Cannon Makers of the Confederacy;  The Noble Iron Foundry of Rome, Ga.

By Robert S. Davis Jr.

Summer 2001 - Vol. 22, No. 3


Two unusual relics of the Civil War serve as tourist attractions on the Georgia-Alabama border, some 30 miles apart by car.

One of these objects, a monster metal lathe, 16 feet long, with a 10-foot swing, stands on the grounds of the Tourist Center in Rome, Georgia. No accurate measure of its weight exists but it has handled a land clearing cutter wheel of around 18,000 pounds.

The plate on the lathe proclaims that it was built by Gage, Warner & Whitney of Nashua, New Hampshire. The lathe had been in almost daily use for more than a century when the Rome Heritage Foundation purchased it in 1972.

The other relic, a cold blast furnace at Cedar Bluff, Alabama, stands more than 30 feet high, the centerpiece of a county park.

Together, these treasures tell a curious tale of the ups and downs of a Confederate cannon maker.

The story began with the marriage of James Noble (1805-1888), a metallurgist and mining engineer, to Jennifer Ward (1807-1900) in Cornwall, England, on Christmas Day 1826. Soon father of four, James nonetheless literally then set out to make his fortune in the world.

A venture to South America nearly ended his life by fever. Returning to England, he next determined to try his luck in America and, with his wife and children in tow, arrived in Philadelphia in 1837, just in time for the United States’s first great depression.

Surviving unemployment and a relapse of fever, James Noble finally obtained work, developed a new railroad brake, and, in 1840, leased a building to open as a boiler factory in Reading, Pennsylvania.

Two years later, he began construction of his own foundry, which washed away in a freshet before it was rebuilt and burned without insurance in 1850. James Noble persevered and by 1854, he had achieved success and had six sons to one day serve as his company's officers.

On a return trip to England in 1851, James Noble was impressed by a sample of iron from the southern United States on display at London's Crystal Palace Exhibition. In 1854, after surveying possible sites for relocation, James Noble, with his family and company, moved to Rome, Georgia, to take advantage of the new city's rail and water transportation, as well as its proximity to coal and iron.

Son John Ward Noble came first to supervise plant construction. Sons Sam and William traveled by sea with the company's heavy machinery (including the giant lathe) to Charleston, South Carolina, then to Mobile, Alabama. By steamboat and ox cart, the machinery finally reached Rome by way of Alabama. James Sr. brought the rest of his family by rail.

However, James Noble's usual luck had followed him to Georgia. On the way, he lost a carpet bag containing $3,000 or more, resulting in the arrest (and immediate release) of two men who turned out to be then Secretary of War Jefferson Davis and his aide.

Agents for R.G. Dun (now Dun & Bradstreet) initially wrote favorable reports on Noble and his sons, mentioning that they owned their tools and machinery (worth $5,000). However, starting in 1858, the reports warned that they had their property in their wives' names; they "will fail if it will benefit them," and "little or no confidence [should be placed] in their integrity."

Charles Cole Hine, an agent for one of the Aetna insurance companies of Hartford, Connecticut, found highly suspicious the policy that his company had with the Nobles. He believed that the value of the property had been greatly over valued by the local agent, who "is directly interested in the property, built it, & ought to know.”

The numerous "firsts" credited to the Noble Iron Works then and since also appear suspect but it did have an extensive operation. By 1861, they offered railroad iron; iron bridges and roofs; mill screws; turning lathes and shafts for rolling mills; wrought iron steam and water pipes; gas and water works; locomotive and cylinder boilers; drill presses; and repair and manufacture of stationary steam engines.

For the short line railroad from Rome, they built the 25-ton locomotive Alfred Shorter. The Shorter was not, as later claimed, the first locomotive built south of Richmond, Virginia (or even the first built in Georgia), although possibly it was the first Deep South locomotive built in part from local iron. The Nobles also built machinery for local steamboats.

The Nobles' foundry and machine shop had hardly relocated when the Civil War began. Supposedly, their former acquaintance, now Confederate President Jefferson Davis, urged the Nobles to make their contribution to the Southern Cause as foundry men, for “we have plenty of men who can fight but few who can make cannon.”

They did not have to look far to see what he meant. When the newly formed Cherokee Artillery fired a salute in Rome on March 19, 1861, this artillery company used rifles not cannon. By April 13, the day after the fall of Fort Sumter, the Nobles had made a cannon from the nearby Round Mountain, Alabama, iron.

