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[270]

Chapter 3:

  • Commissioners to purchase arms and ammunition
  • -- my letter to Captain Semmes -- resignations of officers of United States Navy -- our Destitution of accessories for the supply of naval vessels -- Secretary Mallory -- food supplies -- the commissariat Department -- the Quartermaster's Department -- the disappearance of delusions -- the supply of powder -- saltpeter -- sulphur -- artificial niter beds -- services of General G. W. Rains -- destruction at Harpers Ferry of machinery -- the master Armorer -- machinery secured -- want of skillful employees -- difficulties encountered by every Department of the Executive branch of the Government.


On the third day after my inauguration at Montgomery, an officer of extensive information and high capacity was sent to the North to make purchases of arms, ammunition, and machinery; soon afterward another officer was sent to Europe to buy in the market as far as possible, and furthermore, to make contracts for arms and munitions to be manufactured. Captain (afterward Admiral) Semmes, the officer who was sent to the North, would have been quite successful but for the intervention of the civil authorities, preventing the delivery of the various articles contracted for. The officer who was sent to Europe, Major Huse, found few serviceable arms upon the market; he succeeded, however, in making contracts for the manufacture of large quantities, being in advance of the agents sent from the Northern government for the same purpose. For further and more detailed information, reference is made to the monograph of the chief of ordnance.

My letter of instructions to Captain Semmes was as follows:

Montgomery, Alabama, February 21, 1861.
dear sir: As agent of the Confederate States, you are authorized to proceed, as hereinafter set forth, to make purchases and contracts for machinery and munitions, or for the manufacture of arms and munitions of war.

Of the proprietor of the — Powder Company, in —, you will probably be able to obtain cannonand musket-powder—the former to be of the coarsest grain; and also to engage with him for the establishment of a powder-mill at some point in the limits of our territory.

The quantity of powder to be supplied immediately will exceed his stock on hand, and the arrangement for further supply should, if possible, be by manufacture in our own territory; if this is not practicable, means must be sought for further shipments from any and all sources which are reliable.

At the arsenal at Washington you will find an artisan named —, who has [271] brought the cap-making machine to its present state of efficiency, and who might furnish a cap-machine, and accompany it to direct its operations. If not in this, I hope you may in some other way be able to obtain a cap-machine with little delay, and have it sent to the Mount Vernon Arsenal, Alabama.

We shall require a manufactory for friction-primers, and you will, if possible, induce some capable person to establish one in our country. The demand of the Confederate States will be the inducement in this as in the case of the powder-mill proposed.

A short time since, the most improved machinery for the manufacture of rifles, intended for the Harpers Ferry Armory, was, it was said, for sale by the manufacturer. If it be so at this time, you will procure it for this Government, and use the needful precaution in relation to its transportation. Mr. — —, of the Harpers Ferry Armory, can give you all the information in that connection which you may require. Mr. Ball, the master armorer at Harpers Ferry, is willing to accept service under our Government, and could probably bring with him skilled workmen. If we get the machinery, this will be important.

Machinery for grooving muskets and heavy guns is, I hope, to be purchased ready made. If not, you will contract for its manufacture and delivery. You will endeavor to obtain the most improved shot for rifled cannon, and persons skilled in the preparation of that and other fixed ammunitions. Captain G. W. Smith and Captain Lovell, late of the United States Army, and now of New York City, may aid you in your task; and you will please say to them that we will be happy to have their services in our army.

You will make such inquiries as your varied knowledge will suggest in relation to the supply of guns of different calibers, especially the largest. I suggest the advantage, if to be obtained, of having a few of the fifteen-inch guns, like the one cast at Pittsburg.

I have not sought to prescribe so as to limit your inquiries, either as to object or place, but only to suggest for your reflection and consideration the points which have chanced to come under my observation. You will use your discretion in visiting places where information of persons or things is to be obtained for the furtherance of the object in view. Any contracts made will be sent to the Hon. L. P. Walker, Secretary of War, for his approval; and the contractor need not fear that delay will be encountered in the action of this Government.

Very respectfully yours, etc.,

(Signed) Jefferson Davis.

