Born July 1, 1818
Daupin County, Pennsylvania
Died May 18, 1883
Chief of Confederate Ordnance Bureau
Supervised production of weapons and
ammunition for the Confederate Army
Historian James M. McPherson
General Josiah Gorgas was one of the Confederacy's most valuable officers during the American Civil War. Born in the North, he sided with the South at the war's outset. For the next four years, he supervised the Southern effort to provide its soldiers with the weapons and ammunition that they needed in the conflict. He faced many obstacles during this period, from shortages of raw materials to the huge Union naval blockade of Confederate ports. Despite these difficulties, however, Gorgas did a remarkable job of producing and delivering weaponry to rebel (Confederate) troops during the Civil War. In numerous cases, rebel armies continued to receive needed rifles and ammunition long after their supplies of food and other materials had evaporated.
Born and raised in the North
Josiah Gorgas was born on July 1, 1818, in Pennsylvania. His parents, Joseph and Sophia Atkinson Gorgas, sometimes struggled to provide for their family on his earnings as a clock maker, mechanic, and innkeeper. They often moved from town to town in an effort to improve their economic situation. These relocations made it difficult for young Josiah to make friends, and he later described his childhood as a lonely one.
At age seventeen, Gorgas left his parents' home and joined an older sister in Lyons, New York. He took a job as an apprentice at a local printing shop and quickly gained a reputation as a hard-working young man. Gorgas also became acquainted with a U.S. congressman named Graham Chapin (1799–1843) around this time. Impressed with Gorgas's intelligence and ambition, Chapin helped the young Pennsylvanian to gain admittance into the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in New York.
When Gorgas entered West Point in 1837, he did not have big dreams of building a military career for himself. He just wanted to gain a good education so that he could be successful in engineering or a related field. Motivated by his strong desire to avoid the economic problems that had dogged his father, Gorgas studied hard and became known as one of the most industrious and disciplined cadets (students in a military academy) in his class. In 1841, he graduated sixth in his class of fifty-two students.
Career advancement and disappointment
After leaving West Point, Gorgas entered the U.S. Army's Ordnance Corps (ordnance is another term for weaponry). The Ordnance Corps was responsible for designing, acquiring, maintaining, and distributing weapons and ammunition to the military. Since Gorgas was knowledgeable about rifle design, gunpowder manufacturing, and other aspects of ordnance, he thought that he would receive promotions fairly quickly. As time passed, however, he became impatient with the progress of his career. In 1845, he even sent a letter to Secretary of State James Buchanan (1791–1868) in which he demanded a promotion. Gorgas's letter angered his superiors and nearly resulted in his dismissal from the service.
In 1846, Gorgas received orders to report to Mexico, where American and Mexican forces were engaged in the Mexican War (1846–48). This conflict was a struggle for ownership of vast expanses of land in the West. It ended in 1848, when the stronger American army forced the Mexican government to give up two-fifths of its total territory—including California and New Mexico—in return for $15 million.
When Gorgas first reached Mexico, he tackled his duties with energy in hopes that his performance would help him gain the promotions that he wanted. Soon after his arrival, however, he became involved in quarrels with other officers. His reputation as a troublemaker continued to grow, and as a result he did not receive any promotions while in Mexico.
After the war ended, Gorgas was stationed in Virginia, where he became acquainted with a wealthy munitions (weapons and ammunition) factory owner named Joseph Anderson (1813–1892). He also continued to study ordnance. As the years passed, he established a reputation as an expert on ammunition, artillery, and firearms while stationed at outposts around the South. Nonetheless, Gorgas continued to express dissatisfaction with the progress of his military career.
In the mid-1850s, Gorgas married Amelia Gayle. She was the daughter of a former Alabama governor named John Gayle, who had become a wealthy plantation owner. Impressed with John Gayle's operation and mindful of his wife's love for her home state of Alabama, Gorgas began to view himself as a Southerner.
Joins the Ordnance Board
In 1858, Gorgas was appointed to help build military facilities in Charleston Harbor. Two years later, Secretary of War John B. Floyd (1806–1863) assigned Gorgas to serve on the prestigious Ordnance Board—a committee charged with monitoring the quality and quantity of the army's rifles, cannons, and other weaponry—as a favor for his longtime friend, John Gayle. Gorgas and his wife promptly relocated to Washington, D.C., where the offices of the Ordnance Board were located.
