August 19, 1864: “Receipt of heavy cannon by this department is insufficient” and the Ordnance Department wants more Rodman Guns

A theme I have researched for many years is wartime cannon production, on the Federal side, and how that reflected defense policy more so than wartime needs.  While the Confederate side of the story is largely “not enough capacity, make what we can,” the Federal side is much more complex.

One might guess, without consultation of the figures, that field guns would be in high demand during the war, with large numbers rolling out of the foundries throughout the war.  But the actual figures for weapons accepted by the Army point to a more complex story.  Field gun production dropped off after the second quarter of 1864, with no further Napoleon 12-pdrs accepted.  On the other end of the scale, production of large caliber weapons for seacoast defense increased greatly throughout the war.  Yet the Federals faced no direct, immediate threat of seaborne attack.  Only distant threats from Confederate raiders and ironclads… or the potential of European involvement.

On August 19, 1864, correspondence from Brigadier-General George Ramsay, Chief of Ordnance, to the Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, provide some insight into the emphasis on heavy guns.

Sir: As the present receipt of heavy cannon by this department is insufficient for meeting the wants of the country, I desire to present for your consideration certain facts connected therewith, showing the propriety and importance of increasing the supply up to the maximum capacity of our iron foundries. As communicated to you in my letter of the 31st of December, 1863, the number of 8-inch, 10-inch, and 15-inch Rodman guns required for the proper armament of our fortifications on the coast and frontier is estimated, from the best data attainable, at 4,918. The capacity (Army share) of our foundries for this class of guns, in addition to their other work, was stated in the same letter at 612 for the year 1864, at which rate it would take seven years to produce the quantity required.

With no mention of a single Confederate threat, what are we to consider for the definition of “wants of the country”?  Certainly, as seen with requests for Rodman Guns at points like Pensacola, there was a need for such heavy weapons at points under threat of Confederate raiders.  Less threat, however, was present at far flung locations as California where more Rodmans were wanted.  The Army figured a need for nearly 5,000 of these guns to defend “the coast and frontier.”  And we have no mention here of a threat from the Confederates.  Ramsay’s letter is less about beating the guys in gray and more so about national defense policy.

Ramsay pressed to make sure the nation’s coastal defenses were well armed.  And at the rate guns were being accepted, he worried that would take many long years:

The following table exhibits the deficiency in the number of these guns expected to be received in the present year to date, and based on the estimated capacity of the founders engaged in the manufacture:


And why was the Army behind in equipping the forts?

This deficiency is chiefly attributable to the fact that in consequence of the high prices asked by Messrs. Charles Knap & Co., C. Alger & Co., the principal founders, it was not deemed advisable by the War Department in March last to accede to their terms, and such guns as they have delivered in the present year were due on order given prior to January 1, 1864.

Messrs. Seyfert, McManus & Co., of Reading, Pa., accepted a contract for seventy-five 8-inch and 10-inch guns at 10½ cents per pound, which they have nearly filled. We are now paying 13 cents a pound for 8-inch siege mortars and howitzers.

Not only did Ramsay want to spread the work among multiple vendors, he also wanted to engage in what we’d call today “fixed priced contracting” as a measure to block profiteering and benefit to the government:

I inclose a memorandum from the Navy Ordnance Bureau showing the prices now being paid by them for heavy guns. As the magnitude of the work is such as will require years to execute it, and as its accomplishment is of vital importance to the defense of our harbors and sea-ports, I think no time should be lost in expending the money appropriated by Congress for the armament of fortifications, in order to avoid any further rise in the price of material and labor; and I request that I be authorized to make contracts for a definite number of guns to be delivered in specified times, and on the most favorable terms I can negotiate after due investigation, to be approved by you. As the want of a Government establishment of this kind makes us entirely dependent upon private parties, whose capital and experience enables them to exercise a monopoly of this kind of work, I consider the interests of the Government will suffer far more from the interruption in the supply of guns than from any dubious excess in the gains of the manufacturers.

Now there is a bit of a back story involving politics at the Ordnance Department.  I’ll offer the short version, as most readers are no doubt more interested in the guns themselves than bickering among cannon inspectors.  Ramsay was not on good terms with Stanton.  When he took the post of Chief of Ordnance in September 1863, Captain George T. Balch, whom Stanton preferred, was the de facto chief in many respects.  Within a month of this letter to Stanton, Ramsay would request to be relieved from the post.

But the friction between Ramsay and Stanton aside, the fact of the matter is heavy ordnance production increased substantially through the last year of the Civil War.  Those guns were not purchased with a mind to aid in the suppression of a rebellion.  Instead these were procured for “the wants of the country” as defined in engineering surveys of the coastlines.  The Civil War saw Federal military expenditures on a level never seen before in the United States (and at a level not exceed for another half century – during World War I).  And a substantial amount of that expenditure was to ensure the nation’s defenses were brought up to a healthy state… while the Congress was willing to keep writing the checks.

(Citation from OR, Series III, Volume 4, Serial 125, pages 626-7.)


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