A trip to Europe, looking at foundries: The 1840 Ordnance Commission

Last week’s post about foreign 6-pdr field guns was a “resource” post, if not an outright setup posting.  Sort of a background discussion leading me up to some points about European cannons and influences upon American designs.  What I am leading up to is this cannon:

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This cannon marks the battery position for 8th Indiana Battery at Chickamauga (Viniard Field).  At first glance this looks like any old bronze 6-pdr.

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Liège…as in Belgium.

And there’s this bit of service history proudly displayed on the muzzle:

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This weapon’s history takes us back to the end of the 1830s when Joel Roberts Poinsett was Secretary of War.  Aside from introducing the poinsetta to the United States, Poinsett had a very active life as a public servant – Congressman (1821-25), Minister to Mexico (1825-29), and Secretary of War (1837-41).  And, standing apart from many of his fellow South Carolinians, was a strong unionist during the Nullification Crisis.  So Poinsett is an interesting fellow to say the least.

As Secretary of War, Poinsett was a reformer.  In brief, Poinsett proposed many changes to the system of regular and militia forces, aiming for more formality and standardization.  At the low end of reforms, Poinsett pressed for new manuals and better weapons.  But at the high end, Poinsett wanted concentrated Army garrisons, summer training maneuvers that incorporated the militias, and expanded weapon manufacturing facilities.  Some of these reforms got through Congress.  But those on the high end didn’t.

Looking specifically at artillery, the Poinsett years are marked by a series of model numbers for field artillery, easily traced with the history of the 6-pdr guns – Models 1838 and 1840 along with the Model 1841.  And in-between were many experimental types.  Much debate among ordnance officers, and with Poinsett himself, in those days as the Army struggled to find a suitable field piece (arguably, much of that because the Army wanted the “perfect” field piece).

This came to a head in March 5, 1840, when Poinsett wrote the Ordnance Board that he was “…not satisfied that the corps, collectively or individually, posses that practical knowledge which the importance of the subject, both to the country and the reputation of the corps, would seem to require.” Very damning assessment from the boss.  But Poinsett didn’t just call out a problem, he also brought a remedy.  On March 16, Poinsett sent a letter instructing the Ordnance Department to detail a commission of three officers, and one civilian, on a trip to Europe with the mission of gaining the said practical knowledge.  In his letter of instruction, Poinsett wrote:

In the first place, it will be the duty of the board to acquire, as far as may be practicable, all practical knowledge which actual observation may afford upon the following objects, viz:

  1. The process of moulding and casting iron and brass cannon.

  2. The nature of the iron ores and pig metals used, and the treatment of the metal before and during the casting.

  3. The kinds of copper and tin used, and the proportions composing the metal for guns.

  4. The description of furnaces, and the kinds of fuel used in them.

  5. The modes and regulations for the inspection and proof of iron and brass cannon.

These broad objectives meant the board needed to gather information about the process of cannon production from the mines up to the foundry and out to the field.  Continuing with the instructions, Poinsett also authorized the purchase of samples:

The board will likewise obtain, by purchase, iron and brass guns, according to patterns which they are authorized to establish, in numbers sufficient to form a few field batteries; and they will give as much of their personal attention to their fabrication as time will allow, taking specimens of the metals in proof bars, of suitable dimensions for the necessary experiments and tests.

It is that paragraph which authorized the purchase of the cannon pictured above.

The commission consisted of Major Rufus Lathrop Baker, Captain Alfred Mordecai, Captain Benjamin Huger, and former ordnance officer, William Wade (who maintained partnership in a foundry in Pittsburgh, which later became Fort Pitt Foundry).   After spending the summer and much of the fall in Europe, the board returned to provide a very lengthy, detailed report. No doubt, that detail served to impress upon Poinsett that the desired “practical knowledge” was indeed obtained and retained.

In the report, the board provided a full accounting of all purchases.  Specific to the 6-pdr types, there were:

  • Two 6-pdr American pattern field guns, of iron, from Gospel Oak works, Birmingham, England.
  • Four 6-pdr American pattern field guns, of iron, from foundries in Sweden.
  • Two 6-pdr American pattern field guns, of iron, from the Liège, Belgium foundry.
  • Four 6-pdr American pattern field guns, of bronze, from the Liège, Belgium foundry.

Of that last quartet, two were cast in clay.  The other two cast in sand molds.  As you can see, the secretary’s intent was carried out.  There were sufficient 6-pdrs to outfit three batteries.  And that’s just the light field guns, not counting the heavier 12-pdr field guns and howitzers also purchased at the same time.

These weapons were, as alluded to in the letter, not intended for service use.  Rather these were earmarked for testing.  Most of that, tests to determine the weapon’s breaking point.  Destructive testing.

