Tag Archives: Josiah Gorgas

“We have hitherto had no difficulty in importing arms through the blockaded sea-parts”: Estmating the good of blocakde-runners

Yesterday I put emphasis on Secretary of War James Seddon’s words stressing the importance of the blockade-runners in October 1864 – “It is impossible to calculate the good that has resulted to the armies of the Confederacy from the successful blockade-running vessels.”  Well, let me offer some measure of that value deemed “impossible to calculate.”  In December 1864, Brigadier-General Josiah Gorgas provided a report to Seddon detailing the material status of the commodities of war – guns, powder, iron, nitre, and certain other raw materials.  As for small arms, Gorgas wrote:

Sir: In reply to your inquiry for information as to the means of supplying munitions of war, “confining the answer to the munitions” furnished by this Bureau to the cis-Mississippi, I have the honor to state, first, as to arms: There are enough arms on hand of a mixed character–that is, arms most of which are not as good as those now in the hands of troops in the field–to arm and equip some additional force. The returns of November, 1864, showed on hand at the various arsenals and depots:

  • Rifles of caliber .58 – 3,882
  • Rifles of caliber .54 – 2,759
  • Smooth-bore muskets .69 – 3,564
  • Smooth-bore muskets .75 – 636
  • All other infantry arms – 10,504
  • Carbines – 2,596

This amount can be probably increased by 10,000 or 12,000 by a vigorous system of collecting the arms scattered about through the country.

So that was what was in the depots – at most 36,000 small arms, give or take.  That is only counting what was sitting in the depots or otherwise unissued weapons.  Gorgas cited returns current at the start of December to indicate nearly 200,000 Confederates present for duty with the armies.  Presumably most of those were armed.  So do the math for a ball park total of small arms.

Where was the Confederacy obtaining weapons at this late stage of the war?  Gorgas continued:

We have hitherto had no difficulty in importing arms through the blockaded sea-parts. The total importations for the year have been:

  • Rifles – 39,798
  • Pistols – 1,716

The want of funds necessary to purchase has greatly limited the importations of the expiring year. There are probably not more than 10,000 or 12,000 on the islands awaiting shipment.

As for domestic production:

The number of arms manufactured and made up of parts derived from capture and other sources for the year ending November 30, 1864, were:

  • Rifles, caliber .58 – 12,778
  • Carbines – 5,354
  • Pistols – 2,353

So for the year of 1864, three of every four new rifle acquired by the Confederacy came through the blockade.  The figures on pistols and carbines were to the advantage of domestic sources. But still the disparity in rifles indicated that if any new weapon arrived in a Confederate soldier’s hands, it was likely to be of foreign (European) origin.

About the manufacture of weapons, Gorgas indicated the Confederacy had the capacity to do more:

There is machinery enough under the control of this Bureau to manufacture 55,000 rifles and carbines per annum, provided a sufficient mechanical force be employed as follows:

  • Richmond – 25,000 rifles, 450 workmen
  • Fayetteville – 10,000 rifles, 250 workmen
  • Columbia, S.C. – 4,000 rifles, 125 workmen
  • Athens, Ga. – 10,000 rifles, 250 workmen
  • Tallassee, Ala. – 6,000 rifles, 150 workmen
  • Total – 55,000 rifles, 1,225 workmen.

The proviso is the workmen, and these must be permanently attached to those establishments and excused from the performance of all military duties, except perhaps local guard duty. The number actually employed is about 425, about 300 less than were employed, say twelve months since. Defection from service in the local forces and losses on the battle-field have thus greatly reduced our force of workmen.

By General Orders, No. 89, over 700 men were placed in the ranks; of these perhaps one-half were competent mechanics, many of them valuable for the service of the armories. The product could not at once be raised to the maximum figures above indicated, but could, with the 800 additional workmen, be so raised, allowing for the time it would take to teach and organize them.

For our cavalry arms we have chiefly to rely on importations, although pistols are being made at several points with success. Want of workmen alone prevents additional results. Sabers can be produced in sufficient numbers, and of pretty good quality, by the detail of a very few workmen from the field.

Follow the numbers here. The Confederacy had 200,000 men present for duty (and another 200,000 not present for various reasons).  On hand were around 236,000 small arms, give or take.  Gorgas does not indicate the number of weapons issued, to replace those lost or damaged.  And maybe that isn’t the important issue towards sustaining the army.  The Confederacy could produce 55,000 rifles, but had instead produced only 12,778.  The balance of what was needed came in the form of 39,798 imported rifles.  Total “new” weapons in 1864 was 52,576.  Just shy of the maximum potential domestic output, as cited by Gorgas.  And that would allow the Confederacy to replace one of every four weapons in use, give or take.

So, does this champion Confederate domestic manufacturing? Or show it as deficient?   Neither.  Gorgas’ explanation points to another conclusion – the blockade-runners allowed the Confederacy to take men out of the factories for service in the ranks. Gorgas counts 800 workers, but I would submit that was just the surface figure.   Maybe two regiments… maybe more.

And that is only taking into account small arms production.  Would not be hard to carry that figure forward in regard to other war-critical industries and say supplies arriving through the blockade freed up a body of manpower equal to a brigade.

Oh, but one more point – blockade running also carried with it an intangible worth more than guns or gold.  So long as ships could transit to Charleston, even with hazard, the Confederacy still “existed” and had contact with the outside world.  But ports like Charleston – were supplies could land on Confederate soil – were becoming scarce by the fall of 1864.  Within a few months, the number would be zero.

(Citation from OR, Series IV, Volume 3, Serial 129, pages 986-7.)

“With twenty more 10-inch and rifle guns… Charleston could resist any fleet….”: Jones requests more guns

The day after complaining to General Braxton Bragg that he had more guns than crews to man them, Major-General Samuel Jones inquired about getting some more guns for Charleston.  By way of his Adjutant, Captain Henry Wemyss Feilden, Jones sent this inquiry to Colonel Josiah Gorgas at the Confederate Ordnance Bureau:

It is extremely probable that the fleet now attacking Mobile under Admiral Farragut may, during the fall, be brought to operate against the fortifications and city of Charleston combined with the fleet now here under the command of Admiral Dahlgren. I am led to this supposition from two reasons: If the enemy fails in his present operations against Mobile, Farragut’s fleet would be uselessly employed in the harbor of that place, now that the Tennessee and others of our vessels are destroyed, three or four monitors and a few light-draught gun-boats will effectually blockade the city of Mobile. If, on the other hand, Mobile falls, Farragut’s fleet would be set at liberty for operations on the eastern coast, and there can be little doubt that Charleston would be the first place assailed. My conviction is that an iron-clad fleet, as numerous as these combined ones would be, could under resolute commander pass between our batteries on Sullivan’s Island and Fort Sumter with more or less loss. If the interior harbor of Charleston was properly armed with guns of heavy caliber I should have no fear of the ultimate result; as it is, our interior defenses are very inadequately armed. In consequence of the enemy’s daily increase of fire on our outworks, I have had from time to time to remove guns from the inner to the outer defenses, and their places have not been refilled. I do sincerely hope you will use every exertion to supply me with more heavy guns. With twenty more 10-inch and rifle guns I believe Charleston could resist any fleet that the Federal Government might send against it; in our present position, I feel deeply apprehensive as to the result of a grand naval attack.

If there is any doubt as to the shock felt throughout the Confederacy after Rear-Admiral David G. Farragut ran into Mobile Bay, here is ample evidence.  More than just a morale boost to the northern population, “damn the torpedoes” indicated the Federals could force their way into any harbor of the Confederacy if desired.  And, as seen at Mobile, once they were in the bay, the only chance to resist the the ironclads was inner harbor defenses (slim though that might be).

