January 1992

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Rockwell's Civil War "Henry"

The Rifle and the Rifleman


Robert F. McNamara

Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV

Part III

The Rifle

Since the Henry rifle was not available until the Civil War was half over, I began to wonder what sort of gun Infantryman Edmund O'Dwyer used during his earlier months of service. For an answer, I turned to H. J. Swinney, Associate Curator of History at the Rochester Museum and Science Center, who specializes in the history of firearms. (The present paper owes much to Mr. Swinney's encyclopedic knowledge and editorial counsel.)

"I can give you only a hypothetical reply," the Associate Curator told me.

At the outbreak of the war, he said, the Federal government did not have enough guns in stock for its throngs of volunteers. The War Department therefore not only brought pressure on its own Springfield Armory, but let emergency contracts to Colt, Remington, and many other American gunmakers. The guns on order were standard U.S. rifle muskets, of which there were two models—1861 and 1863. They were .58-caliber rifles accommodating bayonets, and the American factories would ultimately turn out more than a million of them. But since it would take time to build up the tempo of production, the War Department was obliged, in the interim, to purchase foreign weapons, especially English Enfield rifles and Austrian Lorenz rifles. Federal soldiers found the Enfield rifle muskets good enough, but most of them detested the Lorenzes. Mr. Swinney's answer to my question, therefore, was that each Yankee regiment might have had an assortment of guns, and Edmund O'Dwyer might have started out with a U. S. rifle musket, an Enfield or a Lorenz.

While these three types of gun had bayonets, they were all single-shot, muzzle-loading weapons. The Henry did not take a bayonet, but the fact that it was a repeater more than offset that disadvantage. Since it was a breechloader, it needed no ramrod. The only tool necessary was a four-piece beechwood rod to clean the residue of black powder out of the barrel. When not in use, this barrel-length rod, made up of four segments that screwed together, was stashed away neatly in the butt of the gun.

Henrys were in demand as soon as they became known, but the pace of the production was agonizingly slow. The small percentage of guns bought by the Federal government were each of them stamped with the initials of one of the War Department inspectors. The rest were privately acquired. Although their market price of $40 was steep for an infantryman who earned only $13 per month, the soldier who had his own Henry counted himself fortunate.

O'Dwyer's Henry bore no inspector's stamp, so it was evidently his personal gun. To judge from the serial number, it would have been assembled in summertime 1863, for the rifles numbered 1301 to 4000 dated from that year. When did he buy it? My guess is that it was around December 1863. He gives a possible clue in a letter written to Ellin from Williamsport, West Virginia, on December 20, 1863. Last Friday, he tells her (that was December 18th), he and a sergeant had been sent back to New Creek "with $875, for purchasing some new and improved guns." It was a 29-mile hike, bone-breaking and freezing; but they were back in Williamsport the following night, safe and sound. Apparently their assignment was just to pay for the merchandise, which was presumably delivered later on. These "new and improved guns" available at the end of 1863 were probably Henrys. Perhaps Henry Number 2780 was part of this very shipment.

Neither before nor after his acquisition of the Henry did Edmund write anything about firing his gun. A sense of delicacy may have dictated the omission. But he did say that after he and his comrades had taken part in an engagement near Berryville, Va., on September 3, 1864, "we lay on our arms that night." They feared that the Rebels might return, he wrote to the Tablet from Harrisonburg, Va., on September 27; but none showed up even on September 4th. The "arms" on which Ed slept that anxious night could scarcely have been other than his faithful Henry rifle.

The Rifleman

Thus far, we have followed the general activities of a young and obscure Civil War volunteer. Now it is time to bring Edmund O'Dwyer the person into clearer focus.

I judge from what was written about him and what he himself wrote, that Edmund was a winsome man. His only known portrait, which accompanies this article [see previous installment], shows him straight-faced. Normally, I gather, he was smiling. He seems to have had a gift for friendship. Loyal to his dispersed family, he tried to keep in touch with all its members. Unwilling to cause them concern, he saw to it that his letters were bright and cheerful. His only real complaint, and it was a common and justified one, was the irregular payment of his military wages. At one point he had received no pay for over eight months. Here again, however, his deepest concern was his inability to send part of his earnings back to Ireland to his impoverished father.

Edmund O'Dwyer, furthermore, was a committed American patriot, and his commitment did not diminish as the war dragged on. True, he was no more pro-Lincoln than most Irish Democrats. Nevertheless, he was a realist. When the Republican rail-splitter was re-elected in 1864, O'Dwyer wrote to Ellin, "Although Lincoln is far from being my choice for president, I believe it is better for the country that he should be elected than McClellan." A year earlier, he had also approved of Lincoln's decree of conscription. As a matter of fact, he chuckled at the chagrin of the American men who were scurrying about to find substitutes so that they might evade the draft. Many of these, said Ed, were the same super-patriots, who, when the President had called for volunteers in April, 1861, had cried out that he should have ordered up more than a mere 75,000! "The blatherskites!" he exclaimed, with amused Hibernian scorn. "Every Government," he pointed out, "has the right to compel its citizens to bear arms for the common welfare."

O'Dwyer never lost interest in his Irish homeland's fight for freedom. But when leaders of the freedom movement in Ireland belittled the American Union cause, they forfeited his respect. Thus, in late 1863, William Smith O'Brien, a prominent Irish liberationist, sided with the Confederacy, and urged Irishmen in America not to serve in the Union forces. "What fudge!" Ed blurted out, in a rare display of temper. "Are not our interests and our homes involved as well as those of the native-born citizens?" "This country," he went on, "afforded asylum and facilities for improving our conditions unattainable in our unhappy country. Then, would we not be very ungrateful did we stand idly by and not assist in defending the flag and integrity of the country."

A ringing statement by a young immigrant, all the more impressive for being made not in a public forum but in a family letter.

Private O'Dwyer was clearly a dedicated Union man. In fact, he signed one of his letters to the Tablet not simply "Miles," but "Miles Unitatis": "Soldier of unity." for all that, he was no militarist. He considered the struggle in which he dutifully enlisted a necessary one, but still an "unhappy war."

In trying to probe Edmund's character, it is helpful, I think to examine the character of his commander, Colonel Mulligan, whom he so deeply admired.

Writing many years later of this Irish-American "Renaissance man," another of Mulligan's former soldiers would state that he had indeed been "an example and an inspiration to us younger men." Among the few slips of paper that Ed carried with him to the end was a scribbled pass dated November 9, 1862, permitting him to go to Piedmont, W. Va., that day. It bore the signature of Lt. Nugent, the Colonel's aide, and the countersignature of Mulligan himself. It is my persuasion that O'Dwyer kept this document as a souvenir of his revered military superior. In his obituary letter to the Tablet, Edmund had said of him, "He was an exemplary Christian, a valiant soldier, and an accomplished gentleman." I believe that one could say the same of Edmund O'Dwyer. More often than not we reflect our own heroes.

Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV
© 1992, Robert F. McNamara
Index to articles by Robert F. McNamara
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