Photo Examination: 10-inch Mortars at Dutch Gap

In an earlier post, I discussed the 10-inch seacoast mortars in this photo:

The photo is remarkable at several layers.  I suspect the photographer captured work being done in July 1864.  The photo caption carries the caption “Work party and mortars at Butler’s Crow’s Nest.”  That leads me to dispatches appearing in the Official Records (specifically Series I, Volume 40, Part III, Serial 82, pages 23-24) from Captain Alfred Mordecai (this would be the “Junior” and not the more famous father).  On July 5, 1864, Colonel Henry Abbot, 1st Connecticut Heavy Artillery, directed Mordecai to prepare the “Crow’s Nest Battery” with a “Sawyer gun” and a 100-pdr Parrott.  Later that day, Mordecai added that two 10-inch mortars were ready for mounting at the Crow’s Nest.  These dispatches, and the presence of the signal tower in the background, indicate the photo captures work done opposite Dutch Gap, before the famous canal project.

Another photo, this one depicting Battery Sawyer, appears in the Atlas of the Official Records.

The image was part of a report forwarded by Lieutenant Peter S. Michie in a report dated September 1864.  The gun on the parapet may well be a Sawyer gun (a type I have not gotten around to detailing in a post).  The sub-caption reads, “10-inch Mortar Battery.”  While this leaves open speculation as to the exact battery location, at least there is some corroboration.

Mortars at this battery saw action against neighboring Confederate works.  On January 24, 1865, the mortars fired on Confederate warships during the battle of Trent’s Reach.

As for the mortars themselves, thankfully the photo’s resolution allows for interpretation of the markings.  The mortar with the muzzle facing the camera is registry number 7, with a recorded weight of 5800 pounds.

The weight leaves no doubt this is a 10-inch Seacoast Mortar Model 1840 (the Model 1861 in the same caliber weighed significantly more).  There were two vendors producing the Model 1840 – West Point and Cyrus Alger – and thus two possible registry number 7s.  Stephen Vincent Benét inspected the West Point weapons.  Our old friend Thomas J. Rodman inspected those from Alger.  And a close examination of the inspector’s initials on the bottom of the muzzle shows…

… T.J.R.  That means this particular mortar was one of five produced between May and October 1861.  The mortar to the right lends additional evidence for the vendor.

No mistaking that: Boston.  As noted in the earlier article, none of the Alger mortars are among the known surviving pieces today, unfortunately.  But at least this photo verifies the weapon’s existence and use.

The photo also provides a chance to examine the seacoast mortar bed in detail.  One of two officers in the picture was leaning against a mortar bed awaiting its station.

Note the squared bolt heads for the cross members.  Great detail if you plan to rebuild one of these at some point.

But the real interesting part of this photo, in my opinion, is what is going on behind the mortar bed.  Look closely at the workers.

The two men in the center frame were certainly African-American. The men to the left and right (closer to the photographer) were lighter skin, beyond a doubt Caucasian.  Three of the four men in this section have tools in hand.  So does this photo capture a mixed work party of USCT and white troops?   Contrabands and white soldiers?

I’m sure the photographer had some objective in mind when framing this scene.  He wouldn’t waste valuable plates on just some ordinary digging operation, even if he could foresee my excitement at identifying the mortars.  So was it the mortars?  Or was it the mixed-race work party?

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

6 thoughts on “Photo Examination: 10-inch Mortars at Dutch Gap

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