During his tenure, General P.G.T. Beauregard constructed an inner ring of defenses for Charleston harbor with just this in mind.  Granted, those defenses were weakened in order to bolster areas directly threatened outside Charleston.  But more to the point, Beauregard had never gotten the number of guns he felt were needed in the first place. Now Jones asked for just 20 more of those big columbiads or rifles.

Consider that Tredegar cast only nineteen 10-inch Columbiads and twenty-one Brookes (rifled and smoothbore) between January 1864 and the end of the war.  On the other hand, Brigadier-General George Ramsay at the Federal Ordnance Department complained that 174 guns – 8-, 10-, and 15-inch Rodmans – delivered in the first half of 1864 was insufficient!

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, page 615.)

Beauregard to Gorgas: “I prefer that we should try the experiment on our enemy…”

Throughout 1863, General P.G.T. Beauregard authorized programs to convert both 8-inch and 10-inch columbiads into rifled guns for the defense of Charleston.  These modifications did not receive the full blessing of those in Richmond.  In fact, Colonel Josiah Gorgas, Confederate Chief of Ordnance, voiced concerns in a letter to Beauregard in November 1863.

Beauregard wisely waited until January 9, 1864 to respond, explaining he delayed “until I could carefully reconsider my preconceived views and subject them to the test of actual experiment.”  He went on to say while the 10-inch rifles had not been tested in action, the 8-inch rifles had been fired in anger… a lot.

Your letter alludes chiefly to the 10-inch gun, but as your objections and conclusions must apply equally to the 8-inch as to the 10-inch, I must acquaint you that an 8-inch gun, rifled and double banded, in position at Fort Moultrie, has been fired through some four or five different engagements, in all over 100 times, with shell weighing over 100 pounds and bolts 140 pounds, with most satisfactory results, giving a greater range with the same charges and less elevation than the smooth-bore, with shell and shot of less than half the weight. The gun is uninjured, and there is no apparent reason why it should not last a long time.

He went on to say General Roswell Ripley considered the gun his best on Sullivan’s Island and “and in action has an immediate effect upon the enemy’s iron-clads, which always try to avoid it.”

Fort Moultrie 3 May 2010 490

Beauregard continued:

This having proved a success, three others of the same kind have been prepared and placed in position in the harbor batteries, but owing to the limited supply of projectiles a thorough test has not been applied. The charges used have been 8 pounds and 10 pounds of coarse-grained powder, and the range shows these to have been sufficient to give full velocity to the projectiles for distances of 1,000 yards.

The reported experience demonstrated that higher powder charges did not offer any significant gain in range or velocity.  And Beauregard added, perhaps to make a point about the Ordnance Department’s products, that a Brooke rifle at Fort Sumter, fired with fifteen pounds of powder at an elevation of 18º had suffered a cracked vent.  The surviving Brooke 7-inch rifle at Fort Sumter was thereafter fired with reduced charges, of 10 pounds, with better results.  Beauregard quoted a report from Ripley claiming the gun had, with a 23º elevation, achieved a range of four miles to strike in the Federal camps on Folly Island (that being in the days before Fort Sumter was bombarded by the Federals).  In Beauregard’s view, this field experience trumped the instructions sent out by those in Richmond.

Fort Moultrie 3 May 2010 568

In regard to his modified rifles, Beauregard built a case for their acceptance:

If the rifling and banding of the 8-inch and 10-inch columbiads is to be abandoned I consider it fortunate for Charleston that I have four of the former in position instead of the like number of smoothbore 8-inch guns, which abundant experience here has demonstrated to be almost ineffective against iron-clads….

As long, therefore, as we can get equal or greater ranges with the same elevations and charges with the rifled as with the smooth-bore guns and throw projectiles of more than double the weight with increased accuracy, it would seem advisable to continue the alteration of these guns of the same patterns and dates.

The principle of the Blakely gun has not been tried as yet with these columbiads, because they do very well when fired according to the ordinary method; but by the application of the principle I should hardly deem it jumping at a conclusion. Would it not be better than remaining in statu quo?

I cannot believe that it would have been advisable to wait for the elucidation of the matter by the United States Ordnance Bureau, from their trials with 10-inch guns at West Point, for we may depend upon it that if successful the first we shall know of the fact will be the transfer to Morris Island and continuance of their experiments on ourselves by heavy batteries of this description of ordnance…

And, then he went for the kill:

I prefer that we should try the experiment on our enemy rather than let him test it on us. Fas est ab hoste doceri is a good axiom in war, but not exactly in the way you propose.

Fas est ab hoste doceri  – that is “it is right to learn even from an enemy.”  And Beauregard was tired of “learning” about the effectiveness of the Federal heavy guns as he watched them bombard Battery Wagner, Fort Sumter, and Charleston itself.

And he could not help but offer one more jab saying  “The guns selected for this purpose were captured at Forts Moultrie and Sumter in April, 1861, of the very best iron, and superior to those now manufactured by the Ordnance Department of the Confederate States.”  And remember, it was Beauregard who had recommended Gorgas for the position heading the Ordnance Department, back in the spring of 1861!

Beauregard closed his argument saying, “I do not say that these rifled and banded 8 and 10 inch guns are the best that can be made of their calibers, but, in my belief, they are the best we can get in the present condition of our manufacturing resources.”

Fort Sumter 4 Aug 11 1601

And those rifled guns Beauregard mentioned would serve at the front of Charleston’s defenses for the remainder of the war.  In terms of investment of money and resources, one could carry Beauregard’s argument to say those were the best weapons in the city’s defense.

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part I, Serial 65, pages 513-516.)

Gorgas sends “Long Tom” to Wilmington

On January 5, 1864, Major-General W.H.C. Whiting wrote Colonel Josiah Gorgas, at the Confederate Ordnance Department, requesting assistance:

Colonel Gorgas: My 30-pounder Parrott burst yesterday fighting the enemy at Lockwood’s Folly, killing 1 man and wounding officer in charge.  It was at third fire.  This is all the Parrott gun I have.  Hurry the others.  All the guns I have seen lately are defective; should be tested and examined.  Send this to General [Samuel] Cooper.

On January 3, the blockade runner Bendigo ran aground at Lockwood’s Folly.  While making a run north along the coast, the captain of the Bendigo mistook the wreck of the Elizabeth, a blockade runner which had ran aground in late September 1863, for a Federal blockader. The captain tried to run between the shore and what he thought was a threat, but ran into another – the shallow waters of the inlet.

The Bendigo lay on a shoal close enough inshore for the Confederates to attempt recovery of the cargo, but far enough off shore to allow Federal gunboats to obstruct any recovery.   Over the next couple of days, both sides sparred over the wreck.  The Federals finally damaged the wreck sufficiently to prevent Confederate recovery.  But the lure of further salvage brought the USS Iron Age into those shallow waters a week later, ultimately resulting in her demise.  (All in all, a fantastic series of events, but one I must leave to a correspondent with better footing in regard to the Wilmington sector.)

The 30-pdr Parrott mentioned by Whiting was part of the force deployed to support the recovery operations.  It was a Confederate copy of the original 30-pdr Parrott rifle, patterned after one of Robert P. Parrott’s 30-pdr rifles captured at First Manassas in July 1861. The captured Federal gun received the nickname “Long Tom,” due no doubt to the length of the barrel (and I would add such christening is not unique among artillery pieces). Unable to replicate the coiled band technique used at West Point Foundry, Tredegar opted to use a series of welded wrought iron bands.  The (composite) band over the breech is about 10-inches longer than the guns produced by West Point Foundry.

This was not the first time the Tredegar 30-pdr Parrotts had failed in action.  Recall just over a year earlier, one of these guns failed at Fredericksburg, in very close proximity to General Robert E. Lee and other senior officers.  Perhaps with the failure rates in mind, Gorgas responded on January 6 with the offer of something better than another Tredegar gun, “There are arms on the way to him, and I have asked Colonel [Walter] Stevens for the gun known as “Long Tom,” now on the defenses here.”

The declarative in Gorgas’ response leaves little doubt – this is the “Long Tom” from the artillery section commanded by Lieutenant Peter C. Hains at First Manassas, which had fired the first shot of the battle, and which was later captured by Confederates.  The Confederate Ordnance Department described this gun, in The Field Manual for the Use of the Officers on Ordnance Duty, as:

The 30-pounder Parrott gun (captured at Manassas) has a caliber of 4.2 inches; weight 4190 lbs.; entire length 132 inches; five grooves.  The wrought iron band at breech is 19 inches in length and 2 inches in thickness.  It is rifled with one turn in 24 feet.

These particulars are important for those track the history of “Long Tom.”  The weight given – 4,190 pounds – was about ten pounds less than standard. The dimensions match, within a half inch here or there, those of Parrott’s specifications. The only major discrepancy is the reported rifling.  Parrott used increasing-pitch rifling.  That indicated in the manual is about twice that specified for Federal use.  Then again, I don’t think anyone climbed down the bore of the gun to verify the rifling.

“Long Tom” had to be one of six of its type received by the Federals prior to the battle of First Manassas.  Of those six, only one survives today – registry number 4, located in Cleveland, Ohio (in Woodlawn Cemetery, if anyone cares to pass along a photo or two). Its weight is reported at 4,175 pounds, ruling it out but offering a comparison figure.  The variation of the weight reported, by the Confederates, for “Long Tom” as compared to the design specification and single survivor of the lot leads to the conclusion that 4,190 pounds was the actual weight of the gun.  The writers of Big Guns, looking at ordnance receipts retained at National Archives, concluded that based on the reported weight, “Long Tom” was registry number 2.

Setting aside for the moment the administrative details identifying “Long Tom,” the gun went to Wilmington to serve in the batteries defending Cape Fear River and covering the blockade runners.  And at least one report indicates “Long Tom” burst like its Confederate cousins.  Colonel William Lamb noted such in a diary entry from December 1864:

December 17 – Bought two dozen eggs at $20.  Came down the river with General Whiting in the Cape Fear.  The Long Tom rifle exploded in Battery Anderson last night.  Went up to see it.  The carriage was torn to pieces and the gun was broken into over seven large pieces.

However, contradicting Lamb’s entry is a catalog of weapons captured by Federals near the end of the war.  General Henry L. Abbot, 1st Connecticut Heavy Artillery, reported that Captain Samuel Hatfield, his ordnance officer, made a complete inventory of weapons captured at Fort Fisher in January 1865.  In that list appears a line for “4.2-inch Parrott (No. 2)” indicated as in “good order.”  A separate line tallied a disabled “4.2-inch banded” rifle.  The nomenclature used on that second line matches the identification of Confederate rifled and banded guns of other calibers listed in the table.

So the indication is that Hatfield inventoried a U.S. gun of the Parrott pattern with registry number 2.  He didn’t offer weights or other details.  However, the circumstantial evidence points to this being “Long Tom.”  Maybe not a water tight conclusion, but strong enough for me.  I conclude that “Long Tom” that opened the action at First Manassas ended up at Fort Fisher at the end of the war.  Unfortunately, the Federals recapturing the gun failed to appreciate its history.  Thus, if you go with Lamb or Hatfield, “Long Tom” ended up on the scrap heap… literally and figuratively.

