November 1991

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Rockwell's Civil War "Henry"

The Rifle and the Rifleman


Robert F. McNamara

Part II, Part III, Part IV

Part I

The Man Behind the Gun

In 1989 the Rockwell Museum of Corning, New York, acquired a rare addition to its collection of historic guns. It was a Henry rifle, serial number 2780, produced during the American Civil War and used in battle by a Union infantryman.

The rifle was named for B(enjamin) Tyler Henry. He invented it and became superintendent of the New Haven Arms Company, which manufactured it. Earlier infantry guns had been muzzleloaders. The Henry was not only a breechloader, using metallic cartridges; it was a repeater. Its magazine held fifteen .44-caliber cartridges, and a sixteenth could be loaded into the weapon's chamber.

The Henry repeating mechanism was the outcome of a complicated series of steps in technological and economic history. Our Civil War gave a tremendous impetus to developments of this sort. Looking back, we might ask why the government did not adopt the Henry early in the war. But in the 1860s, manufacturing techniques and capitalization for the heavy investment in tooling and machinery that repeaters required were largely lacking, and production progressed very slowly. The Henry was patented as early as 1860 and produced until 1866; yet the total number turned out was scarcely 13,000. Even then, the government itself purchased perhaps no more than 1900. The rest were bought by states or by individual Union soldiers. Number 2780 was private property.

Confederate soldiers were quick to admit the efficiency of the Henry in battle. In profane admiration of this revolutionary rifle, they described it (according to legend) as "that damyankee horizontal shot tower that you could load on Sunday and shoot all week!" In fact, had a really large number of Henrys been issued to the army, there would almost surely have been a serious bottleneck in the supply of ammunition, because machine production of the unfamiliar cartridge was yet another problem.

I have no personal fondness for firearms. For me they evoke the shades of Cain versus Abel, and the world's first fratricide. On the other hand, when a particular weapon has been used in national defense, it can be considered, in a sense, a patriotic symbol. And when the soldier is known who used it to defend liberty, it becomes, for weal or woe, a part of his life story, of America's story, and of the epic of mankind.

Henry Number 2780 is rather unusual in that a good deal is known about its owner. Infantryman Edmund O'Dwyer was my maternal granduncle. Since 1865 not only the rifle but some of his papers have been in the possession of my family, the descendants of his brother Thomas. Piecing the information together, one can arrive at a fairly complete profile of this generous young Irish immigrant who gave his lifeblood for his adopted country.

Edmund and his siblings were natives of Pallas Green (or, more correctly, Pallas Grean) in County Limerick, a double-hamlet about half way between Tipperary and Limerick City. The youngest of six, he was born on December 5, 1833. Fate would never permit him to marry.

Mid-nineteenth-century Ireland seemed to be under a curse. In 1845 the Irish, already the victims of social oppression, were stricken by a potato blight and the famine and pestilence that followed. Hundreds of thousands of Irish people took flight to other lands, a large percentage of them to America. Among these fugitives from disaster were the three sons and three daughters of Edmund Dwyer, Senior, and Katherine Mara. The father, for several years a widower, chose to remain at home. His children promised to send back funds for his support, to the best of their ability.

The six may have emigrated at different times in the early 1850s. Over here, they were last together on Independence Day, 1854. Then they scattered. Timothy and Katherine Dwyer (Flannery) went to northern Illinois: he to Rockford, she to Rochelle. Mrs. James Farley (she spelt her name "Ellin") settled in the middle of Iowa. Hanorah (Mrs. John Hayes) halted in Rochester, New York, where she died in childbirth in 1862. Thomas also lived in Rochester for a while. Then he became a grocer at Warsaw, New York. In 1860 he moved from Warsaw to Corning and established what was to be a flourishing grocery store at 17 West Market Street.

Edmund O'Dwyer seems to have been acquainted with Rochester, but he finally chose Chicago as his home. By July 1857 his mail address was 61 South Clinton Street. By the way, he alone spelt his surname "O'Dwyer." Like many other Irishmen whose ancient Gaelic names began with "O" ("descendant of"), his father and his brothers chose to skip the prefix.

How did Ed earn a living? In the spring when the Civil War commenced, he wrote to Ellin Farley, "I do not get steady work." This suggests that he was a "common laborer." But that status would have reflected his lack of opportunities, not of talents. Wherever he had received his education in Ireland, it was a good one, and he had tried to improve upon it. He had a typically Irish interest in politics: European, Irish, and American. He knew Latin, was well acquainted with Anglo-Irish literature, and had an evolving flair for writing. At least by 1861 he had begun to submit letters to The Tablet, an Irish Catholic periodical published in New York. Occasionally he signed them "E.O'D", but usually his signature was a pen name: "Catholicus," "Hibernicus," and when in the army, "Miles" (Latin for "soldier"). I have been able to secure copies of most of his printed wartime letters, and I draw on them for much of the information incorporated in the present article. Had Ed survived the war, I can imagine that he might have sought a career in journalism.

