Wilder’s Brigade & Henry Rifles
By: Andrew L. Bresnan
One of the first things that comes to mind in any discussion of breech-loading repeating rifles in the Civil War are the exploits of Wilder's Brigade commanded by Colonel John T. Wilder. The repeating rifle most often associated with Wilder's Brigade is the Spencer repeating rifle. However Wilder's Brigade was also armed in part with the Spencer carbine as well as a repeating rifle most do not associate with Wilder's Brigade, the Henry repeating rifle. Colonel Wilder pioneered the use of breech-loading repeating rifles and developed the tactics that would be built upon in the future. The Henry repeating rifle had several advantages over the Spencer rifle especially for the scouts of Wilder's Brigade. The downside of the Henry rifle is that it could not be produced fast enough; otherwise the entire command of Wilder would have been armed with the Henry repeating rifle and not the Spencer rifle.
John T. Wilder’s first choice of rifle for his famous Wilder’s Brigade was the Henry repeating rifle. His letter of March 20th, 1863 to the New Haven Arms Company expresses the intent to purchase nine-hundred of the Henry repeating rifles.
“Head Quarters, 1st Brigade, 5th Division, 14th Army Corps, Murfreesboro, Tenn., March 20, 1863.
Proprietors New Haven Arms Co:
At what price will you furnish me nine hundred of your “Henry Rifles,” delivered at Cincinnati, Ohio, without ammunition, with gun slings attached? Two of my regiments, now mounted, have signified their willingness to purchase these arms, at their own expense, if they do not cost more than has been represented to them. My two other regiments will be mounted soon, and will, doubtless, go into the same measures. It is of course desirable to get them at as low figures as possible, as the men are receiving from the Government only thirteen dollars per month. How much additional expense would it be to have an extra spiral spring for each gun, to replace any that may be broken, or when worn out?
You will please afford the desired information at your earliest convenience, and oblige.
Col. Commanding. (1)
The unfortunate thing for both Wilder’s men and the New Haven Arms Company is that the manufacturing capabilities of the New Haven Arms Company could not handle such a large order. The Henry rifle was a very time consuming rifle to produce requiring extensive hand fitting to complete a finished rifle. The New Haven Arms Company could only manufacture 200 or so Henry rifles per month at the time of Wilder’s inquiry of nine hundred Henry rifles. So at least on the large part, Wilder’s order of nine hundred Henry rifles did not get filled. Wilder was forced to go to his second choice for a rifle for his brigade, the Spencer Rifle. However that was not an end to Wilder’s men purchasing their own Henry rifles. (1) What happened was that at least some Henry rifles were available for sale to Wilder’s men. These rifles were purchased and then most of these ended up with the scouts for the regiments of Wilder’s Brigade. Another part of the letter that is of interest is the fact that Wilder states in the letter he wanted 900 rifles “without ammunition”. This would suggest the fact that he either had a line on attaining ammunition himself or probably more likely he was planning on drawing from government purchases of Henry rifle ammunition.
Richard A. Baumgartner wrote an excellent book entitled “Blue Lightning” detailing the brigade that John Wilder lead at the Battle of Chickamauga. One of the more interesting items in his book is located on page 63. There is a picture of a Henry repeating rifle with the following caption; “Although Wilder armed his command with the Spencer rifle, some members of the brigade opted privately to purchase 16-shot Henry rifles. By May 1863 all of the 17th Indiana scouts carried Henrys.” (2)
I find it very interesting that within two months of Wilder’s initial letter to the New Haven Arms Company all of the scouts of the 17th Indiana were armed with Henry repeating rifles. These men also knew that the regiment was going to purchase the Spencer rifles but they opted for the Henry repeating rifle. The principal advantage of the Henry over the Spencer is definitely in the fact the Henry rifle holds sixteen cartridges while the Spencer’s magazine is limited to just seven. The second big advantage is that operating the lever of the Henry rifle also cocks the hammer. So not only does the Henry rifle hold more, it can fire a lot faster, which is a great asset if you are a scout needing to shoot your way out of a situation. A third advantage is the Henry rifle can be reloaded more rapidly and without having to remove and possibly lose part of the rifle, the Spencer has a separate magazine tube that must be removed from the rifle to reload it.
