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.
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
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.
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.
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.