Perhaps the best known of the Berdan Sharpshooters besides Hiram Berdan himself was Truman Head, Better known as “California Joe”. I was reported erroneously , by newspapers that Truman was born in Philadelphia in about the year 1820. He was actually born in Otsego, New York. Joe was a bachelor, although stated on reliable hearsay that while he was a young man, was once engaged, the girl of his choice belonging to one of the finest families of the county; but owing to the opposition of a strict parent-the father-he lost the girl, both being too loyal to disregard the parent’s wishes. he became a wanderer, crossed the Plains, and settled in California. The course of true love remained, for Joe remained a bachelor and his lady a maid. He later struck out for the California gold fields at the time of the Gold Rush there in 1849. Apparently, he was quite lucky in California to make a few good claims. Later after his enlistment Joe executed a will bequeathing $50,000, should he be killed, to be used for the care of disabled Union soldiers at The Philadelphia Old Soldiers Home, as Philadelphia had been his early home.”
At the outbreak of the Civil War, Truman headed back east to join up under the command of Colonel Baker an old friend of his. Fate had it that Baker was killed before he arrived . He was granted permission to Join Company C ( Michigan), 1st US Sharpshooters. He appeared on the Company Muster is roll as of August 26 1861 in Detroit as a private in Captain Duesler’s Company of the 1st US Sharpshooters.
“further records for Truman stated his age as 42 years, height as 5’7″ with a light complexion, blue eyes, brown hair and a listed occupation as hunter. Because of his background of grizzly bear hunting and his time spent in the gold rush in California he became known as California Joe or sometimes just “Old Californ’y.” Described as past 50 ( he was actually 52years old having lied about his age at his time of enlistment) he was said to look “a score of years younger” stood “straight as an arrow” with “and eye as keen as a hawk, nerve as steady as can be,and an endowment of hair and whiskers Reubens would have liked for a patriarchal portrait.”
To become on of the Sharpshooters, a man was required to fire a course using a rifle that he brought to the competition. The course consisted of firing ten rounds at a target that measured ten inches in diameter at a distance of 200 yards. All ten rounds a had to hit the target and the average distance could be no more than five inches from the center of the target. This was measured by the use use of a 50 inch long string, “The end of the string was placed on the center of the target and then run to the nearest bullet hole in the target. The point where the string intersected the bullet hole was then moved to the center and the distance to the next hole was measured, and so on until all ten shots were measured If the end of the string was reached before the last hole could be measured the volunteer was disqualified. thus the term “A string of shots” was born.”
Bout the time of September of 1862, Joe privately purchased a New Model 1859 Sharps rifle from a sales rep of the Sharps Rifle Company. It was fitted with a single trigger and had been fitted for the saber bayonet. This would be the only Sharps Rifle carried in the Sharpshooter regiment until early May of 1862. Shortly after following a number of trials at the camp for the Sharpshooters the New Model 1859 sharps military rifle that was fitted with double set triggers and saber bayonet was chosen as Berdan as the rifle for the Sharpshooters. The Sharps rifle chosen to be used by the Sharpshooters was a 52 caliber, breech-loading rifle that used a one piece cartridge that consisted of a lead ball. “the ball was either glued to a cylindrical cartridge of paper or linen which contained the powder.The block at the breech of the firing chamber slid downward by the operation of the lever under the receiver and when closed would cut off the tail of the cartridge. exposing the powder charge. A primer mounted on top of the block when struck by the hammer would ignite a fulminated mercury charge, which in turn would ignite the cartridge. The Sharps rifle could be quickly loaded and could fire between 6-8 rounds in a minute compared to the 2-3 rounds per minute with the muzzleloader. With a greater range and better accuracy the Sharpshooters were credited with kills at distances of up to 800 yards and shots of 400-500 yards were not uncommon.
