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.)

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8-inch Rifled and Banded Columbiad … with a new coat of paint

I’ve discussed this gun’s history in earlier posts:

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It is is an 8-inch “New Columbiad,” or Model 1857 if you prefer, banded and rifled by the Confederates during the war.

And it recently received some TLC to include a new coat of paint as part of the  The Fort Sumter Trust’s  Adopt-A-Cannon effort.  Now the Fort Moultrie Facebook page has some photos of that cannon in its new trim:

The rangers posted some photos from angles most visitors are not allowed to view the gun from:

This allows reading of the markings:

“B.H.” for ordnance inspector Benjamin Huger, a Charleston native.  Huger resigned from the U.S. Army at the beginning of the war and later became a Major-General in the Confederate army.

As mentioned in the earlier post on the cannon’s history, this was originally a smoothbore 8-inch Columbiad.  Specifically No. 89 in West Point Foundary’s production lot of that type. It was completed to the “New Columbiad” pattern in 1857.

As a “New Columbiad” it retained the ratchet elevation mechanism.

This gun is one of only two surviving 8-inch “New Columbiads” from pre-war production.  What makes it even more interesting is the wartime conversion and subsequent operational history as part of the force defending Sullivans Island.

Not far from where it sits today, with that nice, new coat of paint.

And I bring this gun up because it’s time to consider it’s larger brother:

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Also part of the Fort Moultrie collection.

Batteries in the Marshes: The Defenses of Savannah, Part 2

Continuing from yesterday’s post, I’ll first turn to the improvements to the fortifications directed by General P.G.T. Beauregard in October 1862.

Although after his initial, but brief September 1862 inspection, Beauregard considered the defenses well placed, after the detailed inspection in October, he found many issues with gun placement in the works.  Beauregard called for repositioning of guns in almost all the existing major fortifications.  In addition he cited poor magazine and traverse placement in several of the batteries.

Those “tuning” chores in order, Beauregard ordered several new batteries erected.  To produce a cross-fire against any threat from Whitemarsh Island, he ordered a three-gun battery built at Greenwich Point on St. Augustine Creek. Turning again to the map, that battery is depicted in green and those from the earlier date in yellow (and remember the base map depicts fortifications as they existed in December 1864, so don’t jump ahead with this story and ignore the red and blue markings!)

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Notice how the guns from Carston’s Bluff, Greenwich Point, and Thunderbolt sealed off any approach from Whitemarsh Island.

Further south, Beauregard wanted a battery on Rosedew Island to cover the Little Ogeechee River. And to further protect the causeway leading south to this extended line, he directed the formation of a siege train and additional works on Isle of Hope. The later, along with another three-gun battery, would help cover the approaches from Skidaway Island.

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Rosedew Island is just left of center, again in green.  The Isle of Hope fortifications extended at different points from the center-right, upwards.  I’ve depicted two locations on opposite ends of the island.  However I am not sure exactly where the three gun battery, named Lake Bluff Battery, was located (UPDATEDon’t know why I overlooked this name.  Lake Bluff Battery – as noted in the table below, was located on the Altamaha River well southwest of Savannah.  The battery was an isolated and remote defense, but is of interest to those who like the obscure stories!  Look for a follow up post.).

Beauregard also directed a series of signal stations – Genesis Point, Rosedew Island, Beaulieu, Isle of Hope Causeway, Thunderbolt, Carston’s Bluff, Fort Jackson, Fort Boggs, and in Savannah.

But with regard to the guns in the forts, Savannah continued to make do with what was available after the harder pressed sectors received their allocations.  I’ve not located any returns for January or February 1863, but Major General Benjamin Huger provided a well detailed inspection report dated March 31, 1863. I derive the table below from that report.

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Not listed here are several field guns, including rifled guns, listed in the fortifications.  The value of these guns was protecting land-side approaches to the forts, not defending the waterways.  The siege train employed for the Isle of Hope consisted, in March 1863, of four 8-inch siege howitzers, two 4-inch Blakely rifles, and one 20-pdr Parrott.  Also not listed above were a couple of Confederate ironclads – the CSS Georgia (although just a floating battery) and the CSS Atlanta – to supplement the land defenses.

Huger also provided a sketch indicating the facings of the guns along the Savannah River.

RiverDefenseSketch

Clearly the Confederates had the Savannah River tied up nicely.  Further south, the works along the Ogeechee, Little Ogeechee, and Vernon Rivers required more attention.  If Savannah were to remain an option for blockade runners or commerce raiders, the Confederates had to control those waterways.

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Looking at events 150 years ago, it was the battery at Genesis Point, by this time called Fort McAllister, which was receiving the attention of the Federals.  As noted above, the fort was armed with one 10-inch columbiad, one 8-inch columbiad, one 42-pdr gun, three 32-pdr guns, one 32-pdr rifle, and one 10-inch mortar.

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Reproduction Columbiad at Fort McAllister

Those seven guns (and one mortar) would soon duel with Federal ironclads.

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Reproduction 32-pdr Gun at Fort McAllister

(The referenced reports and orders appear in OR, Series I, Volume 14, Serial 20, pages 657-60 and 853-8)

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.

8-inch Columbiad Walkaround

In January I ran a post about the 8-inch Columbiad Model 1844 but unfortunately could only use photos of a battered example on display at Fort Sumter.

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8-inch Columbiad Model 1844 at Fort Sumter

While fine for “talking” about the columbiad, the example does not do justice to the original form of the weapon.  I was in need of “walk around” photos of a less battered surviving example.

My pal Harry Smeltzer happened to spot one of these columbiads earlier this month while out looking at Prospect Cemetery in Brackinridge, Pennsylvania.

8-inch Columbiad Model 1844 at Brackinridge, PA

Note the pile of shot and the memorial in the background.   These cannon are part of a memorial display in the cemetery.  Compared to the battered Fort Sumter piece, the muzzle and chase ring are intact, allowing study.

Note also the un-battered trunnions.  These measured eight inches in diameter and 6.5 inches long.  The iron “carriage” mount appears to be a display cradle.  In service the Model 1844 used a wooden carriage – hence the long trunnions compared to later Rodman types.

Trunnion of 8-inch Columbiad

In spite of the frosty rain, the right trunnion stamp is clear –  R.P.P. for Robert P. Parrott and W.P.F. for West Point Foundry.

Muzzle of #51

Easier to read the muzzle marks.  One of these is registry number 51, inspected by Benjamin Huger (who later served the Confederacy).

Muzzle of #69

Huger also inspected registry number 69.  Harry reported the date stamps on the left trunnions were difficult to read.  From my reference books, these were included in 1855 production batches from West Point.

Breech of Model 1844

Saving the best for last, I was most impressed with the view of the breech, relatively intact after all these years.  This perspective shows the ratchet steps and split button type knob with good effect.  With a 635 pound preponderance on the breech, elevating the gun just a degree took some effort.  But imagine bringing the gun up to high elevation; firing the gun; lowering elevation to load the gun; then returning the gun back to desired elevation.

In April 1861, Confederates fired Columbiads like these two fired at Fort Sumter from the “ironclad battery” on Morris Island.  Photos taken after the bombardment confirm the presence of three Model 1844 columbiads in that battery.

On the defender’s side, Captain John G. Foster reported four 8-inch Columbiads on the barbette tier of Fort Sumter.  Four more 8-inch Columbiads sat on the parade ground, mounted as mortars to fire on Morris Island.  No good close up views of those guns were taken in the days after the fall of Fort Sumter.  (A few others may have lay unmounted in the fort.) From circumstantial evidence, likely the seven 8-inch Columbiads mounted in Fort Sumter were Model 1844.  However, with over three hundred of the type produced, the odds are against the two guns currently at Prospect Cemetery being part of the fort’s armament.

Again, thanks to Harry for the photos.  I’ll make a cannon-hunter out of him yet!