150 years ago: Wilmington needs a Columbiad

At this time 150 years ago, General P.G.T. Beauregard commanded a large geographic area including South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida.  His “front line” was the coastline, under threat at several points from Federal blockaders and landings.  Several footholds – notably Fort Pulaski and Hilton Head – offered bases from which the Yankees might expand their purchase.

But in the middle of December 1862, Beauregard’s focus turned away from his own command, north to Wilmington, North Carolina. As Major General John G. Foster’s raid towards Goldsborough developed, fears mounted the Federals would turn on Wilmington to close that important port.  Beauregard sent 5,000 infantry and three batteries from his command to reinforce Brigadier General W.H.C. Whiting, in command in Wilmington. The “hero of Fort Sumter” even offered to go forward himself, if needed.

Even as Foster returned to New Bern, Beauregard remained convinced Wilmington was the object of Federal designs.  On December 21, he forwarded a message to General Samuel Cooper in Richmond, saying ,”General Whiting calls urgently for one 10-inch gun.  Send him first one intended for this place.”  Rather generous of Beauregard, especially considering observers at Charleston (which was “this place” referenced in the message) could see increased activity off shore.

Nothing really exciting about Whiting’s request or Beauregard’s referral.  I could find maybe a dozen similar calls for heavy ordnance from the commanders along the coast during the war, if not more.  What I do find of interest is how long it took the Confederate Ordnance Department to fill this request.   At that time only two vendors produced such heavy seacoast guns for the Confederacy – Tredegar and Bellona.  Since Tredegar did much of the boring, finishing, and shipping for Bellona, J.R. Anderson & Company’s files are the best place to look for action on this request.  As best I can determine, the most likely action filling this request was on March 3, 1863.  In a summary of receipts (No. 15 if you are counting) posted on April 8, 1863 lists a 10-inch Columbiad forwarded to Wilmington.

Page 697b

Tredegar records indicate the foundry cast #1766 on February 16 that year.  Tredegar had cast at least five other 10-inch Columbiads between the date of request and the time of casting.  The foundry cast four more before #1766 shipped.   Those “sisters” of #1766 were likewise dispatched to other beleaguered positions around the Confederacy.

So three months after the tactical threat, Whiting at Wilmington received the requested gun.  Sure, it is possible one of the other pieces could have gone to Wilmington sooner, had there been a serious threat.  But then what would the commanders at Vicksburg, Mobile, or other garrisons say to that?  Supply could not meet demand. Here again limited resources impaired the tactical flexibility of the Confederate forces.  Priorities were constantly changing. The Confederate War machine simply could not keep pace.

But as for Wilmington, perhaps Whiting had time to burn.  The Federals were not yet ready to assail Cape Fear.  Not yet ….


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