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NP: June 3, 1964 Petersburg Progress-Index: Siege Centennial, Part 6: An Industrial Center To Boot

An Industrial Center To Boot

The following is the sixth in a series of articles taking notice of the centennial of the 1864-65 campaign for Petersburg. The fact that Petersburg owed its strategic importance and its attraction for General Grant to its status as a railroad center was treated in an earlier article. The following deals with its role as a manufacturing center of that industrially poor establishment, the Confederate States of America.

Petersburg’s industrial importance to the Confederate States of America was not comparable with that of Richmond, with its Tredegar and other large works, but it was considerably greater, in view of the industrial poverty of the Confederacy, than we might suppose.

The determined defense of Richmond itself was due in part to industrial considerations as well as to moral and political reasons. It happened that in defending Petersburg the Confederacy was defending also some important manufacturing establishments as well as the more important railroads which so largely accounted for its strategic importance.

Early in the nineteenth century Petersburg had claimed to be the first city in Virginia to welcome manufacturing. Its claim is borne out by statistics and the comments of such publications as Niles’ Register and The Farmer’s Register upon its enterprise. At the outbreak of the Civil War it was the third city in Virginia, a place which it does not occupy today.

According to the 1860 census, Petersburg had 20 tobacco factories. By present standards, they were small enterprises, owned by individuals, families, or partnerships, but in the aggregate they constituted an important industry, employing more than 2,500 workers. Several of these, being fairly large and well ventilated structures, were converted into hospitals, while a few became prisons. Although tobacco products were not of major importance to the Confederate war effort, some processing of the leaf continued, and at least a few manufacturers ran the Union blockade successfully and profited handsomely as a result.

For 30 years or more, Petersburg in 1860 had been the leading city in Virginia in the manufacture of cotton go[o]ds. Cotton was a close rival for tobacco. At the outbreak of war there were eight mills in operation in or near the city. Some of them continued to produce yarn and sheeting which were sorely needed by the Confederacy.

Several iron foundries and railroad shops for years had been manufacturing a variety of railroad, mill, and plantation equipment. For the repair of light artillery and other purposes, these establishments acquired a direct importance to the war effort. If their records were available they might show that the importance was greater than we realize.

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The Confederacy established enterprises of its own in Petersburg.

The Naval Rope Works, for example, supplied cordage for the navy and rope for the army and railroads. West of the city, beside the Upper Appomattox Canal, was a powder mill. A former Presbyterian church on High Street did duty as a shot tower. When war itself came to Petersburg, available civilians were put to work making wicker baskets for gabions to be used on the fortifications protecting the city.

Early in the war the Confederacy established in Petersburg a laboratory for the smelting of ores from Salem Mill Mines, North Carolina, and Jonesboro, East Tennessee. The establishment was described as well constructed and capable of smelting thousands of pounds a day. Copper and zinc also were smelted at Petersburg.

The Confederate Lead Works, situated at the head of Halifax Street near Butterworth’s Bridge, was established by General Gorgas—whose name was to become more famous in  a different association in the next generation—when he was head of the Ordnance Bureau. Later it was turned over to the Nitre and Mining Bureau. The lead which it processed was brought through the blockade or was obtained from window weights, from the battlefields, or from the shells so generously lavished upon Petersburg itself. Metal was so greatly in demand that there were warnings to soldiers and civilians against being in too much of a hurry to salvage the contributions.

There is an old saying that the Confederacy never lost a battle for want of ammunition. The Ordnance Bureau was very probably was the most efficient of comparable establishments. It would be interesting to know more about the works at the head of Halifax Street. There is an oral tradition concerning one call for lead which was so urgent that there was no time to continue the separation of lead and silver. So those who went about filling the order did so wondering how many of the enemy would have the doubtful honor of being shot with silver bullets.

The foregoing is an aspect of the Civil War Petersburg which is little known. While these centennial articles are concerned chiefly with the anniversaries of events or with personalities, it is fitting to turn aside to glance at other relevant matters.

In summary, it could be said that Petersburg’s strategic importance as a rail center far surpassed its industrial importance, but that its industrial importance was more considerable than the customary preoccupation with other phases of the story would have us believe.1

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The Petersburg Progress-Index Siege of Petersburg Centennial Series, 1964-65:


  1. “An Industrial Center To Boot.” Petersburg Progress-Index.  June 3, 1964, p. 4, col. 1-2
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