Tag Archives: Josiah Gorgas

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.)

Gorgas sends “Long Tom” to Wilmington

On January 5, 1864, Major-General W.H.C. Whiting wrote Colonel Josiah Gorgas, at the Confederate Ordnance Department, requesting assistance:

Colonel Gorgas: My 30-pounder Parrott burst yesterday fighting the enemy at Lockwood’s Folly, killing 1 man and wounding officer in charge.  It was at third fire.  This is all the Parrott gun I have.  Hurry the others.  All the guns I have seen lately are defective; should be tested and examined.  Send this to General [Samuel] Cooper.

On January 3, the blockade runner Bendigo ran aground at Lockwood’s Folly.  While making a run north along the coast, the captain of the Bendigo mistook the wreck of the Elizabeth, a blockade runner which had ran aground in late September 1863, for a Federal blockader. The captain tried to run between the shore and what he thought was a threat, but ran into another – the shallow waters of the inlet.

The Bendigo lay on a shoal close enough inshore for the Confederates to attempt recovery of the cargo, but far enough off shore to allow Federal gunboats to obstruct any recovery.   Over the next couple of days, both sides sparred over the wreck.  The Federals finally damaged the wreck sufficiently to prevent Confederate recovery.  But the lure of further salvage brought the USS Iron Age into those shallow waters a week later, ultimately resulting in her demise.  (All in all, a fantastic series of events, but one I must leave to a correspondent with better footing in regard to the Wilmington sector.)

The 30-pdr Parrott mentioned by Whiting was part of the force deployed to support the recovery operations.  It was a Confederate copy of the original 30-pdr Parrott rifle, patterned after one of Robert P. Parrott’s 30-pdr rifles captured at First Manassas in July 1861. The captured Federal gun received the nickname “Long Tom,” due no doubt to the length of the barrel (and I would add such christening is not unique among artillery pieces). Unable to replicate the coiled band technique used at West Point Foundry, Tredegar opted to use a series of welded wrought iron bands.  The (composite) band over the breech is about 10-inches longer than the guns produced by West Point Foundry.

This was not the first time the Tredegar 30-pdr Parrotts had failed in action.  Recall just over a year earlier, one of these guns failed at Fredericksburg, in very close proximity to General Robert E. Lee and other senior officers.  Perhaps with the failure rates in mind, Gorgas responded on January 6 with the offer of something better than another Tredegar gun, “There are arms on the way to him, and I have asked Colonel [Walter] Stevens for the gun known as “Long Tom,” now on the defenses here.”

The declarative in Gorgas’ response leaves little doubt – this is the “Long Tom” from the artillery section commanded by Lieutenant Peter C. Hains at First Manassas, which had fired the first shot of the battle, and which was later captured by Confederates.  The Confederate Ordnance Department described this gun, in The Field Manual for the Use of the Officers on Ordnance Duty, as:

The 30-pounder Parrott gun (captured at Manassas) has a caliber of 4.2 inches; weight 4190 lbs.; entire length 132 inches; five grooves.  The wrought iron band at breech is 19 inches in length and 2 inches in thickness.  It is rifled with one turn in 24 feet.

These particulars are important for those track the history of “Long Tom.”  The weight given – 4,190 pounds – was about ten pounds less than standard. The dimensions match, within a half inch here or there, those of Parrott’s specifications. The only major discrepancy is the reported rifling.  Parrott used increasing-pitch rifling.  That indicated in the manual is about twice that specified for Federal use.  Then again, I don’t think anyone climbed down the bore of the gun to verify the rifling.

“Long Tom” had to be one of six of its type received by the Federals prior to the battle of First Manassas.  Of those six, only one survives today – registry number 4, located in Cleveland, Ohio (in Woodlawn Cemetery, if anyone cares to pass along a photo or two). Its weight is reported at 4,175 pounds, ruling it out but offering a comparison figure.  The variation of the weight reported, by the Confederates, for “Long Tom” as compared to the design specification and single survivor of the lot leads to the conclusion that 4,190 pounds was the actual weight of the gun.  The writers of Big Guns, looking at ordnance receipts retained at National Archives, concluded that based on the reported weight, “Long Tom” was registry number 2.

