Your History Moment: Hiram Berdan’s Sharpshooters in the Siege of Yorktown


The following excerpt is from the Official Records of the American Civil War (on searchable CD). I received this as a Christmas present some time ago and have always found it useful, even with the Windows 95 interface. The following is an after action report from Hiram Berdan, of the famous Berdan’s Sharpshooters, during the Siege of Yorktown in the Peninsular Campaign. Berdan had a reputation as being a bit “shy” of getting involved in a firefight, personally, so his self-serving comments towards the end are rather amusing in historical context.

HDQRS. FIRST REGT. BERDAN’S U.S. SHARPSHOOTERS,
Camp Winfield Scott, April 21, 1862.

U.S. Sharpshooter on the Attack, Yorktown, VA

U.S. Sharpshooter on the Attack, Yorktown, VA

GENERAL:
In compliance with General Orders, 115, I have the honor to submit the following report of the conduct of my regiment of Sharpshooters during the march from Camp No. 2, near Hampton, and the engagement on the 5th instant:

Our duties on the march were confined to skirmishing and clearing the woods along the road. But few rebels were seen, and those invariably mounted and keeping at a respectful distance. My whole command, both officers and men, behaved extremely well, and I could not have asked more cheerful compliance with or prompt execution of orders.

Our proceedings on the 5th, I trust, are not entirely unknown to you. The men displayed the greatest coolness and bravery during the entire action and manifested their power to use their skill to good advantage under a galling fire, which, in my judgment, considering that they were in their first engagement, deserves special notice. There were some instances of personal daring, but as they were owing more to opportunity than anything else, I think the whole command should share any compliment they may receive. I first reconnoitered the ground, and then divided the regiment into companies and detachments, with proper supports and reserves, according to the cover and duties to be performed, which were principally to guard the roads against cavalry, the right and left wings against flankers, and to watch the movements of the enemy, and also groups of from one to one hundred, to pick off gunners and protect batteries. As for myself, I feel amply repaid for the danger I ran in reconnoitering the ground under fire, posting the men, encouraging and directing them through the day, by the confident feeling that we must have killed and wounded several hundred rebels and that I lost only 2 men killed and 4 wounded, notwithstanding that a fire was kept up upon us from the enemy’s rifle pits and by shell when they were able to work their guns.

Since the 5th we have sent a detail of 20 to each of three brigades, and sometimes to Hamilton’s division. On the 19th instant I sent two companies, A and C, under the charge of Major Trepp, to General Smith’s division. They have thus far done good service, getting very near the enemy, digging rifle pits, and yesterday killed 9 certain, and probably more, besides wounding many.

My command are in admirable spirits and to a man are confident of the ultimate success of our arms, and are all anxious to be detailed on picket or other duty where a chance is afforded them to avenge themselves on the rebels, who are attempting to destroy their country. I have the honor, general, to remain, very respectfully, your obedient servant,

H. BERDAN,
Colonel, Commanding U.S. Sharpshooters.

Brig. Gen. FITZ JOHN PORTER,
Commanding Division

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