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Virginia's Mineral Resources and the American Civil War


Because of lead’s high density and low melting point, it is ideal for making bullets, and the lead mines at Austinville in southern Wythe County were the primary source for Confederate ammunition (Whisonant, 1996). These deposits occur as lenses of the sulfide minerals galena, sphalerite, and pyrite within the Cambrian-age Shady dolomite. These are typical “Mississippi Valley” type deposits resulting from warm, metal-rich brines permeating into breccias zones in carbonate host rocks, which, in this case are sliced up by multiple, imbricate, steeply inclined thrust faults and associated fractures (Sweet et al., 1989).

Newspaper advertisement for lead and shot from Austinville. From the Virginia Gazette & General Advertiser, Richmond 1791.

Newspaper advertisement for lead and shot from
Austinville. From the Virginia Gazette & General
Advertiser, Richmond 1791.

In 1756, Colonel John Chiswell, a British colonial officer, discovered lead along the New River in what is now Wythe County, Virginia. Chiswell staked his claim and imported a Welsh miner named William Herbert to manage the enterprise, which supplied ammunition to the American colonies during the French and Indian War. However, in 1776 mining was temporarily curtailed and the property was confiscated by a Revolutionary Army detail under orders from General Washington. In 1789, the mines were sold at public auction to Stephen and Moses Austin; the latter was the father of famous Texan Stephen F. Austin. The Austin brothers ran the mine until 1805, when they defaulted on the payment and the property again reverted to the State of Virginia, which sold it to a group led by Thomas Jackson. It is not known exactly who built the shot tower or when, although it is likely that it was completed by Jackson sometime between 1807 and 1812. Mining was hampered by multiple ownership, but in 1848 the various interests were bought out and the Wythe Union Lead Mine Company was formed. From 1838 to 1848 the mines produced 6,511,450 pounds of lead valued at $146,577.07 ($45.02 per ton). From 1848 to 1858 the company claims to have produced 7,613,334 pounds valued at $241,178.72 ($63.35 per ton) (Watson, 1905).  

During the Civil War, the Wythe County mines were the primary source of lead for bullets for the Confederacy, augmented by scavenged plumbing and window weights, and spent ammunition scoured from battlefields.  About 3,300,000 pounds of lead were produced at the Austinville mines during the war. 

The following figures are from Whisonant (1996):

  May 1, 1861 to February 28, 1862                   1,232,254 pounds
February 28, 1862 to February 28, 1863           842,378 pounds
February 28, 1863 to April 1, 1864                   623,113 pounds
April 1, 1864 to December 17, 1864                 585,571 pounds

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

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

Union raiders made forays into southwestern Virginia in July of 1863 and May of 1864, but failed to reach the mines.  However, on December 17, 1864, General George Stoneman’s cavalry succeeded, and set fire to the mine offices, storehouse, and stables while destroying the crushing machine, bellows, and furnaces.  Despite the damage, the mines were back in operation by March 22, 1865 (Whisonant, 1996).  Stoneman returned April 7, 1865, at the time of the Confederate collapse, and ransacked the partially rebuilt facility.

Envelope advertising Tredegar iron products. From …

Diagram of .58 caliber ammunition specifications. From the
Smithsonian, Neg. #91-10712: Harpers Ferry NHP Cat. #13645.

One other Virginia mining operation, the Faber mines in Albemarle County, also supplied lead to the Southern war effort. Discovered in 1849, this deposit is a vein/shear zone containing silver-bearing galena and sphalerite. The Faber mines were worked intermittently, and in the end the Confederate government received only 7,204 pounds of lead (Watson, 1905). The miners fled when Union General Philip Sheridan’s cavalry crossed the Blue Ridge in March of 1865 and severely damaged the facility.

The Wythe County mines reopened shortly after the war, and remained in operation until 1981, closing after 225 years of almost continuous production. Over this period, it has been estimated that the district produced 34 million tons of ore (Miller, 1985). The shot tower, one of only three remaining in the United States, is now the centerpiece of Shot Tower State Park.


Miller, J. W., 1985, Statistical modeling of Austinville Mine: a guide to exploration: Phd. dissertation, University of Georgia.

Sweet, P. C., Good, R. S., Lovett, J. A., Campbell, E. V. N., Wilkes, G. P., and Meyers, L. L., 1989, Copper, lead, and zinc resources in Virginia: Virginia Division of Mineral Resources, Publication 93.

Watson, Thomas L., 1905, Lead and zinc deposits of Virginia: Geological Survey of Virginia, Bulletin 1.

Whisonant, Robert C., 1996, Geology and the Civil War in southwestern Virginia: the Wythe County Lead Mines: Virginia Minerals, v. 42, no. 2.

View of Saltville, Virginia during Civil War