(Sources OR, Series I, Volume 33, Serial 60, page 1066; Volume 46, Part I, Serial 95, page 167.  ORN, Series I, Volume 11, page 746.  The Field Manual for the Use of the Officers on Ordnance Duty, Confederate Ordnance Department, Richmond: Ritchie & Dunnavant, 1862, pages 20-21.  Edwin Olmstead, Wayne E. Stark, and Spencer C. Tucker, Big Guns: Civil War Siege, Seacoast, and Naval Cannon, Alexandria Bay, NY: Museum Restoration Service, 1997, page 114.)

Lee to Gorgas: Give me good saddles and carbines

I’m always drawn to the little things that show up in correspondence between a commander and his sources of supply or equipment. It’s the old “for want of a nail..” One example of such is a letter from General Robert E. Lee to Colonel Josiah Gorgas, written on June 8, 1863:

Col. J. Gorgas,
Chief of Ordnance, &c. :
Colonel: I reviewed to-day the five brigades of cavalry in this army, forming the division commanded by General Stuart.

My attention was thus called to a subject which I have previously brought to your notice, viz, the saddles and carbines manufactured in Richmond. I could not examine them myself, but was assured by officers that the former ruined the horses’ backs, and the latter were so defective as to be demoralizing to the men.

I am aware of the difficulties attending the manufacture of arms and equipments, but I suggest that you have the matter inquired into by your ordnance officers, and see if they cannot rectify the evils complained of. It would be better, I think, to make fewer articles, and have them serviceable. The English saddles which you import are said to be good. It is the tree of the Richmond saddle that is complained of.

I am, most respectfully, your obedient servant,
R. E. Lee,

I am reminded here of the narrative in Plenty of Blame to Go Around. On the roads to Gettysburg, Confederate horses and troopers alike suffered on those long rides.

What Lee would like to have are saddles like this:

And carbines like this:

By the way, the Sharps Carbine in the picture is part of the National Firearms Museum, which provides some of the weapon’s history:

The buttstock of this carbine is carved “Rappahannock Station Nov. 7 1863” and was captured from Confederate cavalry forces by Union General John Buford’s troopers at that battle. Rappahannock Station is known today as Remington, Virginia. SN 45479.

So it was a “recapture.” Ah… the Confederacy’s other great source of supply – the Union army!

150 Years Ago: A “Destructive Conflagration” in Richmond

On June 14, 1863, the remains of Thomas J. Jackson left Richmond by railroad proceeding to Lexington, Virginia where his funeral was scheduled for the next day. As if the tragedy of Jackson’s death were not enough, the City of Richmond arose on this day (June 15) in 1863 to another disaster.

The Richmond Daily Dispatch provided details the following day:


Destructive Conflagration – Burning of the Crenshaw Woollen Mill and a Portion of the Tredegar Works – About 2 o’clock yesterday morning a fire broke out in the Crenshaw Woollen Mill, of this city, resulting in one of the most destructive and disastrous conflagrations which the city has ever been called upon to suffer. The fire originated, and was first discovered, in the picking room of the Crenshaw Woollen Mill, situated on the canal.. such was the combustible nature of the material in the room that the flames spread with a rapidity that soon enveloped the whole building….

The article went on to point out the important war contributions of the mill – providing “2,000 yards of double width goods per week, with a capacity to manufacture annually goods sufficient to clothe from 40,000 to 50,000 men.” But next to the mill was Tredegar Iron Works:

From the woollen mill the fire rapidly spread to the valuable shops of Tredegar works, and before the flames could be arrested the machine shops, boring mills, pattern shops, blacksmith and carpenter shops of that extensive and valuable establishment were destroyed. The extend of damage done to machinery in these shops could not be ascertained yesterday, as much of the machinery was of an indestructible character, and may possibly not have received serious injury.

However, the rolling mills and casting shops of the works were not damaged. The report went on to say that several heavy guns were undamaged and ready for issue. Concluding, the article noted,

The loss to the proprietors of the works will be very heavy, and the delay in manufacturing guns will, to some extent, be felt by the Government, but as stated, it is not thought that this delay will protracted beyond a few weeks.

