Shelby Iron Works

Shelby, Alabama



Civil War

Posted: 03/18/2013  By: Daniel Valles

The war years, 1861-1865, saw Shelby County emerge as the leading Alabama county in the production of iron – bar, pig, rolled and bloom – through the efforts of the Shelby Iron Company.

At this year, there were seven (and possibly eight) stone blast furnaces in operation in Alabama. It was from this group and five new establishments that the Confederacy drew the greater portion of iron. Alabama, in fact, delivered to the Confederacy more iron than the rest of the Southern states combined.


By this point in 1862, the Shelby Company consisted of one furnace, a rolling mill in very bad condition, a bar mill and little mill, all driven by an old steam boat engine; one heating and two single puddling furnaces, an old saw mill and pair of stones for grinding corn; a number of shanties and one-hundred-and-twenty acres of good coal lands about twenty miles distant.

Finally in March, 1862, after secession and initial fighting had occurred, Ware sold six-sevenths of his interest in equal shares for $150,000 in Confederate money and negotiable bonds. During the Civil War period, Horace played a minor role in the corporate management, mainly supervising the rolling mill. In April, 1862, a board of directors and company officers were elected.

A new furnace, thirty-eight feet tall was constructed. In addition to the iron works, the total property now embraced more than six thousand acres of timber, mineral and agricultural land.

April 21, 1862 - the Shelby Iron Company signed a three-year contract with the Confederate Government to deliver 12,000 tons of iron annually. Almost all iron produced by Shelby was delivered to the Confederate Naval Works at Selma. The contract called for a definite amount of iron in various lengths, widths and thickness, with a set price on each particular specification.

Included in the terms of the contact was the provision for the advance of seventy-five thousand dollars in treasury notes and Confederate bonds.

This contract became the basis for conflict between the government and the Shelby company for the following three years, with each party haggling over the details to receive the best advantage in its fulfillment.
The government would hold and manipulate funds necessary to the company’s building and production program in an attempt to procure production and compliance; however, this ultimately ended up delaying production of iron essential to the war effort.

During the Civil War, Shelby Iron Co.’s manufacture of high grade rolled iron made it the foremost iron establishment in Alabama.

Through the contract obligations, the directors found it necessary to launch a construction program to erect two new blast furnaces and enlarge the rolling mill. This, in turn, called for a greatly increased labor supply, improvement in transportation facilities, and the procurement of construction and domestic supplies.

The rolled iron from Shelby became a vital factor in the navy’ construction program.  Iron from the company was used in refitting wooden ships as well as in the construction of the new ironclads.

After 1862, the machinery was geared to the rolling of ship plating.  As in the case of the cruiser, C.S.S. Tennessee and the ship Mobile, Shelby iron was used exclusively.  Although company shipment accounts indicate other ships might have been plated entirely from Shelby iron, records are not conclusive.

By June, the shortage of iron in Alabama had become critical. This shortage compelled the government to demand a speedy program of expansion so that the products of the company could fill the need.

Rushed for time, the directors contracted with construction companies in Tuscaloosa, Selma, and Montgomery for the intricate furnace brick masonry, installation of cylinders, and other technical equipment required skilled labor.

Because of skilled labor shortages, the company president requested to have skilled laborers who were serving in the Confederate army detailed to the iron works. He explained that the shortage of this skilled labor was retarding the the construction program, thus hindering the fulfillment of the government contract. A detailed few men helped to alleviate the labor shortage somewhat. In addition to labor shortages, the company was faced with loosing some of its most valuable and experienced workers to the army via conscription. Although military exemptions for employees were possible, in most cases, the government enrolled the men of service age, then release them to the companies on detail list. Even the company president was constantly threatened with army service and managed to stay at Shelby only by detail.

As shortages became more acute, obtaining food and supplies for the company became a critical issue. Because the company held a government contract and produced material vital to the war effort, the purchasing agent received priority over other companies who did not hold such contracts. However, even that position did not help obtain vital machinery, especially when the Confederate government often confiscated equipment being manufactured for Shelby. One vital piece of equipment that hindered full production was cylinder for the blast furnace. Even with the Governor of Alabama granting priority for this piece, it still took four months of correspondence, transportation bid stalls and excessive freight charges for Shelby to obtain the cylinder. Even when it was received, the proper fittings for installation were not shipped with it.

