Truman Head: California Joe

In the spring of 1861 a wave of patriotism was sweeping the north in response to President Lincoln's call for volunteers to fight for the Union. One person who felt the call was Hiram Berdan.

Berdan, an engineer, inventor and one of the best marksmen in the United States, believed that he could raise a contingent of the best rifle shots from each of the loyal northern states.

After receiving approval from General Winfield Scott, Berdan went about the task of recruitment. So many volunteers came forward that the First Regiment was soon filled. The regiment was divided into 10 companies. One of the companies, Company C, was organized in the state of Michigan on August 21, 1861. The company was mustered into Federal service in late September, at the Sharpshooters' Camp at Weehawken, New Jersey. From there the company went to the Camp of Instruction, located north of Washington, D.C. It was there that the Sharpshooters were to receive the uniforms that would earn them the nickname "Green Coats".

California Joe.

Truman Head of Company C of the First Regiment was unquestionably the most famous among Berdan's Sharpshooters.

Nicknamed "California JoeCalifornia Joe.", "Old Californy", and "Old California," Joe came west from New York to seek his fortune after a failed romance. Joe was 52 years old at the time he enlisted, but stated his age as 42, otherwise he would have been rejected.

Joe brought to the sharpshooters a background of a hunter and gold miner which could have made enough fodder for interesting news stories but Joe was found to have a keen eye and a great marksman without any embellishments by the press. Joe's image and his exploits made for good reading in a time where the Union was sorely lacking heroes and good news from the war.

One of the greatet impacts Joe had on the Sharpshooters themselves was his private purchase of a Sharps rifle. It may have been Joes experience that made them want their own Sharps' as well. Sadly, Joes time in the sharpshooters was quite limited. His age caught up with him and his sight was starting to fail him. Joe was discharged November 4,1862 for "senility and impaired vision."

Joe returned to California and became a customs inspector in San Francisco. He died November 24,1874.

While Truman Head is well known for his exploits, he is not alone in heading East and being a member of Berdan's Sharpshooters.

Two men, Pvt. Sexton Williams and Pvt. Daniel Buckingham, left California and became members of Company F of the Second Regiment, but for different reasons than those of Old California. Both men deserted from the Second Regt. California Infantry and went East and were sent to the Sharpshooters after surrendering themselves. Buckingham died shortly after going on leave following the Gettysburg campaign and Williams died during the siege of Petersburg.


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Sources: As noted on entries and through research centers including National Archives, San Bruno, California; CDNC: California Digital Newspaper Collection; San Francisco Main Library History Collection; and Maritime Museums and Collections in Australia, China, Denmark, England, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Wales, Norway, Scotland, Spain, Sweden, etc.

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