I found it very interesting what Mr. Baumgartner had found and wondered what was his source for the information. It is always best if the original source can be tracked down. I contacted Mr. Baumgartner and asked him. Let me first say that his book, “Blue Lightning” is an excellent and a must read for anyone interested in either the Spencer rifle or Wilder’s Brigade. In his communication to me dated January 2, 2012 he stated; “On average, each regiment in Wilder’s brigade during 1863 had 10 scouts. Documentation that the 17th Indiana scouts carried Henrys is provided in the 1863 diary of Pvt. James H. Bolens of Company F, to wit, May 20. “In camp. Laying a round reading. Cleaning up our Spencers. A number of the boys have bought Henry rifles. Sixteen shooters. Scouts all have them.” Mr. Baumgartner also goes on to state; “This is corroborated in the diary of brigade clerk Henry W. Tutewiler (also of the 17th Indiana), but at this time I am unable to lay my hands on the photocopied pages to provide his exact wording.” (3)
According to the Tutewiler diary the scouts for the 17th Indiana Infantry had their Henry Repeating rifles as early as May 7, 1863. He states the following: "The 17th Scouts were attacked by the same party but having Henry rifles they repulsed them killing five and wounding others." (6)
How many of Wilder’s men opted to armed themselves with Henry rifles? We know that Wilder’s brigade was armed with over 1000 Spencer rifles. Wilder’s men knew they were to be armed with the Spencer Rifle so those that opted for the Henry rifle did so making the Henry rifle their choice. Mr. Baumgartner makes an interesting observation in his correspondence to me stating the following; “It is very likely certain individuals (other that the regimental scouts of the 17th Indiana) carried privately purchased Henry rifles from mid 1863 to war’s end, although I can’t provide specific examples. (3)
By May of 1863 Wilder’s Brigade was taking delivery of Spencer repeating rifles. The scouts and others in Wilder’s Brigade also were armed with Henry repeating rifles by the end of May at their own expense. Colonel Wilder was concerned about attaining enough ammunition not only for the Spencer rifles but also for the Henry repeating rifles. Wilder had contacted the Adjutant General of Indiana William Henry Harrison Terrell with an inquiry about Henry ammunition. There would have been no need for Wilder to make such an inquiry if his brigade did not have Henry repeating rifles among their ranks. Terrell writes to Wilder the following in his letter of May 29, 1863, “Dear Col. I send you a copy of a letter from the War Dept. in relation to ammunition for the “Henry Rifles”. (12) I have not been able to locate the letter from the War Department that was included along with Terrell’s letter. Generally the government agreed to purchase Henry ammunition for those regiments that purchased their own Henry repeating rifles. The government purchased over 4,000,000 Henry cartridges during the war. More than likely some of these found their way to Wilder’s Brigade.
Based on the diary entries made by members of the Wilder’s Brigade there were several members of the brigade that were armed with Henry rifles before others received their Spencer rifles. John O. Brown of Charleston, IL mustered into Company A, 123rd Illinois Infantry Volunteers on August 1, 1862. Brown also kept a diary in which he writes; “On 30 Apr. Our Regiment held a vote whether they should be mounted or not—they voted for horses.” 10 May We moved into Col. Wilder’s brigade.” 1 June Our regiment drew new Spencer rifles.” (4)
There were not enough Henry rifles for sale for all of Wilder’s men but several of his command did buy their own Henry rifle in fact choosing it over the Spencer. The search for information will continue with the U.S. Ordnance records. My hope is that these will show the ammunition on hand for the regiments and companies of Wilder’s Brigade. I have two rolls of microfilm of the ordnance records from late 1863 to the end of the second quarter of 1864.
In searching the microfilm U.S. Ordnance Records for the regiments that made up Wilder’s Brigade I came to a dead end. It seems that once an infantry regiment was mounted their records with the Ordnance department moved from Infantry to Cavalry although I am not 100% sure of that since I do not have the cavalry ordnance records. All that shows up on the Infantry records is the fact that the unit was mounted. No other information is given. The other thing that will make the Ordnance reports not of great insight is the fact that for the ammunition on hand it lumps ammunition for the Spencer, Sharps, Colt, Merrill’s and the Henry rifles all into one category. So determining how much of the exact amount of ammunition that the regiment had on hand for a specific weapon such as the Henry or the Spencer is not going to be possible. Another interesting observation about the Ordnance Records is how they list the Henry repeating rifle. It is listed as a “First Class Arms” but here is the way it appears in the records; “Rifles, Henry’s Breech-loading (repeating 12 shots) Cal .44.” The magazine of the Henry rifle held 15 rounds or 16 depending on the type of ammunition, not 12.
