What If England Had Cut Off Saltpeter Supply

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whitworth

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Jun 18, 2005
It seems to be part of modern Civil War history to find ways the United States would have lost the war, and never touch the fact that the Confederacy never should have gone to war, in the first place.
We learn ways the British could have entered the war, but never the analysis or mention of British government records, which were studied after World War I, that showed the British never wanted to break their neutrality and never did.
 

rebelatsea

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Mar 30, 2013
Location
Kent ,England.
That's not quite true. The War Office had been instructed to prepare for a with the Union, and did so, instructing the Admiralty to prepare a plan for a naval war, whilst retaining enough force in home waters to deter Napoleon III, who's army was assembled around Cherbourg at the time.
Prime Minister Palmerston, with the approval of the House of Commons wrote a note to the US consul in London which was effectively a declaration of war.
However then as now ,such decisions have to be passed through the Monarch. Victoria allowed Prince Albert to deal with all affairs of State, and it was he who toned down the note before it was passed.
Nevertheless the original contents were made known to certain members of Lincoln's cabinet, and almost certainly Lincoln himself.

I'm sorry, but saying the Confederacy should never have gone to war is hindsight with 20/20 vision.
 

DaveBrt

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Mar 6, 2010
Location
Charlotte, NC
Steven Wise, Lifeline of the Confederacy, says that the South imported 2 1/4 million pounds of salt petre, 60 per cent of their requirements. It looks to me like there would have been no war if England had embargoed the shipment of salt petre to both sides.
 
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Mark F. Jenkins

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Central Ohio
I seriously doubt that, if a potential shortage of saltpeter didn't stop the Confederacy from going to war, it wasn't going to stop the Union either... but there might have been even more opportunities for the blockade runners, this time to smuggle saltpeter into the North as well as the South...
 

67th Tigers

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 10, 2006
I seriously doubt that, if a potential shortage of saltpeter didn't stop the Confederacy from going to war, it wasn't going to stop the Union either... but there might have been even more opportunities for the blockade runners, this time to smuggle saltpeter into the North as well as the South...
Blockade runners based out of Bermuda? So the British are going to allow US blockade runners to use their main port?
 

Mark F. Jenkins

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Location
Central Ohio
Who said anything about US blockade runners? I'm talking British blockade runners. If a skipper didn't mind risking running a blockade past armed vessels trying to stop him, there's no way he'd shy away from a trip to New York with nobody firing at him. :laugh:
 
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Will Posey

Retired User
Joined
Mar 22, 2006
Location
Knoxville, Tennessee
In basic training, we were told that salt peter was regularly mixed in with mess hall food to discourage extracurricular activities by the recruits. When I told some of my compatriots where saltpeter came from, they were ready to revolt.
Our drill instructor told them that, if they did, their ration of saltpeter would be doubled. End of revolt talk.

Will
 

jgoodguy

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Location
Birmingham, Alabama
I seriously doubt that, if a potential shortage of saltpeter didn't stop the Confederacy from going to war, it wasn't going to stop the Union either... but there might have been even more opportunities for the blockade runners, this time to smuggle saltpeter into the North as well as the South...
As I recall, the CSA had sufficient black powder even at the end. Food and clothing were lacking but they had black powder.

Confederate Powderworks

The Confederate Powderworks was the 2nd largest gunpowder factory in the world at that time during the 19th century, producing 3.5 tons a day. More than 2,750,000 pounds of first-quality gunpowder (a majority of the powder used by the Confederacy), was produced here before its closure on April 18, 1865.[4] It has been said the Confederacy never lost a battle for lack of powder.
 
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rebelatsea

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Mar 30, 2013
Location
Kent ,England.
Somewhere in my library I'm sure I read a reference to someone n the South making gun cotton. Anyone got any ideas.
Brooke's chambered MLR would take that with no problem.
 

agibson2

Cadet
Joined
Aug 31, 2018
Fact is the Union did lose its supply of British saltpeter between December 1861-January 1862. The Trent affair sparked tremendous animosity between the US and the UK, enough so that the UK placed an embargo on exports of saltpeter to the US. Unfortunately for the US, Lammot Dupont was in Liverpool at the time attempting to buy saltpeter, but the process was held up with the embargo. In response to this, Dupont contracted the New Haven Chemical Works to produce saltpeter using a chemical process rather than by mining as was the norm prior to this so that they wouldn't have to rely on British saltpeter and run the risk of the British meddling in US affairs by with holding saltpeter at any time.
 

Saphroneth

Captain
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
UK-derived saltpeter supply was by far the largest supply. There's no practical substitute on anything like the same scale for either power.
 
