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Confedrate Foundry

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

A century and a half before anyone would think of producing a "Keep Austin Weird" bumper sticker voters in the capital city did not always model the rest of Texas.

Take the Civil War for instance.

When the Legislature put the matter of secession up to the people of Texas on Feb. 23, 1861, most of the state's 122 organized counties voted to leave the union. But not Travis County and 17 others, where returns showed that voters stood against leaving the Union.

After the war began, however, most Austin residents pitched in for the Southern cause. Meanwhile, many of those who had cast their ballot against secession found it expedient to leave town if not the state.

On Jan. 11, 1862, the Legislature established a three-member body known as the Texas Military Board. Its charge was overseeing the provision of supplies and ordnance for the defense of the state, including establishing a foundry to produce ordnance. The act left it to the board to decide where such a facility should be located, and they soon choose Austin.

But the capital city was still more town than city. The 1860 U.S. Census had found only 3,460 residents. A summary of the federal head count listed these occupations: "16 blacksmiths, 4 bakers, 2 brewers, 3 beer slingers, 4 barbers, 3 bookkeepers, 7 brick masons, 3 butchers, 64 carpenters, 107 clerks, 4 carriage makers, 1 Comanche Indian, 5 dentists, 4 druggists, 3 editors, 7 engineers, 470 farmers, 12 gardeners, 6 gentlemen, 35 laborers, 4 land agents, 2 livery keepers, 51 lawyers, 8 general mechanics, 53 merchants, 2 milliners, 3 millers, 17 ministers, 2 music teachers, 2 mail contractors, 25 physicians, 2 plasterers, 16 stone masons, 46 stock raisers, 14 saddlers, 6 silversmiths, 5 shoe makers, 6 seamstresses, 2 surveyors, 6 'sports,' 18 teamsters, 18 teachers, 8 traders, 3 tinkers, 8 tailers [sic], 68 widows, 8 waggoners [sic], and a few others."

Clearly, Austin was far from being a manufacturing center. Essentially the only industry it had was a saddlery, a wagon factory, tin and sheet metal works and other light, locally focused manufacturing. Not only would the necessary heavy machinery have to be shipped to Austin, other than the few local tradesmen who had not yet joined or been conscripted into the military, the city lacked a skilled labor force.

The state selected a site between Trinity and Neches streets along Waller Creek and began construction of a substantial frame building for the foundry. As the building went up, the agent tasked with finding needed equipment bought machinery and metal in Galveston and elsewhere.

In addition to the not-yet-online foundry, the board was able to get a percussion cap manufacturing operation up and running in the six-year-old Land Office Building on the Capitol grounds. Percussion caps were needed for the cap and ball revolvers and rifles of the day.

Meanwhile, by January 1863, the foundry had begun partial operation. Initially producing metal fixtures and tools needed for the completion of the plant, workers went on to manufacture everything from a machine for loading percussion caps to wooden caissons, wagon carriages and limbers to bronze and iron artillery pieces. But the growing scarcity of raw material (thanks largely to the mostly successful U.S. naval blockade of the South) and a chronic shortage of manpower prevented the foundry from completing its ordnance in time for it to have done any good for the Confederacy.

Still, despite the obstacles, the foundry did succeed in manufacturing some cannon and their accessories. A correspondent for the Houston Telegraph wrote from Austin on Jan. 18, 1865 that he had "spent a day or two examining the State factories in this city" and had been "agreeably surprised" at their output.

At the foundry, he reported, he saw two batteries of "splendid brass guns-one… six-pounder-and four 12-pound howitzers." Indeed, he continued, "They are models of beauty and perfection, equal to any I have seen during the war, and are completed equipped for field service."

No matter their quality the Austin-made artillery could have no impact unless they reached the Confederate military. And they never did. By spring the Confederacy had been defeated and the field pieces produced at the foundry still sat in the capital city.

Shortly after federal troops occupied Austin in late July 1865, an inventory at the foundry found on hand two 12-pound howitzers, eight 6-pound guns, 12 caissons, 10 gun carriages and 22 limbers. All, a 21st century scholar would later write, amounted to "mute and defiant proof that the foundry did, in the end, accomplish its purpose, albeit too late to affect the fighting."

The Austin foundry was more successful in another effort to support the South's war effort. Area farmers struggling to produce corn, wheat, vegetables and cotton were able to get their implements and light machinery repaired there.

Not long after the war, fire destroyed the facility.

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" February 12 , 2020 column

Mike Cox's "Texas Tales" :

  • Pitchfork Smith 1-30-20
  • The Great Greyhound Hijacking on Route 66 in 1931 1-17-20
  • The Zentners 1-9-20
  • Chicken Peddler 12-24-19
  • Cornbread 12-18-19

    See more »

  • More:

    Mike Cox's "Texas Tales" :

  • Pitchfork Smith 1-30-20
  • The Great Greyhound Hijacking on Route 66 in 1931 1-17-20
  • The Zentners 1-9-20
  • Chicken Peddler 12-24-19
  • Cornbread 12-18-19

    See more »

















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