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Originally filed with records related to the 2nd United States Sharpshooters, these targets were for years presumed by Pennsylvania State archivists to have been produced by members of the famed infantry regiment while firing target practice with their Sharps rifles. Further investigation, however, has uncovered additional information that reinterprets why and by whom the targets were created.

 

 <strong> The names signed on the handmade targets indicate that one was produced by “J.L. Northington Brownsville, Fayette Co., Pa,” and the other by the gun manufacturer “Craig, Gunsmith Pittsburg, Pa.” </strong> PA State Archives

 

In June 1861 Hiram Berdan convinced President Abraham Lincoln and the United States War Department to allow him to raise two regiments of sharpshooters. The regiments were to consist of the most accurate marksmen in the North. Recruitment notices for these regiments were widely distributed throughout the loyal states in the summer of 1861. One of these caught the attention of John L. Northington from Brownsville, Fayette County.

A letter sent from Northington to Col. Hiram Berdan on July 13, 1861, sheds light on when and why these targets were produced. Northington wrote to Berdan seeking permission to form a company for the newly created U.S. Sharpshooters. On the second page of the letter he notes that he had already identified the type of rifles that he hoped his proposed company would be outfitted with.

Northington wanted cast steel target rifles with globe or telescope sights. In fact, he had already visited a gun manufacturer in the Pittsburgh area and had been allowed to test-fire a rifle that he had become enamored with, and he recommended it to Berdan. “The manufacturer and I tried one of his guns a few evenings since in the vicinity of Pittsburgh, the distance you name for your applicants to shoot. The array of the shots in each string of two, bring the one 1 225/1000 inches, the other 1 25/100 inches. The gun we shot weighed 17 lbs and carried 80 balls to the pound. . . . Enclosed are the targets we shot at, referred to above.”

Northington’s statement about the prescribed distance that potential applicants needed to fire from referenced Berdan’s requirement for recruits to fire 10 consecutive rounds, reloading as fast as possible, at two targets. The first target was to be placed 200 yards away and fired at using a rest. The other target was placed 100 yards away and fired at offhand. Candidates missing the targets or averaging hits more than 5 inches from the center were disqualified.

The names signed on the handmade targets indicate that one was produced by the letter writer himself, “J.L. Northington Brownsville, Fayette Co., Pa,” and the other by the gun manufacturer “Craig, Gunsmith Pittsburg, Pa,” who was certainly eager to secure a contract with the War Department to manufacture rifles for the Union Army.

Like so many others who offered to raise companies of recruits and proposed manufacturers to produce arms and accoutrements, Northington neither received permission to raise a company for the U.S. Sharpshooters nor to purchase the cast steel target rifles. More qualified men were chosen to become captains in the 1st and 2nd U.S. Sharpshooters, and Berdan was eventually able to acquire Sharps rifles for the soldiers under his command by May 1862.

The targets and associated correspondence are held by the Pennsylvania State Archives in Record Group 19.11, Civil War Muster Rolls and Related Records, 1861-1866.

 

Richard C. Saylor is an archivist for the Pennsylvania State Archives and author of the national award-winning book Soldiers to Governors: Pennsylvania’s Civil War Veterans Who Became State Leaders, published by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission in 2010.