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Dodge Connection: A sniper, a shot, and a telltale scar

Dodge Connection: A sniper, a shot, and a telltale scar

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A Whitworth rifle on display at the Historic General Dodge House.

Can you imagine getting shot in the forehead and living to talk about it?

Few can lay claim to such a tale except for our own Gen. Grenville Dodge, builder of the elegant home that bears his name in downtown Council Bluffs.

From 1861 to 1866, Dodge served as an officer in the Union Army. A dangerous business, to be sure: threats of disease, of succumbing to wounds in battle, or self-inflicted accidents (Dodge once accidentally shot himself in the leg). On more than one occasion, men standing right next to him dropped dead from a well-placed shot by a Confederate sharpshooter. In fact, sharpshooters claimed the lives of nearly a half dozen Union generals.

During the Union Army’s siege of Atlanta, Dodge, never one to hide from danger, reviewed front line fortifications. Warned of sharpshooters, a demonstration confirmed the ever-present danger. The officer escorting Dodge, Lt. H.I. Smith, placed his hat upon the tip of his saber and as he lifted it above the fortifications, a barrage of bullets whizzed by.

Dodge, insistent on seeing every detail of the front lines for himself, looked through a peephole in a barricade. Presently, a rebel sharpshooter took aim at the figure moving behind the modest opening. The odds of hitting his target? Pretty good, considering what the Confederate sharpshooter held in his hands.

With a range just beyond 2,000 yards, the Whitworth was the first rifle to have polygonal rifling, where the barrel has less sharp interior edges. This increased the accuracy of the bullet and gave it a higher velocity. The best competing rifles of the time were only accurate two-thirds of the distance compared to a Whitworth. The price paid for this accuracy was the weapon’s weight, making it far too heavy for the infantry.

Not only was the rifle more accurate, the bullet it fired was superior as well. Both slender and longer than standard bullets of the day, the extra length combined with polygonal rifling with a modest barrel twist caused the bullet extra spin, which stabilized it in flight. The bullet’s hexagonal shape made a distinctive shrill sound as it moved toward its target. Everyone knew they were being targeted by the Confederacy’s best. Some sharpshooters even had access to scopes, increasing their kill rate. (Notably, it could be adjusted to account for the wind!) Due to the recoil, the weapon’s users were easily identified by their black eyes. Most, however, relied on flip-up sights.

August 19, 1864: A gunmen sets his sights on a figure behind the observatory port. He suspects it must be an officer, perhaps a general. He takes a deep breath. Holds it. He’s relaxed. Accuracy requires relaxation. Pressure is carefully placed on the trigger.

The flintlock releases, a spark follows, smoke erupts, enveloping the shooter. The bullet whizzes through the air. A thud is heard — the sound of the high-velocity bullet first hitting the wooden edge of the port, punching through and reducing its velocity, and then striking Dodge in the upper forehead.

On impact, the bullet removes removes nearly a palm-full of flesh (hair attached), laying bare his skull. Dodge falls back into the trench in a fetal position. All present think, that, yet again, another Union general has been killed by a Rebel bearing the Whitworth rifle.

Smith had the presence of mind to conserve the piece of scalp complete with hair, but he never saw fit to return the gruesome chunk of flesh to its owner — a curious souvenir! (If anyone reading this has possession of Dodges scalp, the Historic General Dodge House would love to reclaim it in his name and honor.)

As you can imagine, in that day, “facts” were hard to come by and communication slow between news services. Dodge was reported killed in the Davenport press, and it took a few days to correct the error. As you can imagine, this dispatch hit Dodge’s family like a bolt of lightning.

As for Dodge, he escaped with a concussion and a deep scar. The gunshot wound brought an end to his active combat duties in the East. When he recovered, Dodge returned to the Midwest to suppress Native American resistance, and, later to supervise the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad. But the head wound, suffered in the heat of battle, would bother him, off and on, for the rest of his life.

— Tom Emmett is the executive director of the Historic General Dodge House.

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