Friday, April 29, 2016

The History of Saltpeter - XI

In today's post, we will look at a rather important place in the history of firearms, the region that is now the modern day country of India. What, you say? Well, the importance of India in the gunpowder trade cannot be understated, because for a few centuries, they were the source of about 80-85% of the entire world's saltpeter production. As we have seen in previous posts, no saltpeter = no gunpowder.

Back in the middle ages, the country we know today as India, was divided into several kingdoms, each with their own rulers. The knowledge of saltpeter in India seems to have been known well before the middle ages, as it is mentioned in ancient Indian texts as being used by textile makers and metallurgists. After its explosive properties were discovered in China, the technology of making fireworks came down to India around the mid-thirteenth century. As we have seen before, saltpeter can be obtained from both natural sources and artificial methods (like nitre beds). In China, most of the production of saltpeter was from nitre beds, and since the science was not fully understood, it was usually weaker than natural saltpeter. This is why China used gunpowder mainly for incendiary rockets and fireworks. In contrast, saltpeter in India was produced from mainly natural sources and was of higher quality, which enabled production of gunpowder with more ballistic strength and led to the development of rockets as well as large siege guns. Therefore, by the fifteenth century, many Indian rulers began to acquire artillery and needed saltpeter for these.

Two separate books written by court scholars from the kingdoms of Bengal and Jaunpur in Eastern India describe saltpeter production in great detail and make it clear that by 1460 AD, these two kingdoms had already developed organized saltpeter production, managed by prominent merchants who were granted monopolies by the rulers. The books describe in great detail about investment of capital, division of labor, specialists for different tasks and state control of saltpeter production. It is significant that this same region later developed into one of the top saltpeter-producing regions of India.

A map of India from the 1800s. Click on the image to enlarge. Public domain image.

The above is a map of India from the 1800s, showing various kingdoms. The areas circled in red are some of the regions that were engaged in commercial production of saltpeter and the areas circled in green are the main areas from where it was exported to the world.

We will start off by looking at the regions that produced saltpeter first (i.e. the areas marked in red). First off, we have the region in the north-eastern part, marked in the map above as Bahar and Bengal (now, the modern day states of Bihar and Bengal in India), which was one of the major areas of production of saltpeter. This is the region mentioned by the court writers above, where the kingdoms had organized saltpeter production on a commercial scale by 1460 AD. People from this area were later recruited to other kingdoms because of their knowledge and expertise in gunpowder production. In particular, the kingdom of Malwa in central India recruited many of these experts and established their own center of saltpeter production. In northern India, the area of Punjab (marked on the map as the kingdoms of Lahore and Moultan) and Delhi (marked on the map as Delhi and Agra) were both centers of saltpeter production. In Punjab, the main centers were Lahore and Multan (marked as Moultan on the map) and in the Delhi area, the main centers were Agra and Hissar.

Down in the southern part of India, the regions around the modern day states of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Telengana (seen in the map as Carnatic, Golconda and Mysore) were known for saltpeter production, in particular, the towns of Coimbatore, Anantapur, Kurnool and Guntur (the first two towns are marked on the map).

Meanwhile, over in Europe, during the fifteenth century, the Age of Exploration had started and the pioneers behind it were the kingdoms of Portugal and Spain (then divided into the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon). Before then, from the 8th to the 15th century, the various Italian kingdoms, such as the Republic of Venice, Genoa, Pisa etc. had a monopoly on trade between Europe and Asia, via the Arabs. In the early part of the 15th century, Prince Henry the Navigator of Portugal decided to explore the west coast of Africa. Development of new types of ships (carracks and caravels) made it possible to sail into the open Atlantic ocean, which was much rougher than the calm waters of the Mediterranean sea. Due to travelers like Marco Polo and Pedro da Covilha, accounts of the riches of China and India became known to Europeans. Prince Henry the Navigator had already explored enough of the African coast beyond the Sahara desert that he could bypass the Arab and Berber traders and trade with the African kingdoms directly. The next prize was to establish a sea-route to the fabled country of India, and both the Portuguese and the Spaniards were trying to discover how to do so. The Portuguese concentrated on finding a route by sailing south around the tip of Africa and then sailing north and eastwards towards what they hoped was India. Meanwhile, a navigator from the Italian republic of Genoa, named Christopher Columbus, hoped to find a westward route to India and sailed in that direction, on behalf of Spain in 1492 AD. We all know what Christopher Columbus accidentally discovered instead :-). When he got back to Europe, a minor squabble started between Spain and Portugal, which was settled by Pope Alexander VI in 1494 with the Treaty of Tordesillas, which stated that all lands west of a meridian past Cape Verde islands could be claimed by Spain and all lands east of this line could be claimed by Portugal (of course, the opinion of the people already living on these lands wasn't considered!). The Portuguese liked this deal because this gave them claim to Africa, Asia and part of South America (Brazil), whereas the Spanish were given control of mostly unknown territory. Of course, the other non-catholic kingdoms in Europe, such as England, Holland, Denmark etc., paid little attention to the Pope's orders and got into the exploration game afterwards. Meanwhile, in 1498, a Portuguese expedition under Admiral Vasco da Gama, successfully rounded the coast of Africa and reached the fabled land of India, landing at the town of Calicut (circled in green in the south-western coast of India). The discovery of a viable sea route led to yearly fleets of ships leaving from Portugal to India and the Portuguese soon established trading posts in the southern coast of India, at Cochin, Goa, Calicut, San Thome (now a suburb of Madras city) and Pulicat and the town of Chittagong (now in Bangladesh) on India's eastern coast. Initially, the Portuguese only traded in cotton, spices, pepper etc. and saltpeter purchases were only made by soldiers buying their own supplies from dealers. However, by 1510, the Portuguese had established a powder mill in Goa (marked in green on the map, towards the west coast of India) and were exporting gunpowder and saltpeter from Goa and Surat, back to Portugal. Soon after, they also established trading treaties with kingdoms on India's south-eastern coast and were also exporting from San Thome (a suburb of Madras city, circled in the map in green) and Pulicat (also marked on the map) and the volume of trade increased as the years went by. There is a letter from 1605, from the King of Spain to the Portuguese viceroy of Goa (on the south-west coast of India), directing him to send an order of 12 casks of saltpeter.

Soon enough, other European kingdoms saw how rich the Portuguese were getting from their Asian imports and decided that they needed to set up trading posts in Asia too. Despite the Pope's orders that only Spain and Portugal were authorized to claim lands around the world, the mainly non-catholic countries, such as England. the Netherlands, Denmark and France openly defied his orders and decided to develop their own businesses.

The first was the English East India Company (EIC), also called the Honorable East India Company, formed on 31st December 1600 and the first ship left England in 1601 (Fans of the Pirates of the Caribbean movie series might have seen this company mentioned more than a few times in the movies, but it is not a fictional company, it actually existed and grew to become the largest company in the world, at one point, controlling over 50% of the world's trade by itself). In 1602, the Dutch established their Dutch East India company (VOC - Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie), which was the world's first multinational corporation and the first company in the world to issue stock. These two companies started establishing bases all over Asia. In India, the Dutch captured the trading post of Pulicat from the Portuguese in 1609, while the English East India Company established trading posts in Surat (1619), Madras (1639), Bombay (1668, acquired by England from the Portuguese as part of the dowry of Catherine de Braganza, when she married King Charles II) and Calcutta (established 1690).