When the Cherokee Artillery finally left for the Virginia battlefields, they carried Noble cannons, a few of the many ordered by the Confederacy and Georgia State military. Exact records have not survived but the Nobles, with their giant lathe, are believed to have manufactured at least 70 artillery pieces including 3-inch rifled guns; 6-pdr. smoothbore cannon; 12-pdr. smoothbore field howitzers; 8-inch siege and garrison howitzers; and bronze 6- and 12-pdr. smoothbore cannon.

The latter were made from church bronze bells donated from as far away as Griffin, Georgia. The rifled guns were particularly in short supply in the Confederate Army and were weapons upon which battles (including Gettysburg) were decided.

In addition to the barrel, each gun also required a carriage of seasoned oak, with over 100 pieces of iron and two 57-inch wheels. In the industry-deficient Confederacy, even making the wheels proved a struggle. However, despite the shortages of skilled labor and materials, the Nobles claimed that by January 1862 they produced a cannon per day and an entire battery, including gun carriages and caissons, every three weeks.

All metals became in short supply in the blockaded Confederate South. Local iron sources had to be fully exploited. In late 1862, the Confederacy loaned $20,000 to the Nobles to develop a iron furnace. Raw materials, manufacturing, transportation, and power had to be compromised for the new operation.

On the Coosa River, near Cedar Bluff, Alabama, the Nobles opened the Cornwall Iron Works in 1863. Limestone blocks came by ox cart and were cut to fit for the furnace. Craftsmen and slaves were hired to dig a canal a mile and a half to a tunnel, at the end of which was the cold blast charcoal furnace. Water from the canal/tunnel powered the blowing engines of the furnace and a grist and flour mill.

Ore hauled to the furnace came three miles by ox cart from the Dirtseller Mine at Gaylesville, Alabama. The Nobles transported the finished pig iron 40 miles by water to Rome on the Nobles's two steamboats. The furnace stands today, safely behind a wall built specifically to preserve it from modern Weiss Lake.

The Nobles also developed a 70-bullet-per-minute Minie ball press for the Confederacy. Only the Nobles proved able to make this Confederate invention a working product. A federal agent, after the war, described these bullet presses as "great bullet machines by which the Rebels were [hoping) to annihilate the whole federal army.”

However, James Noble's luck remained consistent. Some of his company's columbiad cannon were rejected by the Confederate government and, by October 1862 the Nobles were ordered to cease production of cannon. When they cast new cannon anyway, a brawl erupted with Confederate officials. Ordnance officer Maynadier Mason suffered severe injuries.

Other clashes with the Confederate Ordnance Bureau had happened and, despite the Nobles's supposedly good relations with Gen. Josias Gorgas, the Confederate Chief of Ordnance, the rift never healed. After December 1862, the Nobles ceased to make artillery and the Confederate government seized and removed some of their machinery.

Federal troops damaged the Cornwall Iron Works on May 1862 and, with the exception of the stone furnace, destroyed it in April 1864. On Aug. 29, 1862, the Nobles’s gun carriage operation burned at an uninsured loss of $50,000. They never made gun carriages again.

On May 17, 1864, the Union army occupied Rome with specific orders to destroy the Noble Iron Foundry. The Federals removed some of the machinery and used black powder to blow up the walls and smoke stacks. The Nobles’s giant lathe survived, being too heavy to move or destroy. It does, however, still bare the marks of the heavy hammers used on it by the soldiers.

A Northern newspaper claimed that the loss of the Rome works proved “the heaviest blow the Confederacy has yet received.” A federal agent commenting on the Nobles’s unsuccessful claim for $19,051.49 for losses inflicted by the Union army wrote that James Noble and his family “did the federal government more harm that any one regiment of rebel soldiers did during the war.”

The Nobles would rebuild their foundry, machine shops and furnaces, although they later sold out and removed to Alabama, founding the city of Anniston.

Today the Civil War struggles of James Noble and his six sons are memorialized by the furnace at Cedar Bluff that produced their pig iron, the giant lathe in Rome that turned their gun barrels, and the Noble cannon that can be seen today in military parks across the country.

[Artillery historian Wayne Stark says 28 known or inferred (two are inferred by length of tube and style of rimbases) Noble cannon survive.]

(About the Author: Robert S. Davis Jr. directs the Family and Regional History Program at Wallace State College in Hanceville, Ala.)