A Civil War Soldier With A Repeating Rifle

by

John J. Dunphy

(Originally published in the 4/25/20 edition of The Telegraph of Alton, Illinois under the title “Godfrey marker recalls Civil War bravery”)

I was at St. Patrick’s Cemetery in Godfrey when the grave of a Civil War veteran caught my eye. Why? The graves of men who fought in that long-ago conflict typically bear no decorations. This particular grave had a small American flag in front of its tombstone. Perhaps it had been left there by a descendant.

The obituary of John Hale, Sr. appeared in the Feb. 10, 1908 edition of the Alton Evening Telegraph. “He was 62 years old,” the obituary informed readers, “and he spent nearly all of his life in Alton.” Hale “was a good man, a hard working, honest and conscientious man” and left behind a wife and four children. He died at St. Joseph’s Hospital following surgery “for relief of a malady from which he had been a sufferer for years.” Hale’s funeral was held at “the cathedral,” as Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church on State Street was then known since it served as the See for the Diocese of Alton.

Hale’s obituary contained no information about his Civil War service beyond noting “When the war broke out he enlisted and served bravely and faithfully until the close.” His tombstone notes that Hale served in Co. F of the 7th Illinois Infantry. My research revealed that he enlisted on Feb. 21, 1864 and was mustered out on July 9, 1865. Since Hale was just 62 at the time of his death in 1908, he would have been about 18 at the time of his enlistment.

The Illinois 7th was a proud regiment. It was assigned the number 7 because, according to the Illinois Adjunct General’s Report, the Prairie State “sent six regiments to the Mexican war, by courtesy the numbering of the regiments which took part in the war for the Union began with number seven.” The report states that recruitment for men to serve in Company F took place in “Bunker Hill and vicinity.”

The Adjunct General’s report underscored this unit’s distinctions. “It will not be improper to say that the Seventh Infantry takes great pride in the fact that it was the first organized regiment from this Stated (sic) and mustered into the United States service in the war to save the Union, and the first to return to the capital of the State and re-enlist as veterans.” As one who appreciates antique firearms, the report’s next assertion really piqued my interest. The 7th was “the only regiment in the whole army that purchased its own guns — the Henry rifle, 16-shooters — paying $50 each for them out of their meager pay of $13 per month, thereby increasing their effective force five-fold.” Fifty dollars in 1860 equaled $1,555 in today’s money.

The breech-loading, lever-action Henry rifle was a much more effective battlefield weapon than the government-issued muzzle-loading muskets that were carried by most Union troops. The muskets, which took paper cartridges that contained black powder and a lead ball, had to be reloaded after each firing. The tubular magazine of a Henry rifle contained 16 rounds of metallic-cased .44- caliber rimfire ammunition.

Produced by New Haven Arms, the Henry rifle was a formidable weapon for that era. An article on the web site of the company that manufactures modern replicas of this weapon notes, “After an encounter with the 7th Illinois Volunteer Infantry, which had the good fortune to be armed with Henrys, one Confederate officer is credited with the phrase, ‘It’s a rifle that you could load on Sunday and shoot all week long.’ “

Those Henry rifles of the 7th Illinois Infantry belonged to the men who had purchased them, not the government, and could be brought home when the war ended. We can only speculate what happened to the Henry purchased by John Hale.

John J. Dunphy is the author of Abolitionism and the Civil War in Southwestern Illinois and Unsung Heroes of the Dachau Trials: The Investigative Work of the U.S. Army 7708 War Crimes Group, 1945–1947.

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