Setting aside for the moment the administrative details identifying “Long Tom,” the gun went to Wilmington to serve in the batteries defending Cape Fear River and covering the blockade runners.  And at least one report indicates “Long Tom” burst like its Confederate cousins.  Colonel William Lamb noted such in a diary entry from December 1864:

December 17 – Bought two dozen eggs at $20.  Came down the river with General Whiting in the Cape Fear.  The Long Tom rifle exploded in Battery Anderson last night.  Went up to see it.  The carriage was torn to pieces and the gun was broken into over seven large pieces.

However, contradicting Lamb’s entry is a catalog of weapons captured by Federals near the end of the war.  General Henry L. Abbot, 1st Connecticut Heavy Artillery, reported that Captain Samuel Hatfield, his ordnance officer, made a complete inventory of weapons captured at Fort Fisher in January 1865.  In that list appears a line for “4.2-inch Parrott (No. 2)” indicated as in “good order.”  A separate line tallied a disabled “4.2-inch banded” rifle.  The nomenclature used on that second line matches the identification of Confederate rifled and banded guns of other calibers listed in the table.

So the indication is that Hatfield inventoried a U.S. gun of the Parrott pattern with registry number 2.  He didn’t offer weights or other details.  However, the circumstantial evidence points to this being “Long Tom.”  Maybe not a water tight conclusion, but strong enough for me.  I conclude that “Long Tom” that opened the action at First Manassas ended up at Fort Fisher at the end of the war.  Unfortunately, the Federals recapturing the gun failed to appreciate its history.  Thus, if you go with Lamb or Hatfield, “Long Tom” ended up on the scrap heap… literally and figuratively.

(Sources OR, Series I, Volume 33, Serial 60, page 1066; Volume 46, Part I, Serial 95, page 167.  ORN, Series I, Volume 11, page 746.  The Field Manual for the Use of the Officers on Ordnance Duty, Confederate Ordnance Department, Richmond: Ritchie & Dunnavant, 1862, pages 20-21.  Edwin Olmstead, Wayne E. Stark, and Spencer C. Tucker, Big Guns: Civil War Siege, Seacoast, and Naval Cannon, Alexandria Bay, NY: Museum Restoration Service, 1997, page 114.)

Lee to Gorgas: Give me good saddles and carbines

I’m always drawn to the little things that show up in correspondence between a commander and his sources of supply or equipment. It’s the old “for want of a nail..” One example of such is a letter from General Robert E. Lee to Colonel Josiah Gorgas, written on June 8, 1863:

Col. J. Gorgas,
Chief of Ordnance, &c. :
Colonel: I reviewed to-day the five brigades of cavalry in this army, forming the division commanded by General Stuart.

My attention was thus called to a subject which I have previously brought to your notice, viz, the saddles and carbines manufactured in Richmond. I could not examine them myself, but was assured by officers that the former ruined the horses’ backs, and the latter were so defective as to be demoralizing to the men.

I am aware of the difficulties attending the manufacture of arms and equipments, but I suggest that you have the matter inquired into by your ordnance officers, and see if they cannot rectify the evils complained of. It would be better, I think, to make fewer articles, and have them serviceable. The English saddles which you import are said to be good. It is the tree of the Richmond saddle that is complained of.

I am, most respectfully, your obedient servant,
R. E. Lee,

I am reminded here of the narrative in Plenty of Blame to Go Around. On the roads to Gettysburg, Confederate horses and troopers alike suffered on those long rides.

What Lee would like to have are saddles like this:

And carbines like this:

By the way, the Sharps Carbine in the picture is part of the National Firearms Museum, which provides some of the weapon’s history:

The buttstock of this carbine is carved “Rappahannock Station Nov. 7 1863″ and was captured from Confederate cavalry forces by Union General John Buford’s troopers at that battle. Rappahannock Station is known today as Remington, Virginia. SN 45479.

So it was a “recapture.” Ah… the Confederacy’s other great source of supply – the Union army!