A shortage of guns, but no orders for Noble Brothers

As mentioned in earlier posts, in the winter of 1862-63 the Confederate Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida was desperate for guns capable of engaging the Federal ironclads.  General P.G.T. Beauregard’s command protected several ports of entry for blockade runners, representing the link to Europe.  But competition between projects (ironclad production, for instance) for resources and demand in other theaters for heavy ordnance meant the forts protecting Charleston, Savannah, and other ports were under-gunned.

Most histories point to Richmond, particularly Tredegar, with respect to the bottleneck on heavy ordnance.  But this overlooks other options that Beauregard and the Confederate Ordnance Department sought out.  With the fall of New Orleans, Nashville, and Memphis, several private manufacturers with at least the potential to produce heavy ordnance were lost.  And at this critical time of the war the Selma Naval Ordnance Works was just getting organized.  However at least one firm in Georgia had, on paper, the ability to meet the need for heavy ordnance.

I’ve mentioned Noble Brothers & Company, of Rome, Georgia, a few times with respect to field ordnance (6-pdr guns, 3-inch rifles, and 12-pdr howitzers in both bronze and iron).  But the firm also sought, and was sought out for, heavy ordnance contracts.  In April 1862 the firm delivered a battery of 8-inch howitzers to the state of Georgia for use at Savannah.  Noble Brothers began series production for the Confederate government at that time.  Situated in proximity to iron deposits in Alabama, the firm appeared ready to compete with Richmond’s gun maker.

But a series of events removed Noble Brothers from the picture.  In late April-early May, Colonel Abel D. Streight’s raid threatened Rome and disrupted work schedules (some of the facility’s workers were part of the local militia defending the city and foundry).  In August, a fire starting in a nearby rifle factory damaged some of Noble Brothers’ factory.  But those were but minor issues compared to what happened in October 1862.

While passing through on other business, Maynadier Mason, a representative of the Ordnance Department, stopped to inspect the Noble Brothers’ cannon manufacturing process.    Mason noted the castings used metal of poor quality, describing it as “white” and of weak strength.  But he withheld comment at the time. Later, Mason witnessed sharp disagreements when Captain L. Jaquelin Smith, the local ordnance officer, related specific instructions about gun carriages.  One of the Noble brothers said that, “all ordnance officers were fools and jackasses and that Smith was one of them.”

First Page of Mason’s letter – “the fools and jackasses report”

Mason indicated that Smith backed away from confrontation.  Mason,  intervening to aid Smith, became the target of the Noble’s anger. The Nobles apparently “worked over” Mason badly, as he complained of being bedridden for several days to recover.


Part of the Noble brother’s anger towards Smith may have stemmed from the ordnance officer’s earlier dealings with Noble Brothers.  In the summer of 1862, Noble Brothers & Company was working to produce columbiads.  The month prior to the “jackass” comment, Smith had informed Colonel Ambrosio J. Gonzales, chief of artillery in Charleston, of delays securing the requested columbiads.  Gonzales echoed that in an inquiry to Colonel Josiah Gorgas in Richmond:

I am directed by the major-general commanding to inclose to you the accompanying letter from Lieutenant Smith, and to say that as the complement of heavy guns promised for this department cannot be had from Rome, you have the goodness of providing them from Richmond, over and above the 10-inch columbiads which are to come from there. I have the honor further to state that it is the wish of General Beauregard, who has not yet assumed command, that the guns you supply from Richmond in lieu of those expected from Rome, Ga., be 10-inch instead of 8-inch columbiads, in view of the formidable character of the iron-clad ships preparing for the attack of Charleston.

If Smith informed Gonzales that Noble Brothers couldn’t deliver the guns, he had a reason.  I would speculate that Mason’s “while I’m here” inspection of the facilities was not just happenstance. There’s enough circumstantial evidence, particularly given Mason’s alarm about the metal quality, to say Noble guns were not measuring up to Smith’s inspections.  And of course Smith would have reported such to the Ordnance Department.

The hostile treatment and poor quality control did not set well with authorities in Richmond.  Colonel Josiah Gorgas suspended payment to Noble Brothers until the matter was worked out.

Page 7a

Although the Noble Brothers apologized for the altercation and offenses, the firm’s standing with the Confederate government suffered.  Although the firm continued to deliver pig iron and other materials, no cannons came from the Noble Brothers after that time.  In May 1863, the firm wrote Gorgas about five 8-inch siege howitzers on hand and ready for delivery.

Page 23

Gorgas’ response appeared on the cover for this note.  He said the howitzers were probably made with cupola iron and would not be received. (Lesson learned here with respect to the Confederate Citizens Files – always look at the cover sheets!)

Page 22

There were other concerns beyond just the “jackasses” comment and bad quality control.  Several of the Noble brothers had unionist leanings (although apparently not enough to prevent them from accepting Confederate money).  I’ll save that aspect for another day… and to Robert’s favorite research topic, this does involve a rejected claim for compensation).

The Confederate government later acquired some of the Noble Brothers & Company equipment. I will say “acquired” as some might consider it outright confiscated, with compensation.  That too is a longer story deserving a separate post.  The equipment went to the Confederate owned works to continue supporting the war effort.

In retrospect, even during the height of the war with the Confederacy so desperate as to impress old English guns into service, one could not call a Confederate officer a “jackass” without certain repercussions.


3 thoughts on “A shortage of guns, but no orders for Noble Brothers

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