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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