Tag Archives: Charleston Arsenal

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.

150 years ago: Replinishing the magazines at Charleston

In just 2 ½ hours of action on April 7, 1863, the guns defending Charleston harbor fired 2,229 rounds.  As discussed earlier, General P.G.T. Beauregard was concerned at the expenditure of ammunition.  Try as you might, one cannot “un-shoot” a gun.  Recovery of shot spread across the bottom of the channel was impractical.  So the Confederates had to rely upon resupply from the foundries and arsenals.

One of the vendors involved was, no surprise, J.M. Eason and Brothers.  Through the month of April, the firm delivered projectiles to the Charleston Arsenal:

Page 21

The receipt indicates delivery of:

  • Thirty-six 42-pdr rifle bolts
  • Ten 42-pdr hollow shot
  • Four 42-pdr rifle shell
  • Thirty-nine 32-pdr rifle bolts
  • Forty-five 24-pdr conical rifle shot

Along with parts for making friction primer tubes and cartridges.

So fire off 140 of the 42-pdr rounds on April 7, then receive 50 replacements by the end of the month.  A net deficit of 90 rounds.  But wait a second.  The 42-pdr bore was 7-inches, and the rifled modifications shared projectiles with the 7-inch Brookes (at least some varieties of projectiles that is).  So with 86 Brooke rounds fired, the Confederates were at a deficit of 176 for the month.  Not so good.  Even worse, Eason deliveries replenished only 13% of the number of 32-pdr bolts fired on April 7.  But with no 24-pdrs firing on April 7, that caliber was a net gain for the month… though of little value overall.

Eason was but one of several vendors providing ordnance for Charleston’s defenders.  But at the same time, these vendors were stretched thin with orders from other pressed sectors and a rather diminishing supply of raw materials.

Again, we see Beauregard was right to admonish his gunners for wasteful firing. After all, $2706.50 would only buy a fraction of that expended on April 7.

How many guns did Charleston need? : Points one and two from Beauregard’s board

The board of generals assembled at Charleston in mid-March 1863 began their deliberations by reviewing the first two points of their charter:

  • Amount and description of heavy ordnance deficient or necessary for the efficient defense of the harbor.
  • The number and character of heavy ordnance called for and supplied since 1st June, 1862.

The board, consisting of Brigadier-Generals Roswell Ripley, S.R. Gist, and James Trapier, were well familiar with the guns and requisitions. Ripley and Gist were the district commanders of Charleston and James Island, respectively. Trapier held the post of “sub-district” commander under Ripley, in charge of the Sullivan’s Island defenses. In the report, the board put focus on the failure of the boom originally intended to span the harbor entrance and the weapons required to make good on that failure:

Much dependence was placed upon a chain and boom obstruction then being constructed by the order of that officer, which it was hoped and believed would successfully detain an attacking fleet under the fire of the heavy forts at the mouth of the harbor. About the 1st of October it was demonstrated that the chain and boom, upon which much labor had been expended, would prove a failure, and a communication from the chief of artillery to the Ordnance Department at Richmond, approved and indorsed by the commanding general, was forwarded, calling for fifty-one guns— 10-inch columbiads. … The number of guns which it was understood were to have been furnished under requisitions from Major-General Pemberton was ten 10-inch columbiads which, added to the requisitions last mentioned for the inner harbor, would include sixty-one 10-inch columbiads, with their ammunition, exclusive of a number of 10-inch seacoast mortars.

So the defenders needed sixty-one 10-inch columbiads. This number derives from adding the ten ordered by General John Pemberton during his tenure as commander to the fifty-one that Beauregard ordered after the boom turned out a failure.

While the board clearly preferred the 10-inch columbiads (though didn’t say as much), the report went on to discuss other weapons received for the defense of Charleston:

From the records of the ordnance officer of the First Military District it appears that since the 1st of June, 1862, there have been received seventeen. 10-inch columbiads, two 42-pounder banded and rifled guns, two 7-inch banded Brooke guns, two 12-pounder banded and rifled gun, and eight 10-inch sea-coast mortars. Considering that the 42-pounder banded and rifled and the 7-inch guns are equivalent to a 10-inch columbiad when they may be in certain positions, it appears that of the principal requisitions sent in there remains a deficiency of thirty-eight 10-inch columbiads still unfurnished. In addition to the guns received one 3-inch Whitworth and two 18-pounder Blakely guns have been received from importation. These and the 12-pounder rifled and banded are, however useful, not to be depended on for positive defense against such an attack as is contemplated.

So let me “pick” at those who swear by the Brooke rifles. The Confederate generals rated the 7-inch Brooke (oh, and the old 42-pdrs they banded and rifled) as only equal to the columbiads when in “certain positions.” I know… combat experience would change that tune!

In addition to the shortage of 10-inch caliber guns, the board looked to larger guns to further secure the harbor:

A strong additional security to this harbor would be a few guns of such caliber as it is believed the enemy will bring to the attack. Authority had been obtained some three months since to have one or more 15-inch guns cast at the Charleston Arsenal works. It is believed that most of the iron has been procured and that most of the appliances have been furnished, but from some untoward disagreement between the superintending mechanics and the ordnance officers the progress of the work has been delayed, if not indefinitely postponed. It will be be well, in the opinion of the board, that the work should be pressed forward as rapidly as may be, and that at least three guns of that caliber be furnished as soon as possible.

Yes you read that correctly – a Confederate 15-inch gun. But this is where the military needs exceeded the manufacturing capability. As seen with the long, deliberate development of the Rodman guns (and I am at fault here for not providing a similar narrative of the contemporary Dahlgren guns), such caliber weapons required advanced manufacturing techniques. The Charleston Arsenal could not just drop metal into a mold and expect the product to perform to standard. So I believe the ordnance officers were right to hold off investing precious gun metal into such an endeavor.

Before closing the discussion of the board’s response to points one and two, let me offer one of the attachments to the report:

heavyOrd

The table lists, by date, the quantity and type of weapons supplied to Charleston. With the dates in hand, one can easily reference Tredegar receipts from the period. Looking to Tredegar records from September 1862, a long sheet of received ordnance mentions at least five pieces of heavy ordnance sent to Charleston. Tredegar delivered a 10-inch columbiad on September 20 (presumably the date Tredegar loaded the gun for shipment). Here’s the entry for that columbiad and its equipment:

Page 504b

A 10-inch columbiad, with the foundry number 1664, weighing 13,360 pounds, at a cost of $1068.80 – Confederate dollars that is. Tredegar also provided a carriage, hand spikes, priming wires, sponge, rammer, worm, and sights along with the big gun. All “sent to Charleston” that September.

So where is that gun today?

Well, Tredegar number 1664 has not moved far from it’s wartime post.

Fort Moultrie 3 May 2010 495

The gun occupies a center pintle barbette carriage at Fort Moultrie. It represents the “Confederate period” in the fort’s displays of seacoast artillery through the ages. Anecdotal evidence places the gun at Fort Moultrie at the end of the war. Post war it occupied a position over one of the fort’s access gates on a pedestal. When the National Park Service took over the fort, they remounted it on display – likely close to its wartime station.

The muzzle is too far over the fort wall for me to offer a good (and safely acquired) photo of the stampings. So the trunnion stamps will have to do for now.

Fort Moultrie 3 May 2010 499

At least ten other guns from Tredegar receipts match up with deliveries (give or take a few days) on the table provided with the Charleston board’s report. Several of those weapons are still at Charleston today. If only these “witnesses” of iron could speak to us about the battles fought at the mouth of Charleston harbor.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 14, Serial 20, pages 829-833.)