Antebellum Richmond, Fall 1995, College of William and Mary

Tredegar Iron Works: A Synecdoche for Industrialized Antebellum Richmond
Sarah Bumgardner
Professor S. Nelson
November 29, 1995


As a city dependent upon its bounteous industries, antebellum Richmond was unique from the rest of the south. Yet, because its industries made use of slave labor, Richmond was not like the north, either. Mid-nineteenth century Richmond faced an uncertain future trying to find a balance between these two worlds, complicated further by questions that arose regarding slavery beginning with Nat Turner's rebellion in 1831. According to Marie Tyler-McGraw in her book At the Falls, a Richmond teeming with "bustle and diversity" was "about to become the backdrop for a southern drama played out on a grand stage." No where is this "drama" seen with more clarity and decisiveness than at Tredegar Iron Works.

The iron industry was a dominant force in early Richmond, and Tredegar was considered the center of iron manufacture throughout the south. Chartered in 1836 by a group of Richmond businessmen and industrialists, the company did not begin with a very auspicious start. The Panic of 1837 and the consequent halt of the railroad boom caused the price of iron to drop rapidly. Tredegar's parallel decline continued until 1841 when the owners hired twenty-eight year old Joseph R. Anderson, an ex-army officer, to take charge of the company's affairs. In April of 1848, Anderson purchased the plant from its stockholders. Through negotiations of federal contracts, particularly navy contracts for cable, shot, and shell, Anderson began to turn the fledgling company into a "vast and magnificent establishment" that was "far and away Richmond's largest and most important iron establishment." The future looked bright for Anderson and his newly acquired company. In addition to the steady flow of work from the government, eight new railroads were commissioned in Virginia between 1846 and 1853, a total of over nine hundred miles of track offering a promising market for rail chairs, spikes, locomotives, and rolling stock.

Even during this time of prosperity, Anderson was forced to deal with competition from northern and European markets, a problem that plagued all of Richmond--indeed, all of the south. The raw pig iron from which products were manufactured was much cheaper and of better quality in the north, and in an effort to reduce costs Anderson began to import this necessity. Anderson also turned northward to find the skilled workers he needed for his rolling mills, but they did not come cheaply.

From the beginning of his control of Tredegar, Anderson had the idea of using slaves to reduce labor costs, saying that he did not "wish to rely on white labor". The difficulty he encountered in executing this plan was the fact that many of the jobs were highly skilled. Puddlers are a prime example. These workers performed the first step in removing impurities from the pig iron, shaping the molten metal into a pasty ball of about 150 pounds. When the puddler thought the iron was of the proper consistency, other workers removed it from the furnace and ran it through squeezers to make a "muck bar" free of impurities. Skilled laborers known as rollers then took the mass of metal and rolled it between grooved cylinders on a finishing mill, producing more iron.

Puddlers and rollers were "key laborers" in any iron works, and they "jealously guarded their skills, acquired by long years of experience," tolerating the presence of slaves only in less skilled positions such as at the squeezers. Immigrant workers were the main people performing these tasks, having acquired the necessary skills in the Old World. In 1842, however, in the midst of economic depression, Anderson contracted with his workers for five years to instruct "hired men, apprentices, or servants as may at any time be placed in the establishment." All of the white workers refusing to comply with these terms were fired.

Thus it was that in 1847, as the contract expired, Anderson began moving slaves into skilled positions at his furnaces. His plan had the desired effect of reducing costs: a reduction of twelve cents per ton of rolled iron for one example. Being really the only industrialized city that utilized slaves in factories to a large and successful extent, Richmond had no set guidelines as to how to treat employed slaves. Tredegar Iron Works, with Joseph Anderson at its head, set this precedent.

Tredegar both hired slaves and bought them outright, with the number of slaves employed in the metalworking industry in Richmond increasing by more than forty percent from 1840 to 1850. The bondsmen lived in tenements within the perimeter of the plant and were provided food and a company hospital. Their usual working day was ten hours, although they were permitted to work overtime to earn up to fifty cents per month. By 1861, Tredegar employed 900 workers, half slaves, to conduct more than one million dollars worth of business annually.

The implementation of slaves did not come without conflict, though. The workers who had previously trained slaves in the areas of higher skill now refused to work with them. Fearful of being pushed out of their jobs and losing their livelihoods, the white workers planned a strike. They took an ad in the Richmond Enquirer, stating their resolve not to return to work until the slaves were removed from the mill. "Mr. Anderson and Managers: Gentlemen--You need light up the Furnaces Monday, nor any time, until you comply with our resolution." They were clearly threatened by the slaves, even though as yet no jobs had been lost to black labor.

However, the strike and subsequent advertisement in the Enquirer sealed the fate of the workers in the minds of Joseph Anderson. He argued that the white workers were trying to tell him what to do with his slaves, and he further stated that if he complied it would be at the ruination of all of slavery. He responded to this perceived threat with his own lengthy letter to the Enquirer, addressed "to my late Workmen at the Tredegar Iron Works." Anderson went on to say that even though his intent had not been to replace the skilled workers with black slaves, he would now be forced to do so. He gave notice to those workers residing in company housing that they were to leave "as soon as practicable."

