Skip to Content
Agencies | Governor
Search Virginia.Gov
  • (434) 951-6340


Virginia's Mineral Resources and the American Civil War


During the American Civil War, iron provided the raw material for pistols, rifles, cannons, land mines, sabers, and knives, as well as railroad locomotives and ironclad warships powered by steam.  Iron provided not only bayonets and bridles, but also skillets, cauldrons, canned rations, axes, saws, shovels, chains, surgeon’s tools, and countless pieces of miscellaneous hardware.  There were perhaps as many as five million horses and mules engaged in the conflict, requiring twenty million iron horseshoes.  During this time, iron re-defined warfare, top to bottom. 

At the beginning of the Civil War, Virginia and Tennessee were the only significant iron producing states in the South.  Tennessee was overrun early in the fighting, so without Virginia’s iron the Confederacy would have been absurdly overmatched.   Virginia’s iron industry managed to produce until the end of the war, despite being caught in the midst of the combat.

Iron occurs as a variety of minerals across the state of Virginia, but mining operations prior to the Civil War exclusively used a type of ore known as limonite.  Limonite is a hydrated iron oxide with a general formula FeO(OH)·nH2O, commonly a byproduct of the weathering of iron-rich sulfide or silicate minerals.

Iron mining in Virginia began shortly after the establishment of the Jamestown settlement, in 1619, when the first iron furnace in English America was built on Falling Creek, a few miles south of present-day Richmond.  Only a few test runs had been completed when the facilities were destroyed during the Powhatan Indian uprising of 1622.   Falling Creek, as well as several other ensuing iron operations on Virginia’s Coastal Plain were exploiting a type of limonite known as bog ore, which forms when iron-rich groundwater emerges from springs into bogs or swamps and the iron precipitates as it is oxidized.  These early operations on the Coastal Plain were poor producers and short lived.

Strategic Mineral Resources of Virginia in the American Civil War - Iron

Strategic Mineral Resources of Virginia in the American Civil War - Iron

Much later, in 1716, Alexander Spotswood established Germanna Furnace about five miles west of Fredericksburg, and in the next several decades other iron operations sprang up in the vicinity.  These furnaces were using ore from the Gold-Pyrite Belt, a swath of rocks extending down the Piedmont from Prince William County on the north to Buckingham County on the south, rocks that contain abundant pyrite (iron sulfide, FeS2) that has weathered into limonite.  This type of ore is known as gossan and results from the intense oxidization and leaching of sulfide deposits that are believed to have originally formed by submarine volcanic-hydrothermal processes (Good, 1981; Duke, 1983).  The Gold-Pyrite Belt was an important producer in Colonial days, but lost significance as richer ores were developed further inland.

Further west on the Piedmont lies another ore belt, roughly coinciding with the valley of the James River from below Lynchburg northeastward.  Here, the limonite is concentrated as residual deposits resulting from the deep weathering of beds of limestone (Furcron, 1935).  This district was a leading Virginia iron producer in Thomas Jefferson’s time. 

During the American Revolution, Virginia’s iron industry made a significant contribution to the war effort.  The New Canton mines in Buckingham County opened during the war, and Jefferson reported that Ross’s Furnace in Campbell County was making 1,600 tons of pig iron annually.  Meanwhile, to the west of the Blue Ridge, Miller’s Furnace in Augusta County and Zane’s Furnace in Frederick County each made about 600 tons (Jefferson, 1785).  A cannon foundry operated on the banks of the James River at Westham, but in January of 1781 Benedict Arnold’s British Cavalry ransacked the facility, dumping the equipment into the river.

Virginia’s premier limonite iron ore, the so-called Oriskany ore, is found in the Valley and Ridge Province.  Typically the iron occurs where a thick shale bed containing disseminated pyrite overlies limestone.  The iron weathers from the pyrite into an acidic solution that percolates downward into the pores of the limestone, where the dramatic change in pH causes it to precipitate as limonite (Gooch, 1954).  Ore bodies range from small, isolated pockets to 700-foot-long porous masses.  Well developed Oriskany deposits occur in the Great North Mountain area in Shenandoah County, in Massanutten Mountain, and in the Clifton Forge District straddling Alleghany, Bath, Botetourt, and Craig counties.  This type of ore was heavily utilized in charcoal furnaces before, during, and shortly after the Civil War, and was considered relatively high grade at the time.