The Dutch VOC company started exporting saltpeter from India (from Pulicat town) as ship ballast in 1617 and the English learned this from them and started doing so in 1627. Correspondence between East India Company Headquarters in London and their trading outposts in India are quite revealing on the growth of the saltpeter trade. For instance, in December 1630, two ships, the Discovery and the Reformation, traveling from Surat to London, carried 597 bales of saltpeter instead of rocks for ballast, along with their regular cargo of pepper, cotton, indigo, calico cloth etc. In 1638, the Company asked captains to prefer loading sugar, preserved ginger, cinnamon etc. on the grounds that 'saltpeter is ... troublesome to bring home, as it infects and spoils other goods.' The agents in Surat responded that while saltpeter was certainly 'a bad neighbor to better goods', a sprinkling of pepper 'praeventeth all praejudice'. A letter to the Company headquarters in 1639 even suggests to not import as much saltpeter on the ship, so as to keep the demand up and 'increase its value in England'. By 1643, with the English Civil War in full swing, English saltpeter men and European sources could not meet the demand for saltpeter and the East India Company started refining their own saltpeter in Surat and Ahmedabad, before shipping it out. The English began to receive reports of the availability of high quality saltpeter available from the north-east region of India, in Bengal and Bihar. However, the Portuguese were already established in that area since the 1530s (in Chittagong) and so were the Dutch. Soon after, the English started to concentrate their efforts in Bengal as well, later edging out both the Portuguese and Dutch from this area (we will study how that happened in our next post).

Seeing the success of the Portuguese, Dutch and English companies, other European countries also tried to get in to the action and established their own (often short-lived) East India Companies. The Danes founded the Danish East India Company in 1616 and built Fort Danesborg in Tranquebar, south of Madras (marked in green in the map), the Prussians established the Prussian East India Company (1752), the Swedish had the Swedish East India Company (1731) and the French formed the French East India Company (1664). The French were slightly more successful than the others in the beginning, until the English seized control over most of India and pushed them out. Nevertheless, the French still kept trading posts in Pondicherry (south-east India) and Chandernagore (eastern India near Calcutta) until the 1950s, but they couldn't get much saltpeter out of India, because of English interference.

In the next post, we will look at how the English managed to edge out all the other competitors and gain a monopoly on Indian saltpeter production. We will also examine how saltpeter was produced in India in some detail.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The History of Saltpeter - X

In our last post, we looked at how saltpeter was obtained in England during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. During her reign, England built up their stocks of saltpeter and gunpowder, and her successor, King James I, didn't need that much. Incidentally, this is the same ruler that authorized an official translation of the Bible into English, that we know today as the King James Version of the Bible.

James I of England. Click on the image to enlarge.

During the early part of his reign, he attempted to curb the excesses of the saltpeter men and reduce their powers. However, in 1618, the Thirty Years War started in continental Europe, and the need for saltpeter extraction came back into focus, and the saltpeter men were back in business. However, one more significant development started during the reign of King James I. His predecessor, Queen Elizabeth, issued a royal charter authorizing the creation of the Honourable East India Company on December 31st, 1600 AD. Initially authorized to trade in cotton, spices, silk, indigo etc., the company also began to import small quantities of Indian saltpeter during James's reign. By the time of the reign of King Charles I, the imports of Indian saltpeter were still small and England was deriving most of its supplies from local saltpeter men or importing from Europe. During King Charles I's reign, England was obtaining about 280 tons of saltpeter a year in the 1630s, but when the English Civil War broke out in the 1640s, the demand for saltpeter rose again and the English saltpeter men and other European producers could not meet their needs. The East India Company saw an opportunity and stepped up the quantity of their saltpeter imports from India. By the time of the Restoration in the 1660s, when King Charles II became the king of England, the East India Company were shipping over 1000 tons of saltpeter annually from India and the need for saltpeter men in England went away soon afterwards, giving the East India Company a virtual monopoly.

The East India Company found the trade in saltpeter very profitable for them. While they imported other goods to England, the mark-up on cotton textiles was seldom more than 200%, whereas they could easily mark-up saltpeter to well over 400% and still find willing buyers. Not only that, since saltpeter is a chemical, it isn't a perishable item unlike their other imports (tea, pepper, spices, indigo etc.) and can withstand rough handling. They used it as ballast on their ships and simply emptied their holds upon returning to England. Saltpeter also repels insects and bacteria, so it also helped preserve the hulls of their wooden ships.

It might be interesting to note that by the time the East India Company (and other European countries) first started trading in India around 1600 AD, saltpeter manufacturing was already a well-established industry in different parts of India for at least 150 years or so and they were the largest manufacturers of saltpeter in the world until the importance of black powder began to decline in the late 1800s. The saltpeter produced in India was not only of better quality, it was also cheaper than anywhere else in the world and was produced in huge quantities as well. The British held a monopoly on Indian saltpeter and were very happy to supply their allies (Sweden, Portugal, Spain etc.) with it, but kept it out of the hands of their enemies. This is why the French were forced to develop saltpeter plantations, because they couldn't access Indian saltpeter the way that the British could. By the time of the battle of Waterloo in 1815, the East India company had exported 7300 tons of saltpeter that year alone. During the US Civil War, both the North and the South were supplied with Indian saltpeter from England. The following quote is by C. H. Davis of the Bureau of Ordnance, US Navy from November 22nd, 1862 in a report to the US Congress:
I feel it, therefore, to be my first duty to urge that suitable provision of ordnance material be made for probable future necessities of the Navy. Most important among them is nitre, which enters so largely into the composition of gunpowder that it may be said to be gunpowder itself, with some slight additions of sulphur and charcoal under proper combination.
It is not produced naturally in this country, nor by any other but India, except in insignificant quantities.
Hindostan (India) alone supplies the whole world, which being a British dependency, places us entirely at the mercy or caprice of that power for our stock of this essential article.
Therefore, a study of the history of saltpeter production in India will be the subject of the next few posts in this series.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The History of Saltpeter - IX

In our previous post, we looked into some early history of saltpeter and gunpowder in England, until the reign of Henry VIII. We will now study some further developments under his daughter, Queen Elizabeth I.

Queen Elizabeth I of England. Click on the image to enlarge. Public domain image.

Elizabeth was the daughter of King Henry VIII, but she was not the immediate ruler after his death in 1547. Instead, Edward VI, her half-brother, became king for a few years (1547-1553), followed by his cousin, Lady Jane Grey (only 19 days in July 1553) and then, her half-sister, Queen Mary I (1553-1558). After Elizabeth deposed her half-sister Mary and became Queen Elizabeth I in 1558, her new secretary of state was Sir William Cecil, who had also served in the same role earlier for her half-brother Edward VI in 1550. This is the same William Cecil who was mentioned in our last post, who later became Baron Burghley.

At this time, England was still mostly importing saltpeter and gunpowder from other places in Europe, and during the first few weeks of Elizabeth's reign, the amounts of saltpeter and gunpowder available in England were greatly reduced. Fearing that other powerful European rulers (such as the French king, the Spanish king, the Portuguese king, the Hapsburg dynasty etc.) could attempt to invade England soon, William Cecil started working with Elizabeth's Council of ministers to build up England's stocks of gunpowder and saltpeter on an urgent basis.

To do this, they went to dealers of saltpeter in Europe. The problem was that the same people who sold saltpeter to the British, were also selling it to the other European rulers (the French king, the Spanish king, the Hapsburgs etc.) as well. Therefore, William Cecil advertised that England was willing to pay higher prices for saltpeter and gunpowder than anyone else, and was perfectly happy to encourage smugglers to supply them. Of course, there was the danger of the supplies being intercepted by the other countries, so he contacted as many dealers as possible, to ensure that there would be multiple sources. Pretty soon, Italian, Flemish, Dutch and English merchants were all supplying England. Cecil sent his agent, Sir Thomas Gresham, to Flanders, Germany and Netherlands, to talk to dealers in those regions and buy everything that they had. By 1660, Sir Thomas Gresham had obtained over 200 tons of saltpeter, enough to take care of England's needs for at least two years, but the quest for more saltpeter did not end there. Gresham's people went to Hungary, Bohemia, Russia and Denmark to get more supplies. England even traded as far south as Morocco and the Persian empire, exchanging timber and iron cannon balls for saltpeter. Of course, much of this had to happen in secret, so that the other rulers would not know how much gunpowder England had. Sir Thomas Gresham prophetically wrote to the Queen in 1563, that '£20,000 of saltpeter would be more useful to her than £100,000 in gold'.