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Saphroneth

Captain
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
Here's an illustration from the Union's ORs, for June 30 1862, assuming the Trent shutdown alluded to continued but usage did not alter.

Remaining in stock OTL on 30 June 1862 (Ordnance dept.):


1,036,871 lbs powder
9,054,435 lbs saltpetre (incl. army reserve of 3.8 million lbs, which is not very high quality as it's been stored for about 15 years)
(combined this is the equivalent of about 13,078,000 lbs powder in store, a little under twice the expenditure since the beginning of the rebellion)


Imported from Britain (summary of British trade) and shortfalls
DuPont purchase of saltpetre 5.2 million lbs (about 6.91 million lbs powder equivalent). 31+172+323+50+49+10+15+25+25 = 700 tons also imported from Liverpool, which clearly is not the DuPont purchase as the DuPont purchase is well over 2,000 tons and was not spaced out over more than six months.
Average yearly imports of salteptre from India "direct to America" is about 8,000 tons saltpetre per year over three years (assuming a constant rate, this is about 4,000 tons saltpetre or 11.7 million lbs powder equivalent in the first half of 1862)

Saltpetre shortfall approx. 5.5-7.5 million lbs powder equivalent. Even assuming that the rate of imports is abnormally low in H1 1862 the Union is running on empty for powder by the end of H1 1862, which means fewer rifle rounds per man and less ammunition per fort/ship/battery. It also means that the powder quality will dip markedly some time in April/May as the army reserve is tapped.

OR Series III Volume II pages 852-853 states that at this point the Union had 1,911 tons on hand.
Now, since Series III Volume II is dealing with the post Trent period, it should be pretty obvious that the fact they imported 2,300 tons of saltpetre from Britain in the DuPont purchase (which was stopped by the Trent) would cause a problem if in Series III they described themselves as having 1,900 tons of saltpetre in reserve. To put it bluntly, remove the DuPont purchase alone and the Union's 1,911 ton surplus becomes negative four hundred tons - the Union has run out of powder.
 

agibson2

Cadet
Joined
Aug 31, 2018
UK-derived saltpeter supply was by far the largest supply. There's no practical substitute on anything like the same scale for either power.
Actually, after May 1862 the larger amount of saltpeter was coming out of New Haven. New Haven Chemical Works were supplying saltpeter to both Dupont and Hazard, which combined made more than 60% of the Union's gunpowder.
 

agibson2

Cadet
Joined
Aug 31, 2018
Here's an illustration from the Union's ORs, for June 30 1862, assuming the Trent shutdown alluded to continued but usage did not alter.

Remaining in stock OTL on 30 June 1862 (Ordnance dept.):


1,036,871 lbs powder
9,054,435 lbs saltpetre (incl. army reserve of 3.8 million lbs, which is not very high quality as it's been stored for about 15 years)
(combined this is the equivalent of about 13,078,000 lbs powder in store, a little under twice the expenditure since the beginning of the rebellion)


Imported from Britain (summary of British trade) and shortfalls
DuPont purchase of saltpetre 5.2 million lbs (about 6.91 million lbs powder equivalent). 31+172+323+50+49+10+15+25+25 = 700 tons also imported from Liverpool, which clearly is not the DuPont purchase as the DuPont purchase is well over 2,000 tons and was not spaced out over more than six months.
Average yearly imports of salteptre from India "direct to America" is about 8,000 tons saltpetre per year over three years (assuming a constant rate, this is about 4,000 tons saltpetre or 11.7 million lbs powder equivalent in the first half of 1862)

Saltpetre shortfall approx. 5.5-7.5 million lbs powder equivalent. Even assuming that the rate of imports is abnormally low in H1 1862 the Union is running on empty for powder by the end of H1 1862, which means fewer rifle rounds per man and less ammunition per fort/ship/battery. It also means that the powder quality will dip markedly some time in April/May as the army reserve is tapped.

OR Series III Volume II pages 852-853 states that at this point the Union had 1,911 tons on hand.
Now, since Series III Volume II is dealing with the post Trent period, it should be pretty obvious that the fact they imported 2,300 tons of saltpetre from Britain in the DuPont purchase (which was stopped by the Trent) would cause a problem if in Series III they described themselves as having 1,900 tons of saltpetre in reserve. To put it bluntly, remove the DuPont purchase alone and the Union's 1,911 ton surplus becomes negative four hundred tons - the Union has run out of powder.
The Trent shutdown did not lead to continued usage. In 1851 a new process for making saltpeter was published. This process was eventually picