Monthly Archives: March 2012

“Land Between the Rivers” Iron Ore: An irreplaceable loss to the Confederacy

When we think of the “twin rivers” campaign of early 1862, the most obvious result noted is the opening of river corridors directly into the Confederate heartland.  Indeed access to the Tennessee River allowed Federals to outflank the “Gibraltar of the West” at Columbus, Kentucky and reach down to the northern borders of Mississippi and Alabama.   But there was more than just real estate changing hands.

In the mid-19th century a fledgling iron industry grew in a belt extending from western Kentucky through central Tennessee.  Other than coal, all resources needed for iron production were found near the surface, with little need for deeper extraction mining.  Furnaces in the area used the charcoal-fire method, just as seen in Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania to the east.

Stewart County, in which Fort Donelson lay, is a good example of the iron industry within this belt.  A marker standing in Dover today notes the locations of some twenty-three furnaces and forges inside the county operating during the 19th century (not all within the Civil War years of course).  Taken in context, raw iron production in the county was substantial – roughly 7% of the output of the entire U.S. in 1854.

In addition to the Cumberland Iron Works in Stewart County, the proximity of these furnaces to the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers offered ample routes to market pig iron.  Just upriver from Dover, ironworks at Clarksville and Nashville used Stewart County iron.  When the war broke out, one of those works, T.M. Brennan & Company, turned to cannon production.  Brennan delivered over seventy field pieces between November 1861 and February 1862. But beyond those local production facilities, the Stewart County iron could easily feed ironworks elsewhere given a decent railroad system.  Or perhaps a better way to put it, the iron might PROVIDE the means to strengthen a limited rail system.

But with the fall of Fort Donelson in February 1862, the Confederacy lost this source of iron.  The loss of this “land between the rivers” iron caused irreplaceable damage to the Confederate war effort.

There is another aspect of this story which we should also consider.  The iron industry of the time was labor intensive.  Yet western Tennessee and Kentucky were not populous areas.  A significant portion of the labor force was slave.  Over four-hundred slaves worked the Cumberland Iron Works in 1859.  In the years before the war, the Great Western Furnace temporarily closed due to a slave insurrection. Indeed, the iron industry of Stewart County demonstrates that slavery was not “on its last legs” as some would have you believe.

Now with the arrival of Federal forces, what happened to that labor force?  How many fled to freedmen camps?  How many, perhaps, joined the USCT?

Friday ‘splodey: Live fire 13-inch mortars

It is my fantasy that some unknown, old rich uncle out there passes away and leaves a sizable fortune in a Swiss bank.  When that happens, I’ll go to Paulson Brothers and ask for “one of each.”

Until then, here are some videos, from the 1990s, of a live fire of a Paulson Brothers reproduction 13-inch mortar:

In the earlier post I mentioned problems with friction primers.  Again, not that they weren’t used, but the gunner had to be particular where he stood lest the primer pull out when the lanyard was pulled.  Post-war, several measures came into practice to improve the primer seating. But I cannot tell from the video if those were used with this live fire.

One firing appears to be with an uncharged shell.  Others seem to be with a live shell exploding near or at the ground.  You do get a sense of the “hang time” of a mortar round.  Reminds me of the “shot over” – “shot out” – “splash over” – “splash out” radio dialogs from my time in service.

Notice the flames and sparks spewing everywhere in the night fire.   That’s sure to make the neighbors a bit nervous!

Shells, Carcasses, and Fireballs: Projectiles for the 13-inch Mortars

The majority of projectiles fired by 13-inch mortars, or for that matter any mortar during the Civil War, were shells.  Practice and regulations allowed an array of other projectiles.  But for reasons of practicality, the shell was the most important of the lot.

A standard regulation 13-inch shell measured 12.67-inches in diameter.  Shell walls varied between 2.25 and 1.95 inches thick.  A fuse hole, which narrowed from 1.8 inches to 1.485 inches in diameter, provided the opening for filling the shell and fixing the fuse.  The shell weighed 197.3 pounds empty.  Inside, the shell held up to 11 pounds of powder, although only 6 was needed to burst the projectile.  The “ancient” term used for mortar shells was “bomb.”  While nomenclature practice moved to “shell” by the Civil War, but one encounters “bomb” in some accounts from the period.