At the same time, England also tried to jumpstart their own local production of saltpeter, reasoning that this would reduce their reliance on foreign suppliers and hostile countries stopping ships from reaching England. They also argued that local manufacturing would be cheaper and of better quality, as well as creating local jobs. William Cecil was already aware, through his agents, that some German states had developed techniques to produce saltpeter plantations, and he sought to import this knowledge to England. At the same time he was setting up to import supplies from an Italian merchant in 1561, he also found a German engineer, Gerard Honrick (or Hoenrich), who was willing to transfer the technology for £300. Honrick talked about his method of mixing earth with urine, horse dung and lime and then refining and crystallizing it to produce saltpeter. We already discussed his methods some time earlier, so we will not repeat those details here again.  Honrick envisioned a system where vast nitre beds would be set up to supply centrally located factories to refine and extract saltpeter. However, two months later, he was complaining that England hadn't paid him for his transfer of knowledge.

Instead, the British government granted an exclusive 10 year license to a pair of British merchants, Cockeram and Barnes, to supply them with saltpeter from England. As part of the license, they were granted the power to dig anywhere they like. Of course, instead of working on any sort of saltpeter plantation technology, Cockeram and Barnes were quite content to dig in other people's lands, just like the saltpeter men of old. While there were many attempts made to develop saltpeter plantations, the majority of England's supply simply came from saltpeter men searching around England and digging up other people's property. Other experts, such as Leonard Engelbreght of Aachen and the Flemish merchant, Cornelius Stephinson, attempted to set up saltpeter beds in England at different times, but most of these efforts proved unsuccessful. Instead, England became more reliant on saltpeter men searching through various places in England to find natural supplies and licenses to dig were granted to more people. It is interesting to note that when the Spanish Armada tried to invade England in 1588, the British ships never had a shortage of gunpowder during the sea battle. By the end of Queen Elizabeth's reign, about 50% of England's saltpeter supply was from domestic sources, largely using a network of saltpeter men throughout the country. While these saltpeter men were hated by the average citizens, their complaints were ignored, on the grounds of national security. It was left to Queen Elizabeth's successors to figure out how to obtain saltpeter without angering the citizens. We will study how they managed to do this in the next post, when we study the rise of the British East India Company.

Friday, April 8, 2016

The History of Saltpeter - VIII

In today's post, we will cross the Atlantic and take a look at the history of saltpeter and gunpowder trade in England.

We know that gunpowder was most certainly known in Europe by the middle of the 13th century, brought to the west by the Mongols. The English monk, Roger Bacon, references gunpowder in his book published in 1267 AD and he witnessed at least one demonstration of Chinese firecrackers, probably brought by his friend, William of Rubruck, who had traveled to the Mongol empire. He even mentions it as a mixture of saltpeter, sulfur and charcoal. However, it was about 70 years since then that it was used for warfare in England. The European use of gunpowder in warfare really started with the Italians and Spaniards (via Arabs and the Mongol empire) and slowly spread north to France and England.

The first time that gunpowder weapons were used in war in England was a French raid into the port town of Southampton in 1338. A fleet of French, Italian and Spanish sailors attacked the town and one of the weapons they brought was a ribauldequin, a multi-barrel cannon weapon.

Drawing of two ribauldequins designed by Leonardo da Vinci. Click on the image to enlarge. Public domain image.

It is recorded that the very next year (1339), Edward III of England obtained his own ribauldequins and used them against the French. They were also used by Edward III during the Battle of Crecy in 1346. While the battle is famous for the longbow becoming the dominant weapon in Europe for the next few decades, ribauldquins were used as well (though they didn't inflict many casualties at Crecy) and archaeologists are still finding cannon balls on the battlefield centuries later. Of course, it must be noted that at this time, England wasn't really manufacturing their own gunpowder, and they were largely buying supplies from Italians and Flemish merchants.

During the War of the Roses in England, the battle of Bosworth in Leicestershire in 1485 AD saw both sides use gunpowder weapons. Henry VII, who won the battle, understood the value of firepower and brought in many foreigners who knew how to make gunpowder. While England made some saltpeter locally at this time, it was not enough to meet the needs of warfare. It is recorded that Henry VII authorized one James Hede in 1492 (the same year Columbus discovered America!), to make saltpeter for the Royal Armory. Another document from 1501 mentions a Wyvard Godfrey as one of the king's makers of saltpeter. However, at this time, England's local production was not really that much at all.

Henry VII's son, Henry VIII, developed England's firepower even more, buying practically every cannon he could lay his hands upon.  His gunpowder supplies and supplies of raw saltpeter and sulfur came mainly from the Italian and the Baltic states (Hanseatic League). We have records of some of his suppliers: In November 1512, a Spanish merchant named Francis de Errona delivered 2906 pounds of raw saltpeter and 707 pounds of gunpowder, at the price of 4 pence per pound. It is recorded that Henry VIII went to war in France in 1513, carrying about 510 tons of gunpowder and his siege cannon used about 32 tons per day. Naturally, since he didn't have his own sources of saltpeter, he had to buy it from Southern Europe and the price of his supplies went up. In April 1514, a merchant named Leonardo Friscobaldi provided about 20 tons of saltpeter for a price of 6 pence per pound. The Cavalcanti family (especially Thomas and John Cavalcanti) from Florence, Italy, are also recorded as suppliers of saltpeter and gunpowder. Other suppliers include the Hanseatic merchants, Hans van Colen (also known as Hans Wolf) and Edmond Frende, as well as the Italians, Benedict Morovelli, Anthony of Naples and Frances de Bara. Soon after this, Henry VIII realized that it would be preferable for him to have his own source of saltpeter, otherwise his supplies could be disrupted by the French. Not only that, he and the French were buying their supplies from the same merchants, so they were often in competition with each other and the other European states as well! Therefore, he ordered the above mentioned German, Hans van Colen (alias Hans Wolf), 'to go from shire to shire to find a place where there is stuff to make saltpeter of'. As part of this order, he granted him permission to dig wherever he wished, as long as they compensated the owner accordingly. This was the rise of the saltpeter men in England.

For about 30 years, the saltpeter production in England was by saltpeter men extracting it from natural sources (this type of saltpeter was called rock saltpeter). Then, in 1545, a German engineer named Stefan von Haschenperg told Henry VIII that he knew of a way to make saltpeter in one place, without going across the country to search for it. The technology for saltpeter plantations (nitre beds) was known to the various German states, but unknown in England at that time. Not much is known about von Haschenperg's experiments in England though, and if there was any success, it was on a very small scale, because Henry was still buying a lot of his supplies from Antwerp, Bremen, Hamburg and Lubeck. His next two successors, Edward VI and Mary Tudor, also bought their saltpeter and gunpowder from Antwerp (which was then under the control of the Spanish). In 1551, a spy working for the English secretary of state, William Cecil (later known as Baron Burleigh or Baron Burghley), informed him that several German states had developed techniques to produce their own saltpeter locally and they had plenty of supplies of it.

In our next post, we will study the rise of saltpeter production under Queen Elizabeth I.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The History of Saltpeter - VII

In our last post, we looked at how instructions by Professor Joseph LeConte enabled the Confederate States of America to obtain saltpeter. However, that was not the only way that they obtained their saltpeter. We will look at a couple of other methods in today's post.

The Confederate States of America had formed the Nitre and Mining Bureau during the Civil War, to help with production of war materials such as saltpeter, sulfur, iron, lead, copper etc. Along with distributing instructions to farmers on producing saltpeter in their farms, they also tried to obtain it in other ways.

