An Old Girl Comes Home
Author: Lyle McDermott
Near the end of 2009 I was scanning the listings of a large firearms auction that was going to be held in Marshall, Michigan. I was looking for antique Winchesters and Colt single action revolvers. Halfway through the list, an offering that I normally would not have much interest in jumped off the page. It was an 1850’s cap and ball, half stock, “Plains Rifle” (long range hunting rifle). It was a black powder muzzle loader with a rifled 34” Heavy octagon barrel in .44 caliber with a buckhorn style open sight with eight adjustments for distance. It was marked B.D. Schofield - Ypsilanti in two locations; one on the top of the barrel (see photo) and one on the lock face in front of the hammer. That’s when my research began….
The first step was finding the earliest Ypsilanti city directory in the archives collection at the Ypsilanti Historical Museum. The 1860-61 Directory lists only a Benjamin D. Schofield, 33 years old, residing on “the north side of East Cross Street/gunsmith. The 1860 US Census lists: Ward 4 Ypsilanti. In 1860 there wasn’t home delivery of mail so house numbers were non-existent. It’s possible his shop could have been on the North side of the street in Depot town with living quarters upstairs or a house up East Cross with a shop out back.
I was lucky enough at the auction to snag the “old girl” for a fair price when the man bidding against me quit just before I did. Thank goodness he did. It would have been difficult to let a gun made in Ypsilanti in the 1850’s go to another bidder.
When I returned to the archives I proudly showed my colleagues my new find. I set about, after photographing the gun, to find out more about Benjamin David Schofield. I discovered that he was born in 1827 in Ohio, married one Sarah (Thayer) in 1848 in Ypsilanti. He lived and worked in Ypsilanti until sometime in early 1861 when he moved to Marshall, Michigan with his wife and three children.
Here the story starts getting very interesting. Information from the 1880 edition of Michigan in the Civil War by J. Robertson indicates that “…On August 21, 1861 Benjamin D. Schofield was mustered into Company “C” First Regiment of Berdans’ Sharpshooters…Michigan was to raise three companies, of 100 men each, for the 1st Regiment…In the selection of its membership it underwent a most severe test of marksmanship. The result of this test was the selection of a hundred of the best marksmen in Michigan. The company was armed with rifles chosen by each member respectively, being of various makes and sizes of the common hunting rifle in use in the west at the time.
The announcement circulated at the time, calling for enlistments, had one major requirement; “No man would be enlisted who could not put ten bullets in succession within five inches from the center at a distance of six hundred feet from rest or three hundred feet off hand (standing with no support).” The potential recruit was required to fire with his own open sight rifle, ten consecutive rounds, reloading as fast as possible, at two targets. A contestant missing the targets or averaging more than 5” from the center was disqualified.
Those men who passed the rigorous test were organized in Detroit and later nationalized in late September, 1861 in Washington, D. C. Company “C” was the 1st company of the 1st Regiment to be organized and first into combat. The 1st and 2nd Regiments of the U.S. Sharpshooters were known as Berdan’s Sharpshooters because Colonel Hirman Berdan (the country’s best marksman for the previous fifteen years) received permission from congress to form these regiments. They were intended to be used as skirmish troops and act individually and in groups to disrupt enemy formations, and to eliminate artillery crews and officers. They were to be paid higher wages, wear a distinctive Green uniform, and be paid for their own weapons which they brought with them. They enlisted for three years and the only promise to be kept was the green uniforms! So much for government promises! (Today, the green uniform, which is very, very rare, would net a seller many thousands of dollars!) Company “C” was the first to be mustered out on August 20, 1864. Of the 101 men who originally enlisted only six were present at the final muster.
The Sharpshooters’ first action was a two company (Company “C” and Company “E”) skirmish at Lewisville, Virginia on the 27th of September 1861, against enemy foragers. From then on they claimed participation in 65 actions and battles, especially distinguishing themselves at South Mountain, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. They were also at Little Roundtop with the boys from Maine.
After the War Benjamin Schofield returned to Marshall, Michigan and in 1870 lived northeast of Marshall. In 1880 he and his wife were living in Handy, Livingston County, Michigan and that same year he and his wife moved to Fargo, Dakota Territory. In Fargo he opened a gun shop and sporting goods business. He joined the local GAR (Grand Army of the Republic, John F. Reynolds Lodge #5 for veterans of the Civil War). Benjamin died in Fargo in 1906. His son Charles stayed near Marshall, Michigan.
The gun is speculated to have traveled with him to qualify and then for the first few months of the Civil War. This gun meets all the qualifications to have been used by Benjamin for qualification and use until the breech loading Sharps Rifles, specially made to Berdans' specifications, could be procured. Having firearms of different calibers made for a supply nightmare until an official firearm was issued.
It is probable this rifle was used personally by Benjamin for a number of years before the War. One son remained in the Marshall area after 1880 so the surfacing of this firearm in the Marshall area leaves the door open that the firearm belonged to and was used personally by Benjamin David Schofield.
Al Rudisill recently visited family members in Minnesota and North Dakota and planned to make a stop in Fargo, North Dakota. Since our research revealed that Benjamin Schofield was buried in Riverside Cemetery in Fargo we asked him to stop by the cemetery to see if he could locate the grave site. He indicated that at first he was only able to locate a “Schofield” family stone. However, after prodding several areas around the family stone he was able to locate the gravestone for Benjamin as well as his wife Sarah under four inches of sod.
Today, “the old girl” (as men used to call their guns during this period) has finally come home to Ypsilanti. We hope to have it ready for display in the Ypsilanti Historical Society museum later in 2010. Our research continues.
(Lyle McDermott is a regular volunteer in the Ypsilanti Archives and regularly assists Archive visitors with research on local people and places. George Ridenour, Archives Assistant Director assisted with the research on this article.)
Photo 1: The Benjamin Schofield rifle is a black powder muzzle loader with a rifled 34” Heavy octagon barrel in .44 caliber.
Photo 2: The B.D. Schofield - Ypsilanti markings are in two locations on the rifle, one on the top of the barrel and one on the lock face in front of the hammer.
Photo 3: The rifle has a buckhorn style open sight with eight adjustments for distance.
Photo 4: Research revealed that Benjamin Schofield is buried in Riverside Cemetery in Fargo, North Dakota.
Photo 5: The search for Benjamin’s grave at first resulted in finding only a “Schofield” family stone.
Photo 6: After prodding several locations around the “Schofield” family stone, Benjamin’s gravestone was located under four inches of sod.
Photo 7: The gravestone for Benjamin’s wife Sarah was also located nearby, also covered by four inches of sod.