It was on April 15, 1861, that President Abraham Lincoln issued his emergency call for 75,000 Northern volunteers. He needed them to quell the Southern secessionists who had taken up arms against the federal union. The short term of enlistment—three months—seems to imply that Lincoln thought the task of castigating the Rebels would be brief.

How did Edmund O'Dwyer react to this call to arms? He did not sign up himself, but praised those who enrolled. "The Almighty only knows how it will end," he wrote to his sister Ellin. Yet he had joined the excited crowd that went to the depot to witness the departure of "those brave men." "It was very affecting," he told her.

One of the leaders of the volunteer movement in Illinois was the Chicago lawyer James Adelbert Mulligan (1830-1864). In response to the President's proclamation, Mulligan quickly organized the 23d Illinois Volunteer Infantry, the first regiment totally Chicagoan in personnel. He called it, fondly, the "Irish Brigade," and most of its members seem to have been Irish and Catholic. Shaped up hastily during the next few weeks, Col. Mulligan's unit was ordered to Missouri. On July 15, 1861, the Brigade, one thousand strong, headed by the flags of America and Erin, marched through the streets of Chicago to the railroad station.

Once in Missouri, the Mulligan Brigade received its assignment: to relieve the Federal garrison at Lexington, Missouri. There the Chicagoans and three other Federal units received a baptism of fire. Besieged by a Rebel force five times larger than their own, they held out manfully for nine days. On September 20th, however, the regiment was forced to capitulate, and the Colonel himself was taken captive. Fortunately, Mulligan's imprisonment was brief, and when he was exchanged on October 30th and returned to Chicago, his townsmen hailed him as the "hero of Lexington." During the next few weeks, city after city in the North engaged him to lecture on his experiences. An able speaker, the lawyer soldier entranced his audiences with his constant theme: "The Union, the Constitution and the Flag." What he received as honoraria he donated to a fund for the widows of the soldiers killed at Lexington.

Since James Mulligan was to be a key figure in the life of the young man from Pallas Green, it is important at this point to sketch the career and traits of the Colonel.

Although born in Utica, New York, Colonel Mulligan was a shining example of an Irish American of the diaspora, equally devoted to E pluribus unum and Erin go bragh. Having moved to Chicago, he became the first to graduate from that city's earliest university, St. Mary's of the Lake (1846-1866). He worked for a while with the Isthmus of Panama Railroad, sending back engaging accounts of the Isthmian region. On his return to Illinois he read law and was admitted to the bar in 1855. He also entered Democratic politics and became a fast friend of his state's "Little Giant," Senator Stephen A. Douglas.

Attorney Mulligan was meanwhile a staunch promoter of Ireland and its sons and daughters. He was a student of Irish history and a strong advocate of Irish independence, but he was too straightforward to lend support to any Irish secret societies. An able writer as well as a committed Catholic, he served for one period as editor of The Western Tablet, the first Catholic weekly established in Chicago. Gifted himself as an orator and debater, he gave firm backing to the several literary and debating societies that Irish immigrants had organized in Chicago, as elsewhere, to provide their ambitious young men with opportunities for self-education. Finally, he was a strong patron of voluntary militia companies. In the 1850s Irish-Americans across the nation, following the old militia tradition, set up many "weekend" paramilitary units, Mulligan himself joined the Chicago "Shields' Guards," and was elected its captain. Members of these units were among the first to volunteer for Federal service when the Civil War broke out.

A teetotaler from age eleven, a man of wit and social grace, and chivalrous towards womankind, Col. Mulligan was an exacting but charismatic leader of men. Edmund O'Dwyer seems to have found in him a kindred spirit. Had he perhaps become acquainted with the future officer at one of Chicago's Irish study clubs? Had he attended his lectures and become imbued with his contagious enthusiasm? In what was still a small city, the two had quite likely met. At all events, O'Dwyer, who had decided not to respond to Lincoln's first call in 1861, changed his mind a year later. And what outfit did he join? Colonel Mulligan's already famous 23d Illinois Volunteers, now authorized to resume recruitment.

Part II, Part III, Part IV
© 1991, Robert F. McNamara
Index to articles by Robert F. McNamara
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