Retrospect: The Selma Ordnance and Naval Foundry

Selma was key for the Confederacy, building cannon, small arms ammunition and outfitting ironclad vessels

Brooke guns, such as the one pictured here, were forged in Selma. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In the final years of the Civil War, Selma was one of the most important sites of wartime production in the Confederacy. Facilities in the riverside town accounted for nearly half of all Confederate cannon and the majority of its small arms ammunition. A shipyard in Selma helped build and outfit Confederate ironclad vessels.

Situated along a bluff overlooking the Alabama River, Selma was a town of fewer than 8,000 souls when the war began. In 1861, Colin McRae, who worked in Mobile as a merchant, secured funding to begin construction of a cannon foundry in Selma. Construction was well underway by the spring of 1862 when New Orleans fell to Union control.

This turn of events made the Confederate arsenal located at Mount Vernon, Alabama, more vulnerable to attack. A concerned Josiah Gorgas, who was chief of the Confederate Bureau of Ordnance, relocated the facility to Selma. Gorgas knew the vulnerabilities of the Mount Vernon arsenal well, having been stationed there in the 1850s.

McRae sold his foundry to the Confederate government and took a position as a purchasing agent for Gorgas in Europe.  

Lt. Col. James L. White oversaw the relocation efforts and directed the arsenal for a time. The facility grew to encompass some two dozen buildings in the town. Ancillary wartime industries soon followed.

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Catesby ap Roger Jones commanded the Selma Naval Foundry. Photo courtesy of Alabama Department of Archives & History.

None was more important than the Selma Naval Foundry under the command of Catesby ap Roger Jones, a Virginia native of Welsh descent (hence the “ap” in his surname). A veteran of the Mexican War, Jones was a seasoned officer, fresh off the Battle of Hampton Roads, the historic “clash of ironclads.” His weathered, balding pate portrayed a hardscrabble life of 42 years.

Upon his arrival at Selma, Jones found much work to do. He secured the services of Englishman George Peacock, an expert foundryman previously employed in besieged Natchez.  

Jones put the Selma foundry to work building powerful, large-caliber weapons called Brooke Guns, the invention of his former colleague Capt. John Mercer Brooke. The foundry delivered its first hulking Brooke Gun — made of Alabama iron — in January 1864. It produced 70 more by war’s end. Under Jones’ command, the foundry helped arm and equip four Confederate ironclads, including the Tennessee, which was captured during the Battle of Mobile Bay. 

Wartime facilities came to dominate Selma’s landscape. Industries stretched over some 50 acres, mostly parallel to the Alabama River. All hours of the day, busy workmen, free and enslaved and nearly 10,000 strong, fed the machines that produced weapons of war. In addition to heavy guns and ammunition, workers in Selma produced swords, bayonets, shovels, wagons and a variety of clothing. “The importance of Selma to the Confederacy can hardly be overestimated,” a Yankee expat who had lived in the city wrote to The New York Times.

Selma was a prize, no doubt. It was also a target. The Union general who ultimately broke its war machine was Illinois native James H. Wilson. Though not yet 30 years old, he ranked among the ablest military leaders of the era. None who wore the Yankee blue did more to bring about the end to Alabama’s role in the war than did he. 

Wilson and his troops swept down Alabama from the Tennessee Valley, dogged by the forces under the command of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest. Along the way, Union troops hobbled Alabama’s coal and iron mines at Oxmoor, Irondale, Tannehill, Brierfield and Shelby. With Selma in Wilson’s sights, the Confederate government ordered Jones to transport out what guns and supplies he could and to destroy the rest. Parts were broken or melted down in the forges. Cannon too cumbersome for shipment were pushed into the river. Before the first Union soldier arrived at the outskirts of the town, Selma’s wartime production was at a halt. 

When Forrest and his troops reached Selma for another stand, he found hundreds of civilians with precious little combat experience to aid in the defense of the town. Since 1862, the Confederacy had worked to build up the town’s earthen defenses. Still, it mattered little without enough soldiers to man the guns. The fight for Selma on April 2, 1865, was a quick, if bloody, affair. In the small hours of night, once the fighting concluded, fire swept through parts of the town. In the distance also burned hundreds of bales of cotton set ablaze by retreating Confederates who sought to keep the fleecy staple from Union clutches.  

The CSS Tennessee was one of four ironclad vessels built in Selma during the Civil War. Photo courtesy of Alabama Department of Archives & History.

The morning after the battle, Wilson wrote to his superiors. “Large arsenals and foundries with their machinery are in my possession intact. I shall burn them today, with everything else useful to enemy.” And burn them he did. The work was deliberate, the destruction total. At the arsenal, Union soldiers razed two dozen structures, destroyed 15 large guns, 60,000 artillery rounds and 1 million rounds of ammunition. “The explosions continued for three hours,” wrote one observer, “much louder than any we had ever heard, and of sufficient violence to shake the earth for miles around, making the whole city a perfect pandemonium.”

The buildings, remaining engines, boilers and nearly 30 guns forged at Jones’ crucial Naval Foundry were smashed or melted down. Equipment and materiel at the nearby Selma Iron Works and a horseshoe factory met the same fate, as did the tracks and roundhouses of the city’s railroads. “What a wreck of a place we have left,” wrote one Union soldier.

Wilson and his troops departed on April 10, 1865, and marched toward Alabama’s capital city. No one in Selma, neither its besieged residents sifting through the smoldering ruin of their town nor their temporary occupiers, yet knew that Gen. Robert E. Lee had surrendered his forces the previous day. The war had ended — for Selmians and for everyone else. 

Today, the remnant of an iron Brooke gun forged in war on the banks of the Alabama River sits outside Selma’s City Hall, a silent reminder of a wartime legacy.

Historian Scotty E. Kirkland is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama. He lives in Wetumpka. 

This article appears in the April 2024 issue of Business Alabama.

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