Confident and versatile are two words associated with West Point graduates. One such man protected Des Moines and ran a Confederate arsenal during his career.
Georgia-born John C. Booth graduated from West Point in 1848. He was commissioned a brevet second lieutenant in Artillery.
His postings included the Augusta Arsenal in Georgia and operations in Florida against the Seminole Indians.
Booth resigned from the U.S. Army on May 1, 1856. He spent the next three years working as a civil engineer in Des Moines, Iowa.
In early March 1857, news of the Spirit Lake Massacre shocked residents of central Iowa. Chief Inkpaduta and warriors of the Wahpekute Dakota tribe, reportedly murdered white residents of all ages and both sexes.
A letter announced that the warriors were headed south to raid Fort Des Moines. Settlers became “intensely excited” (that is, alarmed).
Protecting Des Moines
Men armed with hunting rifles and shotguns formed a militia. Taking command, Captain John C. Booth drilled four companies of recruits.
Polk County historian L.F. Andrews wrote:
The whole town was aroused with military spirit. For a week, pomp and circumstance of war, the fife and drum, kept enthusiasm at high pitch.
Scouts galloped north and debunked the rumors. Andrews stated, “The incident … disclosed the patriotism of the community.”
Three years later, in 1859, Booth took a job as clerk in the Illinois Central Railroad.
On March 11, 1861, Booth offered his services to the Confederate secretary of war, calling it an “honor” to do so. On March 29, Booth took command of the Baton Rouge Arsenal in newly seceded Louisiana.
War erupted two weeks later at Fort Sumter. Federal armories in the South assumed a greater strategic importance.
The Union defenders of the armory at Harper’s Ferry Virginia, set the buildings on fire and rushed out.
In their footsteps, Virginia militiamen doused the flames and salvaged a great deal of equipment, arms, and components.
Three days later, North Carolina militiamen peacefully seized the arsenal at Fayetteville. It was quite a prize, containing an armory, gun carriage and caisson shops, and machine shops.
Booth assumed responsibility for the Fayetteville Arsenal on July 27, 1861. He started enlarging a building and converting flintlock muskets to more modern percussion-cap weapons.
In the fall of 1861, machinery for making rifles (including rifles with sword-bayonets) arrived from Harper’s Ferry. Thirty-six machinists and workmen came, too.
The Fayetteville Arsenal turned out about 500 rifles per month, along with small arms ammunition and carriages for heavy artillery (for sea coast defenses) and light artillery. The arsenal also produced two unique guns, the Fayetteville Pistol-Carbine and the Fayetteville Rifle.
The following March of 1862, General Robert E. Lee formed plans for security of the North Carolina seaboard. Josiah Gorgas, ordnance chief in Richmond, ordered Booth to place obstructions in the Cape Fear River below Fayetteville.
Time running out
Booth became sick, but he “worked incessantly.” A colleague wrote that Booth kept “growing weaker, until he was forced to take his bed, and in a few short months he died.”
The colleague noted that Booth was “a splendid executive officer … universally loved by the entire armory force.” John C. Booth died on September 6 or 8, 1862.
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