One tangible connection to the human cost of the Civil War can be found in the Frazier History Museum in Louisville, Ky., in the form of a beautifully engraved Henry repeating rifle, serial number 19. The original owner was Connecticut native George Dennison Prentis, who was the editor of the Louisville Journal from 1830 to 1860 and a staunch abolitionist. After succession, he was an outspoken advocate of the Union even though his newspaper was absorbed by the pro-Confederate Louisville Morning Courier. On July 14, 1862, he wrote a report for the newspaper that praised the Henry.
“It behooves every loyal citizen to prepare himself upon his own responsibility with the best weapon of defense that can be obtained. And certainly the simplest, surest and most effective weapon that we know of, the weapon that can be used with the most tremendous results in case of an outbreak or invasion, is one that we have mentioned recently upon two or three occasions, the newly invented rifle of Henry.”
It is very likely that his Henry was a gift from the manufacturer. The Connecticut-based New Haven Arms Company hoped to make the Henry the standard-issue rifle of the Union Army and sought favorable endorsements in hopes of securing government contracts. As a matter of fact, a similar engraved rifle was presented to President Abraham Lincoln.
Ultimately, 1,731 Henry rifles were sold to the US Government for a $63,943 (about $50 each). Far more (approximately 10,000) were bought by individuals and state regiments like the 66th and 7th Illinois and the 97th Indiana. The rifles were highly prized on the battlefield. Confederates described the Henry as “that darn Yankee rifle that they load on Sunday and shoot all week.”
THE PROGENITOR of the Winchester repeaters, the Henry was a technological marvel in its time. It fired a .44-caliber, self-contained, metallic, rim-fire primed cartridge. The magazine held 15 shots, and one more could be loaded in the chamber, giving it more firepower than any other rifle on the battlefield. It was accurate by the standards of the day too, equipped as it was with a graduated ladder rear sight. Army tests showed it could keep 100 percent of its shots inside a 25-inch circle at 500 yards and a 48-inch circle at 1,000. Bullet weights were either 200 or 216 grains over 26 to 28 grains of black powder, giving it a muzzle velocity of 1,125 feet per second and a muzzle energy of 568 foot pounds. Ballistically it was between today’s .44 Special and .44-40 WCF of the same bullet weight, which leads me to wonder how much energy it had left at 200 yards, much less either of the Army test ranges. Compared to the standard rifled musket of the era, the .44 Henry was a pipsqueak, and that insured it would never be selected for general issue to troops. However, at ranges of less than 100 yards the Henry’s accuracy and power were perfectly adequate, and its speed and firepower proved devastating to the enemy in close combat.
THE HISTORY OF GEORGE PRENTIS’S Henry rifle is not a happy one. Though he supported the Union, his two sons, William Courtland and Clarence J., believed in the merits of the Confederate cause and actually fought for the South. William took his father’s rifle to war and died leading his troops in the Battle of Augusta, Ky., on September 18, 1862. The rifle and the sad news made their way back home to George. The Henry left his home again, for the last time, when his remaining son joined the Confederate cause. Reaching the rank of colonel, Clarence survived the war and his father pleaded that he be shown clemency. The rifle never came home. Hidden by Confederate soldiers, it was rediscovered a century later in a Memphis, Tenn. basement. ASJ