Pittsylvania County's Civil War Gun Factory

By Herman E. Melton

Bilharz, Hall and Co. Weapons

Civil War Carbines

Manufactured in Chatham, Virginia, by Bilharz, Hall and Co. 1862–1864:



At the height of the Battle of Antietam, Lee's outnumbered Confederate troops found themselves hunkered down in a line on the banks of a creek near an old Dunkard Church.

Longstreet was on the right, Harvey Hill was in the center and Stonewall Jackson was on the left. The forces of each waited for an attack from Generals Ambrose Burnside, “Bull” Sumner and Joe Hooker respectively. So ferocious was the Union charge that a Rebel rout appeared eminent.

Indeed, such would have been the case had not A.P. Hill arrived with his troops in double time from Harper's Ferry at that very moment. By the time a merciful darkness covered the horrifying scene, 6,000 men lay dead and another 17,000 wounded lay in agony. It was the Confederacy's bloodiest afternoon so far.

Every Pittsylvania County Civil War buff knows that there were soldiers from the county in the carnage at Antietam. It is not generally known, however, that rifles from a Pittsylvania County gun factory may have made their first appearance in the war that afternoon.

Limited records available show that the last of the first one hundred rifles from Bilharz, Hall and Co. of Pittsylvania Courthouse, had been delivered to the Confederate Ordinance Department in Richmond on September 16, 1862 — the day before Antietam.

It is known that Bilharz, Hall, and Company began producing muzzle loaded carbines a month earlier. Before the war ended, they produced hundreds more.

The gun factory was built in what appears to have been a tin shop/foundry on Main Street in the Town of Chatham, Virginia. According to the deed, its location was in back of the Masonic Lodge Hall some 1400 feet north of the Courthouse on land the partnership purchased of George A. Carter.

The partnership was an interesting one with Candidus Bilharz as the guiding genius. Bilharz was an immigrant from Baden, Germany who was naturalized in Pittsylvania County in 1859. He was a harness maker, vintner/distiller, miller and mechanic who lived near Tanyard Branch in Chatham. Bilharz was connected to the prominent Bolanz family which emigrated from Baden, Germany also.

George Hall was a prominent businessman who owned a small tin shop along with extensive land holdings in the county. Records show him acting in various official capacities on behalf of the county during the Civil War.

Col. Coleman D. Bennet was a silent partner in the firm and was presumably its chief benefactor. Bennett was a man of enormous wealth who owned vast tracts of county land plus a whole block of buildings on Main Street in downtown Chatham.

Thirty-eight people were employed by the gun works, and those fit for military service were given Confederate draft deferments.

Some of the names of the employees were as follows: G.C. Haden, A.C. Haden, R.L. Haden, John H. Shelton, Nathaniel Shelton, C.L. Mott, James Motley, B. Riddle, J.D. Reynolds, B. Reynolds, J.T. Abbott, C.P. Oakes, John H. Brown, M.B. Dickson, William Brown, Frank Compton, R.W. Hall, J. Beaver, J.H.C. Hutcherson, Benjamin Dyer and many more.

Ages of the workers ranged from 18 to 40. Job titles included the following: Stocker, Rifling Hand, Polisher, Vice Hand, Band Holder, Helper and Mechanic.

The 400 or so rifles produced from August of 1862 through March of 1864 (when operations ceased) were manufactured under contract with the Confederate Ordinance Department.

One type of carbine was muzzle loaded and the other was of the “rising breach” type. The latter sold for $45 each. A few of these are extant in the hands of collectors, including one with a serial number 353.

Records show that the firm purchased thousands of pounds of “skelp iron” from the Confederate government for use in rifle barrels. The company also manufactured 1745 wooden stocks at a dollar each for other rifle factories — thus adding to Bilharz, Hall's historical importance.

Yes, Bilharz, Hall & Co. was a busy place and by romanticizing one can believe that their rifles were carried in Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg.

For reasons carefully listed however, their guns consistently got low marks from Confederate inspectors. Ironically, their deficiencies may account for the paucity of them today. As every gun collector knows, when a rifle failed, the Civil War soldier simply threw it away. However, a good one, was highly prized and retained assiduously.

In any case, a Bilharz, Hall rifle is said to be worth $10,000 — an unusual price for a gun that originally cost $45 — F.O.B. Chatham.


Notes


Books by Herman Melton

(Available from the sponsor.)

Pittsylvania's Eighteenth-Century Grist Mills

Pittsylvania's Eighteenth-Century Grist Mills

Pittsylvania's Nineteenth-Century Grist Mills

Pittsylvania's Nineteenth-Century Grist Mills

Thirty-Nine Lashes, Well Laid On

Thirty-Nine Lashes, Well Laid On


Pittsylvania County's Historic Courthouse

Pittsylvania County's Historic Courthouse



Other Books Concerning Pittsylvania County History

(Available from the sponsor.)

History of Pittsylvania County, VA

Clement: History of Pittsylvania County

Pittsylvania: Homes and People of the Past

Fitzgerald: Pittsylvania: Homes and People of the Past

Eighteenth Century Landmarks of Pittsylvania County, VA

Hurt: Eighteenth Century Landmarks of Pittsylvania County


An Intimate History of the American Revolution in Pittsylvania County, Virginia

Hurt: An Intimate History of the American Revolution in Pittsylvania County

Footprints from the Old Survey Books

Dodson: Footprints from the Old Survey Books

Histories of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina (Dover)

Byrd: Histories of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina


Tales About People in a Small Town

Jones: Tales About People in a Small Town



Herman Melton's online articles are posted by Mitchells Publications and the Sims-Mitchell House as part of an effort to document Pittsylvania County, Chatham, and Danville, Virginia.