“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?

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

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

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