At the outbreak of the Civil War, there were eighteen textile factories in operation in South Carolina. The mills were scattered over the state from Graniteville on the Savannah River near Augusta to the Columbia Mills on the Saluda River near Columbia to the upstate in Greenville and Spartanburg Districts at Batesville, Buena Vista, and Bivingsville. One of the principal New England firms that supplied machinery to these factories was P. Whitin & Sons, of Whitinsville, Mass.
This collection of one hundred seventy-five manuscripts, 1846-1861, includes correspondence of William Gregg (seventy-three manuscripts, 1846-1861), James G. Gibbes & Co. (forty-nine manuscripts, 1848-1860), William Bates & Co. (eleven manu¬scripts, 1853-1860), Vardry McBee & Sons (nineteen manuscripts, 1846-1850, 1858-1860), and Philip C. Lester (sixteen manuscripts, 1853-1861). Gregg began a correspondence with the New England firm as he was organizing Graniteville in 1846 and 1847. He traveled to Massachusetts in the summer of those years for the purpose of ordering machinery. Although he eventually contracted with the firm of William Mason & Co., he assured Whitin that “our intercourse is not at an end...[as] I intend in...a few years [to] have a hand in the building of a half dozen such mills." And indeed their correspondence was not at an end but continued even after South Carolina’s secession and the firing on Ft. Sumter.
In addition to purchasing machinery, Gregg sought advice about various engineering problems and opinions on persons seeking positions at Graniteville. Many of the letters from Gregg and other manufacturers included drawings of machinery being ordered with questions concerning the configuration of the machinery. The factories in South Carolina often employed managers who had prior experience with mills in the North. One was Gilbert Read who managed the Columbia Mills for James G. Gibbes. In a letter of 26 June 1857, Read advised Whitin that he was available for a new position “as I have got this Mill running well, and Jas. G. Gibbes Esq can get on with it and save my pay....I have put in one of the Best Wheels here that ever run.” Read remained in the state and by January 1858 was employed at Vardry McBee’s factory in Greenville District, for he requested from Whitin & Sons “a list of prices for all the cotton machinery you build. I am sure our Co. will add to our machinery before long, and I like yours extremely well.” Read may have been the person to whom Alex McBee referred in a letter of 2 July 1860. McBee canceled an order for machinery “As One of our Firm has within the past ten days been attack[e]d severely with Palsy or Paralisis & may die, our firm will have to be dissolved, as he was the manager & machinist.”
In the summer of 1860 William Gregg requested a delay in the shipment of machinery pending installation of a new turbine and additional looms at Graniteville as well as a new turbine at Vaucluse. The order had not been filled by March 1861 when Gregg advised, “The Augusta mills & Graniteville are becoming competitors for superiority of cloth....Augusta has gone ahead of us, & taken many valuable customers & will continue to have the advantage of us, unless we can improve our goods.” Later that month Gregg inquired about an order for carding machinery and stated, “The southern congress has for the present made a provision in our Tariff bill which allows New England & all American machinery to come in free of duty.” Graniteville’s superintendent, James Montgomery, complained about the delay in a letter of 10 April: “It has occurred at a most unfortunate time, when we are just preparing to enlarge our concern about 50 pr cent.” Gregg’s final letter to Whitin & Sons, 17 May 1861, lamented that the express company would not ship a railway head when orders were still being received from Philadelphia. Perhaps exasperated by this situation, Gregg concluded, “You Northern people have to learn one thing & that is that you cannot conquer us, all we ask is that you let us alone, to enjoy in peace the Government we have set up for ourselves.”