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  • System in the South: John W. Mallet, Josiah Gorgas, and Uniform Production at the Confederate Ordnance Department
  • Steven G. Collins (bio)

When a war is decided upon, it becomes necessary to prepare, not an entire plan of operations,—which is always impossible,—but a system of operations in reference to a prescribed aim; to provide a base, as well as all the material means necessary to guarantee the success of the enterprise. 1

When the South seceded from the Union in 1861, few trained soldiers would have disagreed with Henri Jomini’s assessment that war required a “system of operations.” It is worth examining, then, why the production of ammunition in the Confederate States Ordnance Department became one of the few bureaucratic bright spots in the Confederacy’s dismally organized war effort. By war’s end the Confederate government could barely feed and clothe its troops. Ammunition, however, continued to be produced in adequate amounts. Brigadier General Josiah Gorgas, chief of the Ordnance Department, and his subordinate, Lieutenant Colonel John W. Mallet, commander of the Confederate laboratory at Macon, Georgia, enhanced the Confederacy’s ability to wage a long and destructive war. 2 With the application [End Page 517] of modern management techniques, control processes, and bureaucratic structures, and with the assistance of a number of committed subordinates, they brought a system of order and uniformity to the fabrication of ammunition. Indeed, by the end of the war Gorgas and Mallet had successfully incorporated into the Ordnance Department the principles and methods of what would later be recognized as the bureaucratic system of corporate management.

The need for standardized weapons and ammunition posed a daunting challenge for Gorgas and Mallet. Although they never completely overcame the department’s internal problems, they succeeded in incorporating many of the bureaucratic changes that had evolved in ordnance production and management after the War of 1812. 3 During that conflict, the military’s lack of preparation and poor performance taught American officers and astute politicians, such as John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, that a centralized system for the production of firearms was required. In 1815, consequently, Congress placed the national armories at Springfield, Massachusetts, and Harpers Ferry, Virginia, under the supervision of the U. S. Army Ordnance Department. At that time, the Ordnance Department looked to the French military’s system of arms production, which had pioneered a system of standardized parts, centralized production techniques, and inspection by gauge. In 1817, Major Sylvanus Thayer introduced the French methods to the curriculum of the United States Military Academy. West Point cadets began to study chemistry, mathematics, physics, engineering, and military drawing. Thereafter, the military academy produced a new breed of “soldier-technologist” who understood the nexus between technology and warfare. 4 [End Page 518]

The Ordnance Department’s emphasis on uniform munitions production also encouraged the growth of bureaucratic structures to ensure quality control. Moreover, these structures began to permit the control of production, accounting, and arms distribution as well as coordination between the separate arms factories. For ordnance officers, uniformity and control became key concepts. Slowly, and with considerable opposition from some civilian supervisors, the Ordnance Department implemented its program. The introduction of uniform standards followed a complicated path as decision makers sought to incorporate machine-tool technology and rational management methods into the production process. By the late 1820s, this system enabled the Ordnance Department to implement the “Springfield standard,” which used master gauges to inspect and report on uniformity at each of the arsenals. The continued stress on uniformity, standardization, and the improvement of machine tools eventually resulted in the first fully interchangeable firearms manufactured in large numbers, the Model 1841 percussion rifle and 1842 percussion musket. In the four decades before the Civil War, the U. S. Ordnance Department, through much trial and error, had with considerable difficulty achieved a measure of standardized production. 5

Industrial efficiency and mechanization, along with a disciplined work force, evolved almost simultaneously from both the military and railroad management hierarchies and were subsequently adopted by market institutions in both the North and the South. Some Southerners, especially Whigs, heeded the new “Industrial Gospel” in the antebellum period. Systemization and uniformity in agriculture, education, and...