Josiah Gorgas (1818-1883)


Josiah Gorgas was a Confederate general and chief of the Ordnance Bureau during the American Civil War (1861–1865). Born in Pennsylvania, Gorgas was a veteran of the Mexican War (1846–1848) who married into a prominent political family in Alabama. His new Southern connections, along with dissatisfactions with his army career, helped fuel his decision to join the Confederacy. In 1861, he was the only experienced ordnance officer available to Confederate president Jefferson Davis‘s new government, and he almost single-handedly created a department charged with supplying Confederate armies with weapons and ammunition. He bought all the arms and supplies available in Europe and created a fleet of blockade-runners to transport them to Southern ports. At the same time, he worked to build Confederate industry and reinforce its railroads so that by 1863 the Confederacy was self-sufficient in military hardware. Following the war, Gorgas suffered financial difficulties and served briefly as president of the University of Alabama. He died in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in 1883.

Early Years

Gorgas was born on July 1, 1818, in Running Pumps, Dauphin County, in rural south central Pennsylvania. He was one of ten children, and his parents, Joseph and Sophia (Atkinson) Gorgas, were poor and relocated often. As a young man, Gorgas moved to Lyons, New York, where he lived with his sister Elizabeth and her husband, Daniel Chapman, and there he apprenticed for a newspaper and eventually studied law with Graham H. Chapin, the district’s congressman. Chapin nominated Gorgas for appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point, and he entered the school in 1837. In 1841, he graduated sixth in a class of fifty-two. (His classmates included the future Confederate generals Richard B. Garnett and Robert S. Garnett.)

Commissioned a second lieutenant of ordnance, Gorgas served at Watervliet Arsenal near Troy, New York, and the Detroit Arsenal before studying foreign ordnance in Europe from May 1845 until May 1846. During the Mexican War, he served under Winfield Scott at the battles of Vera Cruz (1847) and Cerro Gordo (1847), but was not awarded brevet ranks, possibly because of his prewar conflicts with U.S. secretary of state James Buchanan and the secretary of war, William L. Marcy, both of whom had resisted sending Gorgas to Europe. In March 1847 he was promoted to first lieutenant.

Tredegar Ironworks

Following the war, Gorgas served in Pennsylvania and in November 1851 at Fort Monroe in Virginia. There he began his association with the Tredegar ironworks in Richmond—then called the Tredegar Iron Company—and conducted experiments on gun-barrel iron. In June 1853 he was transferred to the Mount Vernon Arsenal north of Mobile, Alabama. There, Gorgas suffered from yellow fever, which he first contracted in Mexico, but his sickness allowed him to meet the sister of the arsenal’s surgeon, Amelia Gayle, whom he married in December 1853. Gayle was the daughter of a former governor of Alabama, and the prominence of her family exerted a profound influence on Gorgas’s sense of political and social identity. The couple had six children.

As the political situation deteriorated, Gorgas faced a daunting decision: whether to stay with the regular army or resign his U.S. Army commission. His resignation on March 21, 1861 (effective April 3), seems to have been motivated as much by his various career resentments as by political principle. His Southern friends urged him in the direction of the Confederacy but not, apparently, his wife. “It was a heart-rending decision for him,” Gorgas’s biographer Frank Everson Vandiver has written, “and he made it alone, for Amelia remained a silent onlooker.” The consequence was a permanent estrangement from his large family in Pennsylvania.

Civil War Years

General G. T. Beauregard

Confederate president Jefferson Davis, on the recommendation of General Pierre G. T. Beauregard, appointed Gorgas the Confederacy’s chief of ordnance. “Neither Beauregard nor Davis deserves credit for prescience in this appointment,” Vandiver has written, “only for practicality.” Apparently, Gorgas was the only ordnance officer available.

He accepted the position in Montgomery, Alabama, on April 8, 1861, and arrived in the new Confederate capital of Richmond in June. His most-pressing concern was the Confederacy’s shocking lack of military hardware. An inventory turned up only 159,010 small arms and about a thousand cannon—many of which were old and obsolete—that had been captured at Norfolk Navy Yard and from forts along the Atlantic coast. Underdeveloped Southern manufacturing meant that initially the Confederacy would be forced to rely on importing goods, but the Union blockade of the Atlantic and Gulf coasts complicated this plan. Gorgas sent Major Caleb Huse to Europe to trade cotton for ordnance and provisions and eventually established the Bureau of Foreign Supplies to maintain the flow of imported goods, especially munitions, powder, copper, tin, saltpeter, and lead; he also organized a fleet of blockade-runners to bring them to Southern ports. Until 1863, about 90 percent of the weapons used by Confederate armies were either imported from Europe or captured from Union armies.