In order to handle this ponderous sphere, two “ears” about seven inches apart allowed leverage for a pair of shell hooks.  Now according to the 1862 manuals, two men – each holding one arm of the shell hooks – carried the shell from the ammunition box to the mortar.   By 1884, the Army was a bit less demanding, and the drill allowed for four men to carry the shell.

In the older mortars, with their sub-caliber chambers, the crew simply loaded powder bags or lose powder  into the cup formed by the chamber and seated the shell into the rounded bore bottom.  For the “new” Model 1861 pattern mortars which lacked the sub-caliber chamber, the crew spread the powder bags at the bore bottom.  Twenty pounds of powder was sufficient to propel the 13-inch mortar shell.

As they loaded the shell, the crew tapped a wood fuse into the fuse hole.  These wood fuses were tapered cones with a hollow inside filled with “composition” consisting of nitre, sulfur, and powder.  The standard 13-inch fuse measured 10.8 inches.  The exterior of the fuse had graduated lines to allow “cutting” for the appropriate length corresponding to seconds of fuse burn.  Obviously, longer fuses allowed longer burn time and thus time of flight before the shell burst.

Crews had to take care placing the fuse and then handling the shell.  If the crew-member hammered the fuse too vigorously, he might cause a spark or otherwise ignite the shell.  Furthermore, when the crew seated the shell, the fuse had to face the top of the bore.  Otherwise the force of the propellant charge would drive the fuse in and cause a premature explosion.  In short, if you worked a mortar crew, it was safety first, second, and third.

Although the 13-inch mortar could use standard friction primers, a problem arose with their use.  At the angles the gunner would pull the lanyard, the friction primer might pull out or fail to ignite the charge.  Instructions authorized the use of matches and loose powder, just like the old days.  Even the 13-inch mortars had a small pan around the vent.  Matches presented a different set of problem.  Aside from having a burning ember around all that powder, the light tended to give away the mortar’s position to the enemy.

When the mortar fired, the flame of the propellant would catch the fuse’s composition on fire.  However this was not always reliable.  In some cases the crews left a trail of powder, on a moistened line on the shell exterior, down to the side.  The powder trail would flash up to the fuse, making the ignition a bit more reliable.

A well placed and serviced 13-inch mortar could reliably drop shells onto enemy positions over 4500 yards distant.  Time of flight to that range was around thirty seconds.  If timed right, the fuse ignited the bursting charge a few hundred feet off the ground.  But even then the bursting charge scattered fragments in an inconsistent pattern. If the shell burst after hitting the ground, it often sank and mitigated the effects even more.  Still the shell was sufficient to keep an enemy under cover and gun crews away from their weapons.

A better option for strict anti-personnel use would be a case shot.  By the book no case shot existed for the mortar.  But by 1864 the Federals experimented with 10-inch mortar shells loaded with 6-pdr solid shot.  Once the shell burst, natural terminal velocity of those solid shot was enough to kill a man.  The dispersion of this mortar case shot was a predictable 30 degrees from the point of bursting.  Some of these projectiles, for 10-inch mortars, were employed in the siege of Petersburg (and played a role in the Battle of the Crater).  Post-war the Army refined the 13-inch case shot.

Some accounts mention grape-shot for mortars.  But the Army’s ordnance instructions do not list particulars for the 13-inch weapons.  From a practical standpoint, high angle grape-shot fire would seem to be of little use anyway.

Technically, a solid shot for the 13-inch mortars existed.  But its use outside trials is unknown. In earlier periods, there is mention of “hot shot” from mortars, but this was not practical for a 280 pound 13-inch projectile.

Another ancient projectile type, the carcass, offered some incendiary effect.  The carcass was basically a hollow shell filled with a flammable material, be that some sort of pitch or the infamous Greek fire.  Small holes at the top of the carcass allowed the payload to ignite when the mortar was fired.  By the Civil War, the Army discontinued service use of carcass projectiles. These things were difficult to handle… not to mention dangerous.

While technically a pyrotechnic, another type of projectile offered limited incendiary effect.  Described in the manuals as “fire-balls,” these consisted of a canvas bag loaded with a shell and explosive composition.  The entire assembly was coated with pitch.  When loaded, a metal base separated the fire-ball from the propelling charge.  When fired, as with standard shells, the flame touched off a fuse.  At some point above the enemy position, the fire-ball ignited and provided illumination.  Certainly not as dependable as modern flares, but better than nothing perhaps.

