150 Years Ago: A star rises from the Federal Ranks

On January 30, 1862, Major General Henry W. Halleck, commanding the Department of Missouri, issued orders setting in motion the capture of Forts Henry and Donelson.  As every Civil War student knows, Halleck placed Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant in command of the expedition.  This effort, supported by a naval force under Flag-Officer Andrew Foote, generated the first major victories for the Federals.  Within weeks, the interior of Tennessee lay open to the Unionists.

Typical for Halleck, the order provided details of the selected troops, particulars of the enemy’s (suspected) disposition, and suggestions for movement.  But there’s one sentence in that order which deserves note, as it marks the arrival of a new actor who would figure prominently as the war in the West progressed:

Lieutenant-Colonel McPherson, U.S. Engineers, will immediately report to you, to act as chief engineer of the expedition.”

A 1853 graduate of West Point, McPherson attended alongside notable class-mates John B. Hood, Philip Sheridan, and John Schofield.  After graduating at the top of his class, McPherson went on to teach at West Point for a while.  The eve of war found him supervising construction of fortifications at Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay, California.  Transferred eastward, McPherson was assigned to Halleck’s staff in late 1861.  When Grant needed an engineer for the expedition, Halleck forwarded McPherson.

It was a fortuitous assignment in many ways.  After the fall of Fort Henry, McPherson mapped out the roads east to Fort Donelson, making several reconnaissances.  At Fort Donelson, McPherson continued to provide able service.  Later in the campaign, McPherson supervised placement of new siege lines on ground gained in the evening of February 15.  On the following morning, Grant could press his famous ultimatum in part because of McPherson’s work.  For this and later work on Grant’s staff, he received notice… and promotion.

McPherson was a star on the rise.  By the end of the year he was a Major General in command of the Seventeenth Corps.   He lead that Corps in the Vicksburg Campaign, showing great ability, particularly in the siege operations.  By the spring of 1864, McPherson commanded the Army of the Tennessee, as General William T. Sherman prepared to drive on Atlanta. McPherson’s star had reached its zenith.   McPherson would not complete that campaign.  He was shot by Confederate skirmishers during the Battle of Atlanta on July 22, 1864.

Of McPherson’s death, Sherman related,

History tells us of but few who so blended the grace and gentleness of the friend with dignity, courage, faith, and manliness of the soldier…. the country generally will realize that we have lost not only an able military leader, but a man who had he survived, was qualified to heal the national strife which has been raised by designing and ambitious men.

Privately to his wife he wrote, “I lost my right bower in McPherson.”

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James Birdseye McPherson’s name is in the news today.  More so because of the location his men, the veterans of the old Army of the Tennessee, chose to honor him.   But 150 years ago today, he was a star on the rise.


Fort Moultrie Cannon Row Upgrade Project

Earlier today the staff at Fort Sumter National Monument updated the Fort Moultrie album on Facebook with new photos from the ongoing “cannon row upgrade” project.

Fresh Paint and New Mounts for Cannons

Fort Moultrie has a unique set of Civil War era guns.  I’ve featured several of the guns here on the blog.  For many years those guns sat on wood beams, just inches above the sand.

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Part of Cannon Row at Fort Moultrie

While the staff kept the exterior painted and generally free of corrosion, the bores suffered from exposure (and the trash of some unappreciative visitors).

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Bore of 10-inch Rifled and Banded Columbiad

The restoration and new mountings are part of a project started last year.  According to a press release from July 2011, four guns were removed and repainted as part of a larger park-wide project to address the historic metal artifacts around the park.  Scientists from Clemson University’s Warren Lash Conservation Center collaborated with the NPS staff.

In the process, the guns are stripped of old paint, then refinished with a modern industrial sealant.  Each gun receives a tampion to cover the bore.  The staff will periodically check a monitor placed inside each gun bore for humidity readings, in order to arrest further corrosion.  When refurbished, the guns return to “cannon row” on new concrete pads.   The park also plans to update the older interpretive signage along cannon row as part of this project.

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Example of the Present Interpretive Signs

Great work!  This project ensures those cannons are able to “tell” their stories to visitors for many generations to come.

The Most Widely Produced Rodman Gun: 10-inch Rodman

If production figures are any measure, the Army felt the 10-inch Rodman was the most important element in the nation’s seacoast defenses during and immediately after the Civil War.

The first ten 10-inch Rodmans came out of Fort Pitt Foundry between September and October 1861.   Based on circumstantial evidence, these were likely cast to the original Rodman design with ratchets and preponderance on the breech.  None of these survive today.