Gorgas may have received his position on the Ordnance Board because of his father-in-law's influence, but he quickly showed that he was a good selection. Using his expertise in the field of ordnance, he became a leading reviewer of Federal military inventories and a recognized authority on weapons and ammunition. In the spring of 1861, however, the onset of the American Civil War abruptly ended Gorgas's involvement on the Board.
The Civil War came about because of bitter divisions between America's Northern and Southern regions. The main issue dividing the two regions was slavery. Many Northerners believed that slavery was wrong. They wanted to outlaw it throughout America, or at least prevent it from spreading beyond the Southern states where it was already allowed. But slavery played an important role in the South's economy and culture, and white Southerners felt threatened by Northern efforts to contain slavery. They believed that each state should decide for itself whether to allow the practice. In early 1861, relations between the two sections had deteriorated to the point that America's Southern states announced their decision to secede from (leave) the United States and form a country that allowed slavery, called the Confederate States of America. The North responded by declaring its intention to keep the Union together by force if necessary. As both regions began forming armies for the coming war, thousands of soldiers had to decide whether to fight on the side of the Union or the Confederacy.
Chief of ordnance for the Confederacy
Influenced by his wife's Southern background and his own affection for Southern culture, Gorgas resigned from the Federal Army in March 1861 in order to join the Confederate Army. Once he arrived in the South, rebel leaders immediately made use of his knowledge of weaponry. They promoted him to major and made him the army's chief of ordnance. This meant that Gorgas was in charge of acquiring, storing, and distributing all the rifles, artillery, and ammunition that the Confederate Army would need during the war.
As Gorgas investigated the South's existing ordnance supplies during the spring of 1861, he quickly realized that the job of supplying weapons and bullets to Confederate soldiers was going to be extremely difficult. After all, most of America's ordnance-making factories were located in the North. In addition, most existing supplies of weapons could not be used, either because they lay deep in Northern territory or because they had been confiscated (seized) by Confederate state governments that refused to share them. Finally, he knew that he had only a limited amount of money that he could spend on arms and ammunition. But rather than despair about the obstacles that he faced, Gorgas used his experience and energy to address each problem.
By the fall of 1861, when he was promoted to lieutenant general, Gorgas had taken several steps to ensure that the Confederate Army would have all the arms and ammunition that it needed. For example, he purchased large amounts of ordnance from foreign nations before the Union Navy could complete its blockade of the Southern coastline. He also began the process of converting mills and factories to the production of gunpowder, rifles, and other weaponry. Finally, Gorgas persuaded the Confederate Congress to provide greater financial and legislative assistance to his arms-building efforts. "When Josiah Gorgas accepted appointment as chief of ordnance in April 1861 he faced an apparently . . . hopeless task," wrote James M. McPherson in Battle Cry of Freedom. "But Gorgas proved to be a genius at organization and improvisation [coming up with new ways of doing things]. He almost literally turned plowshares into swords."
As the war progressed, Confederate armies suffered from shortages of blankets, food, and other provisions (supplies) with increasing frequency. But the Confederate Ordnance Bureau maintained regular shipments of arms and ammunition to rebel armies across the South, thanks to the tireless efforts of Gorgas and trusted lieutenants like George W. Rains. Gorgas used all sorts of schemes to meet the military's ammunition and weaponry needs. For example, he launched an extensive blockade-running operation that provided the Confederate Army with nearly two-thirds of its small arms (blockade runners were small ships that evaded the Union naval blockade of Confederate harbors in order to bring needed supplies to the South). He also expanded production of gunpowder, rifle barrels, and other weaponry by using private homes as small factories. When the South began to experience shortages of raw materials used in the production of ordnance, Gorgas even became an expert at finding substitute materials that could be used.
By 1864, however, shortages of manpower and raw materials were affecting the Ordnance Bureau's abilities to produce and distribute arms and ammunition. Gorgas worked hard to meet the rebel army's needs, but shortages of labor and materials became even worse as Union forces captured large areas of Confederate territory. By the time the Civil War ended in the spring of 1865, Gorgas had sacrificed his health and much of his fortune in his doomed efforts to meet the Confederate Army's ordnance needs.
