No Caps, No Guns: The Struggle for Confederate Copper

By Brian D. Kowell
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2023, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in The Charger in October 2023.

In the dark, the Yankee colonel heard the popping sounds from along his picket line and ordered his troopers to their support. As dawn broke, he was surprised by the booming of rebel cannon followed by a Confederate charge to test his lines. As the Confederates withdrew, the colonel inspected his lines, noticing a large copper rolling mill that anchored his right flank. As the colonel clenched his pipe, he needed to make some decisions before the Confederates tried again.

To shoot a firearm in the Civil War, a percussion cap was needed. Introduced in the early 1820s, this single-use percussion device for muzzleloading firearms enables them to fire reliably in any weather conditions. The cap itself is copper or brass with one closed end. Inside the cap is a small amount of shock-sensitive explosive material such as mercury fulminate, which was discovered in 1800. (Mercury fulminate is made from mercury, nitric acid, and alcohol). The cap is placed on a nipple, which is vented to the firearm’s barrel. When the trigger is pulled, a lock-hammer strikes the cap, which creates a spark, igniting the powder in the barrel and discharging the weapon.1

Copper, mercury, and nitric acid were essential war materials during the Civil War. As one historian put it, “No caps [equals] no guns.”2

Percussion caps

Both the North and South had to import mercury throughout the war. This became a problem for the South as the war went on and the Union blockade became more effective. In addition, the South’s ability to supply nitric acid was limited. In one instance, the supply of nitric acid in the South was exhausted. Consequently, three million percussion caps were sent into the field with a substitute mixture of potassium chloride and sulfur, but those proved untrustworthy in damp conditions.3

The Confederate Ordnance Bureau also had its share of bad luck. On December 23, 1861, the Nashville Ordnance Depot was completely destroyed by fire. Was it sabotage or an accident? How or where the fire started is unknown. As a result of the fire, 2,000,000 percussion caps were lost along with other equipment.4

Another essential element for percussion caps was copper. The Union had extensive copper mines along the south shore of Lake Superior on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in the counties of Keweenaw, Houghton, and Ontonagon, as well as Baraga County – collectively called Copper Country. The Confederacy, on the other hand, had few natural deposits of copper. There were small workable mines in southern Virginia in Carroll and Grayson Counties, but by far the largest and most productive were in the southeastern corner of Tennessee in Polk County. The Confederate government was also aware of large deposits of copper in Arizona near the Pinos Altos region. However, General Henry Hopkins Sibley was unable to secure this territory for the Confederacy when Union forces stopped his Army of New Mexico from invading Arizona in 1862. The Yankees were not able to secure the copper territory either, as the region was controlled by Native Americans.5

The majority of Confederate copper was obtained from mines in Tennessee. Ducktown is located in the center of the Tennessee copper basin near the junction of modern Tennessee State Route 68 and U.S. Route 64, not far from Cleveland, Tennessee. One of the largest copper rolling mills operated in that city. The mill was built in 1861 by German immigrant Julius Raht and was the only one of its kind in the entire Confederacy.

Julius Raht

In 1854, at the age of 28 years, Julius Eckhardt Raht arrived in Ducktown to seek his fortune mining copper. Born in Germany, he attended the University of Bonn and later the University of Berlin, studying chemistry and mineralogy. Immigrating to America during the German Revolution of 1848, he acquired U.S. citizenship in 1853.6

When Raht arrived, the three major companies mining copper were the Union Consolidated Mining Company, the Polk County Mining Company, and the Burra Burra Mining Company. They were all owned by northern investors. Raht began to work at the Union Consolidated Mining Company, where he also ran a profitable company store that sold supplies to the miners and their families. Raht was described as “spirited, methodical, ambitious, [and] honest . . . no less a stern taskmaster in his own behalf than he was a loyal employee of those in whose interest he served.”7

Raht became superintendent of Union Consolidated Mining in 1858 and of the other two companies a year later. By 1860, he was chief of operations for all the mining companies and smelting works in the area. In 1861 the mines and mill were prospering under Raht’s leadership. As one historian noted, “No man ever worked harder to make Ducktown a district of moral and industrial strength . . . and, in turn, no man ever reaped greater rewards of his efforts than did Julius Eckhardt Raht.”8 He was called “Captain” Raht and was one of the richest men in Cleveland, Tennessee.