A similar projectile, called a “light-ball,” lacked the shell.  The mortar crew could fire the light-ball closer to friendly lines without fear of injury… or at least lesser fears of injury.

Setting aside the novelty of mortar case shot, carcasses, fire-balls, and light-balls, it was the shell which the 13-inch mortars fired most often.  At places like Island No. 10, Fort Pulaski, the forts below New Orleans, and Yorktown, the artillery commanders hoped the 13-inch mortar shells would keep the enemy under cover, reduce counter-battery fire, and blast holes in the fortifications.  Those intended effects, however, proved somewhat elusive in practice.

Bottom of the barrel? – Confederate use of old mortars

I’ve written much in the past about Castillo de San Marcos (or Fort Marion if you prefer) at St. Augustine.  The fort boasts a fine collection of colonial-era ordnance worth hours of examination.

Castillo 2 Aug 11 765

Since I’ve been on the mortars lately, let me belatedly mention a sesquicentennial anniversary of sorts, marked by this particular artifact.

Castillo 2 Aug 11 768

This old bronze mortar sits upon an accurate reproduction mortar bed of the type used in the 18th century.  The mounting system changed a little by the time of the Civil War, but not much. A quoin in front of the mortar, resting upon a cross piece, provides elevation.

I’ll avoid identifying this weapon by caliber and model, in deference to experts in colonial artillery.  I’ve looked in vain for a proper catalog of the weapons at the Castillo.  I know it is a light mortar, so I’ll leave it at that.

Castillo 2 Aug 11 766

Perhaps experts in this field will identify the piece given the crest and name on the scroll.  These markings are typical of Spanish weapons found on this side of the Atlantic dating to the colonial period.

But what brings us back to the Civil War is an inscription on the muzzle.

Castillo 2 Aug 11 770

At the top the inscription reads “Captured at Fernandina, Fla. //by  Rear Adm. DuPont. // February __, 1862.”  The date is somewhat obscured by a scratch.  It appears to be a two digit date.  A late February date would coincide with operations to occupy Fort Clinch on the north end of Amelia Island.

Now was this an example of the Confederates using an antique weapon because nothing else was available? As impractical that might have been, the Confederates did press old weapons into service during the war.  (At some point I need to discuss a “banded and rifled” English gun of 1700s vintage.)  So I could see this mortar used at some less important point, where little was expected or needed.

Or did the Navy simply pick up an old trophy weapon and re-purpose it to honor their nearly effortless seizure of a southern port?  You know how sailors are….

A bit more about Island No. 10

The second of my posts on Island No. 10 is up at the Civil War Monitor’s Front Line Blog, so please click over and check it out.

And while you are clicking, check out this post at Vince’s excellent Lancaster at War blog.  A first hand account from a navy mortar crew-member on the river.  Which dovetails in to my next few posts about those big mortars!


Island No 10 009

View across the Mississippi at Island No.10 (the Island is now part of the Missouri shore in the distance)


My personal take on relic hunting

At least two or three times a year, I have cause to think about the practice of Civil War relic hunting.  Usually when a story about some “digger” who’s done the hobby a great disservice hits the news cycles.  Perhaps with some nudging from the sesquicentennial, there’s been a few stories on the wire lately.

Really, I try to be a fence sitter on this issue.  But it is a hard call.

In some ways I can relate to the desire to know what is buried beneath.  And certainly I can relate to the desire to piece together the Civil War story that has escaped us over the generations.  And of course there is the fact that most “diggers” are interested in Civil War history just like me.

On the other hand, there are many arguments for just leaving things where they lay.

One reason behind battlefield preservation is to set aside the land for later generations – not just for battlefield tours but also for research.  That research often takes the form of archeological excavations.  As Andy Hall recently pointed out, there is much to learn from a proper examination of the artifacts left on a battlefield.

Another reason we preserve the battlefields is out of respect for those who fought there.  The belt buckles, cartridge box plates, sabers, and bullets didn’t get on the field by themselves.  In some cases, the men who carried those items there are still there.  As if we need a reminder, recall a few years back the discovery of the remains of a soldier on the well-known grounds of Antietam.