Captain Semmes had also been directed to seek for vessels which would serve for naval purposes, and after his return reported that he could not find any vessels which in his judgment were, or could be made, available for our uses. The Southern officers of the navy who were in command of United States vessels abroad, under an idea more creditable to their sentiment than to their knowledge of the nature of our constitutional Union, brought the vessels they commanded into the ports of the North, and having delivered them to authorities of the United States government, generally tendered their resignations, and repaired to [272] the states from which they had been commissioned in the navy, to serve where they held their allegiance to be due. The theory that they owed allegiance to their respective states was founded on the fact that the federal government was of the states; the sequence was that the navy belonged to the states, not to their agent, the federal government; when the states ceased to be united, the naval vessels and armament should have been divided among the owners. While we honor the sentiment which caused them to surrender their heart-bound associations, and the profession to which they were bred, on which they relied for subsistence, to go, with nothing save their swords and faithful hearts, to fight, to bleed, and to die if need be, in defense of their homes and a righteous cause, we can but remember how much was lost by their view of what their honor and duty demanded. Far, however, be it from their countrymen, for that or any other consideration, to wish that their fidelity to the dictates of a conscientious belief should have yielded to any temptation of interest. The course they pursued shows how impossible it was that they should have done so, for what did they not sacrifice to their sense of right! We were doubly bereft by losing our share of the navy we had contributed to build, and by having it all employed to assail us. The application of the appropriations for the navy of the United States had been such that the construction of vessels had been at the North, though much of the timber used and other material employed was transported from the South to Northern shipyards. Therefore, we were without the accessories needful for the rapid supply of naval vessels.

While attempting whatever was practicable at home, we sent a competent, well-deserving officer of the navy to England to obtain there and elsewhere, by purchase or by building, vessels which could be transformed into ships of war. These efforts and their results will be noticed more fully hereafter.

It may not be amiss to remark here that if the anticipations of our people were not realized, it was not from any lack of the zeal and ability of Secretary of the Navy Mallory. As was heretofore stated, his fondness for and aptitude in nautical affairs had led him to know much of vessels, their construction and management, and, as chairman of the Committee on United States Naval Affairs, he had superadded to this a very large acquaintance with officers of the United States navy, which gave him the requisite information for the most useful employment of the instructed officers who joined our service.

At the North many had been deceived by the fictions of preparations at the South for the war of the sections, and among ourselves were few [273] who realized how totally deficient the Southern states were in all which was necessary to the active operations of an army, however gallant the men might be, and however able were the generals who directed and led them. From these causes, operating jointly, resulted undue caution at the North and overweening confidence at the South. The habits of our people in hunting, and protecting their stock in fields from the ravages of ferocious beasts, caused them to be generally supplied with the arms used for such purposes. The facility with which individuals traveled over the country led to very erroneous ideas as to the difficulties of transporting an army. The small amounts of ammunition required in time of peace gave no measure of the amount requisite for warlike operations, and the products of a country which insufficiently supplied food for its inhabitants when peaceful pursuits were uninterrupted, would serve but a short time to furnish the commissariat of a large army. It was, of course, easy to foresee that if war was waged against the seceding states by all of those which remained in the Union, the large supply of provisions which had been annually sent from the Northwest to the South could not, under the altered circumstances, be relied on. That our people did not more immediately turn their attention to the production of food supplies may be attributed to the prevailing delusion that secession would not be followed by war. To the able officer then at the head of the commissariat department, Colonel L. B. Northrop, much credit is due for his well-directed efforts to provide both for immediate and prospective wants. It gives me the greater pleasure to say this because those less informed of all he did, and skillfully tried to do, have been profuse in criticism, and sparing indeed of the meed justly his due. Adequate facilities for transportation might have relieved the local want of supplies, especially in Virginia, where the largest bodies of troops were assembled; unfortunately, the quartermaster's department was scarcely less provided than that of the commissary. Not only were the railroads insufficient in number, but they were poorly furnished with rolling stock, and had been mainly dependent upon Northern foundries and factories for their rails and equipment. Even the skilled operatives of the railroads were generally Northern men, and their desertion followed fast upon every disaster which attended the Confederate arms. In addition to other causes which have been mentioned, the idea that cotton was king, and would produce foreign intervention, as well as a desire of the Northern people for the return of peace and the restoration of trade, exercised a potent influence in preventing our agriculturists from directing at an early period their capital and labor to the production of food supplies [274] rather than that of our staple for export. As one after another the illusions vanished and the material necessities of a great war were recognized by our people, never did patriotic devotion exhibit brighter examples of the sacrifice of self-interest and the abandonment of fixed habits and opinions, or more effective and untiring effort to meet the herculean task which was set before them. Being one of the few who regarded secession and war as inevitably connected, my early attention was given to the organization of military forces and the procurement and preparation of the munitions of war. If our people had not gone to war without counting the cost, they were nevertheless involved in it without means of providing for its necessities. It has been heretofore stated that we had no powder mills. It would be needless to say that the new-born government had no depots of powder, but it may be well to add that, beyond the small supply required for sporting purposes, our local traders had no stock on hand. Having no manufacturing industries which required saltpeter, very little of that was purchasable in our markets. The same would have been the case in regard to sulphur but for the fact that it had been recently employed in the clarification of sugar-cane juice, and thus a considerable amount of it was found in New Orleans. Prompt measures were taken to secure a supply of sulphur, and parties were employed to obtain saltpeter from the caves, as well as from the earth of old tobacco houses and cellars; artificial niter-beds were made to provide for prospective wants. Of soft wood for charcoal there was abundance, and thus materials were procured for the manufacture of gunpowder to meet the demand which would arise when the limited quantity purchased by the Confederate government at the North should be exhausted.

