The Crenshaw Woolen Mills

Until its destruction by fire on May 15, 1863 The Crenshaw Woolen Mills in Richmond, Virginia was one of the chief producers of Confederate uniform cloth and blankets. It was situated in a five story building on the grounds of the Tredegar Iron Works. One of its best known products was a blue-grey woolen broadcloth often used for officer’s uniforms that came to be  known as Crenshaw gray. The following article, entitled “CITY INTELLIGENCE – THE CRENSHAW WOOLEN COMPANY” appeared in the October 17, 1861 edition of the Richmond Enquirer and provides an interesting overview of the facility’s vital capabilities:

“Second in importance as an auxiliary to Southern independence, scarcely to the Tredegar Iron Works, and the Virginia Armory, is the Crenshaw Woolen Company, the factory of which immediately adjoins the Tredegar works, presenting in strong and proximate contrast the arts of peace and of war – the labors of the anvil and of the loom, made equally subservient to the success of a people engaged in an arduous struggle for their liberties.

Ruins of the Tredegar Iron Works, 1865. Arrow denotes the shell of the Crenshaw Woolen Mills which was converted to a pattern house for the Richmond Arsenal

Ruins of the Tredegar Iron Works, 1865. Arrow denotes the shell of the Crenshaw Woolen Mills which was converted to a pattern house for the Richmond Arsenal

The fabrics manufactured by the Crenshaw Company, chiefly the light, blue and grey cloths, adopted for the regulation uniform of the Confederacy; broad cloths and blankets, although lacking, it may be, somewhat of the high finish of those made in Northern mills, are certainly far superior in every other respect. This superiority is especially observable in the weight and strength of the material, and in the firmness of its color. Where Yankee cloth may be torn by the slightest exertion of force, it requires the exercise of considerable muscular power to rend that manufactured by the Crenshaw Company. The marked inferiority of the former in this respect, is due to the almost general introduction into Yankee manufactures, as a substitute for wool, of the material technically known as shoddy, which, while it cheapens the manufactured article nearly 25 per cent., without detracting in the slightest degree from its appearance to the inexperienced eye, renders it comparatively worthless for actual use. . .

Another fraud upon purchasers, extensively practiced by Northern manufacturers, is in the adulterated character of the dyes used in the manufacture of broad cloths, principally log-wood and chloride of tin, the effect of which is to give to the cloth a highly glossed color, superior even in appearance to that obtained from indigo – the proper dye – but which fades away before a few days of exposure to the weather. In this respect, also, the cloth of the Crenshaw Company is superior to much the greater portion of that which finds its way to this market from the North, and is seized upon with eagerness by inexperienced purchasers, willing to sacrifice substance to show. We have ourselves witnessed a practical comparison, by means of chemical tests, between the cloth of the Crenshaw Company and a specimen of that from Northern mills, the result of which was to establish beyond cavil the excellent – we may say – the honest coloring of the former, and the thoroughly Yankee – i.e., tricky and unreliable – nature of the colors employed in the latter. Even English manufacturers, we are told, use the spurious dyes.

Crenshaw Grey uniform coat worn by Lt. Charles Ellis Munford of the Letcher Artillery. Munford was killed July 1, 1862 at Malvern Hill. Photo courtesy the Virginia Historical Society www.Virginia Historical.org.

Crenshaw Grey uniform coat worn by Lt. Charles Ellis Munford of the Letcher Artillery. Munford was killed July 1, 1862 at Malvern Hill. Photo courtesy the Virginia Historical Society www.Virginia Historical.org.

The sudden blockading of the ports of the South bade fair for awhile to terminate, or very much cripple, at least, the operations of the Crenshaw mills, as far as the manufacture of broadcloths was concerned, by cutting off the supply of logwood; but fortunately the much talked about ship Tropic Wind, which ran the blockade in April, brought within available distance of Richmond a full cargo of the necessary material, found on board a wreck which was encountered on the coast of Cuba. The Crenshaw Company are now enabled to furnish their less fortunate manufacturing friends throughout the South with as much logwood as can be needed for months to come. Some difficulty was also at first experienced in procuring the cotton warp necessary for manufacturing purposes, and which prior to the war had been usually brought from England, but an ample supply, nearly as excellent in quality as the British warps, is now obtained through the agency of a manufactory established at Franklinsville, N.C., under the direction of Coffee, Foush & Co. The woolen warps necessary for their business are here made in the mills of the Crenshaw Company.

The finest wool used in these manufactures is brought from South America, but the Merino wool raised in Fairfax county, in the vicinity of the now classic locality of Manassas, and the Texas wool, are very nearly equal to the South American, requiring perhaps, but care and systematic attention to render it fully so. At all events, the Virginia and Texas wools are far superior to that elsewhere to be found within the limits of North America, and are quite good enough to meet the chief requirements of the finest manufactures.

The Crenshaw Company – the only one, by the way, in the South now engaged in the manufacture of broadcloths – employ at present 25 broad looms, and an addition of 15 more are now in the course of construction; 5 sets of carding machines – three in each set – and 8 spinning jacks, comprising about 270 spindles in each. About 130 work people in all are employed, 25 of whom are females, the latter earning wages to the average amount of about $7.50 a week each. Several children ranging in their ages from 10 to 12 years, are also employed in the light and simple labor of filling shuttles. The male employees are principally foreigners, from the English, Irish, and German factories. Their labors are superintended by experienced overseers from England.

There are 8 dye vaults in the establishment, with an aggregate capacity equal to about 2,000 pounds per day; and 4 double fulling mills, in which the cloth, in its rough state of manufacture, is shrunk, to render it firm preparatory to receiving the final finish. The operation of raising the nap of the cloth, is an exceedingly simple one, and is performed upon a gig mill of a German mill.

CrenshawThe Crenshaw Works are now exclusively engaged under a Government contract, in the manufacture of regulation cloth for army uniforms, blankets, and stocking yarn, all for the use of the army. About 5,000 yards in all of cloth is manufactured weekly, and about 450 blankets. The latter, of which large numbers have already been furnished to the army, are quite equal to the English army blanket, many of which are made of shoddy, and superior to those of the Yankees. The blankets of the Crenshaw Company are 60 by 80 inches in dimensions; are made wholly of wool, and weigh but 3 7/8 pounds.”

Today the surviving structure of the old Crenshaw Mills building serves as a visitors center for the Richmond National Battlefield Park. Please left click on images for larger views.

by Bob Williams

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