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Chapter 12:

  • Supply of arms at the beginning of the war; of powder; of batteries; of other Articles
  • -- contents of arsenals -- other stores, mills, etc. -- first efforts to obtain powder, niter, and sulphur -- construction of mills commenced -- efforts to supply arms, machinery, field artillery, ammunition, equipment, and saltpeter -- results in 1862 -- Government powder mills; how organized -- success -- efforts to obtain lead -- smelting works -- troops, how armed -- winter of 1862 -- supplies -- niter and mining bureau -- equipment of first armies -- receipts by blockade Runners -- arsenal at Richmond -- armories at Richmond and Fayetteville -- a central laboratory built at Macon -- statement of General Gorgas -- Northern charge against General Floyd answered -- charge of Slowness against the President answered -- quantities of arms purchased that could not be shipped in 1861 -- letter of Huse.

At the beginning of the war the arms within the limits of the Confederacy were distributed as follows:

Rifles Muskets
At Richmond (State) about 4,000
Fayetteville, North Carolina about 2,000 25,000
Charleston, South Carolina about 2,000 20,000
Augusta, Georgia about 3,000 28,000
Mount Vernon, Alabama about 2,000 20,000
Baton Rouge, Louisiana about 2,000 27,000
——– ———
Total 15,000 120,000

There were at Richmond about sixty thousand old flint muskets, and at Baton Rouge about ten thousand old Hall's rifles and carbines. At Little Rock, Arkansas, there were a few thousand stands, and a few at the Texas Arsenal, increasing the aggregate of serviceable arms to about one hundred forty-three thousand. Add to these the arms owned by the several states and by military organizations, and it would make a total of one hundred fifty thousand for the use of the armies of the Confederacy. The rifles were of the caliber .54, known as Mississippi rifles, except those at Richmond taken from Harpers Ferry, which were of the new model caliber .58; the muskets were the old flintlock, caliber .69, [405] altered to percussion. There were a few boxes of sabers at each arsenal, and some short artillery swords. A few hundred holster pistols were scattered about. There were no revolvers.

There was before the war little powder or ammunition of any kind stored in the Southern states, and this was a relic of the war with Mexico. It is doubtful if there were a million of rounds of small-arms cartridges. The chief store of powder was that captured at Norfolk; there was, besides, a small quantity at each of the Southern arsenals, in all sixty thousand pounds, chiefly old cannon powder. The percussion caps did not exceed one quarter of a million, and there was no lead on hand. There were no batteries of serviceable field artillery at the arsenals, but a few old iron guns mounted on Gribeauval carriages fabricated about 1812. The states and the volunteer companies did, however, possess some serviceable batteries. But there were neither harness, saddles, bridles, blankets, nor other artillery or cavalry equipments.

To furnish one hundred fifty thousand men, on both sides of the Mississippi, in May, 1861, there were no infantry accoutrements, no cavalry arms or equipment, no artillery, and above all, no ammunition; nothing save arms, and these almost wholly the old pattern smooth-bore muskets, altered to percussion from flintlocks.

Within the limits of the Confederate States the arsenals had been used only as depots, and no one of them, except that at Fayetteville, North Carolina, had a single machine above the grade of a foot-lathe. Except at the Harpers Ferry armory, all the work of preparation of material had been carried on at the North; not an arm, not a gun, not a gun carriage, and, except during the Mexican War, scarcely a round of ammunition, had for fifty years been prepared in the Confederate States. There were consequently no workmen, or very few, skilled in these arts. Powder, save perhaps for blasting, had not been made at the South. No saltpeter was in store at any Southern point; it was stored wholly at the North. There were no worked mines of lead except in Virginia, and the situation of those made them a precarious dependence. The only cannon foundry existing was at Richmond. Copper, so necessary for field artillery and for percussion caps, was just being obtained in East Tennessee. There was no rolling mill for bar iron south of Richmond, and but few blast furnaces, and these, with trifling exceptions, were in the border states of Virginia and Tennessee.

The first efforts made to obtain powder were by orders sent to the North, which had been early done both by the Confederate government and by some of the states. These were being rapidly filled when the [406] attack was made on Fort Sumter. The shipments then ceased. Niter was contemporaneously sought for in north Alabama and Tennessee. Between four and five hundred tons of sulphur were obtained in New Orleans, at which place it had been imported for use in the manufacture of sugar. Preparations for the construction of a large powder mill were promptly commenced by the government, and two small private mills in East Tennessee were supervised and improved. On June 1, 1861, there was probably two hundred and fifty thousand pounds only, chiefly of cannon powder, and about as much niter, which had been imported by Georgia. There were the two powder mills above mentioned, but we had no experience in making powder, or in extracting niter from natural deposits, or in obtaining it by artificial beds.

