From the San Diego (CA) Union, 9/13/1925, p. 27, c. 1

Making Last Cast Iron Cannon in U. S.
Filling Deep Well With Bombshells
Buying Hogshead of Battered Minie Balls

In the late ‘70s I was in charge of the foundries of the Columbus Iron works. Columbus, Ga., which was at that time the largest iron works south of Richmond, Va. We were engaged principally in making ice machines, cotton presses and sugar mill machinery at that time.

During the Civil war the plant was busy making machinery for blockade runner, brass cannon, etc.

Gen. Emory Upton was detailed by by Gen. Wilson to capture Columbus and destroy the industries there, which order Gen. Upton carried out most thoroughly April 16, 1865. This was one week after Lee’s surrender to Grant, April 9, 1865, but communication was slow then.


One of the aftermaths of the war was that we used to get a number of old shot and shell in with the scrap iron. The round shells were so rusted over they were hard to detect from the shot. The cupola chargers once got a big bomb shell in the cupola by mistake with a charge of iron, and when it got heated up to the proper degree – bang, it burst and did things to the cupola.

About that time two boys who brought their fathers’ dinner to the foundry obtained one of the conical shells and took it to an out-of-the-way place to pick the powder out. It exploded and killed both of them.

Back of the foundry, near the gate on the road above the Chatahooche river, was a deep abandoned well, and, after that fatal accident, old shot and shell were dumped into that well. Many a big one went in there until it was within a few feet of the top. Then it was filled up with sand and cinders. If, some day this cache is discovered, posterity may wonder how it happened.

In 1884 I went to Richmond, Va., as manager of foundries for the Tredegar company, the oldest and largest engineering plant in the south, and the real industrial backbone of the Confederacy during the war. At that time they had four foundries, a cast pipe foundry, one for car wheels, one on general work and a brass foundry. We used about 3000 tons of cast scrap a month in our mixtures and it will give some idea how many old shot and shell from the battlefields far and near around Richmond came in wit the scrap at that time.


Many G. A. R. veterans visited the works, and one time Horace Cory of Middletown, N. Y., asked me to ship him enough old shot and shell to build a pyramid for the G. A. R. to view during a veterans’ meeting to be held there. He said “they had applied to the government but it could not furnish any.” I shipped them all they wanted free of cost.

One other striking instance will show how hard it was to get rid of the old shot and shell and keep them off the market. Any that we knew were shot we could work up, but most all of them had laid in the ground for years before being found and were so rusted over we could not afford to risk the danger and expense of the men in the hurry of their work getting shells in the furnaces, so they were all set aside and from the thousands of tons of cast scrap we used we had quite an accumulation of all sizes, some of them 13 inches in diameter.

I finally had some men take them in row boat loads and dump them into the James river, in 12 feet of water above steamboat navigation and opposite Belle Isle, where Rev. John Jasper, the negro preacher of “The Sun Do Move” fame, used to try his luck fishing.


My office was built on iron columns out over the James river and in full view of where we dumped the shells. I had never seen anyone in the river there, but in a couple of days after the dumping I saw several heads bobbing up and down. It finally dawned on me that a lot of ragamuffins from the city were diving and rolling a shot a little at a time. I felt such persistence and grit were worth the reward and did not interfere, and in the end they rolled every one of those big shells out and carted them back to junk shops.

In buying up a lot of old material from dealers I had an unusual experience that will probably never happen to another man. One large dealer had a lot of brass scrap, consisting of brass of federal and Confederate sword handles and the brass covers to army belt buckles. He also had a tobacco hogshead full of battered one-ounce minie balls that had been gradually picked up from battle fields and shipped to him from smaller dealers. They were battered into every conceivable shape, but we melted them into ingots for future use. Much of the metal was made into journal brasses for freight cars.

This account of the last cast iron cannon made after the Civil war is verbatim as related to me by Gen. Joseph R. Anderson, a gentleman of the old school and a prominent ironmaster, who founded the Tredegar company in Richmond, Va., in 1846. He was a close personal friend of Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, a gallant defender of the south. The story he told me deals with the last of the cast iron Rodman guns ordered (after the Civil war) by the United States government.


The order called for 24 guns and was equally divided between the West Point (Parrott’s), Cold Springs, N. Y.; the Fort Pitt works, Pittsburgh, new McIntosh Hemphill & Co., and the Tredegar company.

The war department not only specified all the tests to which the guns should conform, but also indicated the analysis and mixture from which they should cast. The general notified the department that he would not accept the order under the conditions. He claimed that guns made from the iron specified would withstand the shock test. However, if permitted to use his own judgment and select his own material, he guaranteed to produce guns that would withstand any shock test to which they might be subjected on the proving ground. He was given permission to proceed with the work.

At that time guns were tested by selecting one from each lot of eight and subjecting it to six discharges, each test charge being equal to a double service charge. If the gun selected burst in the test that condemned the lot it represented.


The guns made in the other plants according to specifications burst during the tests. The Tredegar guns not only withstood the six regular test charges but also resisted the effect of six additional charges, and the only noticeable change in its appearance was a slight enlargement of the vent. The guns were accepted by the government and formed the last lot of cast iron guns manufactured in this country.

The Parrott gun was not satisfactory. The Dahlgren took far more work to make and was not considered as safe in service as the Rodman, which was the acme of all muzzle-loading cast iron cannon and was really not displaced until about 1890 by the breech-loading steel guns which came to stay.

Go to top