Problem is that a few weeks, in the the critical phases of 1863, was debilitating to efforts to equip and refit Confederate forces in the field. The day after the fire, Joseph R. Anderson, president of the company, forwarded a request Colonel Josiah Gorgas for equipment to replace losses.

Page 714

Gorgas in turn forwarded the request to Major William Downer, Superintendent of Armories. Downer responded on June 3:

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In short, Downer had some to spare and asked, “Shall I sell these machines to Mesrs Anderson & Co.?” The answer was affirmative. That was conveyed across this rather busy (and interesting!) cover sheet:

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On the right side is Downer’s notation:

The machinery proposed to be sold consists of

1 Large Boring Lathe purchased at Raleigh.

2 Small hand Lathes.

4 or 5 small Lathes, partially finished, some, nothing more than the castings. Made at the Carbine Factory, which were commissioned by Robinson & Lester(?), for sale, & which we have no use for.

Oh, but first these equipments were referred to Captain R. M. Cary at Bellona Armory, who insisted he needed the lathes. Gorgas agreed with Cary on June 15. So even with all those notations, it is not clear if Tredegar eventually received any of these lathes.

But certainly the foundry was able to get back to the business of making cannons within weeks as predicted. As mentioned in Monday’s post, production fell off in April to just six Napoleons and four 10-inch mortars due to lack of gunmetal. On May 1st, the foundry poured one 10-inch columbiad, six Napoleons, and one 10-inch mortar. Not until May 28 did production resume with a 20-pdr Parrott and a Napoleon. In June, Tredegar made twenty-four castings, both field guns and heavy cannons. July saw fifteen more castings.

But keep in mind the cycle of casting, cooling, boring, preparing (Tredegar eschewed all unnecessary machining but had to turn trunnions and other exterior points), inspection, and delivery. Such could take a month or more, particularly for the larger weapons. From there, the Ordnance Department had the duty of transporting and issue to the field commands. Guns made in June might not be issued to a battery until late August… if all worked well.

Cannons are easy to track, to some extent. But about the production of shot, shell, and the various implements needed to use the guns in battle. Tredegar was supposed to be producing the materials needed for the Confederates to prosecute the war. Not beg for machinery to turn out those materials.

A production slow down in the middle of 1863… just as the war reached critical turning points. As historian Charles Dew pointed out, fire at Tredegar and defeat at Gettysburg had some relation.

A shortage of guns, but no orders for Noble Brothers

As mentioned in earlier posts, in the winter of 1862-63 the Confederate Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida was desperate for guns capable of engaging the Federal ironclads.  General P.G.T. Beauregard’s command protected several ports of entry for blockade runners, representing the link to Europe.  But competition between projects (ironclad production, for instance) for resources and demand in other theaters for heavy ordnance meant the forts protecting Charleston, Savannah, and other ports were under-gunned.

Most histories point to Richmond, particularly Tredegar, with respect to the bottleneck on heavy ordnance.  But this overlooks other options that Beauregard and the Confederate Ordnance Department sought out.  With the fall of New Orleans, Nashville, and Memphis, several private manufacturers with at least the potential to produce heavy ordnance were lost.  And at this critical time of the war the Selma Naval Ordnance Works was just getting organized.  However at least one firm in Georgia had, on paper, the ability to meet the need for heavy ordnance.

I’ve mentioned Noble Brothers & Company, of Rome, Georgia, a few times with respect to field ordnance (6-pdr guns, 3-inch rifles, and 12-pdr howitzers in both bronze and iron).  But the firm also sought, and was sought out for, heavy ordnance contracts.  In April 1862 the firm delivered a battery of 8-inch howitzers to the state of Georgia for use at Savannah.  Noble Brothers began series production for the Confederate government at that time.  Situated in proximity to iron deposits in Alabama, the firm appeared ready to compete with Richmond’s gun maker.

