What If England Had Cut Off Saltpeter Supply

lrd89

Cadet
Joined
May 23, 2005
Location
Indiana
In "The Battle Cry of Freedom" by James McPherson, First Ballantine Books Edition, paperback, page 390; McPherson states that British India was the source of saltpeter for the Union. Saltpeter is necessary to make gunpowder. An official of the DuPont company was sent to England to try to buy up all that was available since the supply was running out in the U.S.

Question: If England had cut off the supply of saltpeter to the U.S., how severely would that have affected the Union war effort? I am surprised that the Union had to import nearly all of its saltpeter.
 

r_moody

Private
Joined
Apr 20, 2005
Location
La Mirada, California
There were many other sources for Saltpeter. England had a virtual monopoly on oversea's shipping at that time and they were the cheapest way to get it. There were mines in Alabama, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana, and Tennessee. It can also be produced organically.

My guess is that if England had stopped shipments the North would have found other sources quickly.

Rick
 

lrd89

Cadet
Joined
May 23, 2005
Location
Indiana
Thanks, the author had me thinking that buying it from England was the ONLY way to get it. I knew that didn't sound right. :smile:
 

r_moody

Private
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Apr 20, 2005
Location
La Mirada, California
I forgot to mention that the South was making all of their own saltpeter. Mining and organic production were in full swing. At the end of the war the south had enough powder to continue for quite a while. Remarkably they were not as well off in other areas like food and clothing for the men.

Rick
 

gary

Captain
Joined
Feb 20, 2005
Commercial grade saltpetre supply may have been running low, but if the South could extract it from the chamber pot of a lady or the floor of a smokehouse, I don't see why the north with its larger population could not have resorted to the same exigencies.
 

blue_zouave

Sergeant
Joined
Feb 20, 2005
I wondered when the subject of chamber pots would come up... Even had the wicked thought that the question was a lead-in for the subject. Take a gander in Dr. Lowry's book "The Story The Soldiers Wouldn't Tell" for the song about John Harralson. I did a Google search on Mr. Harralson's name but the work computer won't let me view the site... Forbidden!! :D Ladies, tread with care.

Zou
 

whitworth

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Jun 18, 2005
Exports-Went Both Ways

Great Britain had no intention of going to war with the United States and cutting off exports to the U.S.

First, the U.S. had a great supply of saltpeter at the start of the war. In its arsenal it had nearly 4 million pounds of saltpeter at the start of the war. By the end of 1862, the U.S. had enough saltpeter in inventory to make 12 million pounds of gunpowder.

England and Europe had a series of poor harvests. The U.S. exported over 40 million bushels of wheat and flour to Europe in 1862. Without the grain shipments, Britain would face famine.
 

whitworth

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Jun 18, 2005
Neutral, Neutral, Neutral

Or how the Confederacy never quite got it.


The U.S. would have cut off its kerosene and wheat shipments. Unfortunately for the Confederacy, they had poor long term planning regarding foreign policy. Great Britain had little interest, except to remain neutral.

In fact, sometimes the British thought the U.S. wanted to start a war with them.
 

rebelatsea

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Mar 30, 2013
Location
Kent ,England.
Can anyone explain why 60lbs of US powder was equivalent to 50lb of British and Confederate? Both Parkes and Ballard quote it, apparently from Captain Nobles ordnance report of 1862. He had to have the data, how did he get the powder?
Also War office conducted extensive tests with a 15" gun at Shoeburyness and Woolwich, how was that obtained?
 

Blessmag

Captain
Joined
Jun 19, 2010
Location
Minnesota
From our wikipedia friends, the soldiers needed it(?)

Potassium nitrate was once thought to induce impotence, and is still falsely rumored to be in institutional food (such as military fare) as an anaphrodisiac; however, there is no scientific evidence for such properties.[30][31]
 

67th Tigers

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 10, 2006
Okay.

1. The Union was utterly dependent upon Indian saltpetre. They had a near monopoly on the global saltpetre supply.

In 1863 whilst trying to break their dependence the Du Pont company started converting Chilean guano (sodium nitrate) to saltpetre (potassium nitrate) by a ion exchange reaction with potash (potassium hydroxide). This brought the cost down, but they still remained dependent on an external product.

If Britain had refused to sell in late 1861 then the US would have been unable to prosecute the war. They had about six months supply for active operations to hand in April 1861 (all left over from purchases during the Mexican war) and had expended quite a lot of it.

The majority of Confederate saltpetre came through the blockade from British India.

2. The UK had a 10% decrease in wheat yields in the 1862 and 1863 seasons. US imports increased from near nothing to a significant proportion of supply (0.25 MT of 4.5 MT consumed, about 5-6%). Grain prices continued dropping. The effect of blocking US wheat would be a significant price increase, but no "famine" or even hunger.

3. 50 lbs RN naval powder is equivalent to about 50 lbs US common naval powder. The difference is that the "American powder" used was not NCP but Mammoth (i.e. what was actually used in the 15 inch Rodman). The larger grains of the Mammoth mean it hadn't finished burning by the time it left the barrel. The British simply brought the Rodman.
 

CMWinkler

Colonel
Retired Moderator
Joined
Oct 17, 2012
Location
Middle Tennessee
I wondered when the subject of chamber pots would come up... Even had the wicked thought that the question was a lead-in for the subject. Take a gander in Dr. Lowry's book "The Story The Soldiers Wouldn't Tell" for the song about John Harralson. I did a Google search on Mr. Harralson's name but the work computer won't let me view the site... Forbidden!! :D Ladies, tread with care.

Zou
http://genforum.genealogy.com/haralson/messages/272.html
 

trice

Lt. Colonel
Joined
May 2, 2006
Commercial grade saltpetre supply may have been running low, but if the South could extract it from the chamber pot of a lady or the floor of a smokehouse, I don't see why the north with its larger population could not have resorted to the same exigencies.

Apparently the consumption of alcohol improves the quality of saltpeter collected from manure piles. Bars might be a good place to collect from <g>

Tim
 

Nathanb1

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Forum Host
Retired Moderator
Joined
Dec 31, 2009
Location
Smack dab in the heart of Texas
There were many other sources for Saltpeter. England had a virtual monopoly on oversea's shipping at that time and they were the cheapest way to get it. There were mines in Alabama, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana, and Tennessee. It can also be produced organically.

My guess is that if England had stopped shipments the North would have found other sources quickly.

Rick

Texas also had a number of saltpeter mines, some in this area.
 
Joined
Jun 24, 2011
Location
Middle Tennessee
Can anyone explain why 60lbs of US powder was equivalent to 50lb of British and Confederate? Both Parkes and Ballard quote it, apparently from Captain Nobles ordnance report of 1862. He had to have the data, how did he get the powder?
Also War office conducted extensive tests with a 15" gun at Shoeburyness and Woolwich, how was that obtained?
The Union contractors added filler to the powder to gain bigger profits.
 

Nathanb1

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Forum Host
Retired Moderator
Joined
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Location
Smack dab in the heart of Texas
The United States Saltpeter Cave Survey, 2006
There appears to be a number of saltpeter caves that probably existed in the 1860s in the North or under northern control that could have supplied union saltpeter.
.

And it isn't a complete list. I know of one in Comanche County, Texas. The Burnet County cave was on the ranch my cousin worked on for years....the cabins we used for the family reunion at the lake were originally built for the men working to mine the saltpeter.
 
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