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Sherman and the Powder Works

Wed Jul 21, 2010 4:45 pm

The Confederate Powder Works in Augusta, Georgia were a marvel of engineering in their day. Though the Confederate government relied on the genius of a Southern-sympathizing Pennsylvanian for their construction and management, they were said to illustrate the only industrial venture where the Confederacy outdid the Union forces. These works were a vital means of war and supplied the Confederate armies with gunpowder in all theaters at one time or another. Later in the war, transportation became so disrupted that the works supplied powder only to the armies in the Eastern theater. General Hood seems to have relied on Alabama sources of supply for his ill-fated Tennessee campaign, and so I assume that, by late in 1864, the powder works was primarily supplying Lee at Petersburg.

Sherman believed in bringing war to the civilians of the South, and prosecuted a punitive campaign through Georgia and the Carolinas that did not fight against another significant army until Bentonville.

Many assume Sherman's strategy was practical, but I disagree. Though Sherman's impact on civilian morale, transportation, food production and military supply were certainly dreadful, I am more certain that the Augusta Powder Works are a testimony against Sherman's strategy. There was nothing secret about their existence. Even European travelers heard of them as a marvel and visited them. Though Augusta was defended, I believe, by some force under William Hardy at the time of Sherman's famous march, Sherman's victorious army at the end of the Atlanta campaign could have easily reduced the garrison at Augusta. Consider the implications of the loss of the powder works in December of 1864- the same month Sherman marched into Savannah after wasting his time looting and terrorizing the civilians of Georgia. Lee would have lost the military supply he needed most: gunpowder. Without gunpowder, the Confederate armies would be forced to surrender.

The Augusta Powder Works (or, at least, the famous surviving chimney) stand as a testimony against Sherman's campaign. Had he followed the conventional wisdom and established codes of war from his own time and attacked military targets rather than farmhouses, his campaign would have been fatal to Confederate arms.

I am very interested in feedback and criticism. Has this argument been considered before? Could Lee have had enough powder stockpiled to continue the resistance without the Works? Is it possible that the Works were not vital to the war effort in '64 or '65?
"Can any reasonable man be well disposed towards a government which makes war and carnage the only means of supporting itself—a government that can exist only by the sword? This single consideration should be sufficient to dispose every peaceable citizen against such a government. But can we believe that one state will ever suffer itself to be used as an instrument of coercion? The thing is a dream. It is impossible."-Alexander Hamilton

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Thu Oct 14, 2010 7:16 am

Interesting topic.

Don't remember where I read it but I understood that the Augusta powder work's machinery and inventory was dismantled and moved as a result of Sherman's march and was only returned after the march route was determined. I don't know if it would have been 'there' if Augusta was taken. Granted if it was taken all of the facility and infrastructure would have had to have been rebuilt at another location but the CSA was pretty resourceful about such things. They had had to evacuate production facilities many times before.

Sherman's army could not afford to stay still and attack a fortified place. Like Napoleon's armies (and Russia's) they had to keep moving in order to survive. Sherman's army had to get to the coast to obtain proper supply. Note that it only attempted a siege at Savannah because it had been able to take Ft. McAllister and open up the Ogeechee River to naval transport.

Imo diverting NE towards Augusta would have taken too long, allowed CSA forces more time to coordinate with each other and possibly used up too much of its limited (and not replenishable) ammunition.

As to what military targets are, Sherman decided that the food that feeds an enemy population is food that feeds an enemy army and a viable target.

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Thu Oct 14, 2010 3:59 pm

To add to this, one thing that stymied Sherman was the way that 'freed' slaves congregated around his army as he marched to the sea. My impression is that he saw the black folks trailing his army as an inconvenience at best. (Overall, Sherman himself was somewhat squeamish about encouraging emancipation, much as he was about employing 'Colored troops' -- his words were to the effect of 'it's a white man's war.')

Ironically, given his ambivalence about emancipation, Sherman's impact on slave society was the logical culmination of his idea that Southern civilian society was a valid military target. The unintended benefit of his march to the sea, of course, was that 'freed' slaves were no longer picking corn or cotton...

The strategic impact snowballed, both amongst blacks and whites. Freedom is, as they say, a state of mind, so 'freed' blacks tended to be very effective at convincing other blacks that they were free. Conversely, erstwhile slave-owners began screaming for military protection against their former slaves, desertion from front-line armies increased predictably, and the production stoppages gutted the South's ability to funge cotton for powder, steel, or shot.

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