Virginia Carbines of Danville and Pittsylvania Court House

Part 2: Mystery Carbines Prove To Be Chatham Products

By Will Melton (see also Part 1).

During the war, Pittsylvania County was never invaded by Union troops. Its only city, Danville, was secure enough to serve as the last capital of the Confederacy after the evacuation of the government from Richmond in April 1865. Primarily farm country, both now and then, Pittsylvania lies on the North Carolina border in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Local historians have long known that rifles were manufactured in the region, but identifying the few remaining examples of Pittsylvania arms has been difficult. None of the companies producing arms chose to indicate on the weapons either the name or the location of the manfacturer. Recent research has brought this history to light in a special exhibit at the Springfield (Mass.) Armory Museum, “Arms of the Confederacy,” a part of which is the largest collection of weapons attributed to Pittsylvania ever assembled. Included are seven carbines and rifles produced by three artisans in Pittsylvania County.

Especially interesting are the four rare examples manufactured in Chatham by Candidus Bilharz, George W. Hall and C.D. Bennett. For nearly one hundred years, these weapons were attributed to D.C. Hodgkins and Sons, a Macon, Georgia armory. The research of Howard Michael Madaus, curator of the Cody Firearms Museum in Cody, Wyoming, confirmed the true source, a company in business in Chatham as early as September 1862 when 100 carbines were delivered to the Confederate government at a cost of $45 each. The guns were manufactured in a building that stood off Main Street in Chatham which was then behind the present day Masonic Lodge.

According to Herman Melton in Picks Tracks and Bateaux (Chatham, VA, 1993), the genius of the company was Bilharz, an immigrant from Baden, Germany. Naturalized in 1859, he was a harness maker, vintner, distiller and mechanic. His son received an army deferment to work in the Bilharz gun shop.

Springfield's catalog #6123 is a .54-caliber “rising breech” Bilharz, Hall & Company percussion carbine. The breech block rises vertically when the lever surrounding the trigger is lowered. Overall length is 40 inches with a barrel length of 21 inches. Of 100 manufactured, no more than 16 are known to exist today. A similar but slightly shorter model by Bilharz, Hall is also a .54 caliber rising breech carbine, catalog #1474. Its overall length is 39 3/4 inches whereas the barrel is 1/2 inch longer than #6123. The third .54 caliber rising breech model was described in a 1909 catalog at the armory as “History unknown. This is a very rare specimen.” Only five or six are in circulation.

These guns were harshly judged in a March 1863 Richmond Armory inspection of Bilharz, Hall and Co. weapons:

The tumbler is made of iron which is not case hardened, rendering the lock very rough and liable to get out of order very soon. The barrel is not finished smoothly inside or out. The inside should be improved by boring. The muzzle end of the stock is too short. It should be at least four inches above the band and tipped. The abrupt shoulder in the stock on the left side of the barrel at the breech should be rounded, as it is apt to split in the way it is now finished. The screws are all very rough and unfinished — some without any milling, even enough to take the burr off after coming from the die. The tang screw is too long, the butt screws are common wood screws, the thread is too abrupt and sharp. The shoulder of the butt plate is too sharp and square. The rod-swivel is too long, or else the stud is too high up, causing the rod to project beyond the end of the barrel.

Perhaps this critical assessment led to the series of two upgraded models of the same weapon that are on display in Springfield.

The clue to the identity of the rising breech carbines lay in the report of the Richmond Armory. Howard Madaus noticed some similarities in the weapons described in the report. His experience in disassembling this and dozens of other weapons provided the final proof. By comparing inspection marks on the Bilharz, Hall carbines with the details contained in the Richmond Armory's report, he was able to link these rare weapons to their origin.

This also sheds light on another myster related to these same firearms. In examining the rising breech carbines, Madaus marveled at their remarkably good condition. He believes they never saw action, a hunch supported by the armory's criticism of the firearms. Madaus suspects that the carbine's rising breech provided a poor seal, allowing too much gas to escape at discharge and greatly reducing the effectiveness of its fire. Perhaps the carbines were delivered to Richmond and stored rather than being distributed to the army. As the Confederate government fled Richmond in early April 1865, the retreating army torched all supplies that might be of use to the north, and a cache of weapons would be a logical target for demolition.

Other products of the Bilharz, Hall shop were more useful to the southern cause. A handsome example of a muzzle-loading Bilharz, Hall carbine is prominently displayed in a gun case in the Springfield museum. This was part of a later contract delivered in early 1863. Its design was modeled after the carbine produced first in Springfield in 1855. Its nose cap and ramrod are brass; all other parts are bright metal. All told, some 500 to 600 rifles were produced by Bilharz, Hall & Co., and the firm later supplied hundreds of rifle stocks to the Richmond Armory for use in rifles and Sharps-style carbines. The area around the gun shop deserves archaeological study, according to Madaus.

Of interest to Pittsylvania County natives is the possibility that these hometown weapons were shouldered by the 6th Virginia Cavalry, a unit recruited in part from the county. It is poignant to imagine troopers marching north to protect their hometown carrying rifles made right in their village. When the Bilharz, Hall firm ceased operation in April 1864, five of its 38 employees moved to Richmond to work in the armory there. The end of the Civil War marked the passing of many southern customs including that of the home-grown security force that descended from the committees of safety and the minutemen of the American Revolution.

Historians and gun collectors are expanding our knowledge of the colorful industrial age that emerged in the American South during the Civil War. Men like Candidus Bilharz helped to create, in a matter of months, a formidable military machine that has fascinated generations of Americans and military historians around the world.


Notes


This webpage is posted by Mitchells Publications and the Sims-Mitchell House as part of an effort to document Pittsylvania County, Chatham, and Danville, Virginia.