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Director of Ordnance Defends Against Complicity in Loaning Gunpowder to DuPont and Private Individuals With Copy of his Prior Letter Informing Secretary of War John Calhoun of his Learning of - and Objection to - Such Loans
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The loaning of Munitions of War, in such large quantities from our Magazines and Arsenals is viewed by me as highly impolitic and hazardous; and it is hardly necessary for me to add, that I have had no agency in the Transaction.

DECIUS WADSWORTH. Autograph Letter Signed, to Secretary of War John C. Calhoun, February 10, 1821, Washington, D.C. 2 pp., 8 x 10 in.
[With] DECIUS WADSWORTH, Autograph Letter Signed, to Secretary of War John C. Calhoun, July 18, 1818, [ca. February 10, 1821, Washington, D.C.]. Marked “copy.” 2 pp., 8 x 10 in.

Inventory #23067.06       Price: $1,000

Excerpts from February 10, 1821 letter:

That Report seems to me calculated to leave an injurious Impression… The Committee state in their Report in the fourth Page, as follows. One of these Loans of 400 Barrels, was made to Israel Whelen, of Philadelphia, by Capt Jos. H. Rees, and seems to have been reported to the Head of the Ordnance Department in April, 1817.” (p1)

The Fact is I left Washington by Order in the beginning of April 1817 on the first day of the Month if I may trust my Memory to attend a Court Martial at Boston. Before I returned to Washington, I received an order from the War Office directing me to visit and inspect the Armoury at Springfield and all the Arsenals situated to the Northward, and afterwards to visit the Armoury at Harper’s Ferry and the Arsenal at Pittsburgh. I did not reach Washington until the Month of August and after spending about three Weeks here proceed to Harper’s Ferry and Pittsbugh.... Certain it is I never saw any such Report, and as I have already stated to you had no Knowledge of these Transactions until after my Return from Pittsburgh in 1818. Very soon after I became acquainted with the Facts I addressed a Letter to the Secretary of War dated the 18th of July 1818 in which I distinctly disclaimed all Knowledge or Participation in these Transactions.” (p1-2)

Had the Committee caused that Letter to be printed with their Report, or had they in the Body of their Report stated the Fact of such a Letter having been written by me, I should have judged myself to be sufficiently exculpated. Their omitting to notice that Letter in their Report, and especially their having insinuated that in one Instance I had been officially informed on the Subject leaves a Stigma on me as the Chief of the Department which I do not deserve.

P.S. you will please to communicate my Letter of 18 July 1818 addressed to the Secretary of War, to any Members of the Senate, where you may think it may be useful. That letter I conceive fully exculpates me.

Excerpts from July 18, 1818 letter:

Presuming you may be ignorant of the Circumstances, I think it necessary to state that a large Loan of Gunpowder was made from the public Magazines about a Year ago, to Messrs Dupont de Nemours & Co amounting to upwards of 3500 Barrels, conditioned to be returned in 60 days after Demand. The Value of the Powder, at present Prices would be upwards of $100,000. The only Security given, is the Bond of Dupont de Nemours & Co and of V. and Chs Dupont of Wilmington.” (p1)

The loaning of Munitions of War, in such large quantities from our Magazines and Arsenals is viewed by me as highly impolitic and hazardous; and it is hardly necessary for me to add, that I have had no agency in the Transaction.” (p1)

Stull and Williams of Georgetown borrowed 600 Barrels of Powder, giving Danl Bussard as Surety. By a subsequent Agreement, the Loan was converted into a Sale, and Stull and Williams gave their Note for $21,600, or rather a Bill of Exchange in Favour of John E. Williams and endorsed by him. Before the Bill became payable, another verbal Agreement was made, to take the Value of the Bill in Powder, of which only about 150 Barrels have been received from Bussard. His Powder Works having been lately destroyed at Bladensburgh by an Explosion renders him incapable of fulfilling the Engagement. I understand he now contends the converting of the original Loan into a Sale has exonerated him from Responsibility, and Stull and Williams, it is said, have made an Assignment of Property for the Benefit of their Creditors. It seems extremely probable, now, that this Loan made for the mere Accommodation of Individuals, without any Prospect of Advantage to the Government will eventuate in a Loss of 450 out of the 600 Barrels lent.” (p1-2)