The first way was by mining in caves. Caves that contain a large population of bats, naturally have bat dung collecting on the floor for centuries. If the floor of the cave is made of limestone, this means that the ground will be slightly alkaline. Coupled with the facts that the temperature and humidity of caves tends to stay consistent and caves also provide shelter from sun and rain means they provide pretty good conditions for the growth of certain types of bacteria that decompose organic dung into saltpeter.

One of these caves was Lookout Mountain Cave near  Chattanooga, Tennessee. The owner of this cave was one Robert Cravens, who contracted to supply the Tennessee Military and Financial Board with 20,000 pounds of saltpeter in 1861 and later handed it over to the Nitre and Mining Bureau in 1862.

Another cave was Nickajack Cave, which is located in Marion County, Tennessee, just west of Chattanooga. This cave was first mined for saltpeter by Colonel James Orr in 1800. At this time, the land was owned by the Cherokee tribe and mining was done with their permission. Saltpeter from this mine was used by US forces during the War of 1812. By the time of the US Civil War, the mining operation on this cave was also run by the above mentioned Robert Cravens, and he later on handed over the saltpeter mining operation to the Nitre and Mining Bureau as well.

Another cave that is located in Eastern Tennessee is Worley's Cave (which is also known as Morrell's Cave or Morrill's Cave). This cave was originally on the property of one Elias S. Worley. Later on, a local resident named John Morril led many explorations of the cave during the early 1900s, which led to different variations of the spelling, Worley's Cave, Morrell's Cave, Morril Cave, Morril's Cave etc. The US Board on Geographical Names settled on officially calling it Morrell's Cave in 1980, but several locals refer to it by the original name, Worley's Cave. This was a very important source of saltpeter during the Civil War.

Organ Cave in Greenbrier County, West Virginia, was also known for its niter. General Robert E. Lee's men mined this cave. The soil is rich in calcium nitrate, which was then converted to potassium nitrate by combining with wood ash.

One of the major areas for armaments production in the south was Selma, Alabama. There was a large iron works and foundry in Selma, it was somewhat centrally located and also had good railroad connections. There was an army arsenal, a shipyard and factories to produce gunpowder here. Several Confederate rifles, cannon and ironclad warships were produced here. While there were niter beds in and around Selma, these were not enough to meet confederate needs, therefore, more niter beds were needed and for this, more raw materials (i.e. dung and urine) were needed. Enter a lawyer named Jonathan Haralson.

Jonathan Haralson

Jonathan Haralson was the son of Colonel William Browing Haralson and his wife, Temperance Martin Haralson, who were rich farmers. He went to the University of Alabama and became a lawyer in the early 1850s, settling in Selma, where he also was active in the local Church. During the Civil War, he became an agent for the Nitre and Mining Bureau in the Selma area. As saltpeter could not be procured in enough quantities from caves, he ran the following ad in a local newspaper called the Selma Sentinel on October 1st 1863:

"The ladies of Selma are respectfully requested to preserve all their chamber lye collected about their premises for the purpose of making Nitre. Wagons with barrels will be sent around to gather up the lotion"
(signed) Jon Haralson
Agent, Nitre and Mining Bureau

What he was suggesting was for the Southern women to collect and contribute their urine to the war effort. On seeing the wagons making their daily rounds through the streets of Selma, a local resident, one Thomas B. Wetmore, was inspired to write a poem, which became a somewhat popular song of that era, sung to the tune of "O Christmas Tree" (or "O Tannenbaum" for German speakers):

John Haralson! John Haralson!
You are a funny creature;
You've given to this cruel war
A new and curious feature.
You'd have us think, while every man
Is born to be a fighter,
The women, bless the pretty dears
Should save their pee for nitre.

John Haralson! John Haralson!
Where did you get the notion
To send barrels around our street
To fill them with that lotion?
We thought the girls work enough
With making shirts and kissing:
But you put the lovely dears
To patriotic pissing.

John Haralson! John Haralson!
Pray do invent neater
And a somewhat less immodest way
Of making your saltpetre.
Indeed, the thing is so very odd,
Gunpowder like and cranky,
That when a woman lifts her skirt
She shoots another Yankee!"

The reader can click the above link to hear a rendition of this song (though the above rendition contains one stanza that actually came later: read on for details)

Of course, Jonathan Harrolson wasn't going to let Thomas Wetmore get away with his poem, so he composed a reply in return (What? You thought only modern-day rappers have beefs with each other? This stuff has been happening for centuries.)

The women, bless their dear souls,              
And everyone for war                            
To 'soldier boys' they'll give them shoes,              
Their stockings by the score                     
They'll give their jewels all away,              
Their petticoats to boot                            
They'll have saltpetre, or they'll shout,                     
In earnest phrase--'Wet more'!                     

The women, were it not for them
Our country would be lost;
They charm the world, they nerve our hearts
To fight at every cost.
What care they how our powder's made?
They'll have it, or they'll bore
Through mines or beds in stables laid,
And, straining, cry 'Wet more'!

Women, yes they stoop to conquer
And keep their virtue pure;
It is no harm to kill a beast
With chamber lye I'm sure.
But powder we are bound to have,
And this they've sworn before;
And if the needful thing is scarce,
They'll 'press' it and 'Wet more'!

Soon after this, a widow from the Union side, living in Boston, decided to stir the pot even more and composed her own poem:

Jon Haralson!Jon Haralson!       
We read in song and story                            
That women's in all these years,                     
Have sprinkled fields of glory;              
But never was it told before                     
That how, midst scenes of slaughter                     
Your Southern beauties dried their tears              
And went to making water.                            

No wonder, Jon, your boys were brave
Who would not be a fighter
If every time he shot his gun
He used his sweetheart's nitre?
And, vice verse what could make
A Yankee soldier sadder
Than dodging bullets fired from
A pretty woman's bladder.

They say there was a subtle smell
That lingered in the powder;
And as the smoke grew thicker,
And the din of battle grew louder
That there was found in this compound
This serious objection;
The soldiers could not sniff it in
Without a stiff erection.

After the Civil war ended, Jonathan Haralson was elected as a judge in the Alabama Supreme Court, where he served for several years. Incidentally, a former slave owned by him, Jeremiah Haralson, who was freed in 1865, went on to become the first African-American member in the Alabama House of Representatives in 1870 and the third African-American Congressman in America in 1875. Judge Jonathan Haralson threw in his support for Congressman Jeremian Haralson, to ensure that he would be welcomed into the House of Representatives, and the congressman in turn, sought a general amnesty for former Confederates (who were temporarily barred from office), to help create harmony between blacks and whites, in an act of reconciliation after the war.

In our next few posts, we will study some of the developments of saltpeter mining in England and India.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The History of Saltpeter - VI

In our last post, we studied the early history of saltpeter and gunpowder manufacturing in the United States. Where we last left off was where Du Pont started his plant in Brandywine Creek, Delaware, followed by other manufacturers, notably Hazard Powder Company, Oriental Powder Company and Laflin Powder Company. These companies were all located in the northern parts of the US.

Then, when the Civil war started, most of the factories were on the Union side. The Confederate forces found that they were woefully short of war materials: they had only a couple of small arsenals, one large iron manufacturer and few ships in its navy. In order to build up needed materials, they formed the Nitre and Mining Bureau, which was in charge of obtaining materials such as copper, iron, lead, sulfur, saltpeter etc. In fact, they are best known for their saltpeter production efforts.

The Confederate States Secretary of War gave the following order on April 15th 1862: "Military commanders are directed and officers of the Niter Bureau are authorized to seize niter in the hands of private individuals who either decline to sell it or ask more than 50 cents per pound for it.... All quartermasters are directed to give precedence in transportation to niter over all other Government stores."

