150 Years Ago: A “Destructive Conflagration” in Richmond

On June 14, 1863, the remains of Thomas J. Jackson left Richmond by railroad proceeding to Lexington, Virginia where his funeral was scheduled for the next day. As if the tragedy of Jackson’s death were not enough, the City of Richmond arose on this day (June 15) in 1863 to another disaster.

The Richmond Daily Dispatch provided details the following day:

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Destructive Conflagration – Burning of the Crenshaw Woollen Mill and a Portion of the Tredegar Works – About 2 o’clock yesterday morning a fire broke out in the Crenshaw Woollen Mill, of this city, resulting in one of the most destructive and disastrous conflagrations which the city has ever been called upon to suffer. The fire originated, and was first discovered, in the picking room of the Crenshaw Woollen Mill, situated on the canal.. such was the combustible nature of the material in the room that the flames spread with a rapidity that soon enveloped the whole building….

The article went on to point out the important war contributions of the mill – providing “2,000 yards of double width goods per week, with a capacity to manufacture annually goods sufficient to clothe from 40,000 to 50,000 men.” But next to the mill was Tredegar Iron Works:

From the woollen mill the fire rapidly spread to the valuable shops of Tredegar works, and before the flames could be arrested the machine shops, boring mills, pattern shops, blacksmith and carpenter shops of that extensive and valuable establishment were destroyed. The extend of damage done to machinery in these shops could not be ascertained yesterday, as much of the machinery was of an indestructible character, and may possibly not have received serious injury.

However, the rolling mills and casting shops of the works were not damaged. The report went on to say that several heavy guns were undamaged and ready for issue. Concluding, the article noted,

The loss to the proprietors of the works will be very heavy, and the delay in manufacturing guns will, to some extent, be felt by the Government, but as stated, it is not thought that this delay will protracted beyond a few weeks.

Problem is that a few weeks, in the the critical phases of 1863, was debilitating to efforts to equip and refit Confederate forces in the field. The day after the fire, Joseph R. Anderson, president of the company, forwarded a request Colonel Josiah Gorgas for equipment to replace losses.

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Gorgas in turn forwarded the request to Major William Downer, Superintendent of Armories. Downer responded on June 3:

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In short, Downer had some to spare and asked, “Shall I sell these machines to Mesrs Anderson & Co.?” The answer was affirmative. That was conveyed across this rather busy (and interesting!) cover sheet:

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On the right side is Downer’s notation:

The machinery proposed to be sold consists of

1 Large Boring Lathe purchased at Raleigh.

2 Small hand Lathes.

4 or 5 small Lathes, partially finished, some, nothing more than the castings. Made at the Carbine Factory, which were commissioned by Robinson & Lester(?), for sale, & which we have no use for.

Oh, but first these equipments were referred to Captain R. M. Cary at Bellona Armory, who insisted he needed the lathes. Gorgas agreed with Cary on June 15. So even with all those notations, it is not clear if Tredegar eventually received any of these lathes.

But certainly the foundry was able to get back to the business of making cannons within weeks as predicted. As mentioned in Monday’s post, production fell off in April to just six Napoleons and four 10-inch mortars due to lack of gunmetal. On May 1st, the foundry poured one 10-inch columbiad, six Napoleons, and one 10-inch mortar. Not until May 28 did production resume with a 20-pdr Parrott and a Napoleon. In June, Tredegar made twenty-four castings, both field guns and heavy cannons. July saw fifteen more castings.

But keep in mind the cycle of casting, cooling, boring, preparing (Tredegar eschewed all unnecessary machining but had to turn trunnions and other exterior points), inspection, and delivery. Such could take a month or more, particularly for the larger weapons. From there, the Ordnance Department had the duty of transporting and issue to the field commands. Guns made in June might not be issued to a battery until late August… if all worked well.

Cannons are easy to track, to some extent. But about the production of shot, shell, and the various implements needed to use the guns in battle. Tredegar was supposed to be producing the materials needed for the Confederates to prosecute the war. Not beg for machinery to turn out those materials.

A production slow down in the middle of 1863… just as the war reached critical turning points. As historian Charles Dew pointed out, fire at Tredegar and defeat at Gettysburg had some relation.

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4 responses to “150 Years Ago: A “Destructive Conflagration” in Richmond

  1. Great headline by the Richmond Daily Dispatch: “Local Matters”. As though the destruction of two important war-related manufacturing facilities was akin to Mrs. Hornblower’s cat getting caught in a tree. Unless it was the only paper in town, you would have thought they would have tried to “sell” the event a little harder.

    I wonder if they put out a paper when Richmond fell and what the headline was? I envision something along the lines of “Unfortunate Event”.

    • Yes, or “Yankee Convention Swarms City!”

      However I think in this case the header is like our modern metro paper’s Section C – Local News. The first sentence of the story is a bit more highlighted, but less than a headline. And more stories appear below that on the fire.

  2. Pingback: The heavyweight: 7-inch Triple-banded Brooke Rifle | To the Sound of the Guns

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