Historical Background

From June to August 1817, the Ordnance Department loaned substantial amounts of cannon, musket, and rifle gunpowder to Dupont de Nemours & Co., in Wilmington, Delaware. The company likely wanted the gunpowder for experimentation in enhancing the quality and blasting power of the powder. Making gunpowder was a perilous process. Workers mixed ingredients wet, ground the mixture into a paste called “serpentine,” and pressed it through a mesh to form granules. After the granules dried, they were pressed into blocks and passed through a mill twice to produce a fine powder. An explosion at a Dupont mill in 1815 killed eight workmen, and another explosion in 1818 destroyed five mill buildings, killed thirty-six workers, and injured Dupont’s wife.

The Ordnance Department also made other loans of gunpowder and lead between 1815 and 1817. Commissary General of Ordnance Decius Wadsworth first informed new Secretary of War John C. Calhoun about these loans in July 1818.

In January 1820, Congress requested a report of all loans to private citizens of powder, lead, and other munitions belonging to the government. On February 9, Lieutenant Colonel George Bomford reported to Wadsworth on these two loans as well as two others. “When the loans were made to Dupont and Baudrey,” Bomford reported, “the public magazines were filled with gunpowder, a part of which was damaged, or of an inferior quality, and the whole subject to constant deterioration from the imperfect state of the buildings.” Dupont and Baudrey proposed to take the inferior gunpowder and return “proof or standard gunpowder of the first quality.” Acting Secretary of War George Graham accepted the proposals and made the loans, with the additional motive of “aiding a domestic manufacture of great national importance.”

In May 1820 and again in December 1820, the House of Representatives appointed a select committee to investigate the loans and to recover the losses. Congressman Thomas Forrest of Pennsylvania submitted a report to the House from the second committee on February 7, 1821. Of the loan of approximately 352,902 pounds of gunpowder to Dupont de Nemours, the company still owed the U.S. government 270,000 pounds. The committee also reported “that they are ignorant of any law authorizing officers of any department of the Government to loan, at their discretion, the property of the United States.... The Ordnance Department is entrusted with property to the value of several millions of dollars. Should the right of loaning this property be recognized; even in the superior officers of the Department, it is obvious, that greater losses might ensue, notwithstanding the most faithful and vigilant conduct.”

Decius Wadsworth (1768-1821) was born in Connecticut and graduated from Yale University in 1785. President George Washington appointed Wadsworth as a captain in the Artillerist and Engineer Corps in 1794. Promoted to major in 1800, he supervised the rebuilding of Fort Nelson in Portsmouth, Virginia, in 1802 and served as acting Superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy from 1803 to 1805. Just before the outbreak of the War of 1812, he became the first Commissary General (later renamed Chief) of Ordnance for the newly formed United States Army Ordnance Department. His department was responsible for the procurement, supply, and maintenance of all cannon, small arms, and ammunition for the army. He established regulations for uniformity in the armories, and conducted extensive inventories of ordnance materiel. In 1817, he developed a cipher system based on a design by Thomas Jefferson that was improved and used until the end of World War II. Wadsworth resigned his position due to illness in June 1821, five months before his death.

John C. Calhoun (1782-1850) was born in South Carolina and had minimal education as a child. His brothers financed his tuition at Yale College, from which he graduated as valedictorian in 1804. He studied law in Connecticut and was admitted to the South Carolina bar in 1807. Calhoun served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1811 to 1817, then as Secretary of War under James Monroe from 1817 to 1825. He was Vice President for both John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson from 1825 to 1832. He represented South Carolina in the U.S. Senate from 1832 to 1843 and 1845 to 1850, and served as Secretary of State under John Tyler and James K. Polk from 1844 to 1845. Calhoun was an ardent defender of slavery and of the related political theories of states’ rights and nullification, through which states could nullify federal legislation with which they disagreed. His theories provided intellectual justification for the secessionists of 1860-1861.


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