Civil War Cannons Believed To Have Been Forged In Pittsylvania

By Herman E. Melton

Iron rail

The ornamental cast iron balustrade at the Pittsylvania County Courthouse was built and installed in response to a court order issued February 20, 1854. It is known that this was built by Jacob Sours, who was a foundry foreman at the Birch Creek Works during 1853.

Moments before Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg, CSA Col. Porter Alexander dispatched the following message to his Corps Commander, Gen. James Longstreet:

When our artillery fire is doing its best, I shall advise Gen. Pickett to advance.

What followed was perhaps the most intensive artillery barrage of the Civil War. Historians calculate that Alexander, who coordinated the Confederate barrage had 172 guns firing on the Yankee defenders who answered with fire from 220 cannons.

Whereas it is pure conjecture that a few of Longstreet's big guns were forged in Pittsylvania County, the truth is that they could have been. This argument can be advanced somewhat by a report appearing in The Pittsylvania Tribune in 1940 that Confederate cannons were manufactured at what was Pittsylvania's largest industrial complex at the time — “The Birch Creek Works.”

To visit the ruins at the site of the Birch Creek Works is to realize that this industrial establishment probably had the facilities to produce cannons. Moreover, extant documents and correspondence of the institution at the time indicate the probability. Research among Confederate documents for proof by historians is necessary prior to romanticizing about Pittsylvania artillery weapons at the Battle of Gettysburg however.

Little has been written about the Birch Creek Works by county historians. This is ironic because it was apparently even larger in size than any iron works in Danville at the time. For the present day county history buff, its location, origin and activity should be of interest.

It came into being as a modest, obscure little grist mill that was erected in a narrow gorge on Birch (or Burches) Creek in 1783. The builder was the Rev. John Creel, a Fauquier County native. Creel is better known as the founder of one of the first Baptist churches established in the county in 1770. The mill sat across the creek from the church and an active congregation maintains this church today on the same site. It is known as Old Mill Baptist Church. Creel died only four years after building the mill, and his heirs sold it to an interesting county historical figure. He was James Henry, a cousin of the patriot, Patrick Henry. The new owner was at that time the owner of the famous Henry's Mill, which lay some five miles to the north. Henry held on to the mill and made it a going concern until 1816 when he disposed of it to the partnership of Bird Womack and the prominent Beverley Barksdale.

A succession of owners followed for nearly two decades. Their family names included Jackson and Anderson. The latter was the prominent Banister Anderson who is credited with first increasing the scope of the operation before it passed into the hands of another duo — Flippin and Hightower. Their 1857 deed description mentioned “a dwelling house, a grist mill, a sawmill, a foundry, a machine and blacksmith shop and building containing machinery, fixtures and tools.”

The owners brought in a Pennsylvania foundryman named Jacob Sours. He and his brother William were only recently the operators of the historic Washington Iron Works at Rocky Mount. Old Jacob's letters to his home while employed there provided good insight into the nature and scope of the operation of what was by now known as “The Birch Creek Works.”

Sours wrote in May 1858 that one building was 175 feet long. He reported the manufacture of plow points, 32 threshing machines, five circular saws, two 20hp steam engines plus many other items. He mentioned the casting of the fence for the Pittsylvania Courthouse. A portion of Jacob Sours' work remains today as the balustrade for the Courthouse entrance steps.

An iron stove believed to have been designed by William Sours, is extant and is known as the “Flippin Stove.” The Birch Creek Works manufactured the Flippin Patent Flue for tobacco barn curing. A specimen of this is also extant.

The most startling item in the history of the Birch Creek WOrks in existence is a 1874 invoice from Flippin and Hightower to Samuel Pannill Wilson of Windsor Farm at Cascade for the manufacture and installation of a complete grist mill with an iron 18' water-wheel.

Another document notes the manufacture of a complete sawmill. Jacob Sours left when the Civil War erupted to join the Confederate Army, and no Civil War historian mentions the Birch Creek Works as a supplier of Confederate armament.

Although tradition has it that the cannons were built there, as before stated, much research is needed for proof. The absence of documents notwithstanding, for the time being, tradition stands solidly on its own.

By 1893 the village there became known as Atlas and the postmaster and storekeeper was C.W. Flippin. Much of the complex was wiped out in the St. Patrick's Day Flood of 1912, but the rebuilt grist mill operated as Flippin's Mill until the 1930's. The magnificent old foundation stones and portions of the dam are impressive in what is now pristine quietness. The beauty belies the fact that a noisy industrial park whirred away there nearly 150 years ago.


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.