Hiram Berdan Biography
Learn about the first of the sharpshooters, Hiram Berdan, and the role of his crack marksmen during the American Civil War.
Hiram Berdan was a New York inventor who came to prominence in the time just before the beginning of the American Civil War (1865). At the outbreak of the war, he was recruited as an officer in the Army of the Potomac, part of the Union army of the North. For fifteen years consecutively, prior to the outbreak of war, Hiram Berdan had been recognised as the most accomplished sharpshooter in the country. His inventions were generally geared towards marksmanship or war machines, his most famous being the repeating rifle.
When the war started Berdan was the obvious choice to be the leader of a group of men whose skills were to be honed towards long-range marksmanship. He helped to create the United States Sharpshooters, and assisted recruits in their training. Because of his innovative ideas, the two regiments of sharpshooters were equipped with some of the most advanced weaponry of the time, including telescopic lenses for rifles. The sharpshooters’ role in battle was to take up advanced positions, and engage in brief encounters with the enemy, whilst inflicting as much damage as possible
At the battle of Chancellorsville, in May 1863, Berdan reports that he drove the enemy back through some woods until they sought refuge in an old foundry. The sharpshooters fired continuously and so accurately on the foundry that the enemy soon surrendered. In the following three days Berdan’s regiments took more than six hundred prisoners, and suffered very few losses.
Berdan also led the sharpshooters at the Battle of Gettysburg, a month later. He had been instructed by his commanding officer, Major General Birney, to advance to a position where he could see what the enemy were doing. Berdan and his men advanced, and attempted to pin the enemy down with gunfire. Unfortunately, an area of woodland was acting as excellent cover for the Confederates, and the sharpshooters had to retreat under attack, due to a lack of ammunition. They soon regrouped however, and surprised the enemy, by attacking them from the side. After killing many enemy soldiers, the sharpshooters withdrew. Consequently, the rest of the battle saw them covering for the advancing main army and driving off Confederate skirmishers. Berdan reported to his commanding officer that all his men had shown great bravery.
Hiram Berdan resigned from his post in 1864. It is believed that the resignation was forced from high-powered officers, who believed that no matter how accurate a shot he was, he wasn’t fit for command. Subsequently Berdan busied himself by inventing engines of war.