Could you imagine being 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 (first as a colonel and later promoted to brigadier general). It was a dangerous business to be sure. Not only were there regular dangers of disease, dying in battle, and accidents (Dodge accidentally shot himself in the leg), but from Confederate sharpshooters as well.
More than once, men standing next to him were shot dead. By this time nearly a half dozen generals had been killed by sharpshooters.
During the Union army’s siege of Atlanta, Gen. Dodge was reviewing front line fortifications. He was warned of sharpshooters and 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, bullets whizzed by.
Insistent on seeing every detail of the front lines for himself, Dodge looked through an observational port. Presently, a Rebel sharpshooter took aim at the figure moving behind the modest opening. The gunman was likely brandishing an English-built Whitworth rifle — a single-shot, muzzle-loading musket. It had an excellent range and was the world’s first sharpshooter’s rifle proper.
With a range of up to and just beyond 2,000 yards, the Whitworth was the first rifle to have polygonal rifling rather than the conventional technique. This increased the accuracy of the bullet. The best competing rifles of the time were only accurate two-thirds of the distance as compared to a Whitworth. (The price paid for this accuracy was the weapon’s weight, far too heavy for the infantry.) Not only was the rifle more accurate, but the bullet it fired was superior as well. It was 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 (adding to its stability) 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 of weapon, scope users were easily identified by their black eyes. Most, however, relied on flip-up sights.
The gunmen sights a figure behind the observatory port. He suspects it must be an officer. He takes a deep breath. Holds it. He’s relaxed. Accuracy requires relaxation. Pressure is carefully placed on the trigger. When the hammer falls, smoke erupts enveloping the shooter. The bullet whizzes through the air. A thud is heard. The thud is the sound of the high-velocity bullet hitting first the wooden edge of the port, punching through and reducing its velocity, and then striking Dodge in the upper forehead.
On impact, it removed nearly a palm-full of flesh (hair attached) laying bare his skull. Dodge fell to the ground in a fetal position. All present thought that, yet again, another Union general had been killed by a Rebel bearing the Whitworth rifle.
Smith was quick to conserve the piece of scalp complete with hair which he never saw fitting to return to its owner. A curious souvenir! (If anyone reading this has possession of Gen. Dodge’s scalp, the 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 was slow between media outlets. Dodge was reported killed in the Davenport press, and it took a few days for the error to be corrected. As you can imagine, this was unnerving to his family.
As for Dodge, he escaped with a concussion, a scar and a head wound that would bother him on and off for life.