Tredegar Iron Works: An Introduction
One of the most formidable problems the Confederate States of America grappled with during the Civil War was the acquisition of artillery. Throughout the conflict, the Confederate government filled its need by purchasing European cannon, capturing Union pieces, and increasing domestic production. This last source proved to be the most reliable, eventually supplying Confederate armies with more than 2,200 cannon. Of this total, the Tredegar Iron Works forged nearly 50%.
A private firm, Tredegar was the South's largest major antebellum rolling mill capable of producing cannon and railroad rails. Since 1843 its proprietor had been Joseph Reid Anderson, a West Point graduate and ardent secessionist. Under Anderson, Tredegar's foundries and machine shops developed into a first-class operation, fabricating cannon and gun carriages for the U.S. Government.
With Virginia's secession and the advent of war Tredegar, employing 900 workers, was flooded with state and private contracts. The iron works concentrated initially on casting heavy-caliber seacoast and siege guns. It also rifled and rebored scores of antiquated field cannon from the Virginia State Armory, pieces that served Confederate forces in Virginia while new cannon were being made. Pig-iron supplies, however, diminished rapidly, and soon were completely exhausted. For nearly a month late in the summer of 1861, Tredegar Iron Works produced not a single cannon.
By 1863, Tredegar had expanded its work force to 2,500. The works also operated shoemaking shops, a firebrick factory, a sawmill, a tannery, and nine canal boats. Anderson even dispatched agents into other states to purchase livestock, which he ordered slaughtered and sold to employees at cost to help relieve the problems they faced with food shortages.
But the scarcity of skilled mechanics and raw materials plagued the foundry's operations throughout the war. In November 1863, the Ducktown copper mines outside Chattanooga, Tennessee, the source of 90% of the Confederacy's copper, was captured by the Federals. This brought the production of the bronze light 12-pound Napoleon to a halt. The foundrymen, however, had developed an iron Napoleon that partially filled the need.
The shortage of skilled labor increasingly affected the production of cannon due to the lack of Tredegar mechanics who were organized into a defense battalion which late in the war was often called upon to serve in Richmond's defenses.
By 1865, a shortage of iron had affected both the quantity and quality of Tredegar ordnance. Production at the gun mill came to a complete halt by March 1865. Richmond was evacuated the next month. A battalion of 350 Tredegar workers successfully repulsed fire and mobs during the Confederate evacuation of Richmond, sparing the Tredegar Iron Works for a major role in post-war Southern reconstruction. The United States Army occupied Tredegar for about four months following the war and considered possible government use of the works. Anderson and his partners were able to secure Presidential pardons and quickly reopened the Iron Works with the aid of Richmond industrialists.
In 1867, Anderson and his partners reorganized the firm into a new operation, the Tredegar Company, which saw six years of expansion and prosperity. New department were established and technological improvements included the upgrading of rail rolling facilities and introducing new chair mills, spike machines, and, after 1870, horseshoe machines.
Tredegar faced a depression in 1873 from which it never fully recovered. Iron gave way to steel in the 1870's and 1880's. Tredegar Company, hampered with a large debt, lacked the capital to make the transition. Richmond eventually had to give up its position as the industrial capital of the South to ever-growing Birmingham, Alabama.
Before Joseph Reid Anderson died in 1892, he had built the Tredegar Iron Works into a profitable, primarily local, operation. Unfortunately, a fire in 1952 gutted the old plant, leaving behind only a few buildings as a testimony to the industrial economy of the South that once thrived on a few acres of land in the capital of the Confederacy.
Daniel, Larry J. and Gunter, Riley W. Confederate Cannon Foundries. Pioneer Press: Union City, TN, 1977.
Dew, Charles B. Ironmaker to the Confederacy: Joseph Reid Anderson and the Tredegar Iron Works. Library of Virginia: Richmond, VA, 1999.
Last updated: February 26, 2015