Category Archives: American Civil War

“We have hitherto had no difficulty in importing arms through the blockaded sea-parts”: Estmating the good of blocakde-runners

Yesterday I put emphasis on Secretary of War James Seddon’s words stressing the importance of the blockade-runners in October 1864 – “It is impossible to calculate the good that has resulted to the armies of the Confederacy from the successful blockade-running vessels.”  Well, let me offer some measure of that value deemed “impossible to calculate.”  In December 1864, Brigadier-General Josiah Gorgas provided a report to Seddon detailing the material status of the commodities of war – guns, powder, iron, nitre, and certain other raw materials.  As for small arms, Gorgas wrote:

Sir: In reply to your inquiry for information as to the means of supplying munitions of war, “confining the answer to the munitions” furnished by this Bureau to the cis-Mississippi, I have the honor to state, first, as to arms: There are enough arms on hand of a mixed character–that is, arms most of which are not as good as those now in the hands of troops in the field–to arm and equip some additional force. The returns of November, 1864, showed on hand at the various arsenals and depots:

  • Rifles of caliber .58 – 3,882
  • Rifles of caliber .54 – 2,759
  • Smooth-bore muskets .69 – 3,564
  • Smooth-bore muskets .75 – 636
  • All other infantry arms – 10,504
  • Carbines – 2,596

This amount can be probably increased by 10,000 or 12,000 by a vigorous system of collecting the arms scattered about through the country.

So that was what was in the depots – at most 36,000 small arms, give or take.  That is only counting what was sitting in the depots or otherwise unissued weapons.  Gorgas cited returns current at the start of December to indicate nearly 200,000 Confederates present for duty with the armies.  Presumably most of those were armed.  So do the math for a ball park total of small arms.

Where was the Confederacy obtaining weapons at this late stage of the war?  Gorgas continued:

We have hitherto had no difficulty in importing arms through the blockaded sea-parts. The total importations for the year have been:

  • Rifles – 39,798
  • Pistols – 1,716

The want of funds necessary to purchase has greatly limited the importations of the expiring year. There are probably not more than 10,000 or 12,000 on the islands awaiting shipment.

As for domestic production:

The number of arms manufactured and made up of parts derived from capture and other sources for the year ending November 30, 1864, were:

  • Rifles, caliber .58 – 12,778
  • Carbines – 5,354
  • Pistols – 2,353

So for the year of 1864, three of every four new rifle acquired by the Confederacy came through the blockade.  The figures on pistols and carbines were to the advantage of domestic sources. But still the disparity in rifles indicated that if any new weapon arrived in a Confederate soldier’s hands, it was likely to be of foreign (European) origin.

About the manufacture of weapons, Gorgas indicated the Confederacy had the capacity to do more:

There is machinery enough under the control of this Bureau to manufacture 55,000 rifles and carbines per annum, provided a sufficient mechanical force be employed as follows:

  • Richmond – 25,000 rifles, 450 workmen
  • Fayetteville – 10,000 rifles, 250 workmen
  • Columbia, S.C. – 4,000 rifles, 125 workmen
  • Athens, Ga. – 10,000 rifles, 250 workmen
  • Tallassee, Ala. – 6,000 rifles, 150 workmen
  • Total – 55,000 rifles, 1,225 workmen.

The proviso is the workmen, and these must be permanently attached to those establishments and excused from the performance of all military duties, except perhaps local guard duty. The number actually employed is about 425, about 300 less than were employed, say twelve months since. Defection from service in the local forces and losses on the battle-field have thus greatly reduced our force of workmen.

By General Orders, No. 89, over 700 men were placed in the ranks; of these perhaps one-half were competent mechanics, many of them valuable for the service of the armories. The product could not at once be raised to the maximum figures above indicated, but could, with the 800 additional workmen, be so raised, allowing for the time it would take to teach and organize them.

For our cavalry arms we have chiefly to rely on importations, although pistols are being made at several points with success. Want of workmen alone prevents additional results. Sabers can be produced in sufficient numbers, and of pretty good quality, by the detail of a very few workmen from the field.