For the supply of arms an agent was sent to Europe, who made contracts to the extent of nearly half a million dollars. Some small arms had been obtained from the North, and also important machinery. The machinery at Harpers Ferry armory had been saved from the flames by the heroic conduct of the operatives, headed by Armistead M. Ball, the master armorer. Of the machinery so saved, that for making rifle muskets was transported to Richmond, and that for rifles with sword-bayonets to Fayetteville, North Carolina. In addition to the injuries suffered by the machinery, the lack of skilled workmen caused much embarrassment. In the meantime the manufacture of small arms was undertaken at New Orleans and prosecuted with energy, though with limited success.

In field artillery the manufacture was confined almost entirely to the Tredegar Works in Richmond. Some castings were made in New Orleans, and attention was turned to the manufacture of field and siege artillery at Nashville. A small foundry at Rome, Georgia, was induced to undertake the casting of the three-inch iron rifle, but the progress was very slow. The state of Virginia possessed a number of old four-pounder iron guns which were reamed out to get a good bore, and rifled with three groves, after the manner of Parrott. The army at Harpers Ferry and that at Manassas were supplied with old batteries of six-pounder guns and twelve-pounder howitzers. A few Parrott guns, purchased by the state of Virginia, were with General Magruder at Big Bethel.

For the ammunition and equipment required for the infantry and artillery, a good laboratory and workshop had been established at Richmond. The arsenals were making preparations for furnishing ammunition and knapsacks; generally, however, what little was done in this regard was for local purposes. Such was the general condition of ordnance and ordnance stores in May, 1861. [407]

The progress of development, however, was steady. A refinery of saltpeter was established near Nashville during the summer, which received the niter from its vicinity, and from the caves in East and Middle Tennessee. Some inferior powder was made at two small mills in South Carolina. North Carolina established a mill near Raleigh; a stamping mill was put up near New Orleans, and powder made there before the fall of the city. Small quantities were also received through the blockade. It was estimated that on January 1, 1862, there were fifteen hundred seacoast guns of various caliber in position from Evansport on the Potomac to Fort Brown on the Rio Grande. If their caliber was averaged at thirty-two pounder, and the charge at five pounds, it would, at forty rounds per gun, require six hundred thousand pounds of powder for them. The field artillery—say three hundred guns, with two hundred rounds to the piece—would require one hundred twenty-five thousand pounds; the small-arm cartridges—say ten million—would consume one hundred twenty-five thousand pounds more, making in all eight hundred fifty thousand pounds. Deducting two hundred fifty thousand pounds, supposed to be on hand in various shapes, the increment is six hundred thousand pounds for the year 1861. Of this, perhaps two hundred thousand pounds had been made at the Tennessee and other mills, leaving four hundred thousand pounds to be supplied through the blockade, or before the beginning of hostilities.

The liability of powder to deteriorate in damp atmospheres results from the impurity of the niter used in its manufacture, and this it is not possible to detect by any of the usual tests. Security, therefore, in the purchase, depends on the reliability of the maker. To us, who had to rely on foreign products and the open market, this was equivalent to no security at all. It was, therefore, as well for this reason as because of the precariousness of thus obtaining the requisite supply, necessary that we should establish a government powder mill. It was our good fortune to have a valuable man whose military education and scientific knowledge had been supplemented by practical experience in a large manufactory of machinery. He, General G. W. Rains, was at the time resident in the state of New York; when his native state, North Carolina, seceded from the Union and joined the Confederacy, true to the highest instincts of patriotism, he returned to the land of his birth, and only asked where he could be most useful. The expectations which his reputation justified caused him to be assigned to the task of making a great powder mill, which should alike furnish an adequate supply and give assurance of its possessing all the requisite qualities. This problem, which, under the [408] existing circumstances seemed barely possible, was fully solved. Not only was powder made of every variety of grain and exact uniformity in each, but the niter was so absolutely purified that there was no danger of its deterioration in service. Had Admiral Semmes been supplied with such powder it is demonstrated, by the facts which have since been established, that the engagement between the Alabama and the Kearsarge would have resulted in a victory for the former.

These government powder mills were located at Augusta, Georgia, and satisfactory progress was made in the construction during the year. All the machinery, including the very heavy rollers, was made in the Confederate States. Contracts were made abroad for the delivery of niter through the blockade; for obtaining it immediately, we resorted to caves, tobacco houses, cellars, etc. The amount delivered from Tennessee was the largest item in the year's supply, but the whole was quite inadequate to existing and prospective needs.