That balance began to shift because of Gorgas’s efforts to increase Southern industrial capacity. He quickly established armories to manufacture weapons but was challenged by a lack of skilled labor and the proper machinery. He organized cannon foundries in Macon, Columbus, and Augusta—all in Georgia—and, in the last community, created the Augusta Powder Works, the largest manufacturer of its kind in North America. At its peak, a new ironworks in Selma, Alabama, was able to process thirty tons of pig iron daily; shot and shell, meanwhile, were manufactured in Salisbury, Virginia, and Montgomery, Alabama. To supply these facilities with raw materials, he created the Nitre and Mining Bureau, and reinforced preexisting railroads to ease shipment of both raw materials and finished goods.

All of these efforts contributed to Gorgas’s ability to turn plowshares into swords, as the title of Vandiver’s biography would have it. Ingenuity was important, as well. Saltpeter for gunpowder was discovered in limestone caves in the Appalachian Mountains and Southern women were encouraged to save the contents of their chamber pots, from which the same mineral could be leached. Church and plantation bells were melted down for bronze, and battlefields were combed for lead and repairable weapons. The historian James M. McPherson has called Gorgas; Isaac M. St. John, who headed the Nitre and Mining Bureau; and George W. Rains, superintendent of the Augusta Powder Works, the “unsung heroes of the Confederate war effort.” Their contributions were crucial to waging war but they were not able to share in battlefield glory and the Confederate high command was slow to promote them. Gorgas did not become a brigadier general until November 10, 1864.

Ammunition for "Mosby's Men"

Still, Gorgas was rightfully pleased with his accomplishment. In 1864, he wrote in his diary, “Where three years ago we were not making a gun, a pistol nor a saber, no shot nor shell (except at the Tredegar ironworks)—a pound of powder—we now make all these in quantities to meet the demand of our large armies.” Indeed, when the Army of Northern Virginia surrendered at Appomattox on April 9, 1865, Confederate general Robert E. Lee‘s veterans had been without food for three days, but each emaciated infantryman nevertheless carried seventy-five rounds of ammunition.

Later Years

After the war, Gorgas purchased the Brierfield Iron Works, located near Ashby, Alabama, but high costs and other problems forced him to lease the works after just a couple of years. In 1868, he became head of the Junior Department at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. Bankrupt and in declining health, he nevertheless managed the institution well, increasing the number of students and keeping the budget sound. In 1872, Sewanee’s Board of Trustees appointed him vice-chancellor. Ongoing concerns about the school’s finances led to strained relations with the board. Before Gorgas could be terminated, he accepted the position of president of the University of Alabama in 1878. Gorgas’s stint in Tuscaloosa was successful but short-lived. A series of strokes left him incapacitated. He resigned as president and was appointed librarian, an honorific position he kept until his death in Tuscaloosa on May 15, 1883.

July 1, 1818
Josiah Gorgas is born in Dauphin County in rural south central Pennsylvania.
Josiah Gorgas graduates from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, sixth in a class of fifty-two.
Josiah Gorgas studies foreign ordnance in Europe.
Josiah Gorgas serves under Winfield Scott in the Mexican War, fighting at the battles of Vera Cruz and Cerro Gordo. He is not awarded brevet ranks, possibly because of prewar conflicts with his superiors.
November 1851
Josiah Gorgas begins service at Fort Monroe.
June 1853
Josiah Gorgas is transferred to the Mount Vernon Arsenal north of Mobile, Alabama.
December 29, 1853
Josiah Gorgas marries Amelia Gayle, the daughter of a former governor of Alabama. The couple will have six children.
March 21, 1861
Josiah Gorgas resigns his commission in the U.S. Army, effective April 3, in order to join the Confederacy.
April 8, 1861
Josiah Gorgas accepts the position of Confederate chief of ordnance in Montgomery, Alabama.
June 1861
Josiah Gorgas arrives in the new Confederate capital of Richmond.
November 10, 1864
Josiah Gorgas is promoted to brigadier general.
Josiah Gorgas, former Confederate chief of ordnance, becomes head of the Junior Department at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee.
The Board of Trustees for the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, appoints Josiah Gorgas vice-chancellor. Gorgas is the former chief of ordnance for the Confederacy.
Josiah Gorgas, former chief of ordnance for the Confederacy, accepts the position of president of the University of Alabama.
May 15, 1883
Josiah Gorgas, former chief of ordnance for the Confederacy, dies in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
  • Dew, Charles B. Ironmaker to the Confederacy: Joseph R. Anderson and the Tredegar Iron Works. 2d ed. Richmond: Library of Virginia, 1999.
  • Vandiver, Frank E. Ploughshares Into Swords: Josiah Gorgas and Confederate Ordnance. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1952.
  • Wiggins, Sarah Woolfolk, ed. The Journals of Josiah Gorgas, 1857–1878. Tuscaloosa and London: University of Alabama Press, 1995.
APA Citation:
DeCredico, Mary. Josiah Gorgas (1818-1883). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/gorgas-josiah-1818-1883.
MLA Citation:
DeCredico, Mary. "Josiah Gorgas (1818-1883)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 17 Jul. 2024
Last updated: 2021, December 22
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