Follow the numbers here. The Confederacy had 200,000 men present for duty (and another 200,000 not present for various reasons).  On hand were around 236,000 small arms, give or take.  Gorgas does not indicate the number of weapons issued, to replace those lost or damaged.  And maybe that isn’t the important issue towards sustaining the army.  The Confederacy could produce 55,000 rifles, but had instead produced only 12,778.  The balance of what was needed came in the form of 39,798 imported rifles.  Total “new” weapons in 1864 was 52,576.  Just shy of the maximum potential domestic output, as cited by Gorgas.  And that would allow the Confederacy to replace one of every four weapons in use, give or take.

So, does this champion Confederate domestic manufacturing? Or show it as deficient?   Neither.  Gorgas’ explanation points to another conclusion – the blockade-runners allowed the Confederacy to take men out of the factories for service in the ranks. Gorgas counts 800 workers, but I would submit that was just the surface figure.   Maybe two regiments… maybe more.

And that is only taking into account small arms production.  Would not be hard to carry that figure forward in regard to other war-critical industries and say supplies arriving through the blockade freed up a body of manpower equal to a brigade.

Oh, but one more point – blockade running also carried with it an intangible worth more than guns or gold.  So long as ships could transit to Charleston, even with hazard, the Confederacy still “existed” and had contact with the outside world.  But ports like Charleston – were supplies could land on Confederate soil – were becoming scarce by the fall of 1864.  Within a few months, the number would be zero.

(Citation from OR, Series IV, Volume 3, Serial 129, pages 986-7.)

“It is impossible to calcuate the good… from the successful blockade-running vessels”: Instructions to Hardee

Lieutenant-General William Hardee arrived in Charleston during the first half of October to assume command of the Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida.  His arrival meant a demotion for Major-General Samuel Jones.  But Jones did not go far, as he assumed command of the District of South Carolina from a new headquarters across the bay at Mount Pleasant.

For Hardee, the new post was a change of pace from his previous field commands, presenting unfamiliar subjects for his attention.  Among the first pieces of correspondence to cross Hardee’s new desk was a letter from Secretary of War James Seddon addressing one of those subjects –   blockade-running.   The secretary took the time to impress the importance of the runners, as a way of introducing some new policies from Richmond:

General: As the port of Charleston, through which a good deal of blockade-running has lately been done, is within the limits of the department to which you have been assigned, I inclose for your information a copy of the act of Congress imposing regulations upon the foreign commerce of the Confederate States, and annexed thereto a copy of the regulations established by the President under the said act.

The regulations put in place in February 1864 aimed to closely regulate the cotton trade and also ensure the war effort had the highest priority for cargo space.  No cotton left port without government approval.  Any vessel owned by a citizen of the Confederacy gave the government half its cargo space for transits (in or out) of the blockade.  And the government placed restrictions on non-essential items imported for civilian use.   By introducing these practices, even late in the war, the Confederacy gained considerable materials just at a time when Federal advances hit hardest upon domestic industries.

Having mentioned the regulations, Seddon introduced the agent in charge of administering the blockade-running activities and pressed the importance of optimizing the operations:

The administration of the regulations is in the hands of the collector of the port, jointly with Mr. J. D. Aiken, agent of the Department, and you will please afford them every facility in your power in the discharge of their functions. If they, or either of them, should at any time invoke your assistance to detain a vessel that may not in their or his estimation have complied with the requirements of these regulations, you will please give promptly such assistance. Nor will you ever detain a vessel except upon their request, unless, in your judgment, there be good military reasons therefor. Of this you alone must of course be the judge. It is impossible to calculate the good that has resulted to the armies of the Confederacy from the successful blockade-running vessels. The importations of blankets, shoes, arms, and supplies of every description, have been of the utmost service, and it is difficult to say how we should have done without the material aid thus rendered. The restriction of details and exemptions to a minimum must necessarily reduce the aggregate of domestic manufactured products; especially will the reduction be felt in the ordnance and quartermaster’s department of the army, and this new state of things must be met, if possible, by increased importations through the blockade. You will see how important, therefore, it is to encourage in every way under the law this trade of blockade-running.