But a series of events removed Noble Brothers from the picture.  In late April-early May, Colonel Abel D. Streight’s raid threatened Rome and disrupted work schedules (some of the facility’s workers were part of the local militia defending the city and foundry).  In August, a fire starting in a nearby rifle factory damaged some of Noble Brothers’ factory.  But those were but minor issues compared to what happened in October 1862.

While passing through on other business, Maynadier Mason, a representative of the Ordnance Department, stopped to inspect the Noble Brothers’ cannon manufacturing process.    Mason noted the castings used metal of poor quality, describing it as “white” and of weak strength.  But he withheld comment at the time. Later, Mason witnessed sharp disagreements when Captain L. Jaquelin Smith, the local ordnance officer, related specific instructions about gun carriages.  One of the Noble brothers said that, “all ordnance officers were fools and jackasses and that Smith was one of them.”


First Page of Mason’s letter – “the fools and jackasses report”

Mason indicated that Smith backed away from confrontation.  Mason,  intervening to aid Smith, became the target of the Noble’s anger. The Nobles apparently “worked over” Mason badly, as he complained of being bedridden for several days to recover.


Part of the Noble brother’s anger towards Smith may have stemmed from the ordnance officer’s earlier dealings with Noble Brothers.  In the summer of 1862, Noble Brothers & Company was working to produce columbiads.  The month prior to the “jackass” comment, Smith had informed Colonel Ambrosio J. Gonzales, chief of artillery in Charleston, of delays securing the requested columbiads.  Gonzales echoed that in an inquiry to Colonel Josiah Gorgas in Richmond:

I am directed by the major-general commanding to inclose to you the accompanying letter from Lieutenant Smith, and to say that as the complement of heavy guns promised for this department cannot be had from Rome, you have the goodness of providing them from Richmond, over and above the 10-inch columbiads which are to come from there. I have the honor further to state that it is the wish of General Beauregard, who has not yet assumed command, that the guns you supply from Richmond in lieu of those expected from Rome, Ga., be 10-inch instead of 8-inch columbiads, in view of the formidable character of the iron-clad ships preparing for the attack of Charleston.

If Smith informed Gonzales that Noble Brothers couldn’t deliver the guns, he had a reason.  I would speculate that Mason’s “while I’m here” inspection of the facilities was not just happenstance. There’s enough circumstantial evidence, particularly given Mason’s alarm about the metal quality, to say Noble guns were not measuring up to Smith’s inspections.  And of course Smith would have reported such to the Ordnance Department.

The hostile treatment and poor quality control did not set well with authorities in Richmond.  Colonel Josiah Gorgas suspended payment to Noble Brothers until the matter was worked out.

Page 7a

Although the Noble Brothers apologized for the altercation and offenses, the firm’s standing with the Confederate government suffered.  Although the firm continued to deliver pig iron and other materials, no cannons came from the Noble Brothers after that time.  In May 1863, the firm wrote Gorgas about five 8-inch siege howitzers on hand and ready for delivery.

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Gorgas’ response appeared on the cover for this note.  He said the howitzers were probably made with cupola iron and would not be received. (Lesson learned here with respect to the Confederate Citizens Files – always look at the cover sheets!)

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There were other concerns beyond just the “jackasses” comment and bad quality control.  Several of the Noble brothers had unionist leanings (although apparently not enough to prevent them from accepting Confederate money).  I’ll save that aspect for another day… and to Robert’s favorite research topic, this does involve a rejected claim for compensation).

The Confederate government later acquired some of the Noble Brothers & Company equipment. I will say “acquired” as some might consider it outright confiscated, with compensation.  That too is a longer story deserving a separate post.  The equipment went to the Confederate owned works to continue supporting the war effort.

In retrospect, even during the height of the war with the Confederacy so desperate as to impress old English guns into service, one could not call a Confederate officer a “jackass” without certain repercussions.