It was our good fortune to secure the services of an able and scientific soldier, General G. W. Rains, who to a military education added experience in a large manufacturing establishment, and to him was confided the construction of a powder mill and the manufacture of powder, both for artillery and small arms. The appalling contemplation of the inauguration of a great war, without powder or a navy to secure its importation from abroad, was soon relieved by the extraordinary efforts of the ordnance department and the well-directed skill of General Rains, to whom it is but a just tribute to say that, beginning without even instructed workmen, he had before the close of the war made what, in the opinion of competent judges, has been pronounced the best powder mill in the world, and in which powder of every variety of grain was [275] manufactured of materials which had been purified from those qualities which cause its deterioration under long exposure to a moist atmosphere.

The avowed purpose and declared obligation of the federal government was to occupy and possess the property belonging to the United States, yet one of the first acts was to set fire to the armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, the only establishment of the kind in the Southern states, and the only Southern depository of the rifles which the general government had then on hand.

What conclusion is to be drawn from such action? To avoid attributing a breach of solemn pledges, it must be supposed that Virginia was considered as out of the Union, and a public enemy, in whose borders it was proper to destroy whatever might be useful to her of the common property of the states lately united.

As soon as the United States troops had evacuated the place, the citizens and amorers went to work to save the armory as far as possible from destruction, and to secure valuable material stored in it. The master armorer, Armistead Ball, so bravely and skillfully directed these efforts that a large part of the machinery and materials was saved from the flames. The subduing of the fire was a dangerous and difficult task, and great credit is due to those who, under the orders of Master Armorer Ball, attempted and achieved it. When the fire was extinguished, the work was continued and persevered in until all the valuable machinery and material had been collected, boxed, and shipped to Richmond, about the end of the summer of 1861. The machinery thus secured was divided between the arsenals at Richmond, Virginia, and Fayetteville, North Carolina, and when repaired and put in working condition, supplied to some extent the want which existed in the South of means for the alteration and repair of old or injured arms, and finally contributed to increase the very scanty supply of arms with which our country was furnished when the war began. The practice of the federal government, which had kept the construction and manufacture of the material of war at the North, had consequently left the South without the requisite number of skilled workmen by whose labor machinery could at once be made fully effective if it were obtained; indeed, the want of such employees prevented the small amount of machinery on hand from being worked to its full capacity. The gallant Master Armorer Ball, whose capacity, zeal, and fidelity deserve more than a passing notice, was sent with that part of the machinery assigned to the Fayetteville arsenal. The toil, the anxiety, and responsibility of his perilous position at Harpers Ferry, where he remained long after the protecting force of the Confederate [276] army retired, had probably undermined a constitution so vigorous that, in the face of a great exigency, no labor seemed too great or too long for him to grapple with and endure. So, like a ship which, after having weathered the storm, goes down in the calm, the master armorer, soon after he took his quiet post at Fayetteville, was “found dead in his bed.”

The difficulties which on every side met the several departments of the executive branch of the government one must suppose were but little appreciated by many, whose opportunities for exact observation were the best, as one often meets with self-complacent expressions as to modes of achieving readily what prompt, patient, zealous effort proved to be insurmountable. In the progress of this work, it is hoped, will be presented not only the magnitude of the obstacles, but the spirit and capacity with which they were encountered by the unseen and much undervalued labors of the officers of the several departments, on whom devolved provision for the civil service, as well as for the armies in the field. Already has the report of General St. John commissary general of subsistence, of the operations of that department, just before the close of the war, exposed the hollowness of many sensational pictures intended to fix gross neglect or utter incapacity on the Executive.

The hoped — for and expected monograms of other chiefs of bureaus will silence like criticisms on each, so far as they are made by those who are not wilfully blind, or maliciously intent on the circulation of falsehood.

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Semmes (4)
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