Seddon continued with a suggestion for Hardee aimed to counteract the expected blow to fall at Wilmington:

It is sufficient, I feel assured, to thus call your earnest attention to the matter to secure your entire co-operation with me in supplying, as largely as possible, from abroad the wants of our armies. Charleston is at present the only port in your department through which any blockade-running is being done, but I have had my attention directed to Savannah, through Wassaw Inlet, and I would be glad to have you investigate the subject, as adverse reports were made by your predecessors; but the Messrs. Lamar, of Savannah, reiterate the practicability of that entrance, and it is so important in view of a possible early attack on Wilmington to open some other channel of communication with the islands adjacent to our Atlantic coast, that I would be glad to have you report on the soundness of the suggestion of the Messrs. Lamar. To a very limited extent, the ports of the Florida coast have been used.

Of course, we know that within a couple of months Savannah would not be a Confederate port.  Charleston, though not far behind, would remain an active port for the blockade-runners for a few months longer.  The objective set for the blockading fleet was slowly realized – not so much by the gunboats at the harbor entrance, but rather by the advance of Federal troops.

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, pages 638-9.)

“When he left us a star went out”: Shelby’s lament at the loss of Colonel Shanks

I mentioned Brigadier-General Joseph Shelby’s writing style.  His report of the second half of Major-General Sterling Price’s 1864 Campaign, written in December of that year, is a shade or two more literature than official correspondence.  Relating the details of his division’s advance to the Osage River, earlier in October:

I reconnoitered the ford warily, showing no force whatever, and found about one regiment drawn up to dispute farther progress, while movements in the rear told that more were coming up. I dismounted Shanks’ and Smith’s regiments, deployed them along the bank, sheltered by heavy timber; held Elliott and Williams well in hand for a dash, and stationed my battery at splendid range. When all these arrangements were completed, a terrible fire of infantry and artillery swept the other bank, swept the opposing squadrons, swept the face of the bluff beyond, and drove everything for shelter to the woods. Now Elliott and Williams dashed away at the charge; the infantry waded after. The swift and beautiful water was torn into foam-flakes that hurried and danced away to the sea, while the ringing shout of a thousand voices told that the ford was won.

No, you are not reading a passage from Shelby’s article in some post-war magazine.  Though he did add, in a post-script, that the report was in error for some detail as most of his papers were lost during the campaign.  Shelby continued, relating the efforts of Colonel David Shanks:

I immediately pushed forward Colonel Shanks with orders to press the retiring enemy hard and heavily. The Federals, re-enforced, came back upon him with great vigor, and the battle raged evenly there. Mounting Smith’s and Shanks’ old regiment, I sent them to his assistance. He ordered a charge along his entire line, and led it with his hat off and the light of battle on his face. That charge was glorious. The enemy, though outnumbering him, fled rapidly, and pressing on far ahead of his best and bravest, he fell in the arms of victory–a bullet through and through his dauntless breast.

Here, in his report, Shelby paused to eulogize Shanks:

I cannot refrain from laying aside for a moment the cold and formal language of a report and paying a just tribute to the absent and wounded hero. Brave, chivalrous, devoted friend of all who needed friend; a lion in battle; “fleet-foot on the correi, sage counsel in cumber;” the Murat of my command. When he left us a star went out, a giant was gone. Whether upon the march or the bivouac, the cold and weary advance or the dark and pitiless retreat, where death is fleet as the wave of its sable banner, he was always the same heroic soldier, ready at all times and under all circumstances.

The scythe of the reaper
Takes the ears that are hoary;
But the voice of the weeper
Wails manhood in glory.

The Murat of my command!  Complete with verse!

Generals don’t write like that anymore.   Few of us do.  It is stuff that won’t translate well as a tweet or text.

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 41, Part I, Serial 83, pages 654-5.)