Big guns for Beauregard: Blakely 12.75-inch Rifles

Busy of late, I neglected an interesting sesquicentennial. The journal kept at Headquarters, Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida offered this section among several paragraphs recording activity on September 11, 1863:

The large Blakely gun just mounted at Battery Ramsay was fired to-day at 1 p.m., with a charge of 40 pounds weight of powder, sabot and shell of 425 pounds weight, and 2° elevation. At the first discharge the gun burst, splitting open in eight places in rear of the first reinforce band.

This gun was one of two which had recently arrived from England. The pair were the largest weapons in the Confederacy, and were considered the best guns to counter the Federal monitors. But with one pull of the lanyard, those weapons looked feeble and weak.

The story of these massive guns began with British artillery designer Captain Alexander Blakely and Confederate purchasing agent Captain Caleb Huse. In 1862, Huse ordered the largest rifled guns Blakely could make, specified for use in the seacoast defenses of the Confederacy. At the cost of £10,000 each, Blakely instructed the Gorge Forrester & Company’s Vauxhall Foundry in Liverpool to turn out two guns. The guns had a bore of 12.75-inch, sometimes identified as 13-inch. The guns also went by the projectile weight – 900-, 700-, 600-, or 650-pounder, depending on which sized shot was used. I’ll use the designation of 12.75-inch which seems most practical and realistic.

In his Treatise on Ordnance and Armor, published in 1865, Alexander Lyman Holley provided some particulars of the guns, along with a plan of construction:

blakely12_75In_Holley

The gun was 16 feet long with a composite construction. The use of cast iron here was due to a shortage of steel, which Blakely preferred. Writing about it in the Southern Historical Papers, Confederate Ordnance Chief Josiah Gorgas described the guns:

These guns were built up of a wrought iron cylinder, closed at the breech with a brass-screw plug, some thirty-inch long and chambered to seven inches. This cylinder had three successive jackets, each shorter than its predecessor, so that from muzzle to breech the thickness of the gun increased by steps of about three and a-half inches. The object of the seven-inch chamber in the brass plug was to afford an air or gas space which would diminish the strain of the gun.

In addition, a set of steel hoops over the breech further strengthened the gun. The bore of the gun was 12 feet 7.5 inches long. The maximum diameter was 51 inches over the steel hoops. Overall this gun weighed 50,000 pounds. The wrought iron carriages weighed another 58,000 pounds.

The guns shipped from England in the summer of 1863. In mid-August, the guns arrived on the blockade runner Gibraltar (formerly the CSS Sumter) at Wilmington, North Carolina. Immediately, General P.G.T. Beauregard used all pressure he could muster to have the guns added to Charleston’s defenses – Even to the point of noting the guns were property of John Fraser & Company, with a Charleston interest. Finally, at the direction of Secretary of War James Seddon, the guns went to Charleston starting the last week of August.

When the first gun arrived, it went to Battery Ramsay in a position to cover the inner harbor should the ironclads rush past Fort Sumter. Of course, with all the fanfare and newspaper accounts, the Federals soon learned of this new weapon and noted it in reports.

The problem facing the gunners of this massive Blakely was not a shortage of ammunition, as some 70 tons of special projectiles arrived on the Gibraltar. Instead, they needed a manual. To load the gun, the crew had to man-handle the 650 pound bolts, nearly two feet long, into the muzzle. The projectiles were flanged to fit into groves in the bore. Once in the muzzle, the crew had to delicately push the projectile down the bore without it seizing in the rifling.

And, the crew didn’t know the purpose of the bronze chamber. At direction of Brigadier-General Roswell Ripley, the gunners loaded powder bags into the bronze air chamber completing the 40 pound charge. When they fired the gun, the bronze gave way and allowed the cracks mentioned in the report above. Not only was the gun damaged, but Beauregard suffered considerable embarrassment.

Fortunately, James Eason & Company were able to patch the gun by adding a massive breech block over the cracked cast iron. It eventually went back to Frazier’s Wharf Battery. The second gun was then subjected to detailed and well observed test before it went into place at the White Point Battery. There it caught the attention of painter Conrad Wise Chapman (see far left):

BlakelyWhitePointChapman

In that position, the Blakely shared a post with one of the guns recovered from the USS Keokuk. Captain John Johnson, comparing the two weapons, did not like the British guns due to the “inferiority of their projectiles.” He added, “These generally failed to take the grooves and would tumble like nail-kegs, without ever attaining their proper range.” Some of the fault lay with the nature of locally produced projectiles that lacked the high tolerances intended for the guns.

Skipping ahead in the Charleston timeline a bit, these two massive Blakelys were still there when the city was abandoned. Not willing to give up those prizes to the Federals, the Confederates blew up both guns.

Some pieces of the guns appear in photos of Charleston Arsenal after the fall of the city.

If you look close, you can read the chalked or painted legend:

CharlestonArsenal1A

“Piece of 600 lbs “Blakeley” [sic].

To the left is hoop, where the misspelling of Blakely continued – “Blakeley Gun” band.

CharlestonArsenal1C

Not clear if that was one of the original steel hoops or something added later with James Eason’s repairs. Oh, and there are all those infernal torpedoes laying about!

Back to the main pile of ordnance, there is a collection of projectiles with “Blakeley” all over them.

CharlestonArsenal1D

No mistaking those flanges. The two closest are flat top bolts. The two behind are shells, but with the flanges somewhat obscured. There appears to be a 6-pdr projectile balanced on top of the closest shell, for comparison. A set of these massive Blakely projectiles (one bolt and one shell) were once on display at the Washington Navy Yard but are now in storage.

Further back behind the layout of projectiles and torpedoes is this hunk of iron:

CharlestonArsenal1B

“Breech of the ‘Blakeley’ Gun Charleston S.C.” That is the breech patch fixed on the damaged gun by James Eason & Company. The section is today part of the West Point trophy collection, along with a section of the gun’s chase.

Another portion, of the second, undamaged, gun remains in Charleston. It remains where the explosion which broke the gun deposited it – in the attic of the Robert William Roper House at 9 East Battery Street. Imagine having a Civil War artifact weighing a couple of tons upstairs.

About these ads

3 responses to “Big guns for Beauregard: Blakely 12.75-inch Rifles

  1. Pingback: Gorgas: “The waste of ammuntion at Charleston … is a grave error” | To the Sound of the Guns

  2. Pingback: Archibald McLeish’s Vulcan Iron Works in Charleston | To the Sound of the Guns

  3. Pingback: 150 years ago: Intelligence from a Confederate defector at Charleston | To the Sound of the Guns

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s