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Technology and Culture 42.1 (2001) 1-26

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Labor, Race, and Technology in the Confederate Iron Industry

Anne Kelly Knowles


Southern iron manufacturing had to change in a hurry when the Civil War began. What had been a modest industry geared to producing mainly domestic and agricultural ironware was pressed into service to match the fearsome weaponry of the industrial North. The Confederate government effectively nationalized the region's iron industry by funding its rapid expansion and capturing the lion's share of output in government contracts. Richmond's Tredegar Iron Works, the most sophisticated iron-making complex in the South, was greatly enlarged to increase the capacity of its rolling mill and cannon foundry. New mills were built deep in Confederate territory to produce iron plating for battleships and rails to move military supplies. New and enlarged foundries hastened to cast heavy cannon for navy warships and coastal defenses. A new national laboratory at Macon, Georgia, strove to manufacture high-quality small-arms ammunition. The government commissioned geological surveys to find coal, iron ore, and niter, the latter being the key ingredient in gunpowder and the one kind of ordnance matériel the South had not produced before the war. 1 [End Page 1]

According to historian James McPherson, this effort resulted in the one success story of Confederate industrialization. "Although often less well armed than their enemies," he writes, "Confederate soldiers did not suffer from ordnance shortages after 1862." He credits the Confederate chief of ordnance, Josiah Gorgas, "a genius at organization and improvisation," who scraped together necessary supplies from unlikely sources and created a domestic arms industry almost from scratch. As Gorgas declared in 1864, "Where three years ago we were not making a gun, a pistol nor a sabre, no shot nor shell (except at the Tredegar Works)--[not] a pound of powder--we now make all these in quantities to meet the demands of our large armies." 2

Gorgas was being less than truthful in this boast. His own correspondence on behalf of the Ordnance Bureau reported that small arms were always in short supply; by September 1864 most were being imported from Europe. 3 My aim in this article is not to debate the volume of Confederate arms production, but rather to illuminate the conditions under which arms manufacturers struggled to meet wartime demand, particularly for heavy ordnance. Judging from Confederate military correspondence and the detailed company records of the Tredegar Iron Works and the Shelby Iron Works, near Columbiana, Alabama, Confederate heavy ordnance producers suffered a sometimes crippling shortage of skilled labor that limited output and rendered some facilities inoperable. Those who managed to hold on to their skilled workforce, such as Tredegar and Shelby, were compelled to compromise principles dear to the cause of industrial slavery by courting and employing white immigrant artisans whose identity was anathema to Southern slave society. However bravely and creatively Confederate ordnance officers and manufacturers waged the battle of production, they lost the war for a slave society by demonstrating that a modern iron industry could not be based on slave labor. [End Page 2]

The Geography of Technology and Skill

In the two decades prior to the Civil War, the U.S. iron industry became increasingly divided along technological and regional lines. New concentrations of innovative technology and large-scale production developed between the Delaware and Susquehanna rivers in eastern Pennsylvania (cradle of the anthracite iron industry) and in other parts of the Mid-Atlantic where ironmasters and artisans solved the chemical difficulties of smelting iron with the region's bituminous coal. This period also saw the rise of large rolling mills in the United States, prompted by growing demand for railroad rails, sheet iron, and nails. Although some of the largest rolling mills and most furnaces were built in proximity to iron ore, coal, and waterpower in rural areas, most mills were located in northern cities or industrial towns. By 1850 the outlines of what would later be called the manufacturing belt were clearly visible in the geography of large-scale iron...


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