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To the Knifemakers of Georgia

August 17, 2011

Text by J. Bruce Voyles and (the late Georgia Governor Joe Brown)

The Bowie and pistol may have included in this image to accent the determination of this soldier, but the conviction is elsewhere—in the eyes.

Photos by Sam Denny

They weren’t called knifemakers in 1861; they were called “mechanics” in those pre-automobile days. Blacksmiths, metalworkers, craftsmen of many kinds comprised the group. In the predominantly agrarian society of the South these were to go-to guys when the wagon wheel broke, when the gin framework cracked, or if the riverboat boiler started leaking. And these were the men you went to if you wanted a handmade knife.

In 1861 the leaders of the Southern states attempted to withdraw their membership from the United States of America and realign as the Confederate States of America. According to Dr. James Robertson of Virginia Tech, around four books a day are published on the Civil War, discussing the right, the wrong, and the whys of that tragic conflict. Unfortunately it seems today that much of the emotional, vocal, and knee-jerk reactions to anything concerning the South during that time seems to come from those who have obviously read few if any of those four books a day.
With that in mind, this article is not about that war. It is about the knifemakers of that day, and the requests by the Southern political leaders for arms—bladed arms. They spoke in a different way then—and Joe Brown enshrined himself to knifemakers and Civil War buffs forever with his bombastic call for arms.

Imagine yourself a Georgia knifemaker in 1862, reading these words, and being able to resist the lure of the forge!

To the Mechanics of Georgia
The late reverses which have attended our arms show that absolute necessity of renewed energy and determination on our part. We are left to choose between freedom at the end of a desperate and heroic struggle and submission to tyranny, followed by the most abject and degraded slavery to which a patriotic and generous people were ever exposed. Surely we can not hesitate. Independence or death should be the watchword and reply of every freeborn son of the South. Our enemies have vastly superior numbers and greatly the advantage in the quantity and quality of their arms. Including those, however, which have and will be imported, in spite of the blockade, we have guns enough in the Confederacy to arm a very large force, but not enough for all the troops which have been and must be called to the field.

What shall be done in this emergency? I answer: Use the “Georgia Pike” with six feet staff, and the side knife with eighteen inches blade, weighing about three pounds.

Let every army have a large reserve, armed with a good pike, and a long heavy side knife, to be brought upon the field, with a shout for victory, when the contending forces are much exhausted, or when the time comes for the charge of bayonets. When the advancing columns come within reach of the balls, let them move in double quick time and rush with terrible impetuosity into the lines of the enemy. Hand to hand, the pike has vastly the advantage of the bayonet, and those having the bayonet, which is itself but a crooked pike, with shorter staff, must retreat before it.

When the retreat commences, let the pursuit be rapid, and if the enemy throw down their guns and are likely to outrun us, if need be, throw down the pike and keep close at their heels with the knife, till each man is hewed down, at least, one of his adversaries.

Had five thousand reserves thus armed and well trained to the use of these terrible weapons been brought to the charge at the proper time, who can say that the victory would not have been ours at Fort Donaldson?

But it is probably important that I state here the use to be made of that which I wish you to manufacture. I have already a considerable number of these pikes and knives, but I desire, within the next month, ten thousand more of each. I must have them; and I appeal to you, as one of the most patriotic classes of our fellow citizens, to make them for me immediately. I trust every mechanic, who has the means of turning them out rapidly, and the owner of every machine shop in this State, will at once lay aside, as far as possible, all other business and appropriate a month or two to the relief of the country in this emergency. Each workman who has the means of turning them our in large numbers without delay will be supplied with a proper pattern by application at the Ordnance Office at Milledgeville.

Appealing to your patriotism as a class and to your interest as citizens, whose all is at stake in the great contest in which we are engaged, I ask immediate response.

In ancient times, that nation, it is said, usually extended its conquests furthest whose arms were shortest. Long range guns sometimes fail to fire and waste an hundred balls to one that takes effect; but the shortest range pike and the terrible knife, when brought within their proper range (as they can be almost in a moment) and wielded by a stalwart patriot’s arm, never fail to fire and never waste a single load.

I am, very respectfully, your fellow citizen,
Joseph E. Brown, Executive Department, Milledgeville, Georgia

Joe Brown wasn’t the only governor to call for knives. Alabama Governor A. B. Moore’s proclamation issued in November of 1861 read: “People of North Alabama! Your households and your hearths are in danger! Let every man capable of doing effectual service in the field, rally at once to the call. Every hour lost increases the prospect of the success of the enemy; prompt and energetic action is all that is demanded. Let companies at once form—arm themselves with shotguns and rifles—bowie-knives, in addition, wherever they can be had.”

A D-Guard Bowie extends from the belt of this young soldier. D-guards were no a part of the Union soldier’s kit, even in the early days of the war.

And Virginia Governor John Wise admonished his fellow Virginians, “…take a lesson from John Brown; manufacture your blades from old iron, even though they be the tires of your cart wheels; get a bit of a spring, grind and burnish it into the shape of a two-inch blade Bowie knife; put to it any sort of a handle, so that it be strong-ash, hickory or oak.”

The knifemakers of that day heeded the call, but the troops soon sent they heavy implements home, and mentions of Bowie knives in combat during the War Between the States after the first year of the war are all but non-existent. It is suspected that the many long Bowie’s shown in the soldier’s tintypes were most often a photographer’s prop.

As Confederate General Dick Ewell remarked and the Confederate soldier soon learned, “The road to glory isn’t traveled with much baggage.”

Postscript: And of the Georgia Pikes? A Georgia knife-collecting friend owned the two that graced Brown’s offices, and I do not know where they ended up after is death. Many of the others were dumped into the river nearest Milledgeville when Sherman’s march came through. (Milledgeville was the state capitol at the time). In the early 80’s some enterprising researchers went to the river with a dredge and dug out over 100 of the pikes (and alas, no Bowies). They relics were sold through Atlanta Cutlery Corp.

It is suspected that the famed McElory Confederate Bowies were made in response to Governor Brown’s request.

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