Defending the New Nation: The Fredericksburg Gun Manufacturing Plant

Emerging Revolutionary War is honored to welcome back historian Malanna Henderson. 

Part One

N-7 Fredericksburg Gun Manufactory State Marker

Located at 200 Gunnery Road between Dunmore and Ferdinand Streets is the Old Walker-Grant public school. The three-acre campus is home to the Fredericksburg Regional Head Start educational program. Built in 1938, Walker-Grant was the first publically financed high school for black youth in Fredericksburg. The institution was named for Joseph Walker and Jason Grant.

Walker, born into slavery in Spotsylvania County in 1854, was freed after the Civil War and moved to Fredericksburg. Employed in a paper mill, Walker was self-taught and had a keen interest in expanding educational opportunities for black youth. He served as the sexton at St. George’s Episcopal Church for more than 50 years.  Jason Grant was born free in Chatham, Ontario, Canada, in 1861 to a middle-class family. He attended Wilberforce Educational Institute in Ohio. He met an inspiring educator from Fredericksburg and decided to move there and teach.  Grant taught at the county and city schools and also served as principal. His career spanned 42 years. Both Walker and Grant worked diligently to establish a learning institution for black children whose educational opportunities were marginalized by the social order of the day: segregation and racial discrimination.

Over two-hundred years ago, this location was once the site of the Fredericksburg Gunnery plant; the first government ran factory of its kind in the nation. Established in 1776, its existence was paramount to the victory of the Continental forces in winning the Revolutionary War.

By then, the colonists had interpreted an array of British economic policies as threatening their rights as Englishmen. When a slew of taxes were demanded of the colonists who were accustomed to governing themselves, their rebellious cry became, “no taxation without representation.” Until then, the planter-statesmen and other notables still felt they could reconcile with the mother country, despite the occurrences of the Boston Massacre in 1770 and the Boston Tea Party in 1773. However, in Virginia an odious act by the royal governor put the colonists on notice that the British were willing to spill more blood in an effort to vanquish the rebellion.

In the dead of night, on April 21, 1775, a mixed military unit of His Majesty’s Navy and Marines confiscated gun powder and armaments from the Williamsburg Magazine. This vital repository of weapons was stockpiled for the defense against Indian raids, slave revolts and riots. The action of the British soldiers left Virginia virtually defenseless.

John Murray, Fourth Earl of Dunmore and the last royal governor of Virginia ordered the raid. Many colonists saw this as the last straw. Dunmore had repeatedly rebuked the colonial statesmen’s demands, dissolving the House of Burgess and other political committees. An aristocrat, accustomed to having his word obeyed without question, Dunmore saw the burgeoning independence of the statesmen as an affront to his authority and responded by acts of retribution instead of compromise.

Blood had already been spilt at the Battles of Lexington and Concord a few days prior. Thus, disarming the colonists seemed a logical strategy to weaken their resolve. The shot heard around the world occurred in the north and in the south; the stealth act of a midnight raid struck a wedge between Britain and the American colonies that was irreparable.

The colonists had to arm themselves if they were going to war with England, whose military might seemed Herculean to the limited martial skills of the local colonial militias. There was no standing army. Each of the thirteen colonies had their own reservists, comprised of farmers, merchants and tradesmen who were needed sporadically for lawless incidents.

On July 17, 1775, the Third Virginia Convention convened in Richmond to create a working government structure. Delegates were elected to serve on the Committee of Safety, which replaced the Committee of Correspondence. Its powers were comparable to the defunct House of Burgess. The most important resolutions that sprung from those meetings were to raise two regiments, a total of sixteen companies of sixty-eight men each to serve one year tours. In addition, sixteen districts of Minutemen were planned.  In all of the county militias, the remaining free white males between the ages of fifteen to fifty were to muster, eleven times a year. Below is a page from Colonel Lewis’s manual on military exercises and drills, dated 1777.

(Courtesy of The George Washington Foundation)

The last meeting of the convention took place on the 26th of August. An ordinance to build a gun manufacturing plant was enacted. One prominent Virginian intellectual described it as, a first step “in open defiance of British parliamentary law.”

The five commissioners appointed to operate the gun factory were Mann Page; William Fitzhugh; Samuel Selden; Charles Dick and Fielding Lewis, George Washington’s brother-in-law, husband to his sister Betty Washington. Lewis was elected chairman of the Committee. As it turned out, the only men who stayed the course was Charles Dick and Fielding Lewis.

Initially, the convention issued to Lewis 2,000 pounds to construct the gun manufacturing plant. Early in November, Lewis purchased a ten-acre tract of land located south of town. He also leased a nearby mill on four town lots.

Knowing how desperate the Continental Army was for arms, Lewis penned a letter, on February 4, 1776, to George Washington in haste. Now the Commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, George received this letter from Fielding describing the developments of the factory and the formation of the army regiments they were establishing. Of note, in August of 1775, Patrick Henry was named Colonel of the 1st Regiment, and the 2nd Regiment was commanded by William Woodford with Alexander Spotswood serving as major. In January of 1777, Hugh Mercer was named Colonel of the 3rd Regiment.

(Courtesy of The George Washington Foundation)

“…our Gunn Manufactory is now beginning & expect by New Years day to have near fifty Men imploy’d who will make about Twelve Gunns compleat a Day…”

The gunnery was close to the Hunter Iron Works, an important supplier. James Hunter, the owner, added the manufacturing of muskets to his production output, independent of government funding.  He also supplied regiments with axes, spades, shovels and mattocks.

The items produced at the Fredericksburg Gunnery were muskets, bayonets, flint locks, ramrods and more. The plant encompassed a main manufactory, a stone powder magazine, cartridge works, repair shops and a vegetable garden, for the benefit of the employees.

Charles Dick ran the day to day operations, hiring a master workman and artisans. Although, the very capable Mr. Dick never discussed his origins or even his birthdate; the self-made man wasn’t a member of the established gentry. However, he easily found his place amongst Fredericksburg’s leading citizens. Dick was a successful merchant, land owner, Mason and a well-respected member of the community. He served on several important civic organizations; the Committee of Correspondence and later the Committee of Safety.  A business partner and personal friend of Fielding Lewis, Dick was godfather to Lewis’ first son.

On September 22, 1775 an advertisement for locksmiths was published, most likely in the Virginia Gazette. Dick needed gunsmiths, artisans and a variety of other laborers to make the gunnery productive. It was evident, early on, that there was a deficiency of expert gunsmiths ready for hire. The House of Delegates passed an apprentice act so Dick could train a class of artisans from the white youth in the area. The young men would be housed, fed and clothed; all paid for by the government. Dick forbade the drinking of beer and rum at the establishment, a drastic change from Eighteenth Century practices. Three black men were engaged to cook, bake and do an assortment of odd jobs. Whether they were slave or free is unknown.

In an emergency the aristocrats of the town, women, too, worked at the factory stuffing cartridges, etc., for the more than one hundred guns hastily readied for the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania militia. The most commonly used weapon at the time was the British Brown Bess, a muzzle-loading smoothbore musket. It fired a single shot ball or a cluster shot which fired multiple projectiles like a shotgun. About four shots per minute was the typical output from most soldiers. By May of 1777, the factory produced similar muskets to the British Brown Bess by the rate of twenty per week.

(Courtesy of The George Washington Foundation)



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