March 1989

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Storied Henry Rifle

Given to the Rockwell Museum


Robert Rockwell III

In December of 1988 Richard and Mary Patricia Ward of Corning generously donated to the Rockwell Museum a valuable heirloom that had been in Pat's family since 1863. The object, a Henry rifle (referred to in its time as "the gun"), was accompanied by documentation which proved that it had been owned by her great great uncle. Thus, in addition to the rifle's intrinsic value, it has an extra measure of historical value—it is the only firearm in The Rockwell Museum's collection whose full history is known.

During the late 1850s many people experimented with designs for repeating rifles. It was during this time that Benjamin Tyler Henry, while working for O. T. Winchester, perfected a sixteen-shot, rim-fire, repeating rifle. The outbreak of the Civil War saw Winchester aggressively trying to sell his weapons to the Union.

Promises were made, contracts were broken, and contracts were re-negotiated. During the war years, 1,731 Henry rifles were purchased out of the 10,000 that were manufactured. The remaining ones were sold to individuals or volunteer regiments during the war at a cost of $40 per rifle. At a pay rate of $13 a month, this was quite a large investment for a soldier.

At that time, a private by the name of Edmund Dwyer, of the 23rd Illinois Volunteer Regiment, purchased a Henry rifle, serial number 2780, so that he could own "the gun that fired sixteen shots." Confederate soldiers referred to the Henry as "that damn Yankee horizontal tower that you could load on Monday and shoot 'til Sunday."

Edmund Dwyer (or O'Dwyer, both are used) was born in 1833 in Pallas Green, Ireland, one of six children. All immigrated to the U. S. during the 1850s, arriving in Rochester, New York. Ed Dwyer moved to Chicago. There it is assumed that he worked at odd jobs, for he writes to his sister that he has "no steady work." Apparently he had an education, for he had knowledge of Latin and a talent for writing. One of his part-time occupations was as a news dispatcher to the New York Tablet , an Irish-American newspaper. Under the name of "Mulligan's Command," he wrote letters and reports which he referred to as dispatches. He wrote under other pseudonyms such as Hibernicus, Miles, and Miles Unitates.

On August 1, 1862, Ed Dwyer enlisted in the 23rd Illinois Regiment (Mulligan's Brigade) which was assigned to the Army of West Virginia. There he fought battles under General Kelly, Fran Sigel, and Phil Sheridan. In his letters he does not refer to his own personal experiences in battle, rather to army life, hunting guerrillas (Mosby's), and being paid late (a common complaint). His unit participated in most of the major engagements including Sheridan's campaign through the Shenandoah Valley which concluded with the battle of Cedar Creek. There the Confederate Army under Jubal T. Early was soundly defeated, cutting off supplies to Lee at Richmond and Petersburg. In early 1865, his unit was transferred to the Army of the James and he was involved in the many sieges at Petersburg. It was during this series of mini-sieges that Lee decided to try to remove his Army of north Virginia to the Appomattox for regrouping. One fort stood in Grant's path. Fort Gregg remained in Confederate hands, and on March 2, 1865, it was charged. It was here that Ed Dwyer's luck ran out.

The battle of Fort Gregg was a particularly nasty fight. Confederate forces were withdrawing. Lee's orders were to hold the fort for a few hours and then withdraw. Over 8,000 Union troops attacked. A private from Georgia later remarked that he "(knew) how the men at the Alamo felt." Other correspondence told how men fired into each other's faces, not ten feet apart. Ed Dwyer was killed during this assault and buried near the walls of Fort Gregg. His brother, Thomas Dwyer, of Corning, New York, tried to have his brother interred in Corning, but by the time he could arrange for it, Ed Dwyer's remains had been placed with many others in an unknown soldiers' tomb.

Henry rifle 2780, owned by Edmund Dwyer, was returned here to his brother, Thomas Dwyer, in 1865. The rifle was passed down through the family to be given finally to The Rockwell museum by Mary Patricia Griffin Ward.

How did Edmund Dwyer feel about his adopted land? When William Smith O'Brien advised many Irish-Americans to be spectators and peacemakers and not to sacrifice themselves for the northern cause, Ed Dwyer replied in a column in the Tablet, "how could we be idle spectators?…Are not our interest and homes involved as well as those of native-born citizens? This country afforded us an asylum and facilities for improving our conditions, unobtainable in our unhappy country. Then, would we not be greatly ungrateful did we stand idly by and not assist in defending the flag and integrity for our country?"

—Robyn G. Peterson, Curator of Collections, The Rockwell Museum

The Rockwell Museum has an extensive exhibit of shoulder arms and handguns. Included are an 1804 Pennsylvania Rifle, an 1820 Pennsylvania Fowler, an 1838 Colt Patterson Revolving Rifle and various military muskets and rifles.

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