Tatham’s Canister… and some connections

You may have noticed on occasion we find listings for Tatham’s canister in the ordnance summary statements:


The columns are exclusively canister.  And even more selective, only for calibers associated with James Rifles or the modified, rifled 6-pdr field guns – 3.80-inch and 3.67-inch respectively.  Though I would point out the later shared a bore measure with Parrott 20-pdrs and Waird 12-pdr rifles…. but let’s not wonder down that path… yet! When I started reviewing the summaries, Tatham’s name looked familiar but I didn’t draw many connections.  I knew it from association with ordnance contracts.  But the column header elevated the name on par with those of Hotchkiss, Dyer, James, Parrott, and Schenkl.  So what did Tatham invent? The Tatham in question here is actually a family.  Brothers in fact. From a “Domestic Engineering” Quarterly Index, dated 1910:

 The Tatham Brothers began to make lead-pipe in 1840. The original members of the firm were: Benjamin, Henry B., George N., Charles B. and William P. Tatham.  Chas. B. and Benjamin Tatham were the managers of the New York branch. They made the best lead-pipe ever known, guaranteeing to make it any length, whereas the plumber making his own lead-pipe on shapes or forms, and soldering down two seams, could only go fifteen feet.  Tatham & Bros. bought up the plumbers’ forms, and they had no difficulty in getting pipe short or long as desired….

Yes, plumbing with lead pipes… back in the old days. The article went on to point out the Tathams also had substantial works in Philadelphia, specifically, “On Windmill Island, in the Delaware river, the Tathams had a smelter where they refined various kinds of ores as well as lead.”  Furthermore, at the New York City location the brothers built a shot tower, in the 1850s, to produce lead shot.

The Tathams, being industrious folk who were sensitive to their revenue stream, also secured several patents.  In 1859, Charles B. Tatham received Patent No. 23,202 for an improvement to shot making:


Basically an improved melting pot making the process more efficient and easier to control.  The “point of order” here I’d offer is the Tathams were serious about lead shot.  They were ready to meet substantial orders.

And the Tathams kept up with advances in military technology.  Round musket balls were out… minié balls, were in demand… so Charles patented a better system for casting conical lead bullets:


In short, we see a mold into which molten lead was poured into the trough marked “B”.  Inside the mold were cores, marked “C”, mounted on “D”, a bar.  After cooling, workers opened the mold by pulling the bar up with the cores.  Then the finished bullets fell out, complete with the required cavity.

The exhibits thus far go to show Tatham & Brothers were part of that grand Federal War Machine.  But what about artillery projectiles?  We start with a contract dated November 6, 1861, forwarded by Lieutenant Colonel William Maynadier (whom we’ve met before):

Sir: Be pleased to send to Colonel J. Symington, United States arsenal, Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, twenty-five hundred (2,500) canister shot for James’s rifle gun, (3.80 bore.) As soon as 500 are completed turn them over to United States quartermaster, New York, (No.6 State street,) for transportation.

This contract was let to “Mr. C.B. Tatham, 82 Beekman Street, New York.”

Consider the responsible officer here, John Symington, who was at that time working to supply ordnance to western armies.  So that takes us to some of the western battlefields. Jack Melton’s website on artillery and projectiles has a short entry on canister projectiles for James rifles, in which he describes:

A James Canister Pattern I sabot was used for the base. The placement of the tin sheeting over the lead sabot was an attempt to keep the lead from fouling the grooves of the rifled cannon during firing. The majority of James canisters have been recovered from Shiloh and Fort Pillow, Tennessee.

The tin sheeting used is notable here.  Other canister for rifled guns used other arrangements.  It is not enough for me to directly link the canister rounds found at Shiloh to Tatham.  But it is a reasonable speculation.  Perhaps the Ordnance Department gave Tatham’s a set of columns on the summary because of the unique construction, as well as the source.  Though I don’t see that any of the Tatham brothers secured a patent for such.  If there are readers who might shed light on this, would appreciate a comment below!