After the firing on Fort Sumter, Bradley County voted on June 8, 1861 along with the rest of Tennessee on the issue of secession. The total for the county was 507 for and 1,382 against. Despite this, Tennessee left the Union. Recognizing the importance of the mill and mines, the Confederate government seized them under the Sequestration Act of 1861. Raht was no secessionist, and he tried to protect his livelihood and the operation out of loyalty to his northern employers. Despite refusing to swear an oath of loyalty to the Confederacy, his expertise was so valuable that he was kept on to manage the operations.9

As time passed, the mines and mill worked at a reduced capacity as men left to fight in the war. As a result, Confederate authorities looked at Raht through a jaundiced eye. They threatened to draft Raht into the army, but let him pay for a substitute. Major (later General) Isaac Munroe St. John was tasked by General Josiah Gorgas, Chief of Ordnance, to secure raw materials for the war effort.

Isaac Munroe St. John

Born in Augusta, Georgia, St. John graduated from Yale University in 1845 and became a lawyer, newspaperman, and railroad civil engineer. The outbreak of the war found him working for the South Carolina Railroad. Enlisting with the South, by October 1861 he was an engineer in General John B. Magruder’s Army of the Peninsula. In April 1862 he was named the chief of the Niter Bureau (later the Niter and Mining Corps). St. John was tasked with improving production and acquisitions throughout the South.10 As a result, in 1863, St. John took complete control over copper production by selling the rights to wealthy southern investors.11

In November 1863 Major General Ulysses S. Grant was in Chattanooga, Tennessee confronting General Braxton Bragg’s Confederate army positioned on Missionary Ridge. Bragg had sent Lieutenant General James Longstreet to Knoxville to threaten the Union forces under Major General Ambrose Burnside. Cleveland, Tennessee, only 30 miles from Chattanooga, was between the two Confederate armies along the East Tennessee & Georgia Railroad. Grant decided to severe this line of communication and supply by sending 1,500 Union cavalrymen under Colonel Eli Long.

Eli Long

Colonel Long, 26 years old at the time, rode out at 3:00 a.m. on November 25 toward Cleveland. His command consisted of men from the 2nd Kentucky Cavalry and the 1st, 3rd, and 10th Ohio Cavalry regiments from his Second Brigade, Second Division, supplemented by the 17th Indiana and 98th Illinois Mounted Infantry regiments from Colonel John T. Wilder’s Third Brigade, Second Division.12

Colonel Long was a Kentuckian by birth. He was a fighting colonel who was noted for the pipe clenched between his teeth before any action. During the Civil War he was wounded five times and cited for gallantry five times before retiring from the army in 1867 as a major general.13

Myra Inman

As Major General George Thomas’ men stormed up Missionary Ridge, the lead regiment of Long’s column, the 1st Ohio Cavalry, drove the 2nd Kentucky Cavalry (CSA) from Cleveland. After securing the town, Colonel Long sent the 3rd Ohio and two companies of mounted infantry to destroy the railroad to Charleston and scout enemy strength in that direction. Meanwhile other Union troopers began destroying the railroad tracks, burning the railcars, and tearing down the telegraph wires. Eighteen-year-old Myra Inman living on North Street, two blocks east of the Bradley County Courthouse, wrote, “A raid of Yankees came in this eve. They took two hogsheads of our corn . . . and are all over in everything else. We go to bed with sad hearts.” The 3rd Ohio returned before dusk after skirmishing the enemy in Calhoun. Being apprised of the proximity of the rebels, Long’s men bivouacked at the Cleveland Masonic Female Institute for the night.14

Long’s men were awakened by picket firing at 2:00 a.m. While some of Long’s men saddled up to form a defensive line, others continued their destruction. Myra Inman wrote, “The Yankees are taking our corn, potatoes, pork salt, and never pay a cent and besides talk very insulting to us . . . [I]t is so hard to see it done and can’t help ourselves. They burnt Mr. Raht’s wagon and the railroad and some cars . . . Oh, how I wish I had some power.”15

John H. Kelly

As dawn broke, a brigade of Confederate cavalry, approximately 500 strong, under Brigadier General John H. Kelly along with a section (two pieces) of artillery attacked. Although outnumbered, the Confederates had the advantage over the Yankees who lacked any artillery. With his mission of destruction accomplished, Colonel Long concluded that discretion was the better part of valor and decided to withdraw. On the Federal right flank was Raht’s rolling mill. As historian David Powell pointed out, “Initially, the Federals seemed to care little about the rolling mill, which, viewed from a modern perspective, is interesting – copper was a vital war material and Cleveland was just about the South’s sole source for that material. In modern war, that mill would be a critical infrastructure target,”16