The consumption of lead was mainly met by the Virginia lead mines at Wytheville, the yield from which was from sixty to eighty thousand pounds per month. Lead was also collected by agents in considerable quantities throughout the country, and the battlefield of Manassas was closely gleaned, from which much lead was collected. A laboratory for the smelting of other ores was constructed at Petersburg, Virginia, and was in operation before midsummer of 1862.

By the close of 1861, eight arsenals and four depots had been supplied with materials and machinery, so as to be efficient in producing the various munitions and equipments, the want of which had caused early embarrassment. Thus a good deal had been done to produce the needed material of war, and to refute the croakers who found in our poverty application for the maxim, Ex nihilo nihil fit.

The troops were, however, still very poorly armed and equipped. The old smooth-bore musket was the principal weapon of the infantry; the artillery had mostly the six-pounder gun and the twelve-pounder howitzer; the cavalry were armed with such various weapons as they could get—sabers, horse pistols, revolvers, Sharp's carbines, musketoons, short Enfield rifles, Holt's carbines, muskets cut off, etc. Equipments were in many cases made of stout cotton domestic, stitched in triple folds and covered with paint or rubber varnish. But poor as were the arms, enough of them, such as they were, could not be obtained to arm the troops pressing forward to defend their homes and their political rights.

In December, 1861, arms purchased abroad began to come in, and a [409] good many Enfield rifles were in the hands of the troops at the battle of Shiloh. The winter of 1862 was the period when our ordnance deficiencies were most keenly felt. Powder was called for on every hand; the equipments most needed were those we were least able to supply. The abandonment of the line of the Potomac and the upper Mississippi from Columbus to Memphis did somewhat, however, reduce the pressure for heavy artillery; after the fall of 1862, when the powder mills at Augusta had got into full operation, there was no further inability to meet all requisitions for ammunition. To provide the iron needed for cannon and projectiles, it had been necessary to stimulate by contracts the mining and smelting of its ores.

But it was obviously beyond the power of even the great administrative capacity of the chief of ordnance, General J. Gorgas, to whose monograph I am indebted for these details, to add, to his already burdensome labors, the numerous and increasing cares of obtaining the material from which ammunition, arms, and equipments were to be manufactured. On his recommendation a niter and mining bureau was organized, and Colonel St. John, who had been hitherto assigned to duty in connection with procuring supplies of niter and iron, was appointed chief of this bureau. A large, difficult, and most important field of operations was thus assigned to him, and well did he fulfill its requirements. To his recent experience was added scientific knowledge, and to both, untiring, systematic industry, and his heart's thorough devotion to the cause he served. The tree is known by its fruit, and he may confidently point to results as the evidence on which he is willing to stand for judgment. Briefly, they will be noticed.

Niter was to be obtained from caves and other like sources, and by the formation of niter beds, some of which had previously been begun at Richmond. These beds were located at Columbia (South Carolina), Charleston, Savannah, Augusta, Mobile, Selma, and various other points. At the close of 1864 there were two million eight hundred thousand feet of earth collected, and in various stages of nitrification, of which a large proportion was presumed to yield one and a half pound of niter per foot of earth. The whole country was laid off into districts, each of which was under the charge of an officer, who obtained details of workmen from the army, and made his monthly reports. Thus the niter production, in the course of a year, was brought up to something like half of the total consumption. The district from which the most constant yield could be relied on had its chief office at Greensboro, North Carolina, a region which had no niter caves in it. The niter was obtained from lixiviation of [410] nitrous earth found under old houses, barns, etc. The supervision of the production of iron, lead, copper, and all the minerals which needed development, as well as the manufacture of sulphuric and nitric acids (the latter required for the supply of the fulminate of mercury for percussion caps), without which the firearms of our day would have been useless, was added to the niter bureau. Such was the progress that in a short time the bureau was aiding or managing some twenty to thirty furnaces with an annual yield of fifty thousand tons or more of pig iron. The lead-and copper-smelting works erected were sufficient for all wants, and the smelting of zinc of good quality had been achieved. The chemical works were placed at Charlotte, North Carolina, to serve as a reserve when the supply from abroad might be cut off.