Yet we all know there are plenty of places that aren’t preserved, that probably should be.  Living in the “seat of the war” and one of the nation’s fastest growing metropolitan areas, I’ve seen the bulldozers move over historic sites.  I’ve walked over construction sites and found, while walking the sites to personally assess the land being transformed, three musket balls just laying on ground torn up by the dozers.  No fancy equipment needed… just walk through and pick them up.  Personally I have no need for some reliquary or shrine to satisfy my Civil War itch.  I’d rather see the artifacts on display in a museum.  So I gave those items to the respective local historical organization.

In some ways I can understand a “digger” who’s one step in front of the dozers.  Heck, I actually hope the guy finds something important!  Perhaps so important that it causes the development to pause for some serious investigation. Honestly so many of those sites deserve better examination. I hear a lot of relic hunters lamenting the artifacts left in the ground as “looting by leaving” or some similar phrase.  I really don’t see that.  Archeologists still pull Greek and Roman artifacts out of the ground, so I think we have plenty of centuries before our Civil War sabers disappear to oxidation.  There’s always time for a proper recovery of the artifacts.

The deadline we face is that of the developer’s schedule, not deterioration.  I’d love to see more “diggers” step forward with information about artifacts found in front of the construction equipment.  I’d love to see them help make a case for smart development with respect to the historical sites…. and then join in with the full examination of the site by proper excavation.  After all, it is about the history isn’t it?  Nobody makes money off those corroded bullets right?  (And to be fair, that is what has happened in Stafford County, Virginia.)

But beyond that line, delineated by the developer’s stakes, I can’t understand the zeal to go digging up on land that is already preserved – either inside an established park, set aside by a preservation organization, or even within a preservation easement.  Even worse, why would anyone dig up a known grave site?

h/t to Harry.

Evolution of the Big Mortars: 13-inch Mortars Model 1861, Part 1

Yesterday I discussed the classifications of mortars used in the Civil War period.  Today I’ll focus on the largest of the “heavy” mortars – the 13-inch Model 1861.  Due to employment, this mortar fits into two of those classifications – seacoast and sea.  So let me provide a brief history of the type and some of the particulars (saving details about the ammunition, operations, and service history for later posts).

The Americans used 13-inch caliber mortars in the Revolutionary War.  Among the siege weapons used at Yorktown in 1781 were 13-inch bronze mortars. Along with many other colonial vintage weapons, these soldiered on through the War of 1812.  However in 1818, the caliber failed the cut when an Ordnance Board established the first true system of American artillery.1 On the other hand the Navy retained, at least for contingencies, the 13-inch mortar.  However after the Barbary Wars, the Navy had little need for mortar armed “bomb” vessels.2

During a revision of the artillery system in 1839, the Army reconsidered the 13-inch caliber for seacoast mortars.  The Ordnance Manual of 1850 included specifications for a 13-inch heavy mortar as part of the patterns of 1841.  The pattern called for a weapon 53 inches long, with a 39 inch deep bore (including chamber), that weighed 11,500 pounds.  Range tables credited this mortar with a maximum of 4325 yards firing a 200 pound shell propelled by a 20 pound charge.3  However only one of these were ever produced.  The Army had the second of two on contract bored out to 12-inch caliber instead (credited with a 4625 yard range).4   The Army did not contract for series production of either caliber, leaving these weapons only as experimental types.

Because the Army had standardized the 13-inch caliber, when the Ordnance Board revised the artillery system for 1861, a new pattern of the type emerged.  Indeed all the Army’s mortars received a pattern update.  The chart below provides the particulars of those weapons from 8-inch to 13-inch.5,6

Just as with other “Model 1861” weapons, the 13-inch mortar offered a more refined design.  Internally, matching the evolutions of Rodman’s heavy guns, an elongated hemisphere replaced the traditional sub-caliber chamber used on previous mortars.  The exterior had only functional moldings which help explain how the weapon was served by the crew.

To start with, unlike larger guns, the mortars didn’t have a cascabel or knob.  So on the top of an otherwise clean barrel, the 13-inch mortars had a lifting lug to aid handling.

