When a commander's honor, integrity became the first casualty of war
Watervliet Arsenal commander Maj. Alfred Mordecai was born in North Carolina in 1804 and graduated from West Point in 1823, at the top of his class. Unfortunately, the first casualty of the Civil War for the Arsenal was Mordecai. Photo provided by the Arsenal Museum.

WATERVLIET ARSENAL, N.Y. -- This year marks the 150th anniversary of the deadliest war in United States history - the American Civil War. On April 12, 1861, Confederate forces fired upon the Union forces that were defending Ft. Sumter in Charleston Harbor, S.C., thus igniting the Civil War.

Ironically, the commander of the Watervliet Arsenal at the outbreak of the war was a Southerner by birth. Maj. Alfred Mordecai was born in North Carolina in 1804 and graduated from West Point in 1823, at the top of his class.

When the fighting began, Mordecai had been the Arsenal commander for more than four years, January 1857 to May 1861, and what a command it was. During his tenure: Arsenal acreage expanded; new facilities were built such as the cast iron building that currently houses the Arsenal museum; a new officer’s quarters was built; and new machinery was put into operation. Some of these new machines were able to triple the number of bullets that could be produced in a day.

Mordecai was unhappy with the slow production of bullets made on an antiquated, inefficient machine. So, he had a new bullet press constructed, one with improved production capabilities. In a letter dated March 23, 1859 to Colonel H. K. Craig, Ordnance Department, Mordecai outlined the increased production of the new press:

“In eleven days, the machine was in operation it made 240,000 bullets. While with the old
machine after the improvements made in the last year, the best month’s work was 290,000
in the long days of June.”

However, command in the late 1850s and early 1860s was sometimes the loneliest job on post, as passionate feelings on both sides of the slavery issue fell on Mordecai’s shoulders. Despite the fact that there were many who questioned Mordecai’s commitment to the North given his Southern birth, Mordecai was a professional Soldier who had 38 years of unblemished military service.

He saw that war was coming and he took very deliberate steps to ensure the Arsenal was ready to support the war effort. Just months before the fighting began, Mordecai sent the Ordnance department reports of storage capabilities of the two Arsenal magazines that were readily available to support the war effort. He estimated that one warehouse measuring more than 21,000 square-feet of space could hold some 1,854 barrels of gunpowder, each weighing 100 pounds.

Mordecai was also increasing output on the Arsenal production lines without orders from the Chief of Ordnance. And when war broke out, Mordecai had already been working his men, women, and even children in shifts, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Unfortunately, the first 'casualty’ of the Civil War for the Arsenal was Mordecai. Within weeks of the attack on Ft. Sumter, Mordecai’s patriotism and loyalty were questioned in public by people prejudiced against his Southern roots. Sensitive to how the criticism would affect his efficiency in running the Arsenal, as well as his honor being in question, Mordecai asked to be relieved of command.

After his request was denied on two separate occasions, he felt compelled to resign his military commission and did so on May 15, 1861. He stated he could not possibly fight against his native South while wearing a Union uniform, nor could he serve the Confederacy and fight against the Union.

After resigning his commission and command, Mordecai went to Philadelphia to teach mathematics at a private school. After a short stint as an engineer building a railroad in Mexico, he moved back to Philadelphia where he lived modestly for another 20 years as treasurer and secretary for a canal company until his death in 1887.

An interesting side note…Mordecai’s son, Alfred Jr., graduated from West Point in 1861 and served in the Union Army. Alfred Jr. would eventually follow in his father’s footsteps and command the Watervliet Arsenal from 1881 to 1886, and again from 1898 to 1899.

Page last updated Thu July 28th, 2011 at 00:00