weather was intensely hot. A July sun in Virginia is not as cool as it might be. If you do not believe it, come and see."

    A few weeks later, Commissary Sergeant Frank Whipple had recovered enough from the strains and stresses of the campaign to be able to sit down and right an account of what he saw and experienced during the Seven Days' battles. Whipple's letter was addressed to one of the former members of Co. C, probably Captain Duesler, who shared Whipple's letter with the Hillsdale Standard. It was published in their July 29, 1862 edition.


Captain Benjamin Giroux, Co. C, 1st U.S. Sharpshooters resigned his commission on August 31, 1862. (Brian White Collection)

Harrison's Landing, Virginia

July 11, 1862

    Your last was received while on the "great skedaddle." You have probably heard of the great repulse of our invincible army and the consequent running fight kept up for the extraordinary length of one week. I can only give you facts that came under my own observation. 

    We left our old camp at Gaines' Mills on the morning of Friday June 27th for the rear, burning commissary stores and all the private property of Ed and myself because we had no means of transportation as the teams had been sent off the night before and had not yet returned. Ed lost his guns and clothing to the amount of some $75 while I, more fortunate, only lost about $40. 

    About noon the army halted for a fight. Our lines were formed on the northern slope of a hill in the edge of the wood, but it seems to me as though on the wrong side of the woods. Here we made a stand and waited for the Rebels to come up which they did at 2 in the afternoon. The engagement commenced between the advance of the enemy and the sharpshooters posted as skirmishers in the front. Soon the action became general on the right and center. The Rebels would send up a brigade and let them stand awhile, then withdraw them and send up fresh troops, hoping in this way to weary us out, but our men stood bravely and unflinchingly, returning gun for gun and holding the ground.


Frank Whipple was one of the best shots in Hillsdale County and went to war with Co. C in August 1861. He was soon appointed commissary sergeant for the regiment and later served as a lieutenant with the 1st Michigan Sharpshooters (as depicted here), sustaining a wound May 12, 1864 at Spotsylvania Courthouse. He became a circuit court judge after the war and died in Port Huron, Michigan in 1901 at the age of 63.

    About 4 p.m., the enemy seemed to have marched his force on our left and was evidently to make his great dash. The men stood and fought desperately against overwhelming odds, but of no avail; what could 10,000 do against 50,000? They finally broke and fled. At this I gave up as lost our part of the army, McCall's Division of Porter's Corps. But the artillery posted along the line then began one of the grandest actions of any warfare. They were posted along just outside of the wood in a semi-circle, the center being nearest the corner of the woods. They all commenced playing on the Rebels with grape and canister, loading with three cases of canister at a time. At every discharge you could see the Rebel ranks fall like grass before the scythe, yet on they came and filled up the broken ranks. 

    Still our artillery continued its murderous fire and still fresh troops were brought to bear on the devoted batteries. At last they reached the guns and our men flying from the field while on the hill a line was formed, behind which the men were being rallied. At this instant, the Irish Brigade under General Thomas Francis Meagher came up the hill on the run to the rescue; they soon formed in line and like the avalanche, gathering increased force with each foot they advanced, they drove on to the lines of the rebellious hosts, scattering them  and forcing them back beyond the starting point. Night had set in and all operations now ceased. Before morning dawned, most of the force had crossed the river and we continued the retreat.

A target rifle similar to one carried by some of Berdan's sharpshooters during the Peninsula campaign.

    Saturday night [June 28th] we encamped on the other side of White Oak Swamp. Sunday morning [June 29th] we marched about four miles and halted on the Richmond road, expecting an attack from that quarter, but after the wagon trains had passed we got under way again and marched all night, resting about an hour in the morning, then on again until nearly noon. In the afternoon we went out to fight again and as usual hold our own till dark. The next day the fight was renewed with the same results, driving the Rebels out from the field and really defeating them again.

    All night we again retired backwards through the woods and over hills to this place. Wednesday it rained all day, but we established ourselves as comfortably as possible, hoping to rest, but the next morning a battery was planted on a hill and soon the rebellious shells were falling in uncomfortable closeness to us. We stood it as long as was possible and then skedaddled.

"There has been little of interest transpiring
for the last few days except the visit of
President Lincoln."


    We are now in the woods where shade grows, but even here the heat is almost intolerable. We are now just going through one of our fine times with the Colonel who, as usual, is in hot water. He has maddened all the line and staff officers. Captain Benjamin Giroux [Co. C] and Captain William P. Austin [Co. E] have resigned. Quartermaster Beebe and Captain Edmund Weston [Co. F] will resign. We have had some peculiar times here. The officers of the line have entered a serious protests against the colonel and vice versa, as Lieutenant Colonel [William Young Warren] Ripley is wounded, also Lieutenants Charles Seaton and Cyrus E. Jones, the latter is a prisoner. Captain Edward Drew of Co. G and Lieutenant Peet of Co. H are killed. [Peet was wounded in the lungs and captured, but survived.] Our regiment suffered less than many who were more exposed. This is owning to their being deployed as skirmishers. I do not know what the loss is as there were six of the companies detached from the regiment.

    There has been little of interest transpiring for the last few days except the visit of President Lincoln.


Full kit of an early war member of the 1st U.S. Sharpshooters; this is reenacting gear, however, not original equipment. 

Sources:

"Sharp Shooters," Hillsdale Standard (Michigan), August 6, 1861, pg. 3; also August 20, 1861, pg. 3

"Michigan Sharp Shooters," Hillsdale Standard (Michigan), August 27, 1861, pg. 3 

Letter from Adjutant Ira Smith Brown, 1st U.S. Sharpshooters, Yates County Chronicle (New York), July 24, 1862, pg. 1

Letter from Commissary Sergeant Frank Whipple, 1st U.S. Sharpshooters, Hillsdale Standard (Michigan), July 29, 1862, pg. 2

    

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