Josiah Gorgas arrived in Montgomery, Alabama, during the early days of April 1861. He had come to accept an appointment as chief of the Confederate Ordnance Bureau. With war imminent, Gorgas faced the formidable and seemingly impossible task of equipping the armies of a nation that lacked nearly any facilities for equipping armies. By war’s end, he and a group of talented subordinates had fashioned one of the Civil War’s most remarkable achievements.
A 42-year-old native Pennsylvanian and West Point graduate, Gorgas had spent his entire antebellum Army career as an ordnance officer. He had directed Winfield Scott’s ordnance depot in Mexico and had been stationed at various arsenals during the 1840s and 1850s. While on duty at the Mount Vernon Arsenal near Mobile, Ala., he met and married Amelia Gayle. His wife’s allegiance to her state most likely inspired him to join the Confederacy.
A reserved, even aloof man, Gorgas faced an enormous undertaking. The South lacked, with few exceptions, the industrial base to manufacture gunpowder, arms and cannons. The region contained a handful of small Federal arsenals, and with Virginia’s secession, the Confederacy secured the privately owned Tredegar Iron Works, the only foundry in the South capable of producing heavy ordnance. Gorgas had to create an entire operation to meet the insatiable demands of the army from limited resources. Fortunately, he possessed an outstanding talent for organization and ingenuity.
Gorgas pursued every avenue to obtain arms and equipment. During the war’s initial months, volunteer soldiers carried guns brought from home, or old muskets and rifles obtained from seized state and Federal arsenals. Gorgas sent Caleb Huse to Great Britain to secure arms from European nations. Huse’s work turned up critically needed arms and supplies, delivered by blockade runners, during the conflict’s first year. Troops scoured battlefields for abandoned Union weapons and accouterments after Confederate victories at First and Second Manassas and the Seven Days’ battles.
The Ordnance Bureau’s efforts were far-ranging. Officers confiscated bells from churches and plantations for the bronze needed in casting cannons. When the Federals seized copper mines in Tennessee in 1863, bureau agents hunted down stills for copper to make percussion caps. Mechanics invented a machine that with the labor of eight people could produce 300,000 caps in eight hours. This resulted in the production of millions of caps, which met the armies’ needs throughout the war.
It was this domestic manufacturing of weaponry that sustained the Confederacy for four years and proved to be Gorgas’ most remarkable accomplishment. Throughout the South he established arsenals that produced rifles, pistols, sabers, cartridges, cannons, artillery ammunition and accouterments, including cartridge and cap boxes, harnesses and saddles for horses, knapsacks and belts.
The bureau used or converted Federal arsenals and depots, foundries and machine and railroads shops. In all, Gorgas erected 18 arsenals, with the major facilities in Richmond; Fayetteville, N.C.; Atlanta, Augusta and Macon, Ga.; and Selma, Ala.
The Richmond Arsenal served as headquarters for the Ordnance Bureau and produced nearly half of the Confederacy’s ordnance needs. Located along 7th and Cary streets and on two islands in the James River, the arsenal consisted of the old Virginia Armory and several other buildings. Skilled craftsmen, women and children worked at the main arsenal, as they did at the other locations. On March 13, 1863, an explosion killed 45 women and children in the arsenal’s laboratory on Brown’s Island.
By January 1, 1865, the workers at the Richmond Arsenal had manufactured more than 1,600 heavy cannons and fieldpieces, 900,000 rounds of artillery ammunition, 350,000 rifles and carbines, 6,000 revolvers and 72 million small-arms cartridges. Its nearby neighbor, the Tredegar Iron Works, owned and operated by Joseph R. Anderson, was the primary maker of heavy artillery for the Confederacy.
One of the Ordnance Bureau’s finest achievements was its impressive manufacture of gunpowder. Gorgas created the Mining and Niter Bureau, directed by Isaac M. St. John. This bureau mined potassium nitrate or saltpeter, the primary ingredient in gunpowder, from limestone caves in the Appalachians. In turn, the saltpeter was shipped to the Augusta Powder Works, a large complex of 26 buildings that served as the Confederacy’s major supplier of the vital commodity. Under the leadership of George W. Rains, the facility in Augusta, Ga., produced gunpowder equal in quality to any in the world.
Early in 1864, Gorgas wrote with justifiable pride in his diary, “Where three years ago we were not making a gun, a pistol nor a sabre, no shot nor shell (except at the Tredegar Works)—a pound of powder—we now make all these in quantities to meet the demands of our large armies.” Without his remarkable abilities and those of St. John, Rains and thousands of workers, the Confederacy could not have waged a four-year struggle. For a soldier who never led troops in combat, Josiah Gorgas did much to help shape the course of a war.
Originally published in the January 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.