Fort Pitt Foundry continued producing 10-inch Rodmans in the spring of 1862.  But these guns received registry numbers from a fresh sequence.  Some of those low registry numbers exist today and feature sockets on the breech for use on the new elevation system.  Without checking the balance of the guns, I think it safe to assume these have no preponderance on the breech.

Fort Pitt delivered 689 more 10-inch Rodmans before production ceased in March 1867.  Earlier I featured Fort Pitt registry numbers 156 and 182 in a comparison with a Confederate “revised pattern” Columbiad at Fort Moultrie.

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10-inch Rodman - Fort Pitt #156

I offered a pretty fair “walk around” in that post, so I will send those interested in that direction.  But I would mention one variation seen among the hundreds of Fort Pitt Rodmans – the shape of the sockets.

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Breech Face of Fort Pitt #182

The guns at Fort Moultrie have squared sockets. But look at this Rodman over at Fort Monroe, Virginia.

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Breech Face of Fort Pitt #457

However Fort Pitt number 457, produced in 1865, has rounded sockets.

The breech face to the left of the sockets is rusty.  This gun had a bronze range table fixed to the breech face, at least up until the 1950s.  The screw holes are still visible.

The gun’s muzzle has many layers of paint, but enough of the particulars show through to make a positive identification.

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Muzzle of Fort Pitt #457

In addition to Fort Pitt, three other source produced 10-inch Rodmans. West Point delivered two 10-inch Rodmans in June 1862.  These may have been experimental castings, because the registry numbers, 1 and 2, were repeated when the foundry resumed production in July 1865.  West Point continued production through March 1867 with a total of 184 cast including the duplicate numbers.

Cyrus Alger didn’t deliver its first 10-inch Rodman until late in 1863.  Over four years, the foundry delivered monthly batches, never exceeding a dozen.  All told, when production ceased in March 1867 the Boston foundry had cast a total of 176.

The Scott Foundry, operated by Seyfert, McManus & Company in Reading, Pennsylvania, delivered 242 from October 1863 through April 1867.  The company’s total deducted a handful of condemned guns.

The total number of 10-inch Rodmans produced, including the ten “prototypes” and those in post war years, tallied over 1300 guns.  That exceeds the number of 12-pdr Napoleons or 3-inch Ordnance Rifles produced in the war.  One could say the weight of metal tipped towards what the Army considered its primary mission – seacoast defense – even during the Civil War.  The 10-inch Rodman was one of the most, if not the most, widely produced American muzzle loading cannon.

One last note on Fort Pitt number 457.  Today it stands outside the old post headquarters building.

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Fort Pitt #457 - "Old Number 40"

For years after the Civil War the gun was among the armament of the Water Battery on the bay side of Fort Monroe.  The gun received the nickname “Old Number 40” many decades ago due to its position in the battery.  The gun remained there until 1906 when engineers demolished most of the Water Battery while placing new fortifications.

“Old Number 40” tells the story of a long serving, even if long obsolete, weapon system.

Improved for Production – Standard 8-inch Rodman, or Type II

Earlier I mentioned this gun at Fort McHenry and misidentified its registry number:

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8-inch Rodman, Type II - Fort Pitt No. 64

This gun is actually Fort Pitt Foundry number 64.  In the same battery, behind it to the left is registry number 57.  Fort Pitt cast both guns in 1865.  For reasons I elaborated on in the previous post, I feel it proper to call these guns “Type II” due to changes introduced after the first sixty-five 8-inch Rodmans.

After the 15-inch Prototype trials, Thomas J. Rodman modified the basic gun design in order to improve handling.  The modifications replaced the older ratchet and pawl elevating system with a socket and bar system. This change required the gun to have zero preponderance on the breech.  So the second batch of Rodman rifles had trunnions moved just over an inch to the rear.  And to engage the elevating bar, these later 8-inch Rodmans had eight sockets on the breech face.

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8-inch Rodman, Type II - Fort Pitt No. 57

While the one inch displacement of the trunnions is difficult to ascertain, the presence of squared sockets on the breech is a clear indication of a Type II 8-inch Rodman.

Markings for these guns followed the established U.S. Army practice.  In the photo below, those read:  8480 lbs. // S.C.L. // * // 1865 // Fort Pitt PA. // * // No. 57.

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Muzzle of Fort Pitt #57

Translated, this gun weighed 8480 pounds when inspected by Stephen C. Lyford in 1865 and assigned Fort Pitt registry number 57.

