Spiller & Burr Revolvres

Spiller & Burr Civil War Confederate Revolvers

Courtesy of James Julia Auction Company, presented in conjunction with the sale of Spiller & Burr revolver, serial number 129 (p4A item # D9737705)

David J. Burr, of Richmond, Virginia, was an enterprising gentleman whose company had built a locomotive (1836) and a steam packet named, “The Gov. McDowell”, which navigated the James River and the Kanawha Canal (1842). In 1860, he is listed in the Richmond Directory as a commission merchant. Also an entrepreneur-commission merchant, but from Baltimore, was one Edward N. Spiller, a native of Rappahannock County, Virginia. He was a true Southerner at heart, and when Lincoln was elected in 1860, followed by Virginia’s secession from the Union, Spiller moved back to Virginia, settling in Richmond in the summer of 1861.

Spiller and Burr joined forces with James H, Burton, a Lt. Col. in the Confederate Army, to manufacture revolvers for the Confederacy. The revolvers were to be of the Whitney pattern, copied from those made by the Eli Whitney in New Haven, Connecticut. Unlike the Colt, first considered, the Whitney had a solid frame and was not open at the top, over the cylinder. James H. Burton was born in Virginia and educated in Pennsylvania, then apprenticed in a Baltimore machine shop. In 1844, he went to work at Harper’s Ferry Arsenal, becoming a foreman a year later. Truly a mechanical genius, he was soon elevated to the position of Master Armorer (1854). He travelled to England where he became Chief Engineer at the Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield, where he remained until 1860. He returned to Virginia where he was commissioned a Lt. Col. in the CSA Ordnance Department, and placed at the head of the Virginia State Armory.

With the capture of Harper’s Ferry Armory in mid April of 1860, Burton took charge of the removal of the rifle and musket making machinery, and of all the then-in-progress stands of unfinished arms, and moved it all to the site of the old Virginia Arms Manufactory, which became The Richmond Armory. Rifle muskets were fabricated using parts captured at Harper’s Ferry, then manufacture of the same weapons began shortly thereafter, using the newly reassembled machinery from the Harper’s Ferry works.

Spiller, Burr and Burton: partners, with the latter securing a contract with the Confederate Government for the manufacture of 15,000 revolvers (“of Navy size”), intended to set up operations at Richmond, but after its establishment as ‘The Richmond Small Arms Factory’, and after the manufacture of much of the necessary machinery, the operation was moved to Atlanta, away from the Union threat against Richmond. On June 9th, 1862, Spiller signed a lease for the rental of ‘Peter’s Mill’ the site of the new Spiller factory. Unpacking all the machinery and refitting the old mill, installing overhead shafting, etc. was extremely time consuming, and problems with the inadequacy of a supply of skilled workers and materials caused much delay,

The first pistol was completed and tested on the morning of December 15th, 1862. Twelve more were tested by Christmas of 1862, and strongly’ approved. Burton was desirous of making the barrels out of steel, rather than the iron used in most of the other Confederate weapons: the factory had enough steel stock on hand to accomplish this, but Spiller wished to sell the steel stock at the then existing high prices, and make the S&B barrels out of iron. Burton won out on this score, because all of the S&B barrels were made of steel; the only Confederate revolver entitled to make that boast. Production delays were caused by many contributing factors, so that the Spiller factory at Atlanta, hard-put to find an adequate skilled work force, was sold by Spiller & Burr to the Confederate Government and moved to Macon, Georgia, in January of 1864.
About 854 pistols were made in Atlanta. At Macon, incomplete pistols were finished from parts made it Atlanta, new parts were made for Atlanta made rejects, and some new revolvers were made. Through November of 1863, some 600 pistols were sent to the ordnance depot in Dalton, Georgia, for Confederate Cavalry (most probably went to Wheeler’s Cavalry). At Macon, pistol cylinders were also beginning to be made from steel starting during the last week in June of 1864, and by July 9th, no more iron cylinders were being made. September 2nd, 1864, saw the surrender of Atlanta to Sherman and Burton ordered the Macon pistol factory taken down and shipped to Savannah. Everything was placed in crates, ready for shipment when transportation became available.

Savannah never materialized: then North Carolina was considered, and dropped. With Sherman occupied in north Georgia, the crates were unpacked again, so as to resume production. Operations resumed in October, 1864, but by November 16th, the factory shut down because Sherman had started his ‘March to The Sea’, moving in the direction of Macon. Burton planned to ship the pistol making machinery to Columbia, South Carolina, and set up Operations again, but the Georgia Central Railroad was cut off by Union troops. Some work continued in Macon while some of the machinery was sent to Columbia. Burton would not give up; he then tried to get the machinery back to Macon to get back into operation, and he strove to accomplish this task until March 29, 1865, long after Columbia had been burned by Sherman’s men.

Macon had been making pistol parts right up until then. Work at the pistol factory halted forever on April 20th, 1865, eleven days after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.

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