Before initiating his withdrawal, almost as an afterthought, Colonel Long ordered the mill destroyed. His men had found a large arsenal of rockets, torpedoes, and shells which Long ordered to be piled in the mill, then set on fire. Unionist East Tennessean J.S. Hurlburt described the explosion:

“As soon as the flames reached the torpedoes, they exploded in every direction whirling and hissing through the air in the most dangerous and terrific manner conceivable. In the space of half an hour, upwards of sixteen hundred of these nameless, nondescript, rebel inventions burnt themselves loose from the fiery mass, going off with a successive, rattling, crashing noise and thundering cannon-like explosions.”17

The burning of the copper rolling mill

With this distraction, Long started his command out on the Harrison Road toward Chattanooga with the enemy pressing him closely, until he crossed Candy’s Creek to safety. Kelly’s forces pulled up and returned to Cleveland, but left almost as quickly as Long did once they received word of Bragg’s defeat and retreat.

Colonel Eli Long’s Brigade successfully destroyed 12 miles of railroad track, burned several railroad cars, and captured 233 prisoners, 85 wagons, and 11 ambulances on their raid to Cleveland with the loss of two killed, 14 wounded, and 12 missing. And he destroyed “the large copper rolling mill. The only one of its kind in the Confederacy.” The Federals would soon return to Ducktown when General Sherman marched to General Burnside’s relief at Knoxville. The rolling mill was not rebuilt and mining ceased in Ducktown for the rest of the war. It was never again accessible to the Confederates.18

Having no investment to protect, Julius Raht left Cleveland and traveled to Cincinnati. The loss of the Ducktown copper mines and rolling mill had far-reaching effects on the Confederate Ordnance Bureau. Lieutenant Colonel Richard Morton’s report from that bureau stated that fully 90% of the South’s copper production had been lost. William LeRoy Broun, head of the Confederate arsenal in Richmond, admitted the magnitude of the disaster at Ducktown, “The casting of bronze field guns was immediately suspended and all available copper was carefully hoarded for the manufacture of caps. It soon became apparent that the supply would be exhausted and the armies rendered useless, unless other sources of supply could be obtained.” Purchasing agents swept the South for anything made of copper. “Secretly . . . an officer was dispatched . . . to purchase or impound all the copper stills found available, and ship the same, cut into strips, to the Richmond Arsenal,” wrote Broun, “and thus were all the caps issued from the arsenal and used by the armies . . . during the last twelve months of the war manufactured from the copper stills of North Carolina.”19

Julius Raht returned to Ducktown in 1866. He reopened copper production, personally financing much of the necessary repairs, and rebuilt his fortune. His re-opened mines produced more than one million pounds of copper in his first full year of production, despite not having any railroad connection to Ducktown. In 1878 the mines temporarily closed due to falling copper prices and the lack of this rail connection. Raht was sued by the shareholders of the United Consolidated Mining Company, who believed his great wealth was created from their loss. Raht won the suit when it was proven that he had made his fortune through his commissary business and shrewd personal investing.20

By 1890 the mines were re-opened when rail access finally came to Ducktown. Julius Raht, however, would not live to see it, dying of a heart attack in August 1879. By 1900, the harvesting of forests for the smelters had combined with the sulfurous smoke to denude 32,000 acres, creating a virtual moonscape. It became the largest man-made biological desert in the country, and the smoke from the smelters caused acid rain. This massive environmental disaster left the landscape barren for more than a century and brought about the first study on the long-term effects of acid rain.21

Footnotes (Click on the book titles below to purchase from Amazon. Part of the proceeds from any book purchased from Amazon through the CCWRT website is returned to the CCWRT to support its education and preservation programs.)

1. Coates, Earl J. & Dean S. Thomas, An Introduction to Civil War Small Arms, Gettysburg, Pa., Thomas Publications, 1990. The chemical formula for fulminate of mercury is Hg(CNO)2. It is made from mercury, nitric acid, and alcohol and is extremely explosive and shock-sensitive. The percussion cap was developed by Reverend John Forsyth of Aberdeenshire, Scotland in 1805.

2. Donnelly, Ralph, “Confederate Copper,” Civil War History, Vol. 1, No. 4, December 1955, Kent, Ohio, The Kent State University Press. Pp. 335-370.

