The Basher from Liverpool – Blakely Rifle at Fort Sumter

On April 9, 1861 (yes 150 years ago today), Governor Francis Wilkinson Pickens wrote the Confederate Secretary of War LeRoy Pope Walker regarding a recent arrival at Charleston:

…There has just arrived on the bar a fine rifled cannon from Liverpool, of the latest maker (Blakely gun), an improvement upon Armstrong, of steel rolls or coils, with elevation of seven and one-half degrees to a mile.  It throws a shell or twelve-pound shot with the accuracy of a dueling pistol, and only one and one-half pounds of powder.  Such, they write me, is this gun, and I hope to have it in position to-night.  We expect the attack about 6 o’clock in the morning, on account of the tide…. [OR, Series I, Volume 1, Serial 1, page 293.]

Within a short time, Confederates placed the gun in the “Point Battery” (known as “Battery No. 1” by the Federals) on Morris Island, under the command of Captain J. P. Thomas.  This particular cannon was unique among those at Charleston not only being the only rifled gun in place but also the only foreign made piece.  Southerners in London at the time of secession purchased the Blakely as a gift to South Carolina.

Blakely at Morris Island, from Harpers' Weekly, May 18, 1861

The gun was the product of Captain Alexander Blakely, Royal Artillery, and among several similar weapons produced starting in 1855.  I cannot hope to improve upon the coverage of Blakely’s life and products than the presentation given on the Captain Blakely website.  In brief, Blakely designed rifled, composite construction guns, a rifling system, and projectiles.

Novices will proclaim Blakely’s banding system similar to Parrott or Brooke.  But detailed examination of the patent description demonstrates Blakely’s emphasis on metal tension to support construction of the rifles.  Blakely specified metal bands of different tensile strength in a particular order during the construction of the gun.  And Blakely’s bands consisted of “hoops” instead of rings or coils as seen on other banded guns.  Perhaps semantics at play, one might say.  But I would stress the patent office at the time noted the difference.

Blakely rifling, at least for the early guns, consisted of “hook-slant” or ratchet grooves instead of the flat type seen on Parrotts or James rifles (and other familiar types).  Projectiles featured a flange or ridge to conform to the grooves, with a copper sabot at the base.

There is some discrepancy with regard to the caliber of the gun used at Charleston.  In his 1865 Treatise on Ordnance and Armor, Alexander Holley noted the particulars as:

  • Total length of gun – 84 inches
  • Length of Bore – 73.5 inches
  • Diameter of Bore – 3.5 inches
  • Diameter of Cast Iron under the Hoop – 9.1 inches
  • Maximum Diameter of Hoop – 12.1 inches
  • Length of Hoop – 22.2 inches
  • Diameter of Muzzle – 6 inches

However, other reports indicate a bore diameter of 3.75 inches.

Presence of the plaque (seen in the Harper’s illustration above) leads many historians to identify a gun presently at Grant Park in Galena, Illinois as the Blakely in question.

The Sumter Blakely - courtesy Civil War Album

This particular piece measures 3.75-inches in bore diameter, but is reported as worn. So perhaps the answer to that trivial question remains open for interpretation.

Of the Blakely’s use in the battle, Major P.F. Stevens, commanding the batteries in that sector of the Confederate line, wrote, “the rifled cannon being but limitedly supplied with ammunition could do little, but its few shots were skillfully directed by Captain Thomas.” [OR, Series I, Volume 1, Serial 1, page 48.]  On the receiving end of those rifled projectiles, Captain John Foster noted with alarm the accuracy of the Blakely along with penetration of eleven inches (equal to that of 8-inch Columbiads).

A higher endorsement came from General P.G.T. Beauregard in correspondence to Secretary Walker, “We have a remarkable rifled cannon, 12-pounder, superior to any other here.  Others aught to be ordered.” [OR, Serial I, Series 1, Volume 1, page 316.]  And more were ordered.