The Berdan’s Sharpshooter Uniform

As a followup to my last post (Reenacting: A Personal (Hi)Story), I wanted to take some time to discuss the rigorous nature of authentically portraying a private of 2nd United States Sharpshooters (Berdan’s). This post will be picture-heavy, so enjoy.

Going into this type of living history portrayal, I already had that background as a reenactor; one thing I learned is that authentic  reenacting is far superior.  But as I had never reenacted as a member of an elite unit like Berdan’s, it would mean I would have a lot of research ahead of me.  Thankfully, the group I have joined has been very forthcoming with information, so I also owe a debt of gratitude to the 1st Sergeant and also to other members of the 2nd USSS Company C for providing me with answers to my many questions, and for dealing with my tenacity (as I’m sure it can get annoying).

After leaving Gettysburg last month, I had my mind set on portraying a Sharpshooter and decided to go online to find a uniform, check pricing on gear, and analyze how much money I would need to acquire all of these items.  The first thing I came across was this uniform design:

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Standard, cheap Sharpshooter’s uniform. Very inaccurate.

I was suspicious of the design right away.  But I also had seen Sharpshooter portrayals before at reenactments and also in books that I had collected since I was a kid.  In many of those artistic depictions, the Sharpshooters were in a light green uniform.

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Artist’s portrayal of the Berdan uniform in John MacDonald’s Great Battles of the Civil War (Macmillan, 1988), p. 14.  Unfortunately, while it looks really cool, the color is too yellow-ish green, and this uniform has the brass buttons rather than black rubber.

Illustration on page 42 of MacDonald's book, portraying Berdan's Sherpshooters at the Battle of Malvern Hill. Here they are picking off confederates as they attempt to charge the Federal guns on Malvern Hill.

Illustration on page 42 of MacDonald’s book, portraying Berdan’s Sherpshooters at the Battle of Malvern Hill. Here they are picking off confederates as they attempt to charge the Federal guns on Malvern Hill.  Notice the very green-uniforms standout.

The uniform portrayals in these books paint the uniform in a color quite similar to that of the throwback Eagles uniforms (as I am a strong Philadelphia Eagles fan, this comes to mind right away).  Very neon-green-ish with a high amount of yellow hue thrown into the green to make it brighter.   Unfortunately, the black and white photos from the period do not give one any definitive example.

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A private, Berdan’s Sharpshooters (possibly from the 2nd USSS). I believe this is the early uniform, prior to their receiving the iconic green wool uniforms, as the pants appear to be light blue while the frock doesn’t seem to have the black buttons, but brass buttons. Interesting to note that this sharpshooter carries a pistol and knife.

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Another artistic portrayal which again uses a lighter, yellow-hued shade of green than the original uniform. Also the mess kit on the knapsack is wrong–that is the English-style kit and not the rectangular Sharpshooter’s mess kit that was actually used (see images below). The other aspects of this portrayal are accurate.

The reenacting uniforms of some groups of Sharpshooters are quite bright in this same fashion.

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This reenactor, while looking quite dapper, is in a light shade of Green that does not match the extant samples we have at the Smithsonian; as well the trim is lime-green, which is incorrect.  This matches the cheaper version of the Sharpshooter frock and pants one can acquire online for under $100.

But the uniforms that we currently have in the Smithsonian Institute depict a much darker color palette (sometimes nearly looking black) for the Sharpshooters:

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See the swatches of fabric in the corner for color sampling. They are all dark, no yellow-hue is present in the frock coat. Even the trim is relatively subdued in contrast to the Sharpshooter reenactor depicted above. Note also the clarity of the wooden buttons.

Notice the forest green color? Very specific hue choices for the Berdan’s Sharpshooters. Too light would make them stand out in cover, whereas darker shades would help them blend. This uniform also has wooden buttons instead of the black rubber ones. They are not brass.

