THE CLARKSVILLE VIRGINIA ORDNANCE HARNESS SHOPS
One of the most over-looked aspects of the Confederate war effort has been its production of horse equipments. Nearly all of the South’s Ordnance Bureau Arsenals and Depots produced horse furniture to varying degrees but there was only one that was designated and designed to be the central location for Confederate production of Cavalry and Artillery horse equipments. From June 1862 to the last days of the war, the Clarksville Virginia Ordnance Harness Shops was the Confederacy’s largest single manufacturing center and its prototype authority for equipments of this kind.
In November 1861 the Ordnance Bureau under Col. Josiah Gorgas was centralizing its leather equipment production efforts. An Artillery Harness Workshop was established with the Ordnance Depot in Richmond. In February, Chief of Ordnance, Josiah Gorgas, realized a larger, separate and safer location, located closer to leather and other sources of supply, was needed to centralize the bureau’s manufacture of leather equipage, particularly horse equipments. So in early 1862 he chose the small town Clarksville, Virginia for the location of a new Depot. This bustling little tobacco town was an ideal location. Situated along a spur of the Roanoke Valley Railroad that had direct access to the northbound Richmond-Petersburg rail line it was also close to its main source of saddle trees and other suppliers in Raleigh North Carolina and imported supplies arriving at the Bureau’s main port of entry at Wilmington.
To oversee this operation, Gorgas assigned Capt. Henry Pride as its Superintendent and ordered him to begin securing the necessary contracts and supplies. That spring, construction of the shops was underway while Capt. Pride traveled to Lynchburg, Raleigh and Danville among other places, securing contracts with various commercial businesses to provide the saddle trees, leather, bridle bits, stirrups and various hardware he would need to begin production. Large amounts of leather, tools, hardware and skilled hands were also detailed from Richmond to Clarksville.
These production efforts bore fruit quickly. On June 14th, 1862 the Clarksville Ordnance Depot, also known as the “Clarksville Harness Shops” officially began operation and the 28th Capt. Pride had loaded a rail car with his first shipment to the Richmond Arsenal. Containing twenty-four sets of wheel and lead artillery harness; fifteen Jenifer saddles and valises; Seventy-eight cavalry bridles; three-hundred eighty-four nose bags; thumbstalls; twelve-hundred sets of knapsack straps and six hundred and fifty-five sword knots this initial effort was only slightly less than the routine capacity the Shops would later attain but was indicative of the type of production that Clarksville would maintain throughout the war.
This was exactly the kind of large scale manufacturing Colonel Gorgas had in mind. To facilitate production, in August Gorgas chose Major William S. Downer, the former Military Storekeeper at the Virginia State Armory to be the Richmond Arsenal’s Superintendent of Armories. Downer’s duties included overseeing leather equipment production at Clarksville and at the Richmond Arsenal, expediting their manufacturing supplies such as hardware including all commercial leather tanning operations. From his Richmond Arsenal offices Major Downer capably exercised these duties from sources all over the South including the eastern Confederacy’s central operation at Clarksville.
At Clarksville, the growing production facility consisted of a leather department, knapsack department, carpenter shop, Blacksmith shop with plating (brass) department and storehouse responsible for manufacturing a large assortment of horse equipments. As the South’s largest supplier of saddle trees, the firm of A. A. Pitman & Co. also had an extensive tanning operation nearby to provide hides to the harness shops but more importantly for covering the saddle trees that were shipped from its subcontractor in Raleigh.
Prolific numbers of cavalry, artillery and infantry equipments were made at Clarksville including sets of wheel and lead artillery harness; some five different saddles; valises; seven types of bridles; two halters; saddle bags; supplemental items such as nose bags, knapsack straps, spur straps and sword knots and other assorted leather infantry accoutrements. Also manufactured were large numbers of officer’s horse equipments including those for such notables as Jefferson Davis, Generals Robert E. Lee and Genl’s. Fitizugh Lee, Winder, Hoke and others.
Between eighty and one hundred and forty seven mostly skilled, white and slave workers and administration personnel were employed at the Harness Shops during its tenure. Saddlers and harness makers made the saddles while another group of harness makers produced bridles, valises, knapsack straps, hames tugs, breast straps, halters and other equipment for cavalry, artillery and infantry. Still other skilled laborers such as carpenters and collar makers made saddle trees, valise ends and collars. Interestingly, at least two and as many as four sewing machines were used for cloth production in equipments.
Typical production efforts at the Harness Shops were generated by orders received from Major Downer in Richmond with commercial contractors providing the majority of saddle trees, bits, stirrups, hardware, large amounts of leather and other resources either to Richmond or directly to Clarksville. Most interesting is the fact that the major part of imported leather was sent to Richmond and some subsequently Clarksville with considerably less going elsewhere in the Confederacy. Equipments were then manufactured and assembled at the Harness Shops to be shipped by rail to Richmond for issue. At its busiest, the Depot would average two shipments a month to Richmond using a special Ordnance rail car that brought needed supplies and resources back to Clarksville upon the return trip.