3. Surdam, David G. “The Union Navy’s Blockade Reconsidered,” Naval War College Review, 51 No. 4, (Autumn 1998) p. 85. Vandiver, Frank E., Ploughshares into Swords: Josiah Gorgas and Confederate Ordnance, College Station, Texas, Texas A&M University, 1952. Pp. 106-107. Mallet, J.W., “Work of the Ordnance Bureau, 1861-1865,” Southern Historical Society Papers, ed. Reverend J. William Jones, Vol. 37 (January-December) 1909.

4. Vandiver, Ploughshares into Swords. P. 82.

5. Donnelly, “Confederate Copper,” pp. 335-370

6. Barclay, R.E., Ducktown Back in Raht’s Time, Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina, 1946. Pp.186-187. Accessed July 29, 2023. Accessed July, 29, 2023.

7. Barclay, Ducktown Back in Raht’s Time, p. 190-191.

8. Quoted from Barclay, R.E. Ducktown. Accessed July, 28, 2023.

9. Accessed July 27, 2023. The Sequestration Act was passed by the Confederate Congress in 1861. Under international law, as a sovereign nation threatened by a belligerent country, they could seize Northern property and demand persons to claim loyalty to the Confederacy and/or declare Confederate citizenship. To learn more, see: Hamilton, Daniel W., The Limits of Sovereignty: Property Confiscation in the Union and Confederacy during the Civil War, University of Chicago Press, 2007.

10. Mitcham, Samuel W., Jr., The Encyclopedia of Confederate Generals: The Definitive Guide to the 426 Leaders of the South’s War Effort, Washington D.C., Regnery History & Publishing, 2022. P. 568.

11. Powell, David, “East Tennessee and Confederate Copper,” Emerging Civil War Blog, July 18, 2017. Barclay, Ducktown, pp. 87-96.

12. The War of the Rebellion. A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Volume 31, Series I, Part 3, p. 291. Washington D.C., U.S. Government Printing Office, 1880-1901. Long received his orders from Major General George Thomas on 24 November 1863. Long’s full report also in Curry, W.L., Four Years in the Saddle: History of the First Regiment, Ohio Volunteer Cavalry in the War of the Rebellion, 1861-1865. Reprint, Jonesboro, Georgia, Freedom Hill Press, Inc., 1984. Pp. 150-155.

13. Eicher, John H. and David J. Eicher, Civil War High Commands, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2001. P. 352. Warner, Ezra J., Generals in Blue: Lives of the Union Commanders, Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1992. Pp. 283-284. Belcher, Dennis W., The Cavalry of the Army of the Cumberland, Jefferson, N.C., McFarland & Co. Inc. Publishers, 2016. P.74.

14. Belcher, The Cavalry of the Army of the Cumberland, pp. 179-180. “Civil War Diaries of Northeast Tennessee,” Inman Diary, entry for Nov. 24, 1863, ed. Maggie MacLean, June 6, 2022. Accessed 2 Aug. 2023. Powell, “East Tennessee and Confederate Copper,” ECW Blog. Crofts, Thomas, The History of the Third Ohio Cavalry, 1861-1865, Toledo, Ohio, The Stoneman Press, 1910, Reprint Blue Acorn Press, Huntington WV, 1997. P. 122.

15. Inman Diary. Entry for Nov. 26, 1863.

16. Crofts, Third Ohio Cavalry, p. 122. Belcher, Cavalry of the Army of the Cumberland, p. 180. Powell, “East Tennessee and Confederate Copper,” ECW. Rea, John, “Four Weeks with Long’s Cavalry in East Tennessee,” in Glimpses of the Nation’s Struggle, ed. J.C. Donahower, Silas Towler, David Kingsbury, St. Paul, Review Publishing, Co., 1908. Pp. 22-23. John Herbert Kelly, a native Alabamian, was 23 years old and had been promoted to general on November 16, 1863. He was called the “Boy General of the Confederacy.” He was entrusted with command of a division in General Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry corps.

17. Powell, “East Tennessee and Confederate Copper,” ECW.

18. Curry, First Ohio Cavalry, Long’s official report, p. 151.

19. Vandiver, Ploughshares into Swords, p. 201-2fn. Powell, ECW.

20. Maysilles, Duncan, Ducktown Smoke: The Fight Over One of the South’s Greatest Environmental Disasters, Chapel Hill, N.C., University of North Carolina Press, 2011. P. 35. Barclay, Ducktown, p. 170-184.

21. Ibid.