Professional Civil War artists, like Keith Rocco, Don Troiani, and Dale Gallon have been successful at matching this color in their paintings, though some minor inaccuracies remain (Don Troiani has a Sharpshooter’s jacket in his private collection as well which he uses to match colors):

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Don Troiani’s work on the uniform of the Sharpshooter’s is extremely good (as is everything he does). The color, a forest green without a lot of yellow in the dye, is spot on.  Yet, as accurate as the color is, the brass buttons should be replaced with black rubber ones.

And my unit has been very keen on acquiring uniforms that fit into this color.  Here’s the Captain looking like he walked off the page of Troiani’s painting:

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A very appropriate representation of the Berdan uniform; like Troiani’s painting, this uniform is dark green.  Notice the correct black buttons.

So where does one acquire a uniform like this and what else does one need to portray themselves accurately as a Berdan Sharpshooter?

Well, for one thing, don’t just buy any frock coat.  Unfortunately, the best kinds are the most expensive kinds.  But you don’t have to sacrifice a lot of dough to get an authentic uniform.  C&D Jarnagin Company, which many reenactors know of (for their very high prices and excellent custom gear) will sell you the frock coat alone for over $350 (without the black buttons) and up.  The pants are just as expensive.

I’m a part time student with a new house and a family; I cannot afford to spend that kind of money on a uniform.  And they don’t even provide a picture of the uniform, so I have no idea what color green I’d be getting.  This isn’t to say that they’re a bad company (they’re not) or that I’d be getting low-quality product (I wouldn’t), but it was just too much for too many ‘what if’ questions.  My company 1st Sergeant was on the ball with this, however.  After I sent him a link to the suspicious Sharpshooter frock coat found on eBay (see above image of the lime-green frock), he sent me a link to Milk Creek Mercantile.  Wow, I can’t tell you how impressed I was with my experiences with this fantastic sutler.  In fact, consider the next few paragraphs to be a mixture of acquiring attire and a review of the sutler Milk Creek Mercantile.

I had actually come across Milk Creek Mercantile on my own, but had not been sure of the quality of the reproductions until my 1st Sergeant had recommended the sutler to me.  While part of me wishes that Teresa (the proprietor, maker of the wares–who is courteous and generous with her time spent on producing these items–and customer service representative all mixed into one) would get a professional website builder to modernize her site (see the Regimental Quartermaster’s website, for example), you cannot beat her prices.   While Jarnagin’s sells their frocks for $350+, she sells them for less than half of the price, at a cool $160.

What you save in money, she does not sacrifice in quality.  These are hand made by her, and they come custom.  She gets your measurements and special instructions from you upon ordering (you fill it out on the website).  Best of all, the price includes the black buttons (which Teresa hand-makes herself).

I received my frock and pants a little under a week after I ordered them.  They were made out of exceptionally good quality wool, the coat was lined (which is customary, though many of my reenactor friends will agree that they need to make unlined coats as an option–especially for those summer months when lined coats make for sweat-factories).  Nonetheless, the trim was the right color, the wool was the dark color green I needed, the cuffs were correctly sewn and styled (they weren’t just outlined in green pipping, but were actually cut wool, folded and sewn onto the sleeve).

I really have no trouble at all singing the praises of this uniform.  For less than half the cost I would have paid elsewhere, I received an exceptionally good quality uniform and I’d say that Milk Creek Mercantile is THE place to shot for the Sharpshooter reenactor.    But more than that, I was able to acquire tinware and a haversack and a canteen for less money than I would have been able to anywhere else ($84.00 for a tarred haversack, a tin plate, period utensils, and a canteen is exceptionally good).  If I were to have purchased the same wares at the Regimental Quartermaster, I would have dropped $133.40 Even after shipping costs, I was only at $92.00 which is just phenomenal.   (You should see their low prices on reproduction firearms as well!)

More to the point, there are items that unfortunately Milk Creek does not yet carry that are essential for the Sharpshooter reenactor.  Aside from the frock and pants and forage cap–the last of which I acquired at a sutler during the 150th Gettysburg Reenactment, but which I may need to purchase from Milk Creek to match the rest of the uniform color as the wool is different–one needs the iconic knapsack, the mess kit tin, and the leather gaiters.

