James H. Warner

Not much is known about the background of one of the key figures in engineering circles from the Civil War and a prominent figure in Columbus, Georgia. More often than historians like to claim, there are stories of individuals that should be told but the information outside of a particular moment in time is either woefully incomplete or entirely missing. The story of James Warner falls into the category of incomplete information, but he is key to understanding maritime engineering in the mid-19th century and the role that Columbus plays during the Civil War.

Some sources place Warner’s birth as early as 1827 and as late as 1831. Census and Navy records indicate that Warner was born in Ohio, but others claim that he was born in Virginia. Whatever the truth is, not much is known of Warner until he received a commission in the U.S. Navy as Third Assistant Engineer in 1851. By 1856, he became a Chief Engineer. Given the glacial pace of promotions in the antebellum navy, his rapid rise indicates a tremendous amount of competence in his profession.

 Warner was stationed at the Gosport Naval Yard in Norfolk, VA on several occasions. While there, he met his future wife Harriette Etheredge. If he was born in Ohio, this could give us a clue as to why Warner threw his lot in with the Confederacy.

During the secession crisis, Warner was assigned to the USS Richmond, which was on a mission to Italy. When the Richmond made its way home and made port in New York, Warner submitted his resignation, stating: “It is with heartfelt regret that I render this my resignation…This I do from personal and private considerations. It is impossible that I should go to sea and leave my family in a hostile country…” When this letter dated July 6, 1861 reached Washington, Navy Secretary Gideon Welles had already made the policy decision to simply strike from the service anyone attempting to resign. Warner was officially dismissed from the US Navy on July 8. Shortly thereafter, he offered his services to the Confederate Navy.

His first assignment was at the familiar Gosport Yard in Norfolk, but over the next year, he was assigned to New Orleans, Savannah, and finally Columbus. Warner, actually, may be one of the most travelled individuals across the South in Confederate service. When he took command of the Columbus Iron Works, he oversaw the building of a sophisticated industrial complex with satellite offices in other maritime construction sites in the Confederacy. In April 1863 alone, Warner traveled over 600 miles, all the while managing the new Confederate Naval Iron Works, which constructed machinery for several vessels, including at least five ironclads. Columbus, simply, was the single most important Confederate producer of purpose-built engines.

In order to better tell this story, we were fortunate to receive a small grant to do conservation work on some of the drawings that Warner produced during his time in Columbus. These drawings include the plans of the engines of the CSS Savannah. This wealth of material about maritime engineering and steam engine design is a special component of the history of Columbus, the Chattahoochee River, and warship construction during the Civil War.

A portion of these drawings are already in a conservation studio. In order to complete the project, we need to raise more funds. Your help will greatly assist us in telling the story of this relatively unknown individual. This is one of those stories you’ll hear nowhere else.

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