Postwar career as teacher
After the war, Gorgas struggled as a businessman for several years. In 1869, he abandoned his hopes of regaining the money that he had lost in the last years of the war. Instead, he accepted a teaching position at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. In 1872, he was named vice-chancellor of the college, but he also continued to work as an instructor. Poor health forced him to resign from the school in 1878. Later that same year, however, friends arranged to have Gorgas named president of the University of Alabama.
Gorgas appreciated the gesture and expressed hope that he might eventually be able to fulfill his presidential responsibilities. His health continued to decline, however, and in 1879, the presidency was given to someone else. Gorgas was appointed university librarian, but his poor health forced his wife to take care of many of his duties. Gorgas died four years later, on May 18, 1883.
Where to Learn More
Goff, Richard D. Confederate Supply. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1969.
The Gorgas House. [Online] http://www.ua.edu/gorgasmain.html (accessed on October 10, 1999).
Vandiver, Frank E. Ploughshares into Swords: Josiah Gorgas and ConfederateOrdnance. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1952. Reprint, College Station: Texas A & M University Press, 1994.
Wakelyn, Jon L. "Josiah Gorgas" in Leaders of the American Civil War. Edited by Jon L. Wakelyn and Charles F. Ritter. Westwood, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998.
Wiggins, Sarah Woolfolk, ed. The Journals of Josiah Gorgas, 1857–1878. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1995.
Josiah Gorgas (1818-1883), American soldier and educator, served as chief of ordnance of the Confederate Army.
Josiah Gorgas was born in Running Pumps, Pa., on July 1, 1818. The 10 Gorgas children had to work to help the family, and Josiah eventually became an apprentice on a newspaper in Lyons, N.Y. While there he won appointment to the U.S. Military Academy, from which he graduated in 1841.
Commissioned a second lieutenant in the ordnance (military supplies) service, Gorgas went abroad to survey European arsenals. He was assigned to the Watervliet, N.Y., arsenal when the war with Mexico began, and in January 1847 he joined Gen. Winfield Scott's Veracruz expedition. Gorgas participated in the siege of Veracruz and commanded the ordnance depot established there. After the Mexican War, Gorgas had routine assignments to various arsenals around the country. In 1855 he was promoted to captain.
When the Civil War began, Gorgas accepted a commission in the Confederate Army. This decision—which long estranged him from his family—undoubtedly was brought about by lengthy service in the South and by his marriage, in 1853, to Amelia Gayle, daughter of a former governor of Alabama.
Assuming his duties as chief of ordnance in the Confederacy, Gorgas found that the resources of his bureau were alarmingly small. Since manufacturing facilities were virtually nonexistent in the South, Gorgas sent an agent to purchase munitions in foreign markets and organized a program of battlefield scavenging to augment Southern supplies of guns, ammunition, and powder.
Gorgas's success with the Ordnance Bureau was phenomenal. He expanded arsenals, built new ones, established one of the most effective powder works in the world at Augusta, Ga., built a Central Laboratory at Macon, and expanded foreign trading with bureau-owned blockade-runners. Through his efforts the Niter and Mining Bureau was established to find and exploit mineral resources; he helped organize the Bureau of Foreign Supplies to increase the efficiency of blockade-running. A colonel through most of the war, he was promoted to brigadier general on Nov. 19, 1864.
After the war Gorgas tried unsuccessfully to run an ironworks at Brierfield, Ala. In July 1869 he assumed the post of headmaster of the junior department of the University of the South at Sewanee, Tenn. In 1872 he was appointed vice-chancellor of the university. His stormy tenure ended in 1878, when he was appointed president of the University of Alabama. He held this position for a year until illness compelled him to accept the less demanding post of university librarian. Gorgas died on May 15, 1883, in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Frank E. Vandiver edited The Civil War Diary of General Josiah Gorgas (1947) and wrote Ploughshare into Swords: Josiah Gorgas and Confederate Ordnance (1952).
Vandiver, Frank Everson, Ploughshares into swords: Josiah Gorgas and Confederate ordnance, College Station: Texas A & M University Press, 1994. □