In a report from March 1844, on the extreme proof of a 6-pdr iron cannon cast at South Boston Foundry (Cyrus Alger & Company),  William Wade mentioned the foreign iron guns.  He compared the performance of the 1844 South Boston gun to tests of at least some of the foreign 6-pdr iron guns between 1841 and 1842 at Fort Monroe:

Of the six guns tried, three were cast in at different furnaces in Sweden, one in England, one in Belgium, and one in the United States.  Two of these burst with the charge of 3 pounds of powder and two balls; one at the 38th, and the other at the 39th fire of the series.  Three of them burst with the charge of 3 pounds and 3 balls; two at the 47th and one at the 49th fire.  The other, one of the Swedish guns, endured once the charge of 6 pounds and 7 balls, and burst at the second, being the 52d fire of the series.  The force of the charge last mentioned, under which the Swedish gun failed at the second fire, is computed to be less than that endured by all the [1844 guns]; the weakest of which, endured that force a greater number of times than the Swedish gun.

So that accounts for five of the eight foreign purchased iron guns.  It also indicates American cannon manufacture progressed smartly in just three short years. Some of that due to Wade’s “practical knowledge” and further experiments.

But what of the bronze guns?  I have not found any details of the tests.  But one of the other Belgian guns survives and is also on display at Chickamauga on the north end of the battlefield, at Douglas’ Texas Battery:

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This one is marked as registry number 4.  That at the 8th Indiana Battery is registry number 1.  In my next post, I’ll provide a walk around of these two historic pieces.  For closing now, let us consider these as “artifacts” which speak to a time of reform within the US Army.  These were “samples” used to derive “practical knowledge” in the art of cannon production.

(Citations from Report of Select Committee, to Inquire Into the Propriety of Establishing a National Foundry for the Purpose of Fabricating Ordnance, Report No. 229, 27th Congress, 3rd Session, US House of Representatives, 1843, pages 242-6; “Report of the Manufacture and Proof of 6 Pdr Iron Cannon Cast at the South Boston Foundry: 1844,” by William Wade, from Reports of Experiments of the Strength and Other Properties of Metals for Cannon, US Ordnance Department, Philadelphia: Henry Carey Baird, 1856, pages 16-17.)


June 26, 1864: “Medals of Honor” awarded to participants of the Morris Island Campaign

On this day (June 26) in 1864, the 3rd Rhode Island Heavy Artillery took a brief break from their normal routine of shelling Fort Sumter and Charleston.  The occasion was one for honoring the regiment’s heroes:

June 26. The “Medals of Honor” awarded by Major-General Gillmore for “Gallant and Meritorious Conduct” in the reduction of Morris Island and the demolition of Sumter, were bestowed upon the men with appropriate ceremonies and addresses.  The General Order No. 94, issued by General Gillmore in October, 1863, specifies that these “Medals of Honor” should be awarded to three per cent of the aggregate strength of the regiments, companies, and detachments in the actions in the batteries and trenches.  Accordingly ten of the gallant men of our regiment received these decorations for valor and ability; two in each of the five companies engaged in the memorable battle.  The men were: S.F. M. Bushee (Company B); _____ ______ (Company B); Sergt. John F. Newcomb, wounded (Company D); John Nickerson, who had died of wounds (Company D); James McGuire (Company H); Michael Ryan (Company H); Daniel Currie (Company I); Michael Gormley, who lost his arm ( Company G); Sergt. George F. Hazen (Company M); Thomas Cryan (Company M).  The presentations were made before the battalion at dress-parade, accompanied by suitable remarks from the officer and the Chaplain.  Where all our men behaved so gallantly under the heavy missiles; it was no easy task to select the proper persons to bear those honorable distinctions and rewards. In Companies B and H the selection was made by lot.  In some cases the men insisted that the honors should be bestowed upon the wounded.

Notice these were not THE Medal of Honor, but rather something created by Gillmore himself in recognition (or some might say promotion) of the deeds on Morris Island the previous year.  Interesting that a small quota was set for the award. The regimental history goes on to describe these medals:

The medals were of choice prize metal, olive-colored, larger than a half dollar piece, very finely wrought, with ornaments and mottoes in relief; the face reading: “For Gallant and Meritorious Conduct. Presented by Maj-Gen. Q.A. Gillmore;” the obverse reading: “Fort Sumter, Aug. 23, 1863,” with a relief view of the demolished fort.  They were surmounted by swivel cap-pieces, bearing the inscribed names of the recipients, and furnished with clasps that held grounds of heavy red silk ribbon and attached the whole decoration to the left breast of the wearer. The medals were accompanied by elegantly struck certificates, bearing the soldier’s name, the award, fac-similes of the faces of the medal, and the bold signature of Major-General Gillmore.

