Titans for a Battlefield: Horatio Ames and his Colossal Cannon

By: Abigail Adam

One of the most awe-inducing and terrifying components of Civil War combat was artillery fire. The haze of cannon smoke, the sudden blasts, and the weapon’s raw capacity for destruction have captured the minds of artists, filmmakers, and reenactors for decades. Cannons were sources of brutal, unbridled battle strength. Solid shots crippled enemy guns and wagons. Explosive shells blasted agonizing shrapnel into enemy soldiers. One innovative ironmaster was particularly fascinated by cannons. However, the typical 4,000-pound cannon and 10-pound shot did not satisfy Mr. Horatio Ames. He pushed his ironworks to be bigger and bolder than ever before, ultimately producing a massive 19,500-pound cannon that could fire 125-pound shells over five miles. Though the Union won the Civil War before the government purchased his cannon, Ames’s devotion to the project demonstrated the war-induced fervor for creative and unprecedented advances in munitions; manufacturers’ firm beliefs in their ability to ensure Union victory; and businessmen’s ambitious eye for personal profiteering off patriotic enterprise.

Horatio Ames was born in 1805 to Oliver and Susanna Ames. Oliver owned a shovel-manufacturing business in North Easton, Massachusetts. Between the century’s ongoing railroad construction and the California Gold Rush, the business was highly fruitful. In 1834, Horatio built his own furnace in nearby Salisbury, Connecticut, with fellow investors, John Edd and Leonard Kinsley. Ames’s co-investors withdrew over time, and the ironmaster found himself to be the proprietor of the newly renamed Ames Iron Works. Ames was an imposing figure, standing at six feet and six inches tall and weighing approximately 300 pounds. He had an unbridled passion for his work, often engaging in physical labor alongside his men while dressed in his signature black coat and top hat. His respect for blue-collar work was likely engrained throughout his youth. When Horatio turned eleven, his father employed him as a factory worker. With time, he was promoted to the rank of salesman. It is unclear why the wealthy Oliver Ames would choose such an unconventional path for his son. Perhaps he thought that physical labor would instill a good work ethic and valuable real-world experience. At any rate, Horatio rarely balked at performing manual labor. Ames Iron Works specialized in the production of train wheels. It also manufactured crowbars, railroad axles, wagon axles, railroad car wheels, and iron crankshafts. By 1850, the ironworks boasted over two hundred employees and one of the largest steam hammers in the United States. Over time, the complex grew so large that it became known as Amesville. Though Ames generated products as the market demanded, his true passion was innovation. He was a dreamer with a creative mind, a true human product of the Industrial Revolution. The outbreak of the Civil War provided Ames with precisely the opportunity he craved.

Ames Iron Works, year unknown. This photograph was taken from the Falls Village side of the Housatonic River. The complex lies on the river’s Salisbury side.

Once the war broke out, Ames wasted no time in switching his efforts over to cannon manufacturing. The company produced and sold artillery that shot fifty-pound balls, which was considerably larger than the average ten-pound ball. Nonetheless, Ames was not satisfied. As soon as 1861, he started to lay out plans to produce massive wrought iron cannons. The company’s steam hammer, puddling works, and labor force of several hundred men would allow such a bold, expensive, and risky idea to become reality. In 1863, confident that his prowess in munitions manufacturing would be intrinsically important to battlefield victories, Ames personally petitioned Abraham Lincoln for an official government commission.  His bold request to the president was likely inspired by his older brother’s increasing participation in national politics, as Oakes Ames was elected Congressman of Massachusetts’ 2nd District in 1862. The Ames family also donated considerably to Lincoln’s 1860 presidential campaign. The family secured another anchor in national politics via the Pacific Railroad Act, which the President signed in 1862. The Central Pacific Railroad and the Union Pacific Railroad had difficulties attracting investors. Members of the Ames family invested nonetheless, making the clan one of three major investment groups. In light of these three connections, Horatio Ames was well-equipped to contact the president directly. After Horatio penned a proposal, Lincoln responded on September 28, 1863. As the president wrote,

“If you will, on or before the first day of March, 1864, within the state of Connecticut, or at any point nearer this city, produce guns, each of a capacity to carry a missile of at least 100 pounds weight, and notify me thereof, I will cause some person or persons to examine and test said guns; and if, upon such examinations and test, it shall be in the opinion of such person or persons, that said guns, are or any of them, are on the whole better guns, than any of like caliber heretofore, or now in use in the United States, I will on the account of the United States, accept said guns … it being understood that I have no public money at my control, with which I could make such payment absolutely.”[1]

Lincoln agreed that he would try to purchase the cannons if his conditions were met. However, he never made a definitive promise. Nevertheless, Ames plunged into the project head-first. Before March 1864, the ironmaster successfully produced a multitude of his 19,500-pound cannons. He and several Washington officials tested them in Bridgeport, Connecticut. The first test used a 120-pound shot, which was 20 pounds above the minimum. Clearly, Ames was confident in his product. Packed with 25 pounds of gunpowder, the cannon fired with a colossal boom. The shot remained in the air for 39 seconds and travelled 5.43 miles, just shy of the 5.5-mile requirement. Ames did not give up. He instructed for the next cannon to be packed with an additional 5 pounds of powder. The final shot flew over 6 miles, far surpassing the minimum requirement.  Cheering and celebration followed. It appeared that the ironmaster’s hard work had paid off.