Fortunately, the knapsack can be purchased from American Civil War Knapsacks but at a cost.  The gaiters are not yet accurate, and as of now I haven’t been able to locate any good suppliers (though I was informed by a member of my company that accurate gaiters may soon be available through a distributor soon).  As it stands, these knapsacks are hand-made reproductions that are not manufactured on an assembly line, but are made to order.  As a result, the knapsack costs as much as the uniform itself (a staggering $350).  But these are the items that round out your portrayal and are necessary purchases (though not as necessary as the other items).  You can also acquire the mess kit tin from them, but Dixie Tin Works supplies the mess kit tin for $75 (considering Village Tinsmith has one for $140, $75 is a bargain).  However if you purchase the knapsack, ACW Knapsacks will discount their tin mess kit for $65, so it may be worth just ordering through them.

Reproduction sharpshooter knapsack by ACW Knapsacks, with tin and blanket not included (but available).

Reproduction sharpshooter knapsack by ACW Knapsacks, with tin and blanket not included (but available).

Overall, I would say for someone who wants to start with portraying a sharpshooter, you need some key items: the frock, the pants, the forage cap, accoutrements (leather goods like cartridge box, percussion cap pouch, standard issue belt with US belt plate; tarred haversack, tinware, and a brown or blue canteen–never green), and brogans.   Acquiring these items can be expensive, but made less so and more delightful if you can get them from Milk Creek Mercantile.   The knapsack and other more expensive items have to be acquired from other sutlers, but since you’ll save money purchasing them from Milk Creek, you’ll have a few bucks left to at least start with those other purchases a lot sooner than if you had to drop more money on the essentials.

And no, I haven’t forgotten about the rifle–the 1859 Berdan Sharps rifle, with double-trigger.  The most expensive item you will acquire–going rate retail is something like $1350.00.  That is the cost before taxes and shipping.  Sometimes the lucky reenactor will get one for around $800.00-$1000.00 but these deals are rare and often done face-to-face, without the use of credit cards, paid fully in cash.

Below are some more depictions of Sharpshooters by various artists and also photos of how accurately portrayed Sharpshooters should look.

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A group of Berdan Sharpshooter reenactors performing skirmish tactics in authentically-dyed Berdan colors.

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Another Troiani representation of a Berdan’s Sharpshooter. He includes, accurately, the style of knapsack and the ostrich plume that Sharpshooter’s wore in their forage caps. Still, brass over black buttons makes this slightly inauthentic.

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Keith Rocco, my favorite Civil War painter (and personal hero), does a fantastic job with the colors in his portrayal (one of several), with appropriate knapsack, color of uniform, and even the black buttons!

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Compare this reenactor with Kieth Rocco’s portrayal and you’ll see how good it is.

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Another Sharpshooter portrayal by Keith Rocco. Note that some men have dark blue sack coats and some have light blue trousers. This is common–when items were worn out or in need of being replaced, some Sharpshooters just used what they could find until they could be resupplied with Berdan colors.

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Another example of Berdan’s Sharpshooters wearing a blue sack coat rather than the green frock; one of Troiani’s best representations.

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More reenactors doing skirmish and light infantry drills in accurate attire.

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Portrayal of Berdan’s men at Gettysburg by Dale Gallon. Like with Troiani, Gallon gets the knapsack and color right, but the buttons are displayed here as brass rather than black rubber.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this blog post and hope that those of you out there looking to portray a Sharpshooter accurately will use this information to your benefit.  Again, I cannot recommend Milk Creek Mercantile enough–spectacular quality goods for low costs and excellent service.

UPDATE 11/6/13: Teresa at Milk Creek has just sent along a few new items I purchased from her, including a new forage cap (the green wool used to make my uniform was used to make the forage cap, so i did not have mismatched greens–I’m a little OCD when it comes to that).  Also a new cap box (I was missing the fur lining) and cartridge box (mine did not have the tins and was a little too small for any new tins to fit) and a new white shirt.  Again, can’t comment enough on the great quality, customer service, and speedy delivery.  She had everything done and shipped to me in a week’s time.  That’s pretty awesome.  Also all US made goods!

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