Beauregard to Gorgas: “I prefer that we should try the experiment on our enemy…”

Throughout 1863, General P.G.T. Beauregard authorized programs to convert both 8-inch and 10-inch columbiads into rifled guns for the defense of Charleston.  These modifications did not receive the full blessing of those in Richmond.  In fact, Colonel Josiah Gorgas, Confederate Chief of Ordnance, voiced concerns in a letter to Beauregard in November 1863.

Beauregard wisely waited until January 9, 1864 to respond, explaining he delayed “until I could carefully reconsider my preconceived views and subject them to the test of actual experiment.”  He went on to say while the 10-inch rifles had not been tested in action, the 8-inch rifles had been fired in anger… a lot.

Your letter alludes chiefly to the 10-inch gun, but as your objections and conclusions must apply equally to the 8-inch as to the 10-inch, I must acquaint you that an 8-inch gun, rifled and double banded, in position at Fort Moultrie, has been fired through some four or five different engagements, in all over 100 times, with shell weighing over 100 pounds and bolts 140 pounds, with most satisfactory results, giving a greater range with the same charges and less elevation than the smooth-bore, with shell and shot of less than half the weight. The gun is uninjured, and there is no apparent reason why it should not last a long time.

He went on to say General Roswell Ripley considered the gun his best on Sullivan’s Island and “and in action has an immediate effect upon the enemy’s iron-clads, which always try to avoid it.”

Fort Moultrie 3 May 2010 490

Beauregard continued:

This having proved a success, three others of the same kind have been prepared and placed in position in the harbor batteries, but owing to the limited supply of projectiles a thorough test has not been applied. The charges used have been 8 pounds and 10 pounds of coarse-grained powder, and the range shows these to have been sufficient to give full velocity to the projectiles for distances of 1,000 yards.

The reported experience demonstrated that higher powder charges did not offer any significant gain in range or velocity.  And Beauregard added, perhaps to make a point about the Ordnance Department’s products, that a Brooke rifle at Fort Sumter, fired with fifteen pounds of powder at an elevation of 18º had suffered a cracked vent.  The surviving Brooke 7-inch rifle at Fort Sumter was thereafter fired with reduced charges, of 10 pounds, with better results.  Beauregard quoted a report from Ripley claiming the gun had, with a 23º elevation, achieved a range of four miles to strike in the Federal camps on Folly Island (that being in the days before Fort Sumter was bombarded by the Federals).  In Beauregard’s view, this field experience trumped the instructions sent out by those in Richmond.

Fort Moultrie 3 May 2010 568

In regard to his modified rifles, Beauregard built a case for their acceptance:

If the rifling and banding of the 8-inch and 10-inch columbiads is to be abandoned I consider it fortunate for Charleston that I have four of the former in position instead of the like number of smoothbore 8-inch guns, which abundant experience here has demonstrated to be almost ineffective against iron-clads….

As long, therefore, as we can get equal or greater ranges with the same elevations and charges with the rifled as with the smooth-bore guns and throw projectiles of more than double the weight with increased accuracy, it would seem advisable to continue the alteration of these guns of the same patterns and dates.

The principle of the Blakely gun has not been tried as yet with these columbiads, because they do very well when fired according to the ordinary method; but by the application of the principle I should hardly deem it jumping at a conclusion. Would it not be better than remaining in statu quo?

I cannot believe that it would have been advisable to wait for the elucidation of the matter by the United States Ordnance Bureau, from their trials with 10-inch guns at West Point, for we may depend upon it that if successful the first we shall know of the fact will be the transfer to Morris Island and continuance of their experiments on ourselves by heavy batteries of this description of ordnance…

And, then he went for the kill:

I prefer that we should try the experiment on our enemy rather than let him test it on us. Fas est ab hoste doceri is a good axiom in war, but not exactly in the way you propose.

Fas est ab hoste doceri  – that is “it is right to learn even from an enemy.”  And Beauregard was tired of “learning” about the effectiveness of the Federal heavy guns as he watched them bombard Battery Wagner, Fort Sumter, and Charleston itself.

And he could not help but offer one more jab saying  “The guns selected for this purpose were captured at Forts Moultrie and Sumter in April, 1861, of the very best iron, and superior to those now manufactured by the Ordnance Department of the Confederate States.”  And remember, it was Beauregard who had recommended Gorgas for the position heading the Ordnance Department, back in the spring of 1861!

Beauregard closed his argument saying, “I do not say that these rifled and banded 8 and 10 inch guns are the best that can be made of their calibers, but, in my belief, they are the best we can get in the present condition of our manufacturing resources.”

Fort Sumter 4 Aug 11 1601

And those rifled guns Beauregard mentioned would serve at the front of Charleston’s defenses for the remainder of the war.  In terms of investment of money and resources, one could carry Beauregard’s argument to say those were the best weapons in the city’s defense.

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part I, Serial 65, pages 513-516.)

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One response to “Beauregard to Gorgas: “I prefer that we should try the experiment on our enemy…”

  1. Pingback: Thoughts on the USS Housatonic and H.L. Hunley | To the Sound of the Guns

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