As early as the winter of 1862, purchasing agents were finding it increasingly difficult to obtain supplies with Confederate currency as the sellers are already preferring gold or iron products.

In February, 1863, the entire output of the rolling mill was requisitioned for gunboat plates. The armor plate used on the ironclad steamer Tennessee, The Mobile, and other confederate vessels was rolled at Shelby.

Threats to confiscate the company, placing it under exclusive governmental control when shipments lagged, indicated the importance of the Shelby product to the successful prosecution of the war program of the Confederate States. It was during the spring of 1863 that all mining activities including the manufacture of iron were delegated to the supervision of the Nitre and Mining Bureau.

This control over the company became a bone of contention as the company could not act in their best interest without permission from the Bureau. One main area was transportation. By necessity of their location, all supplies had to be transported by wagon from Columbiana or Calera to Shelby, while finished iron had to be shipped by wagon to the railroad at Columbiana for reshipping to the client. Repeated requested for permission to build a railroad spur to Columbiana failed. Finally, disregarding instructions from the Bureau, the company proceeded with construction. The road bed was completed in October, 1863, and the company began plans to roll the iron for the track. These efforts to complete the road brought threats of impressments of men and machinery if they did not halt construction.

Despite the unusual difficulties of the preceding years, the company completed its overall ironwork expansion program and laid plans for full production in 1864.

Throughout South, food shortages were due not only to labor shortages, but also to farm equipment becoming scarce. Iron for farm implements such as plows, bade, hoe and horseshoe was no longer available. Companies appealing to iron companies for iron failed since the government contracts forbid them to sell to anyone but the government. Also, by mid-July, the proximity of Federal troops reported in St. Clair county added to the hardships incurred in obtaining supplies and controlling labor.

By 1864, Confederate currency had depreciated from three to one in gold, early in the war, to twenty to one market value. The situation was made more difficult for the company by a price ceiling placed on iron, forbidding increases and controlling all possibilities for profits. It didn’t, however, put control on items that the Shelby Company had to purchase.

With the increasing shortages, the company directors decided to buy not only what was needed for their current use, but to try to make purchases to store for the future and to sell to locals. However, the company purchasing agents were in stiff competition with the army purchasing agents in almost every area. Even if they found supplies, transportation difficulties abounded. Railroads were loaded to capacity, and Shelby’s agents often had to load their own freight cars themselves. Even with the valiant efforts of the agents, the company was forced to slow down production in the winter of 1864 because food was so short. By December, the shortage of clothing became critical, with a pneumonia epidemic breaking out in the mines because the workers had no shoes.

When it became evident that the Shelby Iron Company could no longer operate without aid in obtaining supplies, the Confederate government relaxed the contract to allow Shelby to barter and exchange excess iron for supplies. With the Confederate currency declining in value, Shelby’s agents were often forced to seek credit in procuring supplies. These excessive amounts spent for supplies and labor left in company in debt in 1865.

During the year the company had partially completed the vital construction of the railroad from Shelby to Columbiana.

In January, 1865, the six-mile railroad line connecting the works with Columbiana was completed. The company purchased the railroad steam engine Decatur to pull the cars over the new road.

Burdened with food shortages and the threat of approaching enemy, workers were forced to tend the iron production part time. The rest of the time was spent erecting fortifications and drilling.

On March 31, 1865, a detachment from General Emory Upton’s Fourth Division of Wilson’s Calvary Corps removed and destroyed the blast engine and boiler machinery vital to production.

Overall physical damage, however, was not crippling. The primary problem was the payment of wartime debts. The company lost $261,148 in money owed by the Confederacy, but Shelby’s debts to private individuals for supplies and services furnished during the war were still valid. The largest of these debts was to Horace Ware.

At its height, the company employed as many as four hundred and fifty slave laborers in addition to approximately one hundred white employees. The activities of the company during the war gave Shelby County its largest payroll, providing a market for agricultural products and available labor.