From Under Iron Eyelids: The Biography of James Henry Burton, Armorer to Three Nations (Book Review)
Reviewed by Robert K. Krick
By Thomas K. Tate
AuthorHouse, www.authorhouse.com, Bloomington, Ind., 2005
Keeping ordnance supplied to its soldiers in the field must rank among the most amazing achievements of the nascent Confederate military establishment. The genius, efficiency and unflagg-ing energy that Chief of Ordnance Josiah Gorgas displayed in meeting the needs of Southern armies makes for a fascinating story. Few contrasts in American history more starkly display the effect of an individual upon historic events than a comparison between Gorgas and Confederate Commissary Lucious B. Northrop.
In a struggling new country largely bereft of mechanical and industrial capacity, Gorgas somehow managed to keep the armies supplied with arms and ammunition. In stunning contrast Northrop — narrow-minded, quarrelsome and widely despised — could not even manage to move foodstuffs of the lushly agricultural Confederacy to points where starving soldiers desperately needed them.
Josiah Gorgas, of course, did not accomplish his well-nigh miraculous feats without help from a body of skilled and determined professionals. Colonel James Henry Burton (1823-94) played an important role in Confederate ordnance matters. Thomas K. Tate’s From Under Iron Eyelids: The Biography of James Henry Burton, Armorer to Three Nations (AuthorHouse, www.authorhouse.com, Bloomington, Ind., 2005, $22.95) is a splendidly researched biography that unveils Burton’s life and times, and in the process reveals much about the techniques employed to cope with ordnance challenges in the middle of the 19th century.
Young James Burton reached Harpers Ferry, Va., in the 1840s after serving an apprenticeship in Baltimore, Md. His seminal role in the evolution of armaments began at the ordnance center there. Burton perfected the conical bullet widely known as the Minié ball, designed machinery for production of both handguns and shoulder arms, and brought the concept of interchangeable parts for military weapons to fruition. Through much of his Harpers Ferry tour, Burton answered to Benjamin Huger of the U.S. Army, a subsequent Confederate major general.
Biographer Tate evaluates the philosophic impact of Burton and like-minded men on American society and culture. At a time when the self-styled elite in New England sneered at a populace largely immune to their brand of culture, Tate says a vibrant American mass-market economy “was not directed towards creating much of anything for the few. The chief distinction of the emerging technology that went hand in hand with Jacksonian Democracy was production that could be sold at a low price to the many, rather than at a high price to the few.”
In 1855 James Burton took his considerable skills across the Atlantic. At Enfield Lock, England, he played a major role in creating the renowned muzzleloading rifled musket, built primarily on American-made machines, that took its name from the armory village.
As the sectional crisis in America neared eruption (and Tate includes some important primary material on the John Brown raid), Burton returned to Virginia and soon became a linchpin in Confederate ordnance operations. As superintendent of Confederate armories, he labored diligently and effectively at the right hand of Gorgas, and in tandem with other ordnance professionals such as John M. Mallet and George W. and Gabriel J. Rains.
“The demands the Confederacy made of James Henry Burton,” Tate concludes, “altered him from an imaginative mechanic to a conservative manager.” He adapted to the challenge as adroitly as he had adjusted to the mid-19th-century revolution in armaments. In an 1863 trip to England, Burton also drew on his prewar contacts there to further Confederate fortunes.
The armories and industrial enterprises with which Burton dealt as superintendent included all of the names that would become famous in the annals of Confederate munitions: Tredegar Iron Works, Spiller & Burr, the Augusta Powder Works, the Atlanta Arsenal, Fayetteville, Macon and many more.
In the aftermath of Confederate defeat, Colonel Burton went back to England once again to find employment. During that last European interlude, Burton represented or dealt with the famous arms companies of the era, including Remington and Spencer; discussed ordnance matters with the Egyptian and Swedish governments; examined the popular new French chassepot; and continued an amazingly fecund family career that produced 17 children between 1845 and 1880. Upon returning to the re-United States in 1873, Burton spent most of the two decades of life remaining to him in the environs of Harpers Ferry and Winchester.
The exhaustive research that went into this techno-biography makes From Under Iron Eyelids an important piece of mid-19th-century military history. The 671 notes that buttress the text, many of them citing manuscript sources, reveal the kind of digging that shows up in far too few Civil War books.
Tate obviously admires the artistry, ingenuity and independence of the armorers who worked with Burton in all three nations, and who people the pages of this book. He notes, for example, that an autocratic superintendent attempted to crack down on the gunsmiths employed at Harpers Ferry in 1830. In retaliation, one of the gunsmiths shot him dead. Although the disgruntled artisan “paid for the crime with his life,” according to Tate, “he became a local folk hero and his crime was frequently retold as a reminder to incoming superintendents.” Tate obviously delights in these folksy stories of the com-mon, hard-working armorer.
“The manufacture of small arms in Burton’s day involved the principal operations,” Tate writes in summary, “of welding, swaging, boring, turning, drilling, tapping, milling, cutting and filing, grinding, case-hardening, tempering and polishing.” Tate understands all of those processes, most of them unfamiliar to most of us, and in nine appendices explains much about the techniques involved and the machinery designed to accomplish them, supplying numerous illustrations on the subject. That technical portion of the book will delight some students — it is the best outline of its sort anywhere. The rest of us, who are immune to such things (this reviewer included), will be content with the broader strokes in the primary narrative.
From Under Iron Eyelids is an unusual book, and a decidedly good one.