Some caves in the south had limestone floors and cave dirt from these were rich in saltpeter deposits from bats and other cave dwellers, Caves in Selma, Alabama and Sullivan County and Marion County, Tennessee were exploited for saltpeter, but it wasn't enough to meet demand. Therefore, the confederates turned to Joseph LeConte, a professor of chemistry and geology at South Carolina College in Columbia, South Carolina, to teach them how to make saltpeter from niter beds.

Professor Joseph LeConte. Click on the image to enlarge. Public domain image.

Professor LeConte published a pamphlet to be used by farmers to produce saltpeter in their plantations. He does acknowledge that this is a slow process, even saying in the bottom of his pamphlet: "It will be seen that under the most favorable circumstances saltpetre cannot be made in any considerable quantity in less than six or eight months, and that if we commence now the preliminary process of preparing black earth, so as to insure a sufficient and permanent supply, results cannot be expected under eighteen months or two years. Let no one be discouraged by this fact, under the idea that the war may not last so long, and all their work may be thrown away. There is every prospect now of the war continuing at least several years, and of our being thrown entirely on our own resources for war materials. Besides, even if the war should be discontinued, the work is by no means lost. The method of preparing and making saltpetre-beds is precisely the most approved method of making the best manure, and all the labor and pains necessary for the preparation of black earth, and the construction of saltpetre-beds, and which I hope to induce my fellow-countrymen to undertake under the noble impulse of patriotism, ought to be annually undertaken by every planter, under the lower impulse of a wise self-interest, and would be amply rewarded in the increased production of field crops."

Click on the image to enlarge.

He starts off by explaining how saltpeter is formed in nature:
The general conditions necessary to the formation of saltpetre are: 1st, the presence of decaying organic matter, animal or vegetable, especially the former; 2nd, an alkaline or earthy base, as potash or lime; 3rd, sufficient moisture; 4th, free exposure to the oxygen of the air; and 5th, shelter from sun and rain.
        These conditions are often found in nature, as in the soil of all caves, but particularly those in limestone countries; and still more frequently under a concurrence of circumstances which, though not strictly natural, is at least accidental, so far as the formation of nitre is concerned, as in cellars, stables, manure-heaps, &c. In crowded cities, with narrow, dirty streets and lanes, the decomposing organic matter with which the soil is impregnated becomes gradually nitrified, oozes through, and dries on the walls and floor of the cellars, as a whitish crust, easily detectible as saltpetre by the taste. The same salt may be found in the soil beneath stables of several years' standing, particularly if lime or ashes have been used to hasten the decomposition of the manure; also in the earth of sheep and cattle pens, if these have remained several years in the same position; also in the soil beneath manure-heaps, particularly if lime or ashes have been added to them, as is common among farmers in making compost. It is very important, then, that the soil of such caves, cellars, stables, pens and manure-heaps, as described above, should be tested for saltpetre. If the salt exists in considerable quantities, it may be detected by the taste; if not, a small quantity of the earth may be leached, and the ley boiled down to dryness, and then tested by the taste. If there be still any doubt, any chemist or educated physician may test it. If the earth contains saltpetre in sufficient quantities, it must be leached, and the salt crystallized, by methods which we have described below.
He then goes on to say that natural sources are not sufficient for the demands of war and therefore goes on to describe how to make it using niter beds:
By these means, if diligently used in all parts of the State, it is hoped that an immediate and not inconsiderable amount of saltpetre may be obtained. It is not believed, however, that the supply thus obtained will be sufficient for the exigencies of the war. It is very important, therefore, that steps should be taken to insure a sufficient and permanent supply of this invaluable article. This can only be done by means of nitre-beds. I proceed, then, to give a very brief account of the method of making these.
The rest of his instructions are reproduced below. He gives a few methods of preparing niter beds from various European sources: the French method, Prussian method, Swedish method and Swiss method. The spelling is reproduced exactly as in his document (which is why spellings like "nitre" instead of "nitre", "mould" instead of "mold" etc. show up in the notes below)


The most important prerequisite in the construction of nitre-beds in such manner as to yield nitre in the shortest possible time, is a good supply of thoroughly rotted manure of the richest kind, in the condition usually called mould, or black earth. It is believed that in every vicinity a considerable supply of such manure may be found, either ready prepared by nature, or by the farmer and gardener for agricultural and horticultural purposes. To make the bed, a floor is prepared of clay, well rammed, so as to be impervious to water. An intimate mixture is then made of rotted manure, old mortar coarsely ground, or wood ashes (leached ashes will do), together with leaves, straw, small twigs, branches, &c. to give porosity to the mass, and a considerable quantity of common earth, if this has not been sufficiently added in the original manure-heap. The mixture is thrown somewhat lightly on the clay floor, so as to form a porous heap four or five feet high, six or seven wide, and fifteen feet long. The whole is then covered by a rough shed to protect from weather, and perhaps protected on the sides in some degree from winds. The heap is watered every week with the richest kinds of liquid manure, such as urine, dung-water, water of privies, cess-pools, drains, &c. The quantity of liquid should be such as to keep the heap always moist, but not wet. Drains, also, should be so constructed as to conduct any superfluous liquid to a tank, where it is preserved and used in watering the heaps. The materials are turned over to a depth of five or six inches every week, and the whole heap turned over every month. This is not always done, but it hastens very much the process of nitrification. During the last few months of the process, no more urine, nor liquid manure of any kind, must be used, but the heaps must be kept moist by water only. The reason of this is, that undecomposed organic matter interferes with the separation of the nitre from the ley. As the heap ripens, the nitre is brought to the surface by evaporation, and appears as a whitish efflorescence, detectible by the taste. When this efflorescence appears, the surface of the heap is removed, to the depth of two or three inches, and put aside under shelter, and kept moist with water. The nitre contained is thus considerably increased. When the whitish crust again appears, it is again removed until a quantity sufficient for leaching is obtained. The small mound which is thus left is usually used as the nucleus of a new heap. By this method it is believed that an abundant supply of nitrified earth, in a condition fit for leaching, may be obtained by autumn or early winter.

        I have spoken thus far of the method of preparing a single heap, or nitre-bed, such as any farmer or gardener may prepare with little trouble. But where saltpetre is manufactured on a large scale, as in the saltpetre plantations, many such beds are made and symmetrically arranged, so as to economize space; all under the same roof, with regularly arranged drains, all leading to a large cistern. In such plantations everything may be carried on with more economy, and with correspondingly increased profits.

Preparation of Mould

        I have supposed that there is already a considerable supply of rotted manure, prepared for other purposes, in a condition fitted for making nitre-beds; but after the present year this precarious supply must not be relied on. Systematic preparation of mould or black earth must be undertaken. The process of preparation is so precisely similar to that of compost manure that little need be said, the chief difference being the greater richness in nitrogenous matter in the case of compost intended for nitre-beds. First prepare a floor of well-rammed clay; on this place a layer of common soil, mixed with broken old mortar or ashes, six or eight inches thick; then a layer of vegetable matter -- straw, leaves, rank weeds, &c. then a layer of animal matter, dung, flesh, skin, scrapings of drains, sinks, &c. then another layer of mixed earth and mortar or ashes, and so on until a heap six feet high is made. Brush and sticks are often introduced, also, to increase the porosity of the mass. The whole is protected from the weather, and watered every week or two with urine or dung-water, until the organic matter is entirely decomposed into a black mass. This will take place in about a year, or perhaps less, in our climate. The whole is thoroughly mixed, and is then fit for making nitre-beds, as already explained.

        Thus it is hoped that the preparation of saltpetre may be set on foot at once in three different stages of advance, viz.: by the collection of already nitrified earth; by the making of nitre-beds from already formed black earth; and by the preparation of black earth. By leaching, the first would yield immediate results, the second in six or eight months, and the last in about eighteen months or two years.

