Arms for Virginia on the Eve of the Civil War
The Armory Commission Letters of Francis H. Smith
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Read the Full Text Armory Commission Letters
These letters were transcribed and annotated by Col. Edwin L. Dooley, Jr
Shocked by John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry in October 1859, and fearing other insurrections or worse, the Virginia General Assembly took steps to strengthen the state militia and to arm it with adequate weapons. As part of this effort, the new Governor of Virginia, John Letcher, of Lexington, appointed a three-man commission to purchase weapons and machines for the manufacture of arms and munitions of war. One of the commissioners was Francis H. Smith, superintendent of the Virginia Military Institute. The following letters written by Col. Smith from late in 1858 to early 1861, and preserved in the the VMI Archives, trace the efforts of the commission to purchase arms, examine and test new models of rifles, pistols, and cannons at VMI, and obtain machinery for the manufacture of arms in Richmond to equip the state’s militia companies.
The commission began its work in January 1860 and, after nearly a year of frustration caused by financial difficulties, legal complications, inadequate supplies, increasingly urgent demands from militia units, and growing insistence that any contract for arms and munitions should be awarded to Virginia manufacturers, it submitted its final report to the Governor in December of that year. By then, the fear of insurrection had been replaced by the real possibility of civil war, and the accomplishments of the commission would soon be dwarfed by efforts to equip not militia companies but Confederate armies.