Another major source of limonite in the Valley and Ridge occurs as shallow residual clay deposits, sometimes known as “mountain ore.”  The iron occurs as a coarse grit and lumps scattered throughout massive layers of remnant clay that formed by the thorough weathering of a considerable thickness of impure limestone.  Groundwater removed much of the original limestone, leaving a thick residue of clay and further concentrating the iron.  This type of ore is found in a swath thirty miles long and three miles wide that straddles Pulaski, Wythe, and Smyth counties in southwestern Virginia.  Some ore bodies occupy continuous tracts of several acres.  “Mountain ore” deposits were extensively mined from the 1760s to 1907, and in Virginia were second only to Oriskany ores in importance.

During the early decades of the new nation, Virginia had the third highest pig iron output of the United States, trailing only New York and Pennsylvania.  Many furnaces in Virginia came into blast at this time, exploiting Oriskany-type deposits along the western margin of the Great Valley, particularly in the Shenandoah District (Columbia Furnace, 1810; Liberty Furnace, 1817; and Taylor Furnace, 1845), and the Clifton Forge District (Lucy Selina Furnace, 1827; Roaring Run Furnace, 1832; Clifton Furnace, 1846; Dolly Ann Furnace, 1848; and Grace Furnace, 1849).  By 1840, Virginia had forty-two furnaces producing 18,810 tons of iron annually (U.S. Census, 1840). 

Tredegar Iron Works, 1865, photo by Alexander Gardner

Tredegar Iron Works, 1865, photo by Alexander Gardner

However, about this time the economy and the political stature of the Old Dominion began to wane.  Virginia’s industry lagged behind the rapidly expanding Northern industry, which was geographically blessed with abundant coal and readily available water power.  In 1850, Virginia’s iron production had fallen to seventh in the nation, and now trailed Tennessee in the South.  The annual value of iron manufactured in the state had dropped precipitously from $528,249 produced by thirty-four furnaces in 1850 to $308,173 from sixteen furnaces in 1860, on the eve of the war.

When the fortunes of history swept Virginia into the Civil War, the state’s iron industry had to revive from its stupor.  The Confederacy would need to rely heavily on the Tredegar Iron Works on the north bank of the James River in Richmond.  When the war’s first shots were fired on Fort Sumter, Tredegar was the nation’s third largest iron manufacturer, specializing in heavy ordnance and a complete line of railroad products including locomotives, freight cars, wheels, axles, spikes, and even iron bridges (National Register of Historic Places).  In addition they made steam engines for ships and sugar mills.  The furnaces were supplied with pig iron carried by horse drawn canal boats plying the James River and Kanawha Canal.  The first shot, incidentally, came from a 10-inch mortar manufactured at Tredegar.

As Tredegar geared up for the war, Virginia’s iron mines were unable to generate sufficient pig iron, and the facility operated at only one-third capacity (Brady, 1991).  Tredegar’s owner, Joseph Anderson, remarked in a July 1862 letter (cited in Dew, 1966), “Everything must stop unless we go into the mountains and purchase and operate blast furnaces to make pig iron.”  Anderson, with financial help from the Confederate government, managed to acquire ten furnaces west of the Blue Ridge (Brady, 1991).  Four of them — Cloverdale, Grace, Glenwood, and Columbia — were in blast when acquired.  Five of them — Australia, Caroline, Catawba, Rebecca, and Jane — needed repairs, while Elizabeth Furnace was ultimately too near to Union Army activities and was not brought back on line.  Anderson had to find competent managers, acquire teams and wagons for hauling ore and pig iron, and provide food for hundreds of furnace laborers who rebuilt stacks and replaced machinery at furnaces long out of blast (Dew, 1966).

