(July 1, 1818–May 18, 1883)
Jon L. Wakelyn
During the Civil War a number of leaders deserted their homeland to enlist on the side of the enemy. The Pennsylvania-born and -raised chief of the Confederate Ordnance Bureau, Josiah Gorgas, was one such person. During that great war, ordinary men from ordinary backgrounds with supposedly ordinary skills rarely rose to become the great leaders of their respective sides. But the slow, deliberate, sad but stern-looking man of Dutch descent did just that. Undistinguished in his prewar profession, Gorgas was to have, in the words of his biographer Frank Vandiver, “a military career which was to contribute more than any other man, with the exception of Robert E. Lee, [q.v.] to the success of the Armies of the Confederacy” (Vandiver, 6). Gorgas nearly worked miracles in making an agricultural society into a well-armed military machine. Perhaps for that colorless man of few words, there is a connection between his traitorous behavior to his own people and his ability to turn his mediocre prewar career into wartime genius.
The Ordnance wizard who made Confederate logistics was born on July 1, 1818, in Daupin County, Pennsylvania, to a proud family descended from the Dutch patroons of New York State. His father Joseph made clocks, at times worked as a mechanic, farmed a bit, and even kept an inn. His mother, Sophia Atkinson, daughter of a sturdy middle-class Pennsylvania farmer, had few distinctive qualities, save a desire to see her son succeed. The family at times barely scraped by, and young Josiah remembered moving many times, growing up lonely and without friends. In his early life in middle Pennsylvania, the family finally ended up in Lebanon County, where young Josiah received a smattering of schooling. At seventeen he moved in with a sister at Lyons, New York, where he apprenticed in a printing office. In that town, the hard-working young man met and impressed U.S. Congressman Graham Chapin and began to read law in his office. Like many a poor but ambitious youth, Josiah jumped at the chance