McNair 10 Apr 10 184

Lifting Lug on 13-inch Mortar at Fort McNair

At the breech end, where other artillery types had a knob, the Model 1861 series mortars had elevating lugs.

McNair 10 Apr 10 185

Elevating lugs on 13-inch Mortar at Fort McNair

Although design diagrams show lugs inside a raised strip, all surviving examples I’ve seen are exposed as those seen above. In operation, an elevating bar, fed through an “eye” of an elevating post, engaged the lugs.  Much like the system used on the larger Rodman guns.

Fort Moultrie 3 May 2010 603

Elevating post with retaining bolt (Fort Moultrie)

Each 13-inch mortar had two vents.  Why?

McNair 10 Apr 10 180

Vents on 13-inch Mortar at Fort McNair

The dual vent was due to the lack of bouching on these weapons. Per Army specifications, the foundry drilled the left side vent through to the chamber.  But they left the right side vent incomplete stopping one inch from the chamber.  When the left side eroded with use, it was filled with zinc.  At that time the ordnance crews drilled the right side complete.7

To handle the 200 plus pound shells, the carriages included a gibbet (somewhat a double entendre there) or post, as seen on the examples at Charleston’s White Point Gardens.

Charleston 4 May 10 018

13-inch Mortar at White Point Gardens

The markings on 13-inch mortars are at times frustrating.  As per regulation, the registry number, foundry, year of manufacture, weight, and inspector stamps appear on the muzzle.

Fort Moultrie 3 May 2010 605

Weight Stamp on 13-inch Mortar at Fort Moultrie

As you see in the photo above, those were not scaled out to take advantage of the ample muzzle face.  Often these were only lightly stamped and easily eroded away.  Thus even with several quality photos of mortars like the “Dictator,” historians have trouble identifying specific mortars by registry numbers.

Fort Pitt, the sole manufacturer of the 13-inch mortar, placed the foundry tracking number in raised numbers above the right trunnion.  On many survivors, this is the only easy way to identify a specific weapon.

Fort Moultrie 3 May 2010 602

Foundry Number of Fort Moultrie's mortar

Then again, even that raised number disappears from some mortars.

Charleston 4 May 10 013

Missing Foundry Number on a Charleston Mortar

Thankfully, the number appears frequently enough to aid identification and interpretation.

Charleston 4 May 10 008

Foundry number 680 at Charleston

Foundry number 680, today at Charleston’s White Point Gardens, was among the first batches of 13-inch mortars from Fort Pitt.  It received registry number 22 and was credited in January 1862.

Charleston 4 May 10 007

13-inch Seacoast Mortar, Fort Pitt #22

Given the early reception of this particular mortar, there’s a high likelihood it saw some action in the spring of 1862 – Island No. 10, Fort Pillow, New Orleans, Fort Pulaski, or Yorktown.

If only the mortar could speak….



  1. Birkhimer, William, Historical Sketch of the Organization, Administration, Material and Tactics of the Artillery, United States Army  (Washington:  James J. Chapman, 1884), Pages 275-279.
  2. Tucker, Spencer, Arming the Fleet: U.S. Navy Ordnance in the Muzzle-loading Era (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1989), pages 107-109, 143.
  3. U.S. War Department, The ordnance manual for the use of officers of the United States Army (Washington: Gideon & Company, 1850), pages 7 and 364.
  4. Edwin Olmstead,  Wayne E. Stark, and Spencer C. Tucker, The Big Guns: Civil War Siege, Seacoast and Naval Cannon (Alexandria Bay, NY: Museum Restoration Service, 1997), Appendix C163, page 261.
  5. Data for the chart assembled from:
    1. U.S. War Department, The ordnance manual for the use of officers of the United States Army (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Company, 1862), page 18.
    2. Tidball, John C., Manual of Heavy Artillery Service (Washington: J.J. Chapman, 1884), pages 145-166.
    3. Olmstead, et. al., Appendices C118, C146, C257, and C164; Pages 239,  255, 257, and 261.
  6. There is a discrepancy seen between the length of trunnions specified in the Ordnance Manual and those on surviving examples.  Surviving 8- and 10-inch mortars have 3.25 inch lengths, while the 13-inch have 4.5 inch trunnions.
  7. Tidball, page 36.