Ordnance to repel the Ironclads: Eason Brothers and the arms buildup in Charleston

There’s a tendency, as one considers the Civil War from a high level, to consider Charleston, South Carolina as a “backwater” after the start of the war.  Yet hardly a day went by from the fall of 1862 to the Confederate evacuation in 1865 which didn’t see some military activity.  Several important battles – Secessionville, the Ironclad Attack, Battery Wagner, and reduction of Fort Sumter to name a few – took place in what was the war’s most protracted “siege” as the Army and Navy conducted joint operations against the Confederate defenders.  Geography and operational considerations prevented campaigning on the scale seen elsewhere.  But the South Carolina low country was far from a “backwater” in the flow of the war.  Indeed, in the closing days of January 1863 activity at Charleston would step up.

At the end of 1862, the Federals began a concentration of ironclad ships along the South Carolina coast.  The Federals planned to use these to clear some of the smaller fortifications – Fort McAllister in Georgia and the defenses of Cape Fear in North Carolina – before concentrating on Charleston.  But the Confederates saw these iron monsters as a direct threat to Charleston.  The situation called for large bore rifled guns, such as the vaunted Brooke Rifles.  But those being in short supply (and high demand across the Confederate coast), General P.G.T. Beauregard, commanding the Department of South Carolina and Georgia, sought expedients as alternatives.

An inventory of the guns around Charleston from September 1862 demonstrates the lack of heavy weapons then available.  Arrayed about the harbor, and including landward facing defenses on James Island, the defenders had a total of eight 10-inch columbiads, three IX-inch Dahlgrens, twenty-seven 8-inch columbiads, six 8-inch Navy guns, eleven 8-inch seacoast howitzers, twelve 42-pdr guns, sixty-seven 32-pdr guns, and fifty-one 24-pdr guns.  As for large bore rifled guns, the defenders had six rifled 42-pdr guns, fifteen 32-pdrs, five 24-pdrs, and one 18-pdr.  All of these were modified smoothbores, with rifling and in many cases reinforcing bands added.  Although many of these modifications were done in Richmond, the Charleston firms of Eason Brothers & Company and Cameron & Company also provided these services.

Clearly this was inadequate – in both quantity and caliber – for Charleston’s needs.  Beauregard pressed Richmond authorities for more heavy caliber guns, particularly rifles.  But as noted in other articles, that source was slowly catching up with the need.  In Charleston, Beauregard faced a small bureaucratic problem.  In late November 1862, Brigadier General Roswell S. Ripley, commanding at Charleston, arrested Major Frederick L. Childs, of the Charleston Arsenal, on charges for “refusing to fill a requisition.”  Ripley insisted that Childs sat upon several banding components rather than issue for the improvement of the smoothbore weapons.  This unfortunate episode meant that, just as Charleston’s defensive preparations needed more attention, internal friction delayed action.

Regardless of the delays, Eason & Brothers managed to supply a few additional refurbished, rifled, and banded guns through January, as indicated on receipts in the Confederate Citizens files.

Page 30

About halfway down the receipt is a listing for rifling a “42-pdr double banded gun.”

Page 30b

The double banding probably alluded to the stacking of bands, as seen on many contemporary Brooke rifles.  No surviving gun matches that description. But readers will recall this weapon presently at Kingwood, West Virginia.

Kingwood 24 Jul 10 351
42-pdr Seacoast Gun, Tredegar manufacture, banded and rifled by Eason Bros.

The gun itself was cast by Tredegar.  Records claim the stamp on the right trunnion included the year “1861.”  If correct, this was among the guns produced by Tredegar prior to the outbreak of war, for sale to seceding states.

The band was added later.  A stamp on that band leaves no doubt as to who performed that work.

Kingwood 24 Jul 10 357
Breech and Band Stamps on 42-pdr

The wrought iron has eroded away somewhat.  But the initials “J.M.E. [&] BRO” still stands out.  While several other banded 42-pdrs have associations with Charleston, this one has a clear link to Eason & Brothers.

In addition to updates – arguably marginal updates – to otherwise obsolete guns, Eason provided a substantial amount of projectiles for these guns.  Other receipts from January 1863 show the firm provided solid shot for rifled 42-pdrs, 32-pdrs, 24-pdrs, and 12-pdrs.

Page 28

James M. Eason, Brothers, and Company were an important component to the Confederate buildup defending Charleston at the end of 1862 and start of 1863.  The arms and ordnance provided by Eason would be tested in the days and months to come.