During its peak, the production output from Clarksville was prolific. From June 1862 through August 1863 the shops manufactured and shipped one thousand one hundred and forty six sets of wheel and lead harness (Each set consisting of saddles, bridles, halters, collars, hames, tugs, straps and nose bag.); nearly six thousand Cavalry saddles of which almost ninety percent where troopers “Skeleton Jenifer saddles”. Nearly all of the rest being Officers saddles; 3,211 bridles- the majority of these for cavalry. 5,693 halters; 3,502 valises, 8,404 nose bags; 17,823 sets of knapsacks straps; 5,717 spur straps, 4,574 sword knots, 5,000 musket slings, sabre belts, saddle trees and assorted other items.
One of the more notable aspects of this production was the continuing evolution of equipments as the wants and needs of the armies were balanced with production/design control problems and shortages of resources. For example, various types of saddles were made in Clarksville on the Jenifer pattern at least two of which were for enlisted Cavalryman. Significant changes were made to the Jenifer tree in the late spring of 1863 (including a pad added to the bars) then later that summer it was altogether dropped for the McClellen though the large number of Jenifer trees on hand demanded their continued production. The new Confederate McClellen continued to cause a large degree of dissatisfaction until its configuration problems were finally resolved.
The Confederate Ordnance Bureau was superbly administered by Col. Gorgas. In fact, it has been said that no Confederate bureau started with nothing, did more with less and attained greater results than that of Ordnance. Notwithstanding, it was still incapable of independently sustaining the equipment needs of the Confederate armies without assistance from outside suppliers. These commercial contractors were an integral part of the South’s supply of leather and leather equipments, particularly as to cavalry saddles, bridles and halters. Though Clarksville was enormously important as the center of this production, by early 1863 the demand had out paced its manufacturing capacity.
Beginning in February 1863, Major began contracting for huge amounts of troopers cavalry saddles, bridles and halters from his offices in Richmond. It is apparent from remaining records that commercial contractors located primarily in Virginia and North Carolina became the focus of production efforts while Clarksville was relegated to only augmenting that supply to varying degrees. However, this change was short-lived. In early January, 1864 Capt Pride was replaced by Capt. John Kane and in March, Major Downer resigned. This changes in personnel seem to coincide with other expanding problems that had a profound effect upon Clarksville production. As the Confederacy’s growing troubles of supply deficiencies, the tightening blockade, labor problems and the erosion of transportation combined to decentralized the Ordnance Bureau’s abilities while efficient supply from outside contractors became even less reliable. Hereafter, the Bureau was forced to re-centralize an increasing portion of its production effort making the Ordnance Shops at Clarksville again key to the eastern war effort.
Nevertheless, the growing shortages of materials and skilled labor now dramatically hindered production here too. An adequate supply of saddle trees and wire for hardware was a constant problem and leather was chronically in such short supply that the harness shops were routinely only a few days from work stoppage. From the summer of 1863 to the end of the war these factors continually and increasingly affected Clarksville’s ability to function.
In the summer of 1864 as the Union Army closed in on Richmond, the Petersburg Railroad was cut, forever closing Clarksville’s traditional link to Richmond. Thereafter, overland routes including a canal boat and wagons had to be utilized to get ordnance stores westward to the Richmond & Danville rail line. With transportation strangulating, Clarksville continued to function but by late fall 1864 it had became increasingly isolated and untenable. So, Col. Gorgas with his usual intuitiveness developed contingency plans to continue leather equipment production that included transferring manufacturing and supplies southward to other facilities most prominently Columbia, South Carolina.
A few short months later, the Confederate war effort was dissolving making the Ordnance Department’s mounting supply problems desperate if not impossible. In mid-March of 1865, Clarksville had to cease its operations because transportation and materials could no longer be obtained. Capt. Kane asked for and received permission to impress wagons and teams but it was just an exercise in futility. With the abandonment of Richmond in early April, the Clarksville Ordnance Depot closed. Although never raided nor destroyed by the Federals during the war, in the end the Clarksville Ordnance Harness Shops appear to have just disintegrated after Lee’s surrender.
In retrospect, the Ordnance Harness Shops at Clarksville provided an extremely important function to the Confederate war effort. For most of the war it manufactured a large portion of the horse equipments used by the Artillery and Cavalry of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s infamous Army of Northern Virginia. Further, prototypes of the progression of saddles, some bridle bits and other equipments developed at its shops were sent as production samples to horse equipment producing arsenals all over the Confederacy. These contributions though seemingly small and certainly overlooked are an integral part of understanding how the Confederacy equipped its mounted troops.