In equipping the armies first sent into the field, the supply of accessories was embarrassingly scant. There were arms, such as they were, for over one hundred thousand men, but no accoutrements nor equipments, and a meager supply of ammunition. In time the knapsacks were sup-planted by haversacks, which the women could make. But soldiers' shoes and cartridge boxes must be had; leather was also needed for artillery harness and for cavalry saddles; as the amount of leather which the country could furnish was quite insufficient for all these purposes, it was perforce apportioned among them. Soldiers' shoes were the prime necessity. Therefore, a scale was established, by which first shoes and then cartridge boxes had the preference; after these, artillery harness, and then saddles and bridles. To economize leather, the waist and cartridge-box belts were made of prepared cotton cloth stitched in three or four thicknesses. Bridle reins were likewise so made, and then cartridge boxes were thus covered, except the flap. Saddle skirts, too, were made of heavy cotton cloth strongly stitched. To get leather, each department procured its quota of hides, made contracts with the tanners, obtained hands for them by exemptions from the army, got transportation over the railroads for the hides and for supplies. To the varied functions of this bureau was finally added that of assisting the tanners to procure the necessary supplies for the tanneries. A fishery, even, was established on Cape Fear River to get oil for mechanical purposes, and at the same time food for the workmen. In cavalry equipments the main thing was to get a good saddle which would not hurt the back of the horse. For this purpose various patterns were tried, and reasonable success was obtained. One of the most difficult wants to supply in this branch of the service was the horseshoe for cavalry and artillery. The want of iron and of skilled labor was strongly felt. Every wayside blacksmith shop accessible, especially [411] those in and near the theatre of operations, was employed. These, again, had to be supplied with material, and the employees exempted from service.

It early became manifest that great reliance must be placed on the introduction of articles of prime necessity through the blockaded ports. A vessel capable of stowing six hundred fifty bales of cotton was purchased by the agent in England, and kept running between Bermuda and Wilmington. Some fifteen to eighteen successive trips were made before she was captured. Another was added, which was equally successful. These vessels were long, low, rather narrow, and built for speed. They were mostly of pale sky color, and, with their lights out and with fuel that made little smoke, they ran to and from Wilmington with considerable regularity. Several others were added, and devoted to bringing in ordnance, and finally general supplies. Depots of stores were likewise made at Nassau and Havana, Another organization was also necessary, that the vessels coming in through the blockade might have their return cargoes promptly on their arrival. These resources were also supplemented by contracts for supplies brought through Texas from Mexico.

The arsenal in Richmond soon grew into very large dimensions, and produced all the ordnance stores that the army required, except cannon and small arms, in quantities sufficient to supply the forces in the field. The arsenal at Augusta was very serviceable to the armies serving in the south and west, and turned out a good deal of field artillery complete. The government powder mills were entirely successful. The arsenal and workshops at Charleston were enlarged, steam introduced, and good work done in various departments. The arsenal at Mount Vernon, Alabama, was moved to Selma, in that state, where it grew into a large and well-ordered establishment of the first class. Mount Vernon arsenal was dismantled, and served to furnish lumber and timber for use elsewhere. At Montgomery, shops were kept up for the repair of small arms and the manufacture of articles of leather. There were many other small establishments and depots.

The chief armories were at Richmond and at Fayetteville, North Carolina. The former turned out about fifteen hundred stands per month, and the latter only four hundred per month, for want of operatives. To meet the want of cavalry arms, a contract was made for the construction in Richmond of a factory for Sharp's carbines; this being built, it was then converted into a manufactory of rifle carbines, caliber .58. Smaller establishments grew up at Asheville, North Carolina, and at Tallahassee, Alabama. A great part of the work of the armories consisted in the repair [412] of arms. In this manner the gleanings of the battlefields were utilized. Nearly ten thousand stands were saved from the field of Manassas, and from those about Richmond in 1862 about twenty-five thousand excellent arms. All the stock of inferior arms disappeared from the armories during the first two years of the war, and were replaced by a better class of arms, rifled and percussioned. Placing the good arms lost previous to July, 1863, at one hundred thousand, there must have been received from various sources four hundred thousand stands of infantry arms in the first two years of the war.

Among the obvious requirements of a well-regulated service was one central laboratory of sufficient capacity to prepare all ammunition, and thus to secure the vital advantage of absolute uniformity. Authority was therefore granted to concentrate this species of work at Macon, Georgia. Plans of the buildings and of the machinery required were submitted and approved, and the work was begun with energy. The pile of buildings had a facade of six hundred feet, was designed with taste, and comprehended every possible appliance for good and well-organized work. The buildings were nearly ready for occupation at the close of the war, and some of the machinery had arrived at Bermuda. This project preceded that of a general armory for the Confederacy, and was much nearer completion. These, with the admirable powder mills at Augusta, would have been completed, and with them the government would have been in a condition to supply arms and ammunition to three hundred thousand men. To these would have been added a foundry for heavy guns at Selma or Brierfield, Alabama, where the strongest cast iron in the country had been made.