The medals looked like this:

The medal awarded to Sergeant George Hazen, of Company M, recently came up for auction:

A blank medal, perhaps part of a proof set or an extra minting, is on display at the Richmond Town and Staten Island Museum.

Of course the 3rd Rhode Island was not the only regiment with soldiers receiving these Gillmore medals.  Others have written about the 7th New Hampshire.  And there is a list on line for all recipients from New Hampshire.  And some were awarded to the USCT regiments which saw action on Morris Island, notably the 54th Massachusetts (though not as many as the 3rd Rhode Island).

And one was awarded to the ordnance officer who served through the campaign – Captain Alfred Mordecai, Jr.  Mordecai had proven himself a very capable officer in that capacity, certainly taking after his father in that regard.  In fact, by the summer of 1864 Mordecai was serving in the same capacity on the Bermuda Hundred front.  All sorts of interesting aspects to Mordecai, Jr.’s service…  Jewish officer, son of a senior officer who sat out the war due to divided loyalties, relative of a Confederate ordnance officer serving across the marsh on James Island… but I’ll save those for another day.

(Citation from Frederic Denison, Shot and Shell: The Third Rhode Island Heavy Artillery Regiment in the Rebellion, 1861-1865, Providence, R.I.: Third Rhode Island Artillery Veterans Association, 1879, pages 251-2.)


Photo Examination: 10-inch Mortars at Dutch Gap

In an earlier post, I discussed the 10-inch seacoast mortars in this photo:

The photo is remarkable at several layers.  I suspect the photographer captured work being done in July 1864.  The photo caption carries the caption “Work party and mortars at Butler’s Crow’s Nest.”  That leads me to dispatches appearing in the Official Records (specifically Series I, Volume 40, Part III, Serial 82, pages 23-24) from Captain Alfred Mordecai (this would be the “Junior” and not the more famous father).  On July 5, 1864, Colonel Henry Abbot, 1st Connecticut Heavy Artillery, directed Mordecai to prepare the “Crow’s Nest Battery” with a “Sawyer gun” and a 100-pdr Parrott.  Later that day, Mordecai added that two 10-inch mortars were ready for mounting at the Crow’s Nest.  These dispatches, and the presence of the signal tower in the background, indicate the photo captures work done opposite Dutch Gap, before the famous canal project.

Another photo, this one depicting Battery Sawyer, appears in the Atlas of the Official Records.

The image was part of a report forwarded by Lieutenant Peter S. Michie in a report dated September 1864.  The gun on the parapet may well be a Sawyer gun (a type I have not gotten around to detailing in a post).  The sub-caption reads, “10-inch Mortar Battery.”  While this leaves open speculation as to the exact battery location, at least there is some corroboration.

Mortars at this battery saw action against neighboring Confederate works.  On January 24, 1865, the mortars fired on Confederate warships during the battle of Trent’s Reach.

As for the mortars themselves, thankfully the photo’s resolution allows for interpretation of the markings.  The mortar with the muzzle facing the camera is registry number 7, with a recorded weight of 5800 pounds.

The weight leaves no doubt this is a 10-inch Seacoast Mortar Model 1840 (the Model 1861 in the same caliber weighed significantly more).  There were two vendors producing the Model 1840 – West Point and Cyrus Alger – and thus two possible registry number 7s.  Stephen Vincent Benét inspected the West Point weapons.  Our old friend Thomas J. Rodman inspected those from Alger.  And a close examination of the inspector’s initials on the bottom of the muzzle shows…

… T.J.R.  That means this particular mortar was one of five produced between May and October 1861.  The mortar to the right lends additional evidence for the vendor.

No mistaking that: Boston.  As noted in the earlier article, none of the Alger mortars are among the known surviving pieces today, unfortunately.  But at least this photo verifies the weapon’s existence and use.

The photo also provides a chance to examine the seacoast mortar bed in detail.  One of two officers in the picture was leaning against a mortar bed awaiting its station.

Note the squared bolt heads for the cross members.  Great detail if you plan to rebuild one of these at some point.

But the real interesting part of this photo, in my opinion, is what is going on behind the mortar bed.  Look closely at the workers.

The two men in the center frame were certainly African-American. The men to the left and right (closer to the photographer) were lighter skin, beyond a doubt Caucasian.  Three of the four men in this section have tools in hand.  So does this photo capture a mixed work party of USCT and white troops?   Contrabands and white soldiers?