Anderson justified his swift punishment by stating that if he were to yield to the demands of his white workers, he would be "giving up the rights guaranteed to me by the constitution of the State in which we live," thus addressing the issues of abolitionism and state's rights with one fell swoop. He went further to make his point clear, taking his former workers to court and suing them for "forming an illegal combination to exclude slaves from his factory." Although the case was later dismissed, the lines were clearly being drawn that would later define key issues leading to the Civil War and Richmond's ultimate downfall.

The editors of the Richmond Enquirer were wholly on the side of Anderson: We cannot entertain any doubt that the community, with a knowledge of what had transpired, will fully sustain Mr. Anderson in his just, liberal, and proper course. The principle set up in this case is not confined to Mr. Anderson or the Tredegar Works alone, but is of a general application to all kinds of business, and is therefore, a matter of vital interest to the whole community. If it be sanctioned, it will render slave property utterly valueless, and place employers in the power of those employed, the latter dictating to the former what species of labor they shall employ in their service.So saying, the editors made clear the division among the city regarding the position of slavery in industry, while admonishing others to quickly follow suit and support Anderson before they lost control of their own property. Even this slightest hint of abolitionism (whether or not the former workers really intended it as such) was not to be tolerated: the effects were swift and sure.

Already strife with tension and controversy, Tredegar was on the precipice of the Civil War long before Virginia seceded. When business troubles shook the company in 1859, Anderson refocused his interests southward. During the 1850's the southern states began to build up their artilleries, and the states naturally looked to Tredegar as a source of weaponry. In fact, historians have agreed that Tredegar Iron Works was "almost the only source for the supply of Confederate arms." With the surrender of Fort Sumter, Anderson arranged for a mass parade and gun salute to encourage the secession of Virginia, believing that this would secure Tredegar's future.

All was not well, however. While the use of slaves helped Anderson "control strikes . . . and provided some limited opportunity to reduce labor costs," it did not make up for the growing price of iron. Poor workmanship and low quality iron contributed to Tredegar's difficulties. It seemed that with every new improvement, something else went wrong. For example, in 1861, Tredegar began producing a new, rapid fire, breechloading gun designed to fire eighteen to twenty shots per minute. This highly marketable item would have seen much success if, after excessive firing, there was not a failure in the relocking mechanism.

John Brown's raid at Harper's Ferry further complicated things for Joseph Anderson. After the raid, Anderson threatened to boycott Northern suppliers, feeling the "impending and consequent dissolution of the Union." He could not enforce the boycott, however, because of the limited supply of quality pig iron in Virginia. In addition, most of the machinery and equipment used in the mill came from northern suppliers, and from no where else could he get replacement parts.

There were some positive consequences of the raid; indeed John Brown and the Harper's Ferry incident were to become the "moving force behind a shift in the company's fortunes." As a result of the raid, the Virginia General Assembly in January of 1860 appropriated $500,000 to equip the State Armory at Richmond. Tredegar eventually got the bid for the work, which made up for the loss of many federal contracts and army ordnance business.

The story of Tredegar's precarious rise to power is Richmond's story, too. Like Joseph Anderson, Richmond as a city was both deeply resentful of the north and intricately dependent on it. Anderson could not rely on his beloved south for the needed pig iron, or parts and supplies, or even labor. As much as he tried to extricate his company from northern reliance, the more he realized it was not possible. Such was antebellum Richmond's never-ending struggle to find its own identity among the north and south.

Tredegar had the same ups and downs shared by all of nineteenth century Richmond. Although the original intent of the owners was to build a company that would be the sole source of railroad iron in Virginia, these dreams quickly changed as government contracts became more and more important. This reliance on federal contracts became especially unsure as the Civil War approached, and Tredegar and the rest of industrialized Richmond were forced to change their markets.

In addition to this external vying for place, Richmond and Tredegar had internal conflicts as well, revolving around slavery and abolitionism. As seen at Tredegar, "Richmond's late antebellum prosperity rested on a workforce that was predominantly black and European-born." The labor dispute and consequent strike at Tredegar brought to the forefront of Richmond society questions that would be asked again and again as the Civil War approached.

Prior to Nat Turner's rebellion in 1831, control of slaves--especially in cities--was becoming more and more lax. Blacks, free and slave, were forming their own communities, living in houses clustered together, attending church together. Turner's rebellion took place just outside of Richmond, and it frightened white masters into once again stringently regulating their slaves' every movement.

By giving slaves the power of skilled positions at his mill, Anderson reminded his workers of the fear that began with Nat Turner, the fear of blacks dominating whites. Anderson took their argument and successfully used it against them, saying that abolitionist ideas prompted their resistance. So strong was the fear of abolitionism in Richmond--ironically because of memories of Nat Turner--that Anderson easily won the battle.

Antebellum Richmond shared these characteristics in all of its industries: the dependence on and resentment of the north; unstable and dynamic markets; the use of slaves coupled with conflict and controversy. Tredegar is the most stunning example of industry's unique position in Richmond, but it is representative of other major manufacturing centers in the city as well.