Fuel for Union victory – An 1861 U.S. Navy contract for anthracite coal

As the Civil War heated up in the summer of 1861, military leaders in the Union capital came up with a strategy to defeat the Confederacy.

Anthracite coal from the hills of Eastern Pennsylvania was vital to that plan.

The Commander of the United States Army, General Winfield Scott, developed a plan to envelop the South from the sea and blockade their major ports. This strategy became known as the “Anaconda Plan” and, though General Scott lost his job in the first year of the Civil War, his strategy lived on through the end of the conflict in 1865. The Anaconda Plan helped bring about Union victory.

1200px-Scott-anaconda
General Winfield Scott’s “Anaconda Plan” (Wikimedia Commons)

The plan revolved around the use of the United States Navy, requiring it to blockade Southern ports and ensure that the Confederacy could not be resupplied by sea. This put tremendous pressure on Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles to increase the size of his force while also ensuring that his fleet of steam-powered warships were supplied.

Fuel for those steam vessels became an immediate issue. Anthracite coal from hills and valleys of northeastern Pennsylvania had become the Navy’s favorite fuel source. It burned hot and gave off relatively little smoke, an important factor when trying to be stealthy on the high seas. With an immense war effort underway, the Navy needed more anthracite than ever.

Shoveling Coal - Civil War Navy
A U.S. Navy shoveling coal to fuel a steamer during the Civil War. (Library of Congress)

And so in the summer of 1861, the U.S. Navy put out a call for contractors to supply anthracite coal in support of the Union war effort. For coal operators in Pennsylvania, this was a lucrative deal. It guaranteed a customer for their coal if they could secure the contract. However, it was also rife with possible dangers. Don’t fill your quota and there are steep financial costs. These risks led coal operators to be extremely worried about stoppages in their mines and helped fan the flames of war-time strife between labor and capital in the Coal Region during the Civil War.

Below, you’ll find an example of an anthracite coal contract published the National Republican of Washington, DC in August 1861. It is unclear at this stage who ultimately filled these contracts, but an 1863 correspondent of the New York Times wrote that U.S. Navy coal used during the Civil War came exclusively from the Mammoth Vein, a thick coal bed running beneath parts of Columbia, Northumberland, and Schuylkill counties. More research will hopefully reveal the companies who supplied the U.S. Navy with the fuel that helped them crush the Confederacy.

Anthracite Coal for the Navy.

Navy Department,
Bureau of Construction, Equipment, and Repairs.
July 9, 1861.

Sealed proposals for furnishing Anthracite Coal for the Navy, to be delivered during the fiscal year ending 30th June, 1862, will be received at this Bureau until 4 o’clock, the 6th day of August, 1861.

These proposals must be endorsed, “Proposals for Anthracite Coal,” that they may be distinguished from other business letters.

The offer must be for the delivery of 30,000 tons, of 2,240 lbs.; and, if an additional quantity of 50,000 tons is demanded, it is to be furnished on like terms and conditions.

The coal must be of the best Buck Mountain, or Black Heath, or of a kind equal to them in all respects for the purpose intended, which equality will be determined by a board appointed by the Secretary of the Navy, after the reception of the bids.

The name of the coal proposed to be furnished must be stated in the offer.

It is to be delivered in lumps of suitable size for naval steamers – clean; of uniform quality; selected free from impurities; unmixed; of which the contractor will be required to furnish such evidence as will be satisfactory; and be subject to such inspection, as to quality and quantity, as the Department may direct. The coal must, in all respects, be satisfactory to the inspector, or inspectors, to be appointed by the Department, who will have the right of peremptory rejection.

The coal is to be delivered on board vessels at such place in the port of Philadelphia as may be designated by the Department, and in such quantities and at such times as, in the opinion of the Department, the exigencies of the service may require; commencing when the vessel is reported ready to receive cargo, furnishing, when required, not less than 450 tons per day, to be distributed to each vessels, as may be directed, until the loading is completed.

Proposals will likewise be received for the delivery of 15,000 tons, more or less, as the Department may demand, of the same quality, under the same terms and conditions, in the port of New York.

In the case of failure to deliver the coal of the proper quality and at the proper time and place, the Department will reserve in the contract the right to purchase forthwith, at the contractor’s risk and expense, that which may be necessary to supply the deficiency.

Any demurrage or other charge to which the Navy Department may be subjected from delay in the prompt delivery of the coal by the contractor will be deducted from their bills.

The price must be for the coal delivered on board vessels, stating the price if delivered on board at Richmond, and that if delivered on board at any other place in the port, on the terms and conditions above stated, at the contractor’s rise and expense, and without charge of any kind.

The offer, as required by law, must be accompanied by a written guarantee, signed by one or more responsible persons, to the effect that they undertake that the bidder or bidders will, if his or their bid be accepted, enter into obligation in such time as may be prescribed by the Secretary of the Navy, with good and sufficient sureties, to furnish the supplies proposed.

No proposition will be considered unless accompanied by such guarantee.

Two or more sureties, in a sum equal to the amount specified to be paid, will be required to sign the contract, and their responsibility will be certified by a United States district judge, United States district attorney, collector, or navy agent.

As additional and collateral security, 20 percent will be withheld from the amount of all payments, not to be paid except by authority of the Secretary of the Navy, until the contract shall have been in all respects compiled with and the remaining eighty percent, or other amount that may be due on each bill, will, when a proper certificate is furnished by the inspector, and the bill approved by the Navy Department, be paid by such navy agents as the contractor may name, within 30 days after its presentation to him.

It will be stipulated in the contract that if default be made in delivering the coal, of the quality and at the place directed by the Department, then, and in that case, the contractor and his sureties will forfeit and pay to the United States, as liquidated damages, a sum of money not exceeding twice the contract price, which may be recovered from time to time, according to the acts of Congress in that case provided.

Bidders whose proposals shall be accepted, and none other, will be notified, and as early as practicable a contract will be transmitted to them, which they will be required to execute within ten days after its receipt at the post office or navy agency named by them.

Navy Coal Contract - 1861- 1Navy Coal Contract - 1861- 2


Featured Image: A coal schooner fueling the USS Canonicus in the James River during the Civil War. Pennsylvania anthracite was the exclusive fuel of the U.S. Navy during the Civil War. 

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