Stephen F. Austin State University

Unintended Consequences - Smith County Version (June 2013)

Unintended Consequences - Smith County Version (June 2013)

Unintended Consequences - Smith County Version
- By Marvin Mayer

Frequently these days, we hear the phrase "unintended consequences" bandied about in connection with an air strike or a missile assault in a war torn part of this volatile world in which we live. It refers to damage to properties not part of the target, and/or injuries or death of non-combatant civilians of the country in which the war is being waged. It would, therefore, seem like a relatively new phrase, but as far back as the American Civil War, unintended consequences resulted from miscalculation of actions taken to avoid military bloodshed.

In 1862, Tyler (Smith County) gunsmiths, J. C. Short and S. N. Briscoe, with a little help from silent partner, Col. George Yarbrough, started a gun and munitions business expressly to provide rifles and ammunition to Confederate troops. Buoyed by a contract from the State of Texas to supply 5,000 rifles to soldiers fighting for the South, Briscoe, Short and Company constructed a 2-story brick building about 1 mile south of Tyler, then hardly more than a small "country village" of approximately 1,500 inhabitants. The need and the incentive were there, but two key items were not: men and material.

Unable to meet contractual obligations due to the absence of a proper work force and difficulty finding the necessary raw materials in the unindustrialized South, Briscoe and Short eventually sold their business to the Confederate Government. However, as skilled gunsmiths, they managed to stay with the now government owned business to produce guns.

In a strange twist of fate, the Federal Army provided, at least in the short term, both the employees and the equipment needed at Tyler's Short, Briscoe and Company plant. As troops advanced on Little Rock and Arkadelphia, Arkansas, the Confederate government moved all existing (Arkansas) equipment and workmen to their Tyler plant. Manufacturing began in earnest in October, 1863. Records indicate the plant employed over 200 people at its zenith, manufacturing many items of field equipment issued to soldiers. As many as seven buildings stood on the 125 acre site. Never-the-less, only a fraction of the 5,000 rifles were made, a problem attributed to insurmountable supply problems.

What good are rifles without ammunition? The Confederate Government recognized that problem, and during the last 18 months of the war, Tyler's rifle factory expanded into an ordnance fabricating facility. At one time, upwards of 20,000 rounds of ammunition were produced daily. Toward the end of the war, with Federal troops advancing on Shreveport, this Tyler plant manufactured over half a million rounds of bullets which were then rushed to Confederate soldiers in dire need in Shreveport.

We southerners know what happened after the fighting stopped. "Carpetbaggers" and looters overran government warehouses and stores. The Tyler Ordnance Plant seemed destined to be looted, but rather than let that happen, Lt. Col. Gabriel H. Hill, then directing operations at the Ordnance Plant, put as many completed weapons as possible to good use. He gave them and most of his equipment to General Jo Shelby's Cavalry. General Shelby and his cavalry chose to flee to Mexico rather than surrender.

Disposition of guns and equipment solved half of Col. Hill's problem. He still had to dispose of some 800,000 rounds of ammunition along with large amounts of bulk powder. To prevent these explosives from falling into the hands of looters, he chose to dispose of them in a way they would not be used against the citizens of Tyler. Like a giant pep rally bonfire, he had them blown up. And that's where "collateral damage" entered our lexicon!

The resulting explosion shattered every window in Tyler and for miles around the countryside. In a ceremony during the installation of one of the four markers about the ordnance plant, Robert Glover said, "By the way stunned townspeople cautiously crept out to see what had happened, one suspects the explosion put a stop to some of the rioting." Could this have been a second, but positive, Unintended Consequence?