Though most of the artifacts donated to my museum are clearly medical in nature, some may not seem so at first glance. One such artifact in the museum’s collection is an 1862 Police Pocket pistol, which is said to have belonged to General Gustavus Sniper, 185th New York Infantry. While General Sniper certainly had a role in the Civil War, he was not in the medical profession. However, his pistol was accepted into our collection so that it can be displayed in an upcoming exhibit on Civil War weapons and the types of wounds they inflicted.
The 1862 Police revolver was a small, light, five shot, .36 caliber revolver. The barrel was made in various lengths of 3 ½” up to 6 ½”. It had a fluted cylinder, a round barrel, and a creeping loading lever. This model was designed because of civilian demand for a pocket pistol. However, according to a 1978 Colt brochure, “The .36-caliber chambering of these medium size revolvers made them highly prized pocket sidearms. As also true with the 1849 Pocket, a number were carried by Civil War soldiers as backup to their single-shot muskets.”
The pistol’s former owner has a good story to tell as well. Gustavus A. Sniper was born on June 11, 1836 in Germany. His family immigrated to the U.S. when he was a boy, and they settled in Syracuse, New York where he attended school. When he was 18 years old, he joined several local militia groups. In 1859-60 he organized a company called the Monroe Cadets and served as its captain until the start of the Civil War.
Sniper served during the Civil War as Lieutenant Colonel of the 101st New York Volunteer Infantry, and later as Colonel and Commander of the 185th New York Volunteer Infantry. It was his service in the 185th that gained him the most fame. In the book, Joshua Chamberlain, the Soldier and the Man, by Edward G. Longacre, General Joshua Chamberlain gives his opinion of Sniper, “[H]e would describe the 185th as a ‘splendid’ regiment,’ its commander, Sniper, as ‘fearless’ and ‘clear-brained’.”
The 185th regiment was mustered into service on September 22, 1864, under the command of Colonel Edwin S. Jenney. Col. Jenney was discharged in February 1865, and Col. Sniper succeeded him as commander of the regiment. On March 29, Col. Sniper led his regiment in a charge at the Quaker Farm near Petersburg. VA. According to the 1885 History of Cortland County, “The fate of the colors of the 185th during this charge was most thrilling. B. B. Wilson was color-bearer at that time; he soon fell wounded. A private then seized the flag, and was immediately killed. Another private of Company D then grasped the banner and instantly fell wounded. Private Herman Rice, of Company B, next seized the colors, but his arm was pierced by a bullet, and they again fell. At this juncture Colonel Sniper, who was dismounted and in the thickest of the fight, seized the fallen flag, waved it on high and shouted, “Men of the 185th—forward!” A wild cheer went up, the regiment rushed forward and the field was won. For his personal bravery Colonel Sniper was warmly complimented by the general officers, while the brave regiment was also showered with congratulations. He was brevetted Brigadier General, US Volunteers for “conspicuous gallantry in the battles of the Quaker Road and White Oak Road, Virginia.”
After the war, Sniper went into politics. In 1870 he was elected to the New York State Legislature, where he served three terms. In 1876, he was appointed the Deputy County Clerk, and was promoted to County Clerk in 1882. He died on March 29, 1894.
Artifact photo courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.