Its mate, also inspected by Lyford, differs only in weight.  Number 64 was lighter at 8440 pounds.

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Muzzle of Fort Pitt #64

These two guns were among a production run of 100 produced by Fort Pitt between May 1863 and August 1865.  The Seyfert, McManus & Company, operating the Scott Foundry in Reading, Pennsylvania, delivered forty-eight from July 1864 to June 1865.  Cyrus Alger delivered no 8-inch Rodmans despite having open orders for the weapons.  Including the sixty-five 8-inch Type I Rodmans  from Fort Pitt and West Point, all told the Army received 213 Rodmans in this caliber.

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Two 8-inch Rodmans with a 15-inch Rodman at Fort McHenry

So after rushing the first version of the 8-inch Rodman into production at the onset of war, the Army curtailed purchases within the first year.  Production resumed in the middle of the war.  However deliveries of the 8-inch caliber never reached that of the 10- or 15-inch Rodmans.

Ordnance tallies in 1872 mentioned a total of 197 of the 8-inch Rodmans in arsenals and forts around the country.  By 1891 the fourth edition of the Manual of Heavy Artillery rated the 8-inch Rodman as in service, but not of the system – perhaps a delicate way of saying the Army had a lot of obsolete guns in service.

Uranium Mining: A Battlefield Preservation Threat?

Uranium mining became a topic for Virginians starting in 2007.  At that time a corporation with interests in uranium deposits announced plans to reopen a mine in Pittsylvania County.  Currently Virginia bans uranium mining statewide (dating back to 1982).  But with the market for that energy source on the rise, some are calling for re-examination.

I’m somewhat a fence-sitter on this issue for now.  My knowledge of the metal is mostly handling processes for depleted uranium as used in military applications.  Perhaps that taints my opinion a bit.  But I’ll keep an open mind and my opinions to myself.

However there is one potential impact of mining activity which I can assess from my fence rail – disruption of battlefield lands.  Here’s a map from the Piedmont Environmental Council showing potential uranium sites in Virginia:

(Apparently PEC moved that map.  I would instead direct you to their article providing an introduction to uranium mining in Virginia.)

Yes, Virginia is blessed with a lot of the uranium.  But allow me to highlight the “former mining leases” in the upper part of Virginia.  Here’s a map of the Piedmont showing  the locations of those former uranium mining leases.

Former Uranium Mining Leases in the Piedmont

On the right of the map is the Potomac River.  To the northeast (upper right) are the outskirts of the Washington, D.C. metro area and Fairfax.  The red areas indicate uranium deposits which were considered accessible in the early 1980s before the ban was in place.  The concentration extends from just south of Warrenton to the southwest past Orange.

Within or at least adjacent to those former lease areas are the Rappahannock Station (one and two), Brandy Station, and Cedar Mountain.   Of course looking at the broader area of potential impact, there’s Fredericksburg-Spotsylvania and Manassas battlefields.  Certainly preservationists should keep an eye on the discussion about Virginia uranium.

Cedar Mountain should not become a “Cedar Creek.”

40 Years of Preservation in Staunton, Virginia

An article about preservation in Staunton, Virginia caught my eye earlier this week.  Historic preservation is much more than just battlefields:

40 Years: Preserving Staunton’s History

STAUNTON — Downtown Staunton is rich in history, unique and charming, the kind of place that makes long-time residents proud to stay and also attracts new investment and residents.

But it wasn’t destined to be that way; it took a group of dedicated and relentless citizens.

That was the theme of the Historic Staunton Foundation’s annual meeting Sunday night at Blackfriars Playhouse, where members celebrated 40 years of preserving Staunton’s architectural history.

“Staunton, Virginia, 40 years ago had a downtown that was really shuttered up,” said Frank Strassler, executive director of the foundation. “Business was leaving quickly.”

It was then, 40 years ago, that the foundation formed to oppose the Virginia Department of Transportation’s plan to build a four-lane highway where the Wharf District is, displacing property that now supports more than a dozen businesses and destroying the train station designed by T.J. Collins, Staunton’s most renowned architect.

Today, not only is the Wharf District thriving, but the foundation has worked with the city and property owners to preserve more than 1,000 historic buildings in and around Staunton, establish five registered historic districts and bring in $50 million in downtown and neighborhood investment directly related to historic preservation…. (Read more)

The article goes on to mention an exhibit, at the R.R. Smith Center for History and Art, entitled “1971 to 2011: Forty Years of Preservation Success.”  Using paintings and blueprints the exhibit provides a timeline of preservation in Staunton.

