Watervliet Arsenal

In it's infant stages, the United States Army depended on contractors for the supply of weapons and accoutrements required to outfit the soldiers. As hard as it is to believe in these modern times, unscrupulous contractors overcharged for goods delivered and provided goods that were shoddily manufactured. Why, even a few Army officers were implicated in the shenanigans! With British vessels rampaging the American merchant fleet in the early 1800's, Congress authorized the construction of government owned and operated arsenals and armories while preparing for the inevitable armed conflict. (An "armory" is a place where weapons are manufactured, and can be privately or publicly owned. An "arsenal" is, by definition, government owned, and is a place for the storage and manufacture of military goods.)

America's oldest arsenal is the Watervliet Arsenal in Watervliet (pronounced "water-va-leat"), New York, just across the Hudson River from Troy, New York. Founded by Congress in 1813 with the purchase of 12 acres on the Hudson River, the initial complex consisted of 10 buildings. Powder horns, bullet pouches, powder measures, bullet worms, flints, cartridge boxes and belts were all manufactured at Watervliet Arsenal for the War of 1812. During the next 20 years, shoulder slings, stock trail carriages for six pounder guns, grape shot, solid shot, ammunition, rammers, sponges, wormers and linstocks were all manufactured for the Army at Watervliet.

By 1835, 90 civilians were employed in the shops at Watervliet to compliment the 45 enlisted military workers. Significant increases in production occurred during the War with Mexico, followed by a lull as Congress decreased the size of the standing Army.

On June 23, 1857, Major Alfred Mordecai became Commander of the Watervliet Arsenal. A noted Ordnance Officer, he quickly made improvements to the production efforts of the arsenal. In 1859, Mordecai erected a cast iron building on the grounds of the Arsenal, and today that building still stands as the Post Museum. The building was cast in New York City by the Architectural Iron Works firm, and shipped up the Hudson by boat. It was erected on a prepared platform at Watervliet in 2 months during the summer of 1859.

The prospect of Civil War dimmed the genius of Major Mordecai, who wanted no part of either side, though North Carolina born and bred. Suspected by Northerners of being a spy or traitor, and having Southerners harbor the same suspicions, Mordecai resigned as Watervliet's commander on May 14, 1861. Major Mordecai steadfastly refused to participate in what he called the "Calamitous Conflict," but did not interfere with his son's decision to participate with the Union forces. Young Mordecai was a West Point student in 1861, and choose early graduation and the Union. Major Mordecai's nephews chose to join the Rebel forces.

Mordecai was replaced by Major William A. Thorton, who previous to commanding Watervliet Arsenal had commanded the New York Ordnance Depot. Thorton oversaw a rapid increase in production of cartridge boxes, belts, combustible cartridges, paper-wrapped cartridges, artillery carriages and ammunition during 1862 and 1863. Artillery barrels were cast by contractors, but the Arsenal constructed the carriages for the artillery pieces rolling in from nearby foundries.

When the Hudson flooded in April 1862, it stopped the machines at Watervliet for the first time in 6 months, but by the end of that month the arsenal had completed an order for Ft. Monroe Virginia that included 10 18-pounder siege carriages modified for 30-pound Parrotts, 600 10-pounder shot, 360 rounds of case shot for 12-pounders and 608 12-pounder shells. Production at the arsenal was help up only once more during the Civil War, in July 1863 during the Draft Riots. While 2,000 men burned and looted Troy, Thorton swore in 400 of his most reliable workers and, together with 65 regular army soldiers on duty, made a show of force that discouraged any mob from considering Watervliet an easy or desirable target.

The last Civil War commander of the Watervliet Arsenal was Lt. Col. Peter Hagner, who took command on Christmas Day, 1863. Hagner served as commander of the arsenal until 1880. At the height of it's Civil War production, the arsenal employed about 1,500 adults and 500 children. Early in the war, only boys were employed at the arsenal, but Hagner thought girls were more skilled at rolling the smaller, combustible carbine cartridges, and employed about 250 young girls in this capacity.

After April 1865, many of the buildings at Watervliet were used as storehouses for surplus military goods. Today, Watervliet continues to produce many of the ordnance requirements for the United States Army, and the continuous story of Watervliet Arsenal is told within the walls of the 1859 Cast Iron Building.

You can visit the Watervliet Arsenal Museum any weekday that isn't a Friday except Christmas, New Year's and Thanksgiving Day. The admission is free, and the hours are 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. I found the staff to be friendly and more than willing to help. If your travels take you in the Albany, New York area, allow an hour or two to visit this worthwhile historical operation. Interested individuals may remit ten Yankee dollars and join the Watervliet Arsenal Historical Society. Write to W.A.H.S., Watervliet Arsenal Museum (Bldg 38), Watervliet Arsenal, Watervliet, NY 12189-4050.

I'm finishing up my load development for the .69 smoothbore now that shooting weather is here (below the Mason-Dixon line!), and I hope to cover that next month. I'm looking forward to hearing from our readers at the National or over the wire in the weeks ahead. Incidently, the Spring National will be held May 15 - 18 near Winchester, VA. Just take Rt. 522 North from Winchester and look for the signs! Don't forget to shoot safe and have fun.

(C) 1997 Tom Kelley

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