Horatio Ames (second to the left) and his 19,500-pound cannon. He stands in his signature top hat and coat.

Unfortunately, Ames learned that a promise to try is not a promise to succeed. The tests in Bridgeport were some of the few times the cannon was actually used, as securing funding for its purchase was easier said than done. Not all within the government agreed that the guns were a worthy investment. After all, they were unlike any battlefield equipment previously used by the Union Army. They were strikingly heavy, bulky, and never-before tested within a battlefield setting. Government officials were so divided over whether or not to purchase the guns that by the time a resolution was reached, the Civil War had ended. Additionally, the ambitious project had required Ames to borrow a significant amount of money. As the cannons’ purchase was continually delayed, his debts grew more and more pressing. Eventually, Horatio had no choice but to sell Ames Iron Works to his brother, Oliver. Thus, once the government eventually paid $215,000 for 13 of Horatio’s cannons, the money was directed to the new ironmaster. Sadly, Horatio Ames was never able to enjoy the fruits of his ambition.

            It is impossible to know how Ames’s cannons would have impacted the Civil War if they were used during the conflict. Perhaps the 125-pound shells would have devastated Confederate lines in key engagements. On the other hand, the 19,500-pound cannons could have simply been too cumbersome for effective use. After all, they were a far cry from typical Napoleon or parrot guns, which hovered around 1,000 pounds. And of course, Ames’s cannons would have weighed even more once they were hooked up to their limber and caisson. While hefty, these additions were essential as they made cannons mobile and added storage for powder and ammunition. Furthermore, the average cannon shot weighed around 10 pounds. It was far easier to move multiple of these lighter shots than even just one of Ames’s 125-pound shots. Lastly, moving a typical gun required a minimum of twelve horses. One team of six horses would pull the cannon itself while the others would pull the caisson. If these horses pulled approximately 1,000 pounds per team, then individual horses pulled around 167 pounds each. With this in mind, an astonishing estimated 1,168 horses would be needed to adequately pull just one of Ames’s cannons. Unless the guns travelled via train or ship, it is hard to imagine how they would have been feasible for battlefield use. On the other hand, they might have been valuable for anchored, strategic positions in forts or along coastal fortifications. Perhaps it was this uncertainty over the cannons’ actual usefulness that lay at the root of the initial conflict over their purchase; while Lincoln clearly believed in their utility, other officials were not as sure.

            Horatio Ames ultimately died in 1871, less than a decade after the Civil War ended. His physical health likely suffered from the mental anguish caused by his debt, his fall from the company, and witnessing Oliver reap the benefits of his own hard physical and financial labor. In the words of historian Ed Kirby, “Horatio died a broken man.”[2] Though Ames’s risky wager ultimately caused him financial ruin, the undertaking of such a project demonstrated his innovation, determination, work ethic, and foresight into how patriotic purpose, combined with industrial production, could potentially lead to great personal fortune. Not only did he succeed in garnering Abraham Lincoln’s support, but he also made several capable guns that fit the president’s needs. Ultimately, historians can only speculate on how Ames’s cannons may have actually impacted the war’s length and outcome. However, it is the fascinating backstory of these uniquely colossal cannons’ creation and the mastermind behind them that sheds the greatest light on their ultimate significance both in Horatio Ames’s personal civil war, and within our national history.


[1] Abraham Lincoln to Horatio Ames, September 28, 1863, in The Making of the Iron Industrial Age (Sharon: Sharon Historical Society, 2019), 86.

[2] Ed Kirby, The Making of the Iron Industrial Age (Sharon: Sharon Historical Society, 2019), 198.

Sources:

Gordon, Robert and Michael Raber. Industrial Heritage in Northwest Connecticut: A Guide to History and Archaeology. New Haven: The Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2000.

Kirby, Ed. Echoes of Iron: In Connecticut’s Northwest Corner. Sharon: Sharon Historical Society, 1998.

Kirby, Ed. The Making of the Iron Industrial Age: An Historical Chronology: The Iron Men and Women of the Sharon Industrial Age, the Salisbury Iron District and Their Connections to the Transcontinental Railroad. Sharon: Sharon Historical Society, 2019.

Newell, Clayton R. and Charles R. Shrader, “The Artillery,” in Of Duty Well and Faithfully Done: A History of the Regular Army in the Civil War, 265-283. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2011. https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1df4h5t.20 JSTOR.

Pool, J. Lawrence. America’s Valley Forges and Valley Furnaces, edited by Angeline J. Pool. Dalton: The Studley Press Inc., 1982.

https://www.battlefields.org/learn/articles/10-facts-civil-war-artillery

https://www.civilwarencyclopedia.org/abolition-ameatk