Gorgas: “The waste of ammuntion at Charleston … is a grave error”

Throughout September of 1863, General P.G.T. Beauregard and Confederate Adjutant General Samuel Cooper carried on correspondence about the ordnance and munitions used at Charleston.  Cooper related several criticisms voiced in Richmond.  President Jefferson Davis worried about the high expenditure of ammunition.  To which Beauregard said those rates were “but the only way of retarding the enemy’s operations.”  When authorities raised eyebrows about the alarming number of burst guns, Beauregard assured them “the quality of their metal sufficiently explains the accident….”  Firing back, figuratively speaking, Beauregard countered that faulty fuses had also increased ammunition expenditures during the siege of Morris Island.

None to happy, Colonel Josiah Gorgas, Confederate Chief of Ordnance, responded to Beauregard on October 3. The failures of the guns, Gorgas felt, was not due to bad castings or metal.

The bursting of the heavy rifled guns is not sufficiently explained by the character of the metal, as General Beauregard supposes. The cast-iron of these guns was entirely satisfactory, and their premature destruction is due to the constant heavy charges with which they have been fired.

He went on to touch a sore point – the failed 12.75-inch Blakely Gun:

But the same excuse cannot be made for the bursting of the 600-pounder imported Blakely gun. The destruction of this formidable gun was due to the want of forethought, unpardonable in an officer as experienced as General [Roswell] Ripley….

Gorgas went on to mention successful experiments, just reported that very day.  Those indicated, with charges of 30 to 55 pounds fired at a 2° elevation, a 470 pound projectile would reach 1 ¼ mile.  That is provided the powder charge was seated in front of the bronze air chamber!

On the charge of faulty fuses, Gorgas noted that in response to earlier complaints his department had forwarded 5,000 new fuses.  He then complained no reports from Charleston contained details of the defects, just complaints of failures.  He cited one of his officer’s observations:

I have already examined the subject of fuses, and have reported to General Beauregard all that I could ascertain. The complaints of officers are so indefinite–merely saying that the fuses were “bad,” without any specification–that little could be learned from them. My own opinion, after careful examination and testing of various fuses, is that the fault is with the officer and not with the fuse.

Gorgas went on to mention carelessness in operations that lead to inaccurate firing and thus wastage.  Instead of new fuses, Gorgas suggested the officers in charge of the guns provide the Ordnance Department with information about the defects of arms and ammunition.

Gorgas saved his greatest criticism for the wastage of munitions.  In particular he pointed out a recent 21-gun salute fired in honor of the victory at Chickamauga. “As to the consumption of munitions of war, which is the main point under discussion, I have only to say that if permitted to go on at the rate of the last three months, the supply of powder must necessarily fail.”  He went on to enumerate the expenditure of powder between the first of July and the end of September:

  • 128,000 pounds – cartridges for 13,000 projectiles fired.
  • 22,000 pounds – Charges for 7,000 shells
  • 40,000 pounds – lost with evacuation of Morris Island
  • 10,000 pounds – wasted or damage during packing or due to exposure

The rounded total was 200,000 pounds of powder over the span of three months.  Gorgas recorded that only 150,000 pounds of powder remained on hand in Charleston. To further supply Charleston would put a bite into the powder supplies needed by the field armies.

Recall that after the April 7, 1863 ironclad attack, Beauregard cautioned his subordinates about inaccurate and wasteful fires.  The restocking of munitions after that one afternoon of action took months. Now, after three months of operations at an unprecedented scale, Beauregard had scarcely two months supply of powder for his guns.

No coincidence that on this day (October 7) in 1863, orders went forward to the gunners.  General Ripley restricted the “fire of our batteries bearing upon Morris Island to 50 shot or shell per day in the aggregate, excepting upon extraordinary occasions.”

No more ceremonial salutes at Charleston.

(Gorgas’ letter is in OR, Series I, Volume 28, Part II, Serial 47, pages 388-9;  Reference of Ripley’s orders appear in the Journal of Operations in Charleston Harbor, OR, Series I, Volume 28, Part I, Serial 46, page 142.)

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

3 thoughts on “Gorgas: “The waste of ammuntion at Charleston … is a grave error”

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