These are the stories I like to hear. Had the original VDOT plan been executed, it may have attracted a few new businesses to the town.  But it sounds like Staunton kept a little of its heritage and charm, yet still attracted a few businesses!



“Newfangled Gimracks”: The Cutting Edge Technology in Combat

A friend on Facebook passed along this article from the New York Times Disunion Blog:

The Union’s “Newfangled Gimcracks”

In late December 1861 Abraham Lincoln issued a directive that, had it been vigorously pursued, might have brought the Civil War to a rapid end: An order, via Gen. James Ripley, the Army’s ordnance chief, for 10,000 Spencer repeating rifles. Because Ripley resisted the order for months and did nothing to help put the rifles into volume production, initial deliveries didn’t start until about a year and a half after Lincoln first tested the rifle. Consequently, Union soldiers had to fight with less efficient weapons, handicapping them and greatly lengthening the bloody conflict.  …. Read more.

I figure most readers have heard this line a few times before.  Certainly one of the “what if’s” that are pushed around in light conversation.   As the article points out, several inventors had advanced small arms ready for use at the start of the war, with Spencer, Henry, Sharps, and Burnside mentioned.  But none were in wide scale use or ready for mass production.   But simply vilifying General Ripley (or conversely General Gorgas on the other side) for pushing back on the Spencers is overlooking the broader picture.

A similar situation arose with artillery at the start of the war.  I’ve chronicled the Rodman story, but recall from the latest post that production of the type started slowly and only kicked in halfway through the war.  While everyone knew rifled cannon were the “next big thing” only a handful were around in April 1861.  And none were in regular production.    Then there were the five, the somewhat conservative from a weapons standpoint, Napoleon light 12-pdr then in service.  Of the “big three” field artillery weapons – the Ordnance Rifle, the Parrott, the Napoleon – wide-scale production didn’t start until the second half of 1861.  And I’d argue none of those “big three” offered a transformative improvement over the decades old 6-pdr.  After all they still loaded the same way through the muzzle!

Like the small arms, several inventors offered breechloading cannons.  Several domestic sources breechloaders reached trials during the war, but by far the most famous of the type were English Whitworths.  That weapon offered a transformative improvement with its long range and accuracy.

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2.75 inch Whitworth at Gettysburg

Yet Charles Knap would relate in testimony to Congress, “It is a perfect thing to show the state of the art, but for actual service, in my opinion, it is not worth carrying into the field.”  The knocks against the Whitworth included troublesome breech mechanism with poor sealing, unique ammunition, heavy carriage, and light projectile payload.  But the most damning problem lay with the “people” side – drill and acceptance.  That fine English breechloader required special drill for the crew.  Training times were easily triple that of the muzzle loaders, in part due to the weapon’s rarity but also because of complexity of the weapon.  Furthermore, to some seasoned, veteran artilleryman of 1861 that breechloading mechanism was just… wrong.

Be it a repeater or breechloading cannon, the ordnance officers cited concerns about serviceability and reliability.  The new weapons featured moving parts… many moving parts… compared to the simple muzzle loaders.  Beyond the crew drills mentioned above, these new weapons required some changes to doctrine in order to take advantage of the capabilities.  And doctrine changes are not simply seasonal rotations!

Military history is full of examples where a technologically advanced weapon cannot be introduced due to practical considerations.  Indeed often “yesterday’s” weapon sees service well beyond its obsolescence.   Consider the production and service longevity of weapons like the Curtiss P-40 or the M4 Sherman.  In both cases, better weapons existed while production continued full scale.  Authorities feared a break in deliveries incurred if new designs entered production.  Better to have large stocks of a weapon the troops know how to use than tying fortunes to slowly increasing quantities of untried and unfamiliar weapons, even if technically more advanced.

On the other side of the scale, there are many examples of weapons introduced to combat too early.  While today considered a battleworthy weapon, the early variants of the AR-15/M-16 fared poorly (tragically) in Vietnam.  Many of the light machine guns introduced in World War I failed in the trenches.

But while we chide the Ordnance Department for being slow to adopt those “newfangled gimracks,” keep in mind the weapons and improvement those officers did advance – such as the minie ball and Boreman fuse.  While neither changed the basic weapon system, arguably both transformed the battlefield.   So let’s not be so hasty to complain about Ripley or Gorgas!