Copper, The Confederacy, And The Civil War
Mining history article by Harold Hough
Today the buzz is about rare earths, their status as strategic materials, and their importance to the national defense. However, there have been other strategic minerals in different wars. And, in this the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, it might be interesting to look at the strategic minerals of that era and the hot, high tech, strategic material – copper.
When the southern states seceded from the North in 1861, they weren’t prepared for modern war. The rural south could produce cotton and food, but had little of the industry necessary for prosecuting a war. Lead, saltpeter, iron, copper and coal were all important, but it was copper that was the weak link for the Confederacy since nearly all of the copper mining was located in an area called the Copper Basin in southeast Tennessee.
Copper production was important for what then were several critical high tech applications. The most important was percussion caps for rifles and pistols. The percussion cap had recently superseded the old, reliable flintlock firearm. Percussion caps were small cups with a small amount of mercury fulminate on the inside. When hit by the hammer, they would send a stream of flame into the chamber of the firearm. And, the best material for the cup was copper, which was easy to fabricate and soft enough so the impact of the hammer would set off the fulminate. Since they were very small and easy to lose in the heat of battle, about twice as many percussion caps were needed than bullets.
Copper was also necessary for the most modern artillery in use – the bronze napoleon light field gun. This howitzer was the most popular, common, and deadly field piece of the Civil War. Developed under the auspices of Louis Napoleon of France, it first appeared in the American artillery in 1857. In the North, the smoothbore napoleon was officially designated the "light 12-pounder gun". A Napoleon fired a 12.3 lb projectile and had a maximum effective range of about 1,600 yards. Union napoleons had a slight swell at the muzzle of the 4.62 inch bore. The barrel with its carriage weighed 2,445 pounds, light enough to be hauled by men for short distances; however, the usual method of transportation was by a six-horse team with a driver astride one of each pair of horses. Each howitzer required 1,000 pounds of copper, but they were so effective that General Robert E. Lee ordered that some of his less effective cannon be melted down and cast into napoleons.
Copper was also necessary for the drying pans used to produce saltpeter, a critical ingredient for gunpowder.
But, the beginning of the electrical age also meant copper was needed for its ability to conduct electricity. Field telegraphs required setting up miles of copper telegraph lines. And, even the Confederacy’s greatest secret weapon, the submarine Hunley, used copper wire and a battery that contained a copper plate to fire off the torpedo that sunk the Yankee ship Housatonic.
The Confederacy also required copper because it had little iron or steel capacity. Bronze and brass, which both contain copper, were often substituted for iron and steel by the rebels. They also added copper to iron, which made the iron stronger and more durable.
Ducktown Copper District
The Confederacy’s problem was that nearly all of its copper mining was in one small corner of Tennessee. Serious copper mining had begun in Ducktown just nine years before the Civil War began. Union Consolidated Mining Company of Tennessee was the principal company and it was managed by Julius E. Raht. Raht was born in Germany and studied chemistry and mineralogy at universities in Bonn and Berlin. In 1850, he immigrated to the United States and worked at mines in Missouri, Iowa, and Wisconsin. He also managed mines in Virginia and North Carolina. In 1854, Julius Raht transferred to the Ducktown District and managed it for its Northern owners.
When the Civil War started, the Union owners closed the mines. However, the Confederacy turned the mines over to Southern owners and mining restarted under Raht’s supervision. The importance of the copper mines was obvious in the battles fought in the region. One reason the Union forces were intent on capturing Chattanooga was its importance as a junction for the rail line that moved copper from Ducktown to the foundries. When the Union finally won control of Chattanooga, they were able to force the rebels out of Eastern Tennessee and capture the Ducktown copper district mines. With the mines closed, Raht went to Cincinnati to wait out the war.
The loss of the copper mines was a catastrophe for the Confederacy. The casting of bronze napoleon howitzers was stopped and representatives from the Confederate arsenals went to the Carolinas to confiscate copper stills used in making moonshine and turpentine.
When the Civil War ended Raht went back to Ducktown. He personally invested his personal f ortune in rebuilding the area’s infrastructure, including a road out of the mining district. He also adopted several new mining techniques that got the Ducktown mining district back on its feet.
Unfortunately, Raht died before seeing all of his dreams reach fruition. However, in 2005, he was inducted into the Mining Hall of Fame. His Hall of Fame bio says this of him, “In addition to his leadership of Ducktown mining operations, Captain Raht was known for his philanthropy, erecting schools and churches in both Ducktown and Cleveland. He accumulated a fortune and may have become the “richest man in Tennessee.” At the same time, he established a reputation for being an honest and respectable citizen and a skilled businessman. Of such importance were Captain Raht’s contributions to the Ducktown District that his era became known to local residents in later years as “Back in Raht’s Time.”