        The method I have given above is that of the French. Other methods are precisely the same in principle, and differ only slightly in some of the details. The best of these is the

Prussian Method

        Five parts of black earth and one of spent ashes or broken mortar are mixed with barley straw, to make the mass porous. The mixture is then made into heaps six feet high and fifteen feet long with one side perpendicular (and hence called walls), and the opposite side sloping regularly by a series of terraces or steps. Straight sticks are generally introduced, and withdrawn when the mass is sufficiently firm. By this means air and water are introduced into the interior of the mass. The heap is lightly thatched with straw, to protect from sun and rain. The whole is frequently watered with urine and dung-water. The perpendicular side being turned in the direction of the prevailing winds, the evaporation is most rapid on that side. The liquid with which the heap is watered is drawn by capillarity and evaporation to this side, carrying the nitre with it, and the latter effloresces there as a whitish crust. The perpendicular wall is shaved off two or three inches deep as often as the whitish incrustation appears, and the material thus removed is kept for leaching. The leached earth, mixed with a little fresh mould, is thrown back on the sloping side of the heap, and distributed so as to retain the original form of the heap. Thus the heaps slowly change their position, but retain their forms. This method yields results in about a year-- probably in our climate in eight months.

Swedish Method

        Every Swede pays a portion of his tax in nitre. This salt is therefore prepared by almost every one on a small scale. The Swedish method does not differ in any essential respect from those I have already described. First a clay floor; upon this is placed a mixture of earth, mould, spent ashes, animal and vegetable refuse of all kinds. Small twig branches, straw and leaves are added, to make the mass porous; a light covering, to protect from weather, frequent watering with urine or dung-water, and turning over every week or two. The process is precisely the same as the French, except that the process of preparation and nitrification are not separated. I only mention it to show that nitre may be made by every one on a small scale. By this method the beds are ripe in two years-- perhaps in less time in this country.

Swiss Method

        The method practiced by the small farmers in Switzerland is very simple, requires little or no care, and is admirably adapted to the hilly portions of our State.

        A stable with a board floor is built on the slope of a hill (a northern slope is best), with one end resting on the ground, while the other is elevated, several feet, thus allowing the air to circulate freely below. Beneath the stable a pit, two or three feet deep, and conforming to the slope of the hill, is dug and filled with porous sand, mixed with ashes or old mortar. The urine of the animals is absorbed by the porous sand, becomes nitrified, and is fit for leaching in about two years. The exhausted earth is returned to the pit, to undergo the same process again. This leached earth induces nitrification much more rapidly than fresh earth; so that after the first crop the earth may be leached regularly every year. A moderate-sized stable yields with every leaching about one thousand pounds of saltpetre.


        When the process of nitrification is complete, the earth of the heaps must be leached. Manufacturers are accustomed to judge roughly of the amount of nitre in any earth by the taste. A more accurate method is by leaching a small quantity of the earth, and boiling to dryness, and weighing the salt. There is much diversity of opinion as to the per centage of nitre necessary to render its extraction profitable. The best writers on this subject vary in their estimates from fifteen pounds to sixty pounds of salt per cubic yard of nitrified earth. The high price of nitre with us at present would make a smaller per centage profitable. This point, however, will soon be determined by the enterprising manufacturer.

        In the process of leaching, in order to save fuel, we must strive to get as strong a solution as possible, and at the same time to extract all or nearly all the nitre. These two objects can only be attained by repeated leachings of the same earth, the ley thus obtained being used on fresh earth until the strength of the ley is sufficient. A quantity of nitrified earth is thrown into a vat, or ash-tub, or barrel, or hogshead with an aperture below, closely stopped and covered lightly with straw. Water is added, about half as much in volume as the earth. After stirring, this is allowed to remain twelve hours. Upon opening the bung, about half the water runs through containing, of course, one-half the nitre. Pure water, in quantity half as much as first used, is again poured on, and after a few moments run through. This will contain one-half the remaining nitre, and therefore one-fourth of the original quantity. Thus the leys of successive leachings become weaker and weaker, until, after the sixth leaching, the earth is considered as sufficiently exhausted. The exhausted earth is thrown back on the nitre-beds, or else mixed with black earth to form new beds. The leys thus obtained are used upon fresh earth until the solution is of sufficient density to bear an egg. It then contains about a pound of salt to a gallon of liquid.


        The ley thus obtained contains, besides nitrate of potash (nitre), also nitrate of lime and magnesia, and chlorides of sodium and potassium. The object of the next process is to convert all other nitrates into nitrate of potash. This is done by adding wood ashes. The potash of the ashes takes all the nitric acid of the other nitrates forming the nitrate of potash (nitre), and the lime and magnesia are precipitated as an insoluble sediment. Sometimes the ashes is mixed with the nitrified earth and leached together, sometimes the saltpetre ley is filtered through wood ashes, sometimes the ley of ashes is added to the saltpetre ley. In either case the result is precisely the same.


       The ley thus converted is then poured off from the precipitate, into copper or iron boilers. It still contains common salt (chloride of sodium) in considerable, and some other impurities in smaller, quantities. It is a peculiarity of nitre, that it is much more soluble than common salt in boiling water, but much less soluble in cold water. As the boiling proceeds, therefore, and the solution becomes more concentrated, the common salt is, most of it, precipitated in small crystals, as a sandy sediment, and may be raked out. Much organic matter rises as scum, and must also be removed. When the concentration has reached almost the point of saturation, the boiler must be allowed to cool. This is known by letting fall a drop of the boiling liquid upon a cold metallic surface; if it quickly crystallizes, it is time to stop the boiling. It is now poured into large receivers and left to cool. As the ley cools, nearly the whole of the nitre separates in the form of crystals, which sink to the bottom. These are then removed, drained by throwing them in baskets, and dried by gentle beat. The mother-liquor is either thrown back into the boilers, or else used in watering the heaps. The product thus obtained is the crude saltpetre of commerce. It still contains fifteen to twenty-five per cent. of impurities, principally common salt (chloride of sodium), chloride of potassium and organic matter. In this impure form it is usually brought to market.

        There is still another process, viz: that of refining, by which the whole of the impurities is removed. This is seldom done by the manufacturer, but by a separate class, called the refiners.


        One hundred gallons of water is poured into a boiler, and crude saltpetre added from time to time, while the liquid is heating, until four thousand pounds are introduced. This will make a saturated solution of nitre. The scum brought up by boiling must be removed, and the undissolved common salt scraped out. About sixty gallons cold water is now added gradually, so as not to cool the liquid too suddenly. From one to one and a-half pounds of glue, dissolved in hot water, is added, with stirring. Blood is sometimes used instead of glue. The glue seizes upon the organic matter, and they rise together as scum, which is removed. Continue the boiling until the liquid is clear. The liquid is then suffered to cool to one hundred and ninety-four degrees, and then carefully ladled out into the crystallizers. These are large shallow vats, with the bottom sloping gently to the middle. In these the cooling is completed, with constant stirring. In the process of cooling nearly the whole of the nitre is deposited in very fine, needle-like crystals, which, as they deposit, are removed and drained. In this condition it is called saltpetre flour. The object of the constant stirring is to prevent the aggregation of the crystals into masses, from which it is difficult to remove the adhering mother-liquor. The saltpetre flour is then washed of all adhering mother-liquor. For this purpose it is thrown into a box with a double bottom; the lower bottom with an aperture closely plugged, and the false bottom finely perforated. By means of a watering pot a saturated solution of pure nitre is added, in quantity sufficient to moisten thoroughly the whole mass. After remaining two or three hours to drain, the plug is removed and the solution run out. This is sometimes repeated several times. The saturated solution of nitre cannot, of course, dissolve any more nitre, but dissolves freely the impurities present in the adhering mother-liquor. Last of all, a small quantity of pure water-- only about one pound to fifty-three pounds of the nitre to be washed-- is added in the same manner, and run off at the end of two hours. The nitre is now dried by gentle heat and constant stirring, and may be considered quite pure, and fit for the manufacture of gunpowder.


