The Confederate war effort relied on a number of vital resources, none of them more important than domestically produced gunpowder.
While Confederate authorities struggled to produce enough niter, the key ingredient in gunpowder, to keep their armed forces active, the Union made every effort to sabotage the enemy industry and cut off Rebel imports from abroad.
At the outbreak of hostilities in 1861, the Confederate states had no large organized gunpowder industry. Though several regions had long produced the primary ingredients — niter, charcoal and sulfur — the entire South had less than 30 tons of powder and no one source that produced more than a few pounds a day.
Charcoal and sulfur were readily obtainable, but niter was the essential element and the focus of what eventually would become an impressive network of arms-manufacturing industries built essentially from scratch.
Niter is a whitish mineral of potassium nitrate (KNO3, also known as saltpeter) found in limestone caves in Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia. Niter earth (dirt from which niter can be extracted) was commonly found in “old buildings, cellars, plantation quarters and tobacco barns,” as Southern historian R.A. Brock wrote in 1909.
Hunters and explorers as early as 1776 were creating their own powder as they traversed the Appalachian region, recovering it from the rocks, refining it and mixing it with sulfur and charcoal. By 1802, a powder mill was operating in Lexington, Ky., and others sprang up as the need for gunpowder increased during the War of 1812.
By the time the Civil War erupted, however, local production had dropped, and both Union and Confederate officials quickly offered residents in these areas lucrative prices for locally produced saltpeter (up to $1.50 a pound).
Early in 1861, George W. Rains, a chemistry professor and Confederate army officer in charge of gunpowder, was circulating an article on making grough saltpeter, although he used the British spelling, saltpetre. The article was titled “Notes on making saltpetre from the earth of the caves.”
Other articles encouraged people to create man-made “niter beds.” Both sides also began to seek overseas markets for gunpowder, though the Union blockade of Southern ports eventually created an additional obstacle for the Confederates.
The issue was serious enough that the Confederate Congress spent considerable time debating it. On April 1, 1862, the congress passed a bill creating a Niter Bureau. Isaac Munroe St. John, a dynamic Georgia newspaper writer and civil engineer turned soldier, was selected to head what officially was called the Confederate Niter and Mining Corps.
St. John was “indefatigable,” according to Secretary of War George Randolph, and “We may expect at no distant day that the active and methodical operations of the Niter Corps will supply our demand and make us independent of foreign importation.
Behind the scenes, further measures were taken to ensure the supply of gunpowder. Military officers were granted wide authority to impress niter caves anywhere within their districts and assign guards to monitor their operations. Hundreds of caves throughout the Appalachian South also were worked by private citizens attempting to earn extra income.
As labor became scarcer and most able-bodied men were in the army, soldiers were detailed to work the mines along with slaves and free blacks. Even federal deserters frequently were given the option to work for pay in the niter mines rather than go to POW camps. The Confederate Congress again passed legislation that compensated small, private niter producers.
Despite these early measures, the Confederate war effort in 1862 relied primarily on imported gunpowder that made it through the Union blockade. Of the more than 3,000 tons of saltpeter acquired for military purposes, just one-third was produced domestically.
St. John, however, was a creative administrator and an energetic organizer who foresaw the consequences of relying too heavily on foreign supplies. Under his tenure, which lasted until the final months of the war, more than 8,000 tons of gunpowder was produced domestically.
When Robert E. Lee surrendered in April 1865, enough gunpowder was on hand to continue the war for quite some time (some say as long as a year).
A large part of the domestic production was carried out at the Confederate powder works in Augusta, Ga., a sprawling complex built from scratch that represented the Confederacy’s largest single industrial project of the war. The facility in Augusta remained in operation, uninterrupted, for the duration of the conflict.
Union authorities did not fully recognize or appreciate how innovative and determined Confederate efforts were to mine niter and produce gunpowder. They did, however, recognize the importance of regular salt production, necessary for dietary needs and the preservation of food. No army could subsist long in the field without vast quantities of salt.
Union naval forces attacked shoreline production facilities in surprise raids at places such as Darien, Ga.; Back Bay, Va.; and Bear Inlet, N.C. Union cavalry and combined forces attacked other major saltworks in Florida, Alabama, and in perhaps the most famous raid of the war, an attack by Gen. George Stoneman on Saltville, Va.
These operations often engaged in the sabotage, interruption or destruction of Rebel niter production facilities that were encountered. Dozens of Confederate POWs buried in Northern cemeteries are recorded as “captured on niter duty” or similarly noted.
The fact remained, however, that niter production was spread out in hundreds of small operations and was underappreciated by Union authorities who were designing a broad strategy to cripple Southern industry.
The Union did, however, recognize the importance of railroads to all Southern industry and military operations and focused a great deal of energy on destroying and disrupting service. Some historians have even called Union leaders “obsessed” with destroying railroads to the exclusion of more important targets.
A little-known fact is that the 9,000 miles of track in the Confederacy were more than could be found in any other country in the world, though the North had nearly three times as much.
In St. John’s October 1864 report to the secretary of war, he noted, “Important niter works in Virginia, Georgia, and Upper Alabama have been repeatedly destroyed and workmen killed and captured.” Nevertheless, he added, “The home production of niter has progressed more favorably than was expected.”
St. John went on to recount how laboratory analysis of various accumulations of niter was conducted to ensure quality control, tell how artificial niter beds were established and farmed, and report on plans to visit European niter works and compare production techniques. He even outlined future exploration projects for the purposes of exploiting the South’s untapped mineral wealth.
Josiah Gorgas, Confederate chief of ordnance, joined the praise for St. John’s efforts: “The mechanical means of the Bureau for the production [of gunpowder] are ample for a war conducted on any scale.”
The war was not lost for the lack of niter. Indeed, the frequent Union raids on Confederate works of all types (lead, coal, salt, niter, etc.) seem not to have been a key factor in the ultimate outcome of the war.
Even after Stoneman’s devastating raid in late 1864, several of the key lead and salt mines his forces “destroyed” were back in operation several months later. Even the long bridge at the New River crossing of the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad was repaired within five weeks, demonstrating a tenacity and ingenuity on the part of the Confederates that continually confounded Union efforts to sabotage their infrastructure.
What Union authorities never fully grasped was the decentralized nature of Confederate niter production. Though the capture of the gunpowder complex in Augusta, Ga., might have altered the path of the war, the capture of dozens of small niter operations still left hundreds of them in operation at other locations.
Confederate leaders such as St. John understood this and also set up regional supply systems that attempted to produce as many resources as possible near the major armies in the field. This eased the load on an already overburdened railroad system.
In the case of the Army of Northern Virginia, Lee’s quartermasters and supply officers also benefited from the fact that two-thirds of the immediately available mineral resources of the Confederacy were in Virginia.
Near the end of the war, as soldiers in the Army of Northern Virginia around Petersburg ate shoe leather and parched corn while tons of food rotted in Lynchburg warehouses, St. John’s organizational talents came to the attention of Lee and Jefferson Davis. St. John was named commissary general, replacing an ineffective Lucius M. Northrop.
St. John’s ingenuity and energy were applied too late to make a difference in this capacity, as the war ended shortly thereafter. However, St. John and others clearly won the war of supplying niter to the Confederate gunpowder industry.
Even as Lee met with Ulysses S. Grant to discuss surrender terms, trains continued to pull out of the Augusta powder works and other smaller factories around the South to supply the hungry maw of war.
Jack Trammell teaches at Randolph-Macon College and Virginia Commonwealth University. His Civil War novel, “Gray,” is available through most retail outlets. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.