Tireless Josiah Gorgas worked wonders at the Richmond
Arsenal, arming a fledgling nation from scratch
By Louise Carroll
America's Civil War, November 1989.
The successful operation of the Richmond Arsenal for four long years of
civil war is proof of what can be accomplished with leadership, enterprise and hard work
by a people totally unprepared for war. When the war began, the South had no musket caps,
no improved arms, no sabers or carbines, no powder, no powder mills, no cap machines, no
improved cannon and no arsenals. Into this seemingly hopeless situation came Josiah
Gorgas, a man with a genius for organization and a flexible mind that explored all
possibilities to their utmost limits. He had both the ideas and the force of leadership to
provide the tools of war to a fledgling nation that had neither the raw materials nor the
all-important know-how when the fighting began.
Gorgas (1818-1883) was born in Pennsylvania, and had been in the United States Army for
15 years at the outset of the war. He had served at the Frankfort Arsenal in Philadelphia,
a stint that would prove invaluable. Perhaps the fact that his wife was from Alabama had
led him to join the Confederacy; whatever his reasons, it was fortunate for the South.
Although President Jefferson Davis was not personally acquainted with Gorgas, he
nevertheless commissioned him chief of the Ordnance Bureau, solely on Gorgas' past record
and the recommendations of others.
In every possible way, Gorgas used his energy and ingenuity to supply the South.
Domestic production was Gorgas' main hope and he worked to expand factories and shops. He
also offered help to small businesses and was alert to encourage potential furnaces, mines
A cool, aloof man who appeared perpetually irritated, Gorgas accomplished a
near-impossible feat. Supplying ordnance was a difficult task, as was any other logistical
endeavor in a South suffering from inflation and lack of official currency. With good
reason the people resisted government promissory notes - there were no funds.
At the same time, Gorgas vigorously pursued all avenues of blockade
running. He wanted the government to be engaged in eluding blockaders in the same way that
private enterprise was successfully managing to do. Gorgas was the first to suggest that
the government own and operate ships to run the blockade. He bought the ships, found the
cotton to be traded to foriegn markets, and sent out agents who had previously succeeded
at blockade running.
The Richmond Arsenal was both a repository for arms and military stores
and an establishment where arms and military supplies were manufactured. It was located in
the industrial center of Richmond. It was here that the mills and factories were located:
the arsenal, the armory, the Tredegar Iron Works and the laboratories.
Before the war, Richmond had been an important center for the United States Ordnance
Department. Although the South was mainly rural, Richmond was a modern city. As the
capital of a new nation at war, Richmond tripled its population in a few years' time and
suffered critical food shortages and other problems as a result of the rapid growth and
The arsenal was located at the foot of 7th Street, near the James River and the
Richmond and Petersburg Railroad Bridge. By employing few hands but with improved
machinery, the arsenal was prepared to make 300,000 caps per day. These caps, made with
"wonderful rapidity," were tested and found to be superior to
The scrap metal left from the manufacture of caps was ingeniously converted by a
Virginia mechanic into an alloy that could be worked and re-worked until it was all used.
Few men were employed at the arsenal; the majority of the work was done by women and
children. And the work was dangerous. On March 13, 1863, an explosion rocked the
Confederate States Laboratory on Brown's Island, located not far from the arsenal, killing
45 women and children. The employees of the arsenal gave generously to a committee formed
by the Young Men's Christian Association to relieve the suffering of the injured and their
The Confederacy also was able to construct powder mills it felt were the equal of any
in the world. For example, when the scarcity of copper began to be felt because the North
had gained possession of such mines in Tennessee, the South mined the pure copper from
North Carolina and elsewhere and used the copper from turpentine and apple brandy stills.
Thus the South was able to purchase and otherwise secure enough copper, although because
of the blockade they could not rely on foreign suppliers.
