The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government

Author: Jefferson Davis  | Date: 1881

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Supplies for the Confederacy (1861)


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

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 Harper’s 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 arty 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 attack was made on Fort Sumter. The shipments then ceased. . . .

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 Harper’s Ferry Armory had been saved from the flames by the heroic conduct of the operatives, headed by Mr. 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 field-artillery the manufacture was confined almost entirely to the Tredegar Works in Richmond. . . . The State of Virginia possessed a number of old four-pounder iron guns which were rearmed out to get a good bore, and rifled with three grooves, after the manner of Parrott. The army at Harper’s 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; but generally, what little was done in this regard was for local purposes. Such was the general condition of ordnance and ordnance stores in May, 1861.

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; and 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 . . . necessary that we should establish a Government powder-mill. . . .

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; and, 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 mouth. Lead was also collected by agents in considerable quantities throughout the country, and the battle-field of Manassas was closely gleaned, from which much lead was collected. . . .

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.". . .

. . . To provide the iron needed for cannon and projectiles, it had been necessary to stimulate by contracts the mining and smelting of its ores.

. . . A niter and mining bureau was organized. . . .

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. . . . 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 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 supplanted 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; and, 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. . . . 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 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 and 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 chief armories were at Richmond and Fayetteville, North Carolina. . . . A great part of the work of the armories consisted in the repair of arms. In this manner the gleanings of the battle-fields 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.

Jefferson Davis, (New York, D. Appleton & Co., 1881), I. 472–480 passim.


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Chicago: Jefferson Davis, "Supplies for the Confederacy (1861)," The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government in American History Told by Contemporaries, ed. Albert Bushnell Hart (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1903), Original Sources, accessed June 15, 2024,

MLA: Davis, Jefferson. "Supplies for the Confederacy (1861)." The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, Vol. I, in American History Told by Contemporaries, edited by Albert Bushnell Hart, Vol. 4, New York, The Macmillan Company, 1903, Original Sources. 15 Jun. 2024.

Harvard: Davis, J, 'Supplies for the Confederacy (1861)' in The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government. cited in 1903, American History Told by Contemporaries, ed. , The Macmillan Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 15 June 2024, from