There were more orders for Tatham’s canister early in the war.  Other Ordnance Department documents indicate quantities of 3.67-inch (which we see in the column header), 2.9-inch/10-pdr Parrott, and 2.6-inch / 6-pdr Wiard.  Most references to the Tatham canister are associated with western arsenals or units.  Again, this may indicate the Tatham projectiles employed a unique system or construction.  Or this simply may be an acknowledgement of the vendor.

Beyond just supplying munitions, the Tathams were privately very active in support of Federal efforts.  In 1861, Charles was on a committee aiding the organization of the 58th New York.  Later in the war, both Charles and Benjamin supported relief efforts for the contraband camps.

Just at the end of the war, in June 1865, the Tathams wrote to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton in regard to a curious business negotiation.  The firm of Arthur Shepherd & Co. approached the Tathams with an order of materials for work in Richmond, Virginia.  The Tathams wrote,

The parties whose card is enclosed desire permission to receive from us lead pipe and shot lead.  These articles being contraband under an order from your department, the Secy. of the [Treasury] declined granting a permit until .. your order upon the subject.  If you can give the permission we think it perfectly safe.

The matter was referred to Major-General Henry Halleck and the request was apparently granted. What makes this interesting, to me at least, the physical reconstruction of the South at the early date.  Further goes to indicate the Tathams were well acquainted with high officials at the War Department.

So we know the Tathams were active in the war effort.  The next question would be if any of their factory, particularly in New York which is linked to munitions, exists today.  The address given was  82 Beekman Street.  A bill of sale from 1852 has artwork showing the dockside portion of the New York facilities:


The shot tower came later in the 1850s.  A December 18, 1856 article in the new York Tribune described it so:

It will be 2147 feet to the peak from the foundation, which is laid on a level with Ferry street.  It is octagon in form, and composed of sections of iron columns, fluted on the outside – the space between filled in with brick, laid in cement.  Each of these columns rests upon a massive brick foundation, being anchored to a weight of thirty tons, each weight connected by inverted arches with its fellows.  The columns of each section are joined by iron girders, bolted with 1 ¾ inch bolts. The total weight of iron employed in the construction of this tower is 237,000 pounds. During the strong winds recently there was no vibration perceptible more than a hundred feet above the foundation.

Looking to an 1867 “Bird’s Eye” street map of New York City, we see what must be an artist rendition of the tower and the Tatham facilities:


The point of reference to follow here is the wharf numbered “69” in the lower center.  That’s Fulton Ferry.  From there walk inland and up to Beekman Street where the Tathams’ address is.  We see a prominent tower… or is that a smoke stack?

Don’t know about you, but I won’t be satisfied unless I see a photograph.  A real photograph that will show the tower … OK…. how about this one?


That should be the Tatham shot tower on the right.  Oh… and there in the distant left is the Brooklyn Bridge.  The photo must be dated to before the end of the 19th century.  The shot tower suffered a couple of fires in the early 20th century and was removed in 1907.

This post has wondered far afield now!  So let me close by showing what the Tathams’ New York street address looks like today:


Queue the “Gangs of New York” music… things have sure changed in 150 years.


Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

3 thoughts on “Tatham’s Canister… and some connections

  1. The Tatham billhead illustrates their Philadelphia building. In New York they were located on Water Street (perversely, it is not on the water in the 1840s) until they purchased the land for the 80-82 Beekman Street factory in 1851. That building was completed c. 1854 and the shot tower, which was behind it, was completed c. 1856. As far as I know, the Tathams had no involvement with the drop-shot business until the tower was built. It closely followed the McCullough shot tower, completed by the same architect a year earlier. There is some evidence that McCullough was co-operating with the Tathams in the late 1850s. I believe the Tathams may have been Quakers, if so, it seems odd they entered the munitions business.

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