The Sharpshooters went on to become the deadliest marksmen in the War of Norther Aggression credited with more kills than any other unit in the war. They also suffered the highest casualties from being deployed exclusively as light infantry. They screened in front of the main body of the army and would seek to find and engage the area of rebel deployment. After, they would report back what they found to commanders. Once relived from forward scouting duties,they would reinforce standard infantry units, often supporting flanks. They would also support weaker spots in the main line of battle. If the main force had to retreat, the Sharpshooters would stay behind to cover the main force with harassing fire to slow down any force trying to over run the main body.
On a rainy night of September 29, during a confusing firefight Joe earned the respect of the company when he stopped a near fatal mistake. An officer appeared and ordered the mento prepare for a charge against some troops in a nearby wooded area that had begun firing towards the in the dark. Joe stepped from the ranks and got into a brief argument with the officer:” you damned fool, do you want to charge out own men?” shouted Joe. After a short heated exchange Joe disappeared into the woods and quickly returned with a Union soldier in tow. When asked how he knew the troops in the woods were Federals, Joe replied he could see the profile of their caps in the muzzle flashes when they fired.
“Joe’s rep only grew larger as the Peninsular Campaign intensified. As Northern newspapers were quick to write of the long range feats of Joe and other of the Sharpshooters, their prowess was soon exaggerated. One wrote that Joe had, “shot a man out of a tree two miles off, just at daybreak, first pop”. A confederate officer settled for a more modest estimate that the men under Berdan’s command “rarely missed a man at a mile.” This in fact was about three times the distance of their effective range.
Despite the accounts of journalists only slightly more honest than journalists today, Joe’s combat marksmanship and exploits would earn him widespread fame, ” The Regimental Historian Stevens wrote. “Joe was one of those splendid characters that made him a hero, in spite of himself. Entirely free from brag or bluster, Joe was an unassuming man, past middle age, short in stature, light in weight, and a true gentleman in every sense of the word. He was always a special favorite with the entire command”. Stevens also mentioned that the only time he saw Joe angry was when the Sharpshooters feats were wildly exaggerated in the press.
During the July 1st, 1862 battle of Malvern Hill, Va and action recorded by the regimental historian showed the accuracy of the Sharpshooter unit. ” Colonel Ripley who commanded the battalion of Sharpshooters, companies D,E,Fand K, was ordered to retire his men and did so, to the rear of the 4th Michigan. Before doing this, they utterly repulsed and silenced the battery of Richmond Howitzers, their guns being abandoned in the open field without firing a shot. Horses and men tumbling over so fast that nothing could withstand our terrific fire. The battery was composed of some of the most ambitious, aspiring youths of the “first families of Virginia” whose efforts to distinguished themselves early came to grief, and were in vain, their howitzers rendered useless”. A member of the battery described it to an officer of the sharpshooters after the war. “we went in a battery and came out a wreck”. We stayed ten minutes by the watch and came out with one gun, ten men and two horses, and without a shot fired.”
Joe left the field at Malvern Hill late on the night of July 2nd. He had been led away unable to see, caused by exposure, the smoke and dust. Many were afflicted on the campaign with their eyes from these combined causes. Some reports say his loss in eye sight was from the constant use of the telescopic sight attached to his rifle. He was admitted to a hospital in D.C. He would briefly rejoin his regiment in early September 1862 during which time he posed for several photos with Colonel Berdan. Joe re-entered the hospital on September 12, 1862 with jaundice. Finding him incapable of performing the duties of a soldier because of “senility, and impaired vision” he was released from duty on November 4th, 1862.
Joe went on to San Francisco where he became a customs inspector. He died November 24, 1875 and was buried in the Presidio in San Francisco.
Precision Shooting Magazine December 2004
The Last Post- William Bentz
Stevens, Capt. C. A. (1892). Berdan’s United States Sharpshooters in the Army of the Potomac. St. Paul, MN.
Out of Nowhere: A History of the Military Sniper (Pegler 2004)
Complete Book of US Sniping ( Senich)
US Sharpshooters Berdan’s Civil War Elite ( Roy Marcot)