The Oxford Furnace, formerly the Old Ross Furnace, produced iron during the war, and the Confederate Government worked the mines at Bremo Bluff opposite New Canton (Furcron, 1935).  Furnaces in southwestern Virginia supplied Tredegar.  Operations in Wythe County using “mountain ore” included the Wythe Furnace, Raven Cliff, Grey Eagle, Graham/Cedar Run, and Graham/Barren Spring.  The Thomas Ironworks in Smyth County also supplied Tredegar. 

Envelope advertising Tredegar iron products.

Envelope advertising Tredegar iron products
from the Library of Congress

During the war, the Tredegar Iron Works became the single most important iron operation in the Confederacy.  At its peak, Tredegar consisted of two rolling mills capable of producing 14,000 tons of bar and sheet iron annually, along with two gun foundries capable of casting cannon ranging from small mountain howitzers to 10-ton coastal defense guns.  There was an ammunition foundry for making cannon balls and boring mills for reaming gun barrels.  There was a machine shop, a boiler shop, and a locomotive factory, as well as ancillary brass and copper shops, carpenter shops, blacksmiths, a company store, office buildings, and housing for the slaves (National Register).  Tredegar turned out a total of 1,099 artillery pieces during the war, about half of the South’s entire production (Boyle, 1936).  Tredegar also manufactured steam locomotives and rails, as well as 723 tons of iron plate armor for the CSS Virginia, the Confederacy’s first ironclad warship (Nelson, 2004).  Prototypes for the modern submarine, torpedo, and machine gun were developed here. 

Union forces targeted several Virginia furnaces during the war.  The Elizabeth and Caroline furnaces in Massanutten Mountain were torched and Columbia Furnace was ransacked three times.  Grace Furnace was demolished by General David Hunter’s troops in June of 1864.  Thomas’ Ironworks in Smyth County and Barrett’s Foundry in Wythe County were destroyed during General George Stoneman’s devastating raid in December of 1864.  Yet despite constant depredations, as late as November 1864, Virginia still had eighteen operating iron furnaces (Boyle, 1936).  “Quite possibly,” says Civil war historian Charles P. Roland, “the tenacity of Confederate authorities in fighting for Richmond was stiffened as much by the need for holding the Tredegar Works as for protecting the seat of government.” (Roland, 1960)

Tredegar avoided significant damage during the burning of Richmond and returned to production at the end of 1865.  [Anderson hired fifty armed guards to fend off the arsonists detailed to keep valuable military items from falling to the enemy.]  By 1873 it was operating at twice its prewar capacity, and later went on to supply munitions to the United States military during the Spanish American War, World War I, World War II, and the Korean War.

Selected References:

Boyle, Rockwell S., 1936, Virginia’s mineral contribution to the Confederacy: Virginia Division of Mineral Resources Bulletin 46, p. 119–123.

Brady , T. T., 1991, The charcoal iron industry in Virginia: Virginia Minerals, v. 37, no. 4.

Dew, Charles, 1966, Ironmaker to the Confederacy, Joseph R. Anderson and the Tredegar Iron Works: Yale University Press, New Haven.

Duke, N.A., 1983, A metallogenic study of the central Virginia gold-pyrite belt: Ph.D. dissertation, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg.

Furcron, A. S., 1935, James River iron and marble belt: Virginia Division of Geology, Mineral Resources Bulletin 39.

Gooch, E. O., 1954, Iron in Virginia: Virginia Division of Geology, Mineral Resources Circular No. 1.

Good, R. S., 1981, Geochemical exploration and sulfide mineralization, in Geologic investigations in the Willis Mountain and Andersonville quadrangles, Virginia: Virginia Division of Mineral Resources Publication 29.

Jefferson, Thomas, 1785, Notes on the State of Virginia: Paris.

Nelson, James L., 2004, Reign of iron: William Morrow, New York.

Roland, Charles P., 1960, The Confederacy: University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Illinois

U.S. Census, 1840, Washington D.C.

View of Saltville, Virginia during Civil War