        As the value of crude saltpetre depends upon the quantity of pure nitre which it contains, it is important to give some simple methods of estimating its purity:

        1. The first method is founded upon the fact, already alluded to, that a saturated solution of any salt will not dissolve any more of that salt, but will freely dissolve other salts. Twelve ounces of crude saltpetre is well ground, and twelve ounces of a saturated solution of pure nitre added. The mixture is stirred fifteen minutes, allowed to settle, and the liquid carefully poured off. Six to nine ounces more of the saturated solution of nitre is again poured on, the mixture stirred ten minutes, and the whole thrown on a filter, and allowed to remain until thoroughly drained. The filter, with its contents, is then pressed upon blotting paper, or slab of plaster, or other absorbent substance-- the nitre carefully removed and dried, and carefully weighed. The loss of weight indicates the impurity originally present in the crude saltpetre. About two per cent. should be deducted from the estimate of impurity, or added to the estimate of pure nitre; since, although a saturated solution of nitre will not dissolve any more pure nitre, still, if any common salt be present, a small additional quantity of nitre is taken up.

        2. Another method of estimating saltpetre is founded upon the fact that nitre mixed with charcoal and heated is entirely converted into carbonate of potash, while common salt is not affected. If the saltpetre be mixed with charcoal alone, the reaction is apt to be violent and explosive. To moderate the violence of the action, the saltpetre must be largely mixed with common salt, which does not interfere with the reaction. One part crude saltpetre, four parts common salt, and one-half part charcoal, are mixed and thrown gradually in a red-hot crucible, or else heated in an iron spoon, until reaction ceases. The whole of the nitre is now changed into carbonate of potash, which may be dissolved in water and filtered. The solution thus obtained, being alkaline may be estimated by the quantity of sulphuric or other acid of known strength necessary to completely neutralize it. This is done by means of the instrument called the alkalimetre. One part of pure potassa corresponds to 2.14 parts of nitre; or one part carbonate potassa corresponds to 1.46 parts nitre. The objection to this method is, that it requires the use of the alkalimetre; and, therefore, a degree of care and an amount of accuracy which can hardly be expected in practical men.

        3. The third method of estimation depends upon the fact that a strong hot solution of nitre crystallizes on cooling, and that the temperature at which crystals begin to deposit (or point of saturation) depends upon the amount of nitre present in the solution, irrespective of the presence of impurities. In one hundred parts of hot water is dissolved forty parts of crude saltpetre. A very delicate thermometer is introduced, the liquid allowed to cool slowly, and the temperature at which crystals begin to deposit is accurately observed. The higher the temperature, the larger the quantity of nitre present in the solution, and, therefore, the purer the saltpetre. Tables have been constructed giving the saturating point for solutions containing different quantities of nitre.

        I have constructed, from materials derived from the best French authorities, a table which is sufficiently complete and accurate for all practical purposes.

        In a saturated solution of nitre, one hundred parts by weight of water at

  • 32° contains 13.32 parts of nitre.
  • 33° contains 13.64 parts of nitre.
  • 34° contains 13.97 parts of nitre.
  • 35° contains 14.31 parts of nitre.
  • 36° contains 14.66 parts of nitre.
  • 37° contains 15.02 parts of nitre.
  • 38° contains 15.40 parts of nitre.
  • 39° contains 15.79 parts of nitre.
  • 40° contains 16.19 parts of nitre.
  • 41° contains 16.50 parts of nitre.
  • 42° contains 16.91 parts of nitre.
  • 43° contains 17.33 parts of nitre.
  • 44° contains 17.76 parts of nitre.
  • 45° contains 18.20 parts of nitre.
  • 46° contains 18.66 parts of nitre.
  • 47° contains 19.13 parts of nitre.
  • 48° contains 19.61 parts of nitre.
  • 49° contains 20.10 parts of nitre.
  • 50° contains 20.60 parts of nitre.
  • 51° contains 21.12 parts of nitre.
  • 52° contains 21.65 parts of nitre.
  • 53° contains 22.20 parts of nitre.
  • 54° contains 22.76 parts of nitre.
  • 55° contains 23.23 parts of nitre.
  • 56° contains 23.81 parts of nitre.
  • 57° contains 24.40 parts of nitre.
  • 58° contains 25.00 parts of nitre.
  • 59° contains 25.60 parts of nitre.
  • 60° contains 26.21 parts of nitre.
  • 61° contains 26.82 parts of nitre.
  • 62° contains 27.44 parts of nitre.
  • 63° contains 28.07 parts of nitre.
  • 64° contains 28.70 parts of nitre.
  • 65° contains 29.34 parts of nitre.
  • 66° contains 30.09 parts of nitre.
  • 67° contains 30.74 parts of nitre.
  • 68° contains 31.40 parts of nitre.
  • 69° contains 32.08 parts of nitre.
  • 70° contains 32.77 parts of nitre.
  • 71° contains 33.48 parts of nitre.
  • 72° contains 34.20 parts of nitre.
  • 73° contains 34.94 parts of nitre.
  • 74° contains 35.69 parts of nitre.
  • 75° contains 36.46 parts of nitre.
  • 76° contains 37.25 parts of nitre.
  • 77° contains 38.05 parts of nitre.
  • 78° contains 38.85 parts of nitre.
  • 79° contains 39.65 parts of nitre.
  • 80° contains 40.46 parts of nitre.
  • 81° contains 41.27 parts of nitre.
  • 82° contains 42.09 parts of nitre.
  • 83° contains 42.92 parts of nitre.
  • 84° contains 43.76 parts of nitre.
  • 85° contains 44.62 parts of nitre.
  • 86° contains 45.50 parts of nitre.
  • 87° contains 46.42 parts of nitre.
  • 88° contains 47.33 parts of nitre.
  • 89° contains 48.26 parts of nitre.
  • 90° contains 49.20 parts of nitre.
  • 91° contains 50.16 parts of nitre.
  • 92° contains 51.13 parts of nitre.
  • 93° contains 52.11 parts of nitre.
  • 94° contains 53.10 parts of nitre.
  • 95° contains 54.10 parts of nitre.

        By comparing the quantity of pure nitre, as determined by inspection of the table, with the quantity of crude saltpetre dissolved, the percentage of pure nitre may be easily calculated. Thus, if crystals begin to deposit at 68°, the quantity of nitre contained in a hundred parts of water is 31.40 parts; dividing this by 40 parts crude nitre, originally dissolved, gives 76 per cent. of pure nitre in the sample examined. In the foregoing example I have used 40 parts crude saltpetre; but we are by no means limited to this number. On the contrary, in our climate a larger quantity, as 50, or even 60, parts is preferable. For it will be observed that at 80° more than 40 parts of nitre are soluble in 100 parts of water, and that, therefore, in our summer weather, if only 40 parts of crude saltpetre are used in the experiment, artificial cold will be necessary to produce crystallization. To avoid this inconvenience, it is only necessary to use a larger proportion of crude saltpetre in the experiment. Thus, if 50 parts are used, and crystallization commences at 80°, the quantity of pure nitre, by the table, being 40.46, the per centage is 40.46 / 50 = 80.9. For higher summer temperature, it will be, of course, necessary to use a still larger quantity of crude saltpetre in the experiment. This method has the advantage of great ease and rapidity of execution.

After the Civil War ended, Professor LeConte lost his inherited lands and wealth. The Southern Carolina College was reformed as the University of South Carolina and he went back to his professorship in chemistry and geology, but he was not comfortable working there. Therefore, he and his brother moved west to the newly founded University of California, where they were some of the first hired faculty members. He taught geology and botany at Berkeley, California and explored the nearby mountains. He became good friends with John Muir and co-founded the Sierra Club.