Thus has been briefly sketched the development of the resources from which our large armies were supplied with arms and ammunition, while our country was invaded on land and water by armies much larger than our own. It will be seen under what disadvantages our people successfully prosecuted the (to them) new pursuits of mining and manufacturing. The chief of ordnance was General J. Gorgas, a man remarkable for his scientific attainment, for the highest administrative capacity and moral purity, all crowned by zeal and fidelity to his trust, in which he achieved results greatly disproportioned to the means at his command. He closes his excellent monograph in the following words:

We began in April, 1861, without an arsenal, laboratory, or powder-mill of any capacity, and with no foundry or rolling-mill, except in Richmond, and, before the close of 1863, or within a little over two years, we supplied them. During the harassments of war, while holding our own in the field defiantly and successfully against a powerful enemy; crippled by a depreciated currency; [413] throttled with a blockade that deprived us of nearly all the means of getting material or workmen; obliged to send almost every able-bodied man to the field; unable to use the slave-labor, with which we were abundantly supplied, except in the most unskilled departments of production; hampered by want of transportation even of the commonest supplies of food; with no stock on hand even of articles such as steel, copper, leather, iron, which we must have to build up our establishments—against all these obstacles, in spite of all these deficiencies, we persevered at home, as determinedly as did our troops in the field, against a more tangible opposition; and in that short period created, almost literally out of the ground, foundries and rolling-mills at Selma, Richmond, Atlanta, and Macon; smelting-works at Petersburg, chemical works at Charlotte, North Carolina; a powder-mill far superior to any in the United States and unsurpassed by any across the ocean; and a chain of arsenals, armories, and laboratories equal in their capacity and their improved appointments to the best of those in the United States, stretching link by link from Virginia to Alabama.

The same officer writes:

It was a charge often repeated at the North against General Floyd, that, as Secretary of War, he had with traitorous intent abused his office by sending arms to the South just before the secession of the States. The transactions which gave rise to this accusation were in the ordinary course of an economical administration of the War Department. After it had been determined to change the old flint-lock muskets which the United States possessed to percussion, it was deemed cheaper to bring all the flintlock arms in store at Southern arsenals to the Northern arsenals and armories for alteration, rather than to send the necessary machinery and workmen to the South. Consequently, the Southern arsenals were stripped of their deposits, which were sent to Springfield, Watervliet, Pittsburg, St. Louis, and other points. After the conversion had been effected, the denuded Southern arsenals were again supplied with about the same number, perhaps slightly augmented, that had formerly been stored there. The quota deposited at the Charleston Arsenal, where I was stationed in 1860, arrived there full a year before the opening of the war.

The charge was made early in the war that I was slow in procuring arms and munitions of war from Europe. We were not only in advance of the government of the United States in the markets of Europe, but the facts presented in the following extracts from a letter of our agent, Caleb Huse, dated December 30, 1861, and addressed to Major C. C. Anderson, will serve to place the matter in its proper light:

London, December 30, 1861.
dear Major: We are all waiting with almost breathless anxiety for the arrival of the answer from the United States to the unqualified demand of England for the captured commissioners. Will Mr. Lincoln disregard the international writ of habeas corpus served by Great Britain? We shall soon know. If the prisoners are given up, the affair will result in great inconvenience to us in the way of shipping goods. [414]

I have now more than enough to load three “Bermudas,” and can not ship a package, though I have a steamer off the wharf, all ready to receive her cargo. We are literally fighting two governments here. Government watchmen guard the wharf where our goods are stowed and others in the neighborhood, night and day—and the wharfinger has orders not to ship or deliver, by land or water, any goods marked W. D., without first acquainting the honorable Board of Customs. I have applied myself to ship to Bermuda, offering to give bonds to double the amount of value of the goods, that they should be held in Bermuda, subject to the direction of her Majesty's representative in Bermuda. I . . . has applied for permission to ship to Cardenas, agreeing to hold the goods subject to the order of the Spanish authorities—but all without avail, and our army must suffer for the want of blankets, overcoats, shoes, socks, field forges, arms, and ammunition, which have been collected to an amount more than double that I have yet received.

It is miserable to have to look at the immense pile of packages in the warehouse at St. Andrews Wharf, and not be able to send anything—only read the following: twenty-five thousand rifles; two thousand barrels of powder; five hundred thousand caps; ten thousand friction-tubes; five hundred thousand cartridges; thirteen thousand accoutrements; thirteen thousand knapsacks; thirteen thousand gun-slings; forty-four thousand three hundred and twenty-eight pairs of socks; sixteen thousand four hundred and eighty-four blankets; two hundred and twenty-six saddles; saddlers' tools; artillery-harness; leather, etc.

Very truly yours,

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