An extraordinary amount of energy and enterprise was used to convert the stills for
daily use. The stills were cut to pieces, rerolled and handed over to the cap
manufacturer. The armies of the Confederacy, during the last 12 months of the war, used
caps manufactured from North Carolina stills.
When copper ceased to be available for casting Napoleon guns, a light, cast
iron-banded, 12-pounder gun was substituted. According to reports, this gun was believed
to be superior in range and durability to the bronze Napoleon gun.
After the Federals had captured the copper mines of Tennessee, the scarcity of copper
caused the South to suspend the casting of bronze fieldpieces and to hoard the existing
copper for use in the manufacture of percussion caps. A simple and excellent machine for
making, filling, pressing and varnishing caps was invented, patented and used with
success. It took eight people to operate the machine - two men, and six boys and girls, to
complete over 300,000 caps - stamping, filling, pressing and varnishing within eight
For the completion of these machines, the Confederate government awarded the sum of
$125,000, which was about $2,000 in gold.
The Richmond Arsenal operated so successfully that the issues from the arsenal
represented approximately half the total issues used by the Confederate Army. Fieldpieces
of all descriptions were classed among the issues, including all those pieces obtained by
manufacture, purchase or capture and afterward issued from the arsenal. The infantry arms
issued included the arms manufactured at the Confederate States Armory, those obtained by
purchase or capture, and those turned over to the Confederate States Arsenal by the state
Assuming that 100,000 Federals were killed in battle, not counting wounded or those who
died from disease, it has been estimated that 150 pounds of lead and 350 of iron were
fired for every man killed; if the proportion of killed to wounded is one to six, it would
further appear that one man was disabled for every 200 rounds expended.
In former wars, with the old smoothbore musket, it was generally said
that "his weight in lead is required for every man who is slain." From the above
statistics, it does not appear that the rifled musket was any improvement.
The Confederate government, through its officers, traditionally has been
held responsible for the destruction of the city of Richmond on the morning of April 3,
1865, including the burning of the arsenal. However, Richmond resident W. LeRoy Brown gave
this account in 1869: "Between five and six o'clock on the morning of April 3, 1865,
the commanding officer visited every building, had the gas extinguished and instructed the
guards to shoot down any man who attempted to fire a building. It was only an hour later
rapid explosions of shells heard in the distance convinced him that the arsenal was being
destroyed by the torch of an arsonist or a frantic mob."
When Petersburg fell on April 2, Richmond was evacuated by the Confederates, who set
fire to the business district, bridges, military stores and tobacco warehouses. Before the
fire could be extinguished by Northern soldiers, one-third of the city was burned. The
fire burning this part of Richmond silenced the busy whirl of machinery, the metallic
sounds of the hammers, and the voices of men, women and children working in the desperate
last hours of a nation at war.
At the time of the evacuation of Richmond, there were probably about 25,000 rounds of
artillery ammunition, mostly for siege guns, in the storehouses of the arsenal. During the
Sunday night of the evacuation, an attempt was made to destroy the ammunition by throwing
it in the river. This was soon abandoned as there was not enough manpower for the job.
Several canal boats were filled with the most valuable cap machinery and small arms and
ordered to Lynchburg. It was the end of four years of successful operation by the arsenal.
When the war began, the arsenal workers were untrained, unskilled, awkward
apprentices-three years of patriotic toil turned them into excellent workmen. They took
pride in the fact that no battle had been lost by the Confederate armies for want of
In a rare expression of self-satisfaction, Gorgas once boasted: "I have succeeded
beyond my utmost expectations. From being the worse supplied of the Bureaus of the War
Department it [Ordnance Department] is the best." He went on to mention specifically
the Richmond Arsenal. The successful operation of the arsenal was greatly due to his own
ability to meet the demands of economy and necessity with engenuity and simplicity.
After the war, Gorgas taught at the University of the South, at Sewanee,
Tenn., then retired to Alabama. He died in Tuscaloosa, in May 1883.
last updated on