In our next post, we will look at some other ways the Confederates tried to obtain saltpeter supplies.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

The History of Saltpeter - V

In today's post, we will look at the early history of saltpeter production in the US.

When the early colonists from England arrived in the US in 1620 and established a colony in Plymouth, Massachusetts, they brought supplies of gunpowder from Europe. However, as the Massachusetts Bay Colony began to grow, it became necessary for the settlers to start manufacturing their own gunpowder locally, because they could not depend on supply ships reliably coming across the ocean from England.

Since there were no known deposits of natural saltpeter in the area, the settlers began to make saltpeter plantations, using the same techniques that were in use in England. The first reference to saltpeter manufacture comes from an order of the General Court of Massachusetts, dating from June 6th, 1639, where it granted 500 acres of land at Pecoit to one Edward Rawson, "so as he goes on with the powder if the saltpeter comes." By 1640, a saltpeter house was operational in Boston. By 1642, the General Court of Massachusetts  passed an order to promote public safety "by raising and producing such materials amongst us, as will perfect the making of gunpowder, the instrumental means that all nations lay hold on for their preservation etc., that every plantation within this colony shall erect a house in length 20 or 30 foote, and 20 foote wide within one-half year next coming, &c., to make saltpeter."

In 1666, we see two more orders passed in the General Court of Massachusetts. The first dating from May 23rd states, "whereas, there is necessity of having supply of gunpowder in this jurisdiction, and forasmuch as Sergt. Richard Wooddey, of Boston, in the county of Suffolk, and Mr. Henry Russell, of Ipswich, in the county of Essex, have been and are upon the work, and in preparation for saltpeter, for their future encouragement, or any other that shall appear to attend the promoting thereof, this Court doth declare and order that the said Richard Wooddey and Henry Russell are impowered to go on and proceed in the said work." It then grants them special permissions to build their business. The second order from October 10th states that "whereas the Court hath encouraged and authorized some persons to make gunpowder, and have promised to enable them thereunto by such public and necessary orders as may conduce to the effecting of the same, the consideration whereof hath moved the Court hereby to order and enact, that the selectmen of every town (where the powdermakers authorized by this Court shall desire it) be authorized and required hereby to make and execute such orders in their respective towns as they shall judge meet, with the advice of skilful men, for increasing and procuring of saltpetre, and to impose such penalties as the selectmen shall deem meet, not exceeding ten shillings for one offence, upon all persons that shall neglect or refuse to perform such order or orders for the propagating and increasing of saltpeter in their respective towns; and moreover, the said selectmen are further impowered to choose and appoint an officer or officers, and to allow him a convenient stipend annually for his pains out of the fines or otherwise, to look to the executing such orders as they shall make in their behalf."

The next big event we see is from 1675, when a powder mill was built in Milton, Massachusetts. It was water powered and built near the Neponset river. In August 1675, Governer Leverett wrote to this friend and revealed, "We are upon a work for making powder and have erected a mill in order thereunto at Neponset, about six miles from Boston. Our difficulty will be for peter, which we must, in our beginning, have from without us, but hope, in time, may raise it amongst us." The last sentence shows that the sources of saltpeter for this mill were still uncertain at this point.

Interestingly, as the colonies developed, Great Britain started to produce gunpowder based on cheap saltpeter imports from India (we will study that trade soon). Therefore, it actually became cheaper for Americans to import their gunpowder from England and this led to many powder mills in America closing down. Then, when the American revolution started, there was only one gunpowder mill in America, the Frankford Powder Mill, built by Oswald Eve in Frankford, Pennsylvania. However, this mill was pretty small and could only supply the American forces with small amounts of gunpowder. It was recorded that Oswald Eve signed a contract on January 11th 1776, with the Continental Congress, to supply gunpowder at $8 per hundredweight. In order to ensure that his was not the only mill to make gunpowder, Congress approved the construction of the Continental Powder Mill on February 16th 1776, on French Creek, eight miles from Valley Forge, based on the techniques learnt from inspecting Eve's mill. As it happens, Congress wasn't entirely certain about Eve's patriotism and suspected that he was dealing with the British as well. Therefore, eight other mills operated by other private businessmen were also contracted to supply additional materials. Eve's mill was later seized by the British forces in September 1777, when they captured Philadelphia. Eve was subsequently accused of treason by Congress for trading with the British and had to flee the US.

It must be noted that the new powder mills could not supply the needs of the Americans, because they couldn't obtain enough saltpeter. Desperate for gunpowder, American forces tried to get it by capturing supplies from the British. Both George Washington and Congress ran separate operations to raid a British magazine on the island of Bermuda. When the situation was very dire, help came from the other European nations. Dutch merchants were already trading with American ships and then, the French got into the act. The French had built up their saltpeter plantations with the help of gifted chemists such as Antoine Lavoisier (the father of modern chemistry) and they had plenty of supplies of saltpeter and gunpowder. The French were able to supply enough to meet the needs of America. In fact, if it wasn't for French supplies of gunpowder, American forces would never have been able to continue the war of independence.

The importance of being self-reliant on gunpowder was not lost on America's founding fathers and therefore, efforts were made to build up supplies after the American revolution. American ships began to import raw saltpeter from India, but the quality of gunpowder produced was not very good. Then, in 1800, a rich Frenchman named Éleuthère Irénée du Pont escaped with his family from the French revolution and came to America.

Éleuthère Irénée du Pont

Before he came to America, the young du Pont had studied for some years under the famous chemist, Antoine Lavoisier, who was a friend of his father. He had also worked in the Regie des poudres, the French government agency responsible for manufacturing gunpowder. From Lavoisier, he learned the latest techniques in manufacturing nitrates. Later on, he gave up his chemistry career and began to help his father run a publishing house. Then the French revolution happened and he and his father were arrested and nearly executed. They decided to flee France with their families and come to America. Meanwhile, his former mentor, Antoine Lavoisier, was not so lucky and was executed by guillotine during the French revolution.

When Du Pont first came to America in 1800, he didn't actually want to go into the gunpowder manufacturing business. As it happened, the quality of gunpowder manufacturing in the US was very bad. The story goes that Du Pont went hunting with a certain Major Louis de Tosard, who was a former French artillery officer who had also escaped from the French Revolution and was employed by the US army to buy gunpowder supplies. During the hunting trip, Du Pont's gun misfired and he commented that despite the high price of gunpowder in the US, it was of very poor quality. That's when he thought about his earlier career in making gunpowder in France. He arranged with Tousard to tour American gunpowder factories and came to the conclusion: "There already exist in the United States, two or three mills, which make very bad powder and which do however a very good business. They use saltpeter from India, which is infinitely better than that which is produced in France, but they refine it badly."

Du Pont decided that he could use his experience from France to better refine the saltpeter and thereby produce higher quality gunpowder. With his father's support, he began to raise capital in France to build a new factory in America and also arranged to import machinery from France. The new E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company gunpowder mill was established in 1802 on the Brandywine Creek in Delaware. Initially, the mill was just a saltpeter refining factory, but they soon moved into manufacturing gunpowder as well. Within a few years, his company became the largest gunpowder manufacturer in the United States and the Federal government became one of his biggest customers. The company he founded would go on to become one of the largest and most successful American corporations in history and is currently the world's fourth largest chemical company.

Other American companies that were founded after Du Pont include the Hazard Powder Company (founded 1832), the Oriental Powder Company and the Laflin Powder Company (the last two being owned by members of the Laflin family, who had a history of making gunpowder since the American revolution). By the time of the Civil war, these four companies were supplying most of the gunpowder to the Union side.

In our next post, we will study how saltpeter was manufactured by the Confederate forces, during the Civil war.