I’m sure the photographer had some objective in mind when framing this scene.  He wouldn’t waste valuable plates on just some ordinary digging operation, even if he could foresee my excitement at identifying the mortars.  So was it the mortars?  Or was it the mixed-race work party?

Casting Tests: More Experimental 6-pdr Guns

Turning again to the chart of experimental 6-pdrs of the 1830s and 1840s:

The last two lines on the chart are two batches of trials and experimental iron guns from Cyrus Alger in Boston, Massachusetts.  While technically not “field guns” these two batches offer a glimpse of the Ordnance Department’s attempts to determine the best way to handle cast iron.

Perhaps the best place to start the story is in 1840 again, with the commission Secretary Poinsett sent to Europe.  According to the Congressional Report, Major Rufus Lathrop Baker, Captain Alfred Mordecai, Captain Benjamin Huger, and former officer and foundryman William Wade visited Europe in the summer and fall of 1840.  The commission observed foundries in Sweden, England, France, Russia, Prussia, and Belgium.  The men paid special attention to the iron handling in the European foundries.

The commission purchased several guns while visiting Europe.  In reference to the discussion of 6-pdrs, the officers acquired two iron 6-pdrs from Gospel Oak Works near Birmingham, England; four iron 6-pdrs from three different Swedish foundries; two iron and four bronze 6-pdrs from the royal foundry in Liege, Belgium.  All the foreign guns followed the “American pattern” according to the report.  The Army tested these guns, along with two West Point iron guns.  The Swedish guns performed a little better than others during the tests.  But as noted in an earlier post, the Ordnance officers concluded the European iron was not significantly better than American iron.

While bronze was the solution for field guns, the Americans needed iron for the siege and seacoast guns.  Toward that end, William Wade continued experiments focused on the properties of cast iron.  In February 1844, the Army issued a contract to Cyrus Alger to produce four 6-pdrs, each cast under different handling processes:

  • No. 1 – cast directly after the iron was melted.
  • No. 2 – cast after the iron was in fusion for one hour.
  • No. 3 – cast after the iron was in fusion for two hours.
  • No. 4 – cast after the iron was in fusion for three hours.

The pattern used, reproduced here from a diagram in the report, was noteworthy for its lack of adornments, rings, and muzzle swell.

Wade's 6-pdr Trials Guns

Wade reported the guns had the same weight and length as contemporary bronze types, but of course to a different form.  What appears as a “band” on the breech is really a thick reinforce and part of the casting.   As cast, the guns suffered many imperfections.  So Wade rejected those and had another set cast.

For the tests, Wade noted that standard round shot had a tendency to jam up in the bore when used with extreme charges or when stacked on the bore.  So he used a special dumb-bell shaped projectile.  None of the guns lasted past 38 fires:

Although extreme tests, these results were not consistent and not promising. But this did set the maximum proof test at three pounds of powder with sixteen balls.

So Wade tested another four guns.  Again, each handled a bit differently in casting:

  • No. 5 – cast after the iron was in fusion for half an hour.
  • No. 6 – cast after the iron was in fusion for one-and-a-half hours.
  • No. 7 – cast after the iron was in fusion for three hours.
  • No. 8 – cast after the iron was in fusion for three-and-three-quarters hours.

The guns suffered through similar tests.  Wade offered this table of the results:

Of the batch, No. 7 survived the tests. In his summary, Wade offered few conclusions, but did compare the test gun’s endurance with those of European origin tested three years earlier.

Wade continued tests with different castings in April 1844, this time of simple iron bars, at different temperatures and fusion times.  In this report he noted results of tensile strength.  Through the remainder of 1844, Wade continued experiments with heavier iron guns in production at Alger’s foundry and measurements of the specific gravity of the iron.  Late in the year, Wade subjected two old 18-pdr guns and the surviving No. 7 iron 6-pdr to hydrostatic tests to determine breaking points.

Alger continued to produce iron guns for experiments after those two batches.  Registry receipts indicate Wade accepted a ninth iron 6-pdr from Alger in 1844.  Perhaps Wade used that gun in a similar set of tests, but I have found no record of such.   Alger delivered two more iron 6-pdrs in 1848 for testing, likely to the same pattern as the 1844 guns.  A surviving gun, with a 1854 date stamp, at Newport, Rhode Island, produced to a similar form as the 1844 guns is rifled to the James system.  Apparently the “form” was good enough for repeated use.

Granted, these test guns were not intended for the field.  But the results of these tests provided the ordnance officers and cannon foundries with important data on which to build conclusions.  Certainly Wade’s experiments aided later heavy guns that saw service in the Civil War.  But in some small part, experiments with metal handling lead to procedures which gave the Parrott field guns the endurance to handle the pressure of rifled projectiles.

Steps along the way to build a better cannon.