Henry Campbell kept a diary as well as newspaper clippings. He was in the 18th Indiana Battery commanded by Ely Lilly. This was the battery assigned to Wilder’s Brigade. Campbell’s diary was entitled “Three Years in the Saddle: a Diary of the Civil War. This diary included the following clipping that does shed some light concerning Wilder’s men having at least some Henry repeating rifles. This is from the Cincinnati Gazette from the account of Hoover’s Gap. This engagement took place about seventeen miles southeast of Murfreesboro on June 25 and 26, 1863. “The picket skirmishing yesterday was quite lively, and was carried on with great spirit on our side, by the infantry of Reynolds’ and Rousseau’s divisions. The 33rd Ohio, Colonel Moore, had four men wounded. One rebel skirmisher had perched himself upon a tree some distance from our extreme front, and by his persistent shooting annoyed our boys considerably, although he did no damage. A member of the 17th Indiana crawled up closely as possible to the rebel line, and from a secure hiding-place commenced operations upon the rebel in the tree. Seventeen bullets were hurled at him in vain; but at length one lucky ball hit him fairly, and with a savage yell he tumbled headlong from his perch to the ground.” (8) The Henry repeating rifle had a magazine capacity of sixteen rounds plus one in the chamber making seventeen. The unfortunate rebel sharpshooters tumbled from the tree being on the receiving end of a Henry repeating rifle. The fact is that there were two types of Henry rifle ammunition. The first Henry cartridge produced used a case length of .815 inches long. Sometime during the Civil War probably around 1864 the case length was changed. The case length was increased to .875 inches. So depending on what ammunition a soldier was using depended on whether you could get fifteen in the magazine or sixteen in the magazine. (14)
The newspaper clipping goes on to continue to describe the action at Hoover’s Gap with the following account of DeWitt Clinton using his Henry repeating rifle. “In the same fight, DeWitt Clinton Walters one of Wilder’s famous scouts, who armed themselves with the costly Henry rifle at their own expense, was far in advance of our lines when the rebels made a charge upon Wilder’s position. So impetuously did they come on, that they ran over DeWitt, who saved himself by lying down beside a log and feigning to be dead. The ruse succeeded; but after the rebels had passed, he opened upon them a fire in the rear, which resulted in the death of two and the wounding of another. After the rebels had been driven back, DeWitt captured and brought in the wounded man, who proved to be Adjutant Yorce, of the 3rd Georgia Sharpshooters, since deceased.” (8) The fact that Wilder’s scouts are referred to as “famous scouts” seems to indicate that they had built a reputation of being the best. Their choice of weapon was the Henry repeating rifle, although costly, their choice for a weapon enabled them to shoot their way out of a tough situation as DeWitt Clinton Walters was able to do.
In the August 30, 1883 edition of “The National Tribune”, Washington D. C., there appears an article entitled “Wilder At Chickamauga”. Some of this information seems to have been published first in the Chicago Tribune. In the article there is a reference made to Wilder’s Brigade referring to them as “Hell Hounds”. The name seems to have come from the fact that this is the name that the “rebel Forrest characterized them at Chickamauga.”(7) In the same paper the article continues with the view that a reorganization was in order. “After the battle of Stone River was fought, and Bragg had taken position at Tullahoma, in the reorganization of the army General Rosecrans found that he was sadly deficient in cavalry…….. After appealing in vain for more cavalry, Rosecrans began to mount his infantry. Among the brigades thus mounted was Wilder’s (First brigade, Fourth division, Fourteenth Army Corps—Seventieth and Seventy-second Indiana, Ninety-second, Ninety-eighth, and One Hundred and Twenty-third Illinois, and the Eighteenth Indiana battery), who were armed with Spencer rifles. The new brigade received its baptism of fire at Hoover’s Gap, and, after a brisk engagement, gave evidence that they would do to “tie to”. (7) While the above is interesting in the fact that Wilder’s Brigade was mounted infantry and armed with Spencer for the most part, the scouts of the brigade armed themselves with the Henry repeating rifle. In the same paper William H. H. Benefiel Sergeant, Co. G, 17th Indiana writes in to the paper asking the following question, “I should like very much to hear from some of the boys. Where, let me ask, is Sergeant Burney and his twenty-five daring scouts, armed with the Henry rifle.”(7) Once again reference is made to the scouts being armed with the Henry repeating rifle as well as being “daring” while in other accounts they are mentioned as “famous”. It would appear that the scouts for Wilder’s Brigade did indeed make a name for themselves using their Henry repeating rifles.
In some reports Wilder uses the reference “breech-loading repeating rifle” when he writes about the type of weapon his brigade was armed with. It is interesting that if he were just referring to the Spencer rifle that he would just call it a Spencer. So does his reference of “breech-loading repeating rifle” actually refer to both the Spencer repeating rifle as well as the Henry repeating rifle since his brigade was actually armed in part with both. Here is an example of Wilder using this reference. This was written in a pamphlet by W. C. Dodge: “And, finally, the statement of Colonel Wilder, who has had more experience with breech-loaders than any other officer in the army, and who says: “I believe them to be the best arms for army use that I have ever seen. My Brigade of Mounted Infantry have repeatedly routed and driven largely superior forces of rebels. In some instances five or six times our number, and this result is mainly due to our being armed with the breech-loading repeating rifle. Since using this gun we have never been driven a single rod by any kind of force or number of the enemy. At Hoover’s Gap, in Tennessee, on June 24th, 1863, one of my regiments fairly defeated a rebel brigade of five regiments, they admitting a loss of over five hundred, whilst our loss was forty-seven. My experience is that no line of men, who come within fifty yards of another force armed with such rifles, can either get away alive, or reach them with a charge, as in either case they are certain to be destroyed by the terrible fire poured into their ranks by cool men thus armed. (1) It is my belief that Wilder is making a reference to both the Spencer rifle since most of his men were armed with this rifle but he was also referring to the Henry repeating rifle since most if not all of his scouts were armed with the Henry rifle. According to Civil War author Richard Baumgartner, he feels that other members of Wilder’s Brigade besides the scouts may have been armed with the Henry repeating rifle. For Wilder to make the statement “breech-loading repeating rifle” would indicate that both the Henry and Spencer rifles were in his Brigades’ ranks. Even Dodge uses the same reference to Wilder having more experience than any other officer dealing with “breech-loading repeating rifles”. Dodge also likely would have stated Spencer rifles if he was just referring to the Spencer rifle however he mentions breech-loaders. The two main types of “breech-loading repeating rifles” of the Civil War were the Spencer repeating rifle and the Henry repeating rifle.
The Evansville Journal reported on January 26, 1864 that the ranks of the 17th were 527 strong, "and at their own expense have armed half the regiment with Spencer rifles, the best in the service, and the only one the rebels have not been able to imitate. The balance of the regiment is armed with the Henry rifle, making this regiment the most formidable in the service." Most all of the scouts for Wilder's Brigade were armed with the Henry Repeating Rifle but so to were several other members of the brigade, purchasing the Henry Repeating rifle. The exact number of Henry armed men in Wilder's Brigade will never be known but we do know that there were more than just a few armed with the Henry Repeating Rifle. (13)
In March of 1864 Frese & Kropf hardware store was offering Henry rifles for sale using the fact that the 17th Indiana of Wilder's Brigade was armed with them as an advertising ploy to entise buyers. This is how their ad appeared in the Indianapolis Daily Journal; "The Henry Rifle ' - This celebrated sixteen-shot Repeater, now used by the 17th Indiana, with which this gallant regiment under the world-renowned Col. Wilder has accomplised such great feats, is now on exhibition and for sale." (13)
While Wilder’s Brigade is most noted for their use of the Spencer repeating rifle they also had the Henry repeating rifle arming their scouts. At least for the scouts and maybe a few others the Henry repeating rifle was their choice for the best rifle that would enable them to do their mission and return alive. These scouts could have chosen the Spencer rifle but because of the advantages the Henry rifle offered the Henry rifle was their choice. It is too bad that the New Haven Arms Company could not manufacture the large quantity of rifles that Wilder originally wanted to order. For the bulk of Wilder’s Brigade they had to settle for their second choice, the Spencer Rifle.
Andrew L. Bresnan
National Henry Rifle Company
1. Satterlee, L.D., Ten Old Gun Catalogs for the Collector, Follett Publishing Co.,
Chicago Illinois 1962.
2. Baumgartner, Richard A., Blue Lightning, Blue Acorn Press, 2007.
3. Baumgartner, Richard A., e-mail, Jan. 2, 2012
4. Brown, John O., Diary April 30, 1863 to June 1, 1863.
5. U. S. Ordnance Records, 4th Quarter 1863-1st Quarter 1864.
6. Tutewiler, Henry W. Civil War Diary 1861-1865
7. National Tribune August 30, 1883
8. Campbell, Henry, Three Years in the Saddle: a Diary of the Civil War, including clippings from the Cincinnati Gazette 1863
9. Official Records, Series I, Vol. 23 Part 1, page 613
10. Wilder, John, Letter dated Jan. 7, 1864 as appears in the WC Dodge pamphlet
12. Terrell, W.H.H., Letter dated May 29, 1863 to John T. Wilder
13. Evansville Journal, Jan. 26, 1864.
14. Bresnan, Andrew L., "Additional Information on the Henry Repeating Rifle", October 13, 2011, http://44henryrifle.webs.com/additionalhenryinfo.htm