150 Years Ago: Tredegar wanted block tin for Xmas

On December 5, 1862, well before the battle of Fredericksburg, General Robert E. Lee voiced his displeasure about the artillery types supplied to his Army.  In a letter to Secretary of War James Seddon, he wrote:

During the past campaign I have felt, in every battle, the advantages that the enemy possessed over us in their artillery.  This arose in part from their possessing more experienced artillerists and better prepared ammunition, but consisted chiefly in better guns.  These advantages, I am happy to state, are gradually diminishing.  Our artillerists are greatly improving, our ammunition is more carefully prepared, and the efficiency of our batteries increased by guns captured from the enemy.  I am greatly in need of longer range smooth-bore guns, and propose that, if metal cannot be otherwise procured, a portion, if not all, of our 6-pounder smooth-bores (bronze), and, if necessary a part of our 12-pounder howitzers, be recast into 12-pounder Napoleons.  The best guns for field service, in my opinion, are the 12-pounder Napoleons, the 10-pounder Parrotts, and the approved 3-inch rifles.  Batteries composed of such guns would simplify our ammunition, give us less metal to transport, and longer and more accurate range of fire.  I urgently recommend to the Department the consideration of this subject, and that measures be immediately taken to improve our field artillery.  The contest between our 6-pounder smooth-bores and the 12-pounder Napoleons of the enemy is very unequal, and, in addition is discouraging to our artillerists. …

Lee went on to request four Napoleons immediately, along with 20- and 30-pdr Parrotts.  Again, this request came just before the battle of Fredericksburg.  Lee would get a few of the requested items.  But the problem was the Ordnance Department simply did not have the requested guns.  In response to Lee’s request, Colonel Josiah Gorgas offered agreement but cited the shortfalls:

I respectfully inclose copy of circular sent to all our arsenals, showing that I have already, some time ago, given orders which will meet the views of General Lee.  Recently Messrs. J.R.A. & Co., of the Tredegar Works, have been directed to work night and day to prepare guns of this description.  I have requested Colonel Baldwin, chief of ordnance of General Lee, to send down old guns to be recast.  In the mean time, however, we shall send to him these guns as fast as they can be made. None are now on hand.

Gorgas attached a note which directed production focus on 12-pdr bronze Napoleons along with 10-, 20-, and 30-pdr Parrotts of iron.  The directive, of course, only pertained to field guns, with larger caliber seacoast guns of several calibers still authorized.

Yet for all this “working day and night” Tredegar was only able to add four Napoleons, one 10-pdr Parrott, and four 20-pdr Parrotts during the month of December.  The foundry’s focus in the months prior were towards heavier seacoast and naval guns.  The production line took time to shake out for the new requests.  (Although I’d point out Tredegar produced eight Parrotts in the closing days of November, for good measure.)

One problem facing Napoleon production was raw materials.  Bronze, as used for casting guns, was an alloy of copper, tin, and zinc.  The Confederacy had none of these in great quantities (but the Yankees did!).  Earlier in the war the Confederate gunmakers turned to bells or even bronze intended for sculptures.  But calls went out from every gunmaker for more materials.

On Christmas Eve 1862, Colonel Thomas S. Rhett, ordnance inspector, intervened on behalf of Tredegar to request tin.

Page 570

Messrs J.R. Anderson & Co. are much in need of Block Tin to be used in casting Bronze Guns. Please inform me how much you could furnish them.”  The request is addressed to Major W.S. Downer in charge of the ordnance depots.  There is a small notation at the bottom – “3 or 400 lbs now“.  This may indicate what Tredegar wanted or, more likely, the quantity available from the depots.  (And this is why I like to see the digital copy of the original – transcriptions would miss this detail, and often you wouldn’t see it if reviewing the original in room lighting.)

Regardless of the supply of tin, within a month Tredegar needed more raw materials.  In a message dated Jaunary 23 or 24, 1863, the firm spoke for itself on the matter and asked to have more obsolete bronze guns fed into the pit:

Page 590

We are pushing ahead the Napoleons bronze guns & have remelted nearly the whole of the old Guns.  We will require at once either Copper or more old Guns.  We have some tin on hand & an order for more.”  So more old guns cycled from Lee’s batteries to Tredegar to become bigger guns in preparation for the 1863 campaign season.

On Christmas Day, 1862 outside Fredericksburg, General Lee and the artillerists of the Army of Northern Virginia might have welcomed a few shiny new bronze Napoleons under the tree.  But in Richmond, Joseph R. Anderson would have been ecstatic over a few carloads of copper and tin.

(Citations of Lee and Gorgas from OR, Series I, Volume 21, Serial 31, pages 1046-47.)


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