Rockwell's Civil War "Henry"
The Rifle and the Rifleman
Of Tragedy and Triumph
But now we must return to the Irish Brigade, lately transferred with the rest of diminutive General Sheridan's command to the Army of the James. The 23d Illinois arrived at its new position around the first of March 1865. After that date the Tablet printed no further communications from its faithful soldier correspondent.
Ed did write soon after, however, to his Corning brother, Thomas. He dated this letter of March 7th from the "Bermuda Front." The Brigade, he said, was now quartered seven miles from Petersburg.
It was a spirited note. Edmund first thanked Tom for the box of presents he had just received from him: "That little box made one soldier in the Army of the James happy." The butter that the Corning grocer had included was still good on arrival. "That kind of grease," wrote the soldier, "gives an additional flavor to Uncle Samuel's hard biscuit." What he welcomed most, however, was the stout pair of boots. He assured Brother Tom, that they would keep out water as well as mud. Over the past winter, he now confessed, his soggy government-issue footwear had brought on a stubborn cough. "Now, thanks be to God, I am sound as a bell." But in the next box, he said, he would appreciate a couple pair of sturdy cotton stockings and some postage stamps. Stamps were hard to come by at the front, even when one had money to buy them.
Thomas had also enclosed some cartoons, apparently political in nature. Ed said he had shared them with his fellow soldiers. Tom's last small gift was the most recent photo of himself. Edmund joked that the photographers in Corning had obviously become more skilled since they snapped the earlier ones.
"I send my ardent love to all of you." Private O'Dwyer concluded. This characteristic letter seems to have been his last to any member of his family.
While the Army of the Potomac had been pushing down towards Richmond, the Army of the James had been pounding away for months at Petersburg, the southern bastion of the Rebel capital. On April 1, 1865, Sheridan won the nearby battle of Five Forks, the last important engagement of the War. By that time most of the fortifications protecting Petersburg had fallen. One of those still occupied by the enemy was Fort Gregg. Fort Gregg was a square earthwork with almost vertical walls. Three sides of it were surrounded by a ditch that the rainy spring had turned into a moat. On Sunday, April 2, 1865, the Army of the James hurled 60,000 troops against this redoubt. Its Confederate defenders numbered only 18,000, but they were well entrenched and dauntless.
I do not know how much fighting the Irish Brigade had already done during its four weeks south of Petersburg. At all events, it was ordered to take part in the assault on Fort Gregg. The engagement was one of the most desperate hand-to-hand struggles in the whole war, literally a fight to the death. At long last, the Federals won, at the price of 4000 casualties.
For well over two years Private Edmund O'Dwyer of Company "B" had seen action without suffering a scratch. This time his luck ran out. Rifle in hand, he was shot down that afternoon within a few feet of the fort under attack. His age at death was 31.
But now there was no stopping the Union army. Plunging ahead past Fort Gregg and its dead, they occupied Petersburg and Richmond, both no longer defended, on April 3rd. On April 9th, the Civil War ended at Appomatox Court House with the surrender of Robert E. Lee to Ulysses S. Grant.
Corning Village reacted with joy on April 10th to the ending of hostilities: but when Thomas Dwyer had heard nothing from his brother by April 19th, he wrote anxiously to J. C. Langdon, one of Ed's comrades in the field. Before Langdon could find time to reply, Tom received a note dated April 21st from another Union soldier in Virginia. Patrick Malin, apologizing for not having written earlier because of the postwar turmoil, announced that Edmund had died in action on April 2nd. "While I condole with your loss in losing a respected and dear Brother," he said, "I console you by stating no man could be more regretted by his comrades and all who had his acquaintance." Malin had just visited the site of O'Dwyer's temporary grave and knew the spot well. "I will inform you," he concluded, "that his Gun and Equipments are safe in the Hands of his Company until there is a chance to send them to you or other friends. Please write in reply." (The special care given to the Henry proves that it was the dead soldier's personal possession.)
Langdon's response to Thomas's query was dated from "Near Richmond" on April 27th. Reporting the same sad news, Langdon added some details. Two shots had laid Ed low, he said. One had struck him in the side, shattering his pocket watch. The other had apparently entered his open mouth and passed through the head. Death must have been instantaneous. "I have seen a great many men dying," the writer added, "but never seen such a pleasant countenance. He wore that natural smile."
J. C. Langdon himself had assisted in the burial. They had wrapped the body carefully in a blanket. "You can easily find the spot," he assured the grocer. In fact, he said, if Tom should be able to come down to disinter the remains in the near future, Langdon would be glad to assist him. As for Edmund's few effects, they had given the new boots to "one of the boys." The rest would be expressed to Corning in due time: "The gun is all right."
"We miss Ed very much," his fellow-soldier concluded. "He was one of the best of soldiers and beloved by all who knew him. He never seemed more lively than the day he fell. He was laughing and talking of going into Richmond. We had fought there two days and knew that we had gained the day."
I have discovered only one formal obituary of this humble Chicago footsoldier. Printed by the New York Tablet in its issue of May 5, 1865, it revealed that Private O'Dwyer was the author of the many letters it had published over the signatures "E.O'D.," "Hibernicus," and "Miles." These letters, the editor added, "were largely copied in our European exchanges."
"Mr. O'Dwyer," the obituary continued, "was none of your conditional Union men; he was for the Union at all hazards, and went into the war with his heart and soul. He was a brave and noble soldier, and was beloved by his brothers in arms. His early death will be mourned by his numerous friends… May his soul rest in peace."
Thomas Dwyer intended, it seems, to reinter his brother's body in Corning. However, the grave was not so easy to locate as Malin and Langdon had thought it would be. For the next five years Dwyer plagued those in charge of the Petersburg military cemetery for information. Finally, on May 23, 1870, Mr. August Miller, superintendent of the cemetery, wrote back a negative report. They had not discovered the burial place, he said, for want of the proper marking of the grave. He concluded that Edmund's bones had been reinterred with those of 4000 other casualties in the common grave of "unknown soldiers."
The only relics of Ed shipped to Corning, therefore, were a small sheaf of letters, his "shivered" pocket watch (I believe), and his Henry rifle Number 2780. When my grandfather Thomas Dwyer died in 1897, these mementoes passed on to his children. The rifle went to his oldest child, Margaret Dwyer (Mrs. John D.) McGannon (1861-1937). I well remember, as a schoolboy, being shown the gun in the attic of McGannon's house at 149 Walnut Street, Corning. The next inheritor was the elder McGannon daughter, Mary Alice (Mrs. Peter M.) Griffin (1888-1949). Mary Griffin left it to her children. Her son Peter A. Griffin (1924-1987), as a hunter and a World War II veteran wounded in the Rhineland, was particularly fascinated by the family Henry. It was he who first informed his friend Robert Rockwell, Sr., that he possessed one of these rare firearms that Rockwell wanted to have represented in his personal collection. When Peter brought it down from the attic to show him one morning, the future founder of the Rockwell Museum could scarcely believe his eyes.
On unveiling this treasure to the collector, Griffin had told him that it was hereditary and not for sale. However, after Peter A. Griffin's untimely death, his sister Patricia Griffin (Mrs. Richard C.) Ward, decided to donate the Henry to the Rockwell Museum. In December 1989 she and her husband formally consigned Edmund O'Dwyer's Civil War Rifle to the museum corporation. Robert Rockwell, Senior, commented on that occasion, "I don't think we will ever get a finer gift for the gun collection."
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Here, then, you have the story of Henry Number 2780 and of the Union infantryman who owned and used it. The owner obviously respected his weapon. If the rifle itself were able to speak, how would it appraise its owner?
In terms like these, I fancy.
"I was proud to serve Private Edmund O'Dwyer. He was an Irishman truly devoted to the country that adopted him, and a good soldier. When he died in the last hours of the Civil War, I died with him. But our deaths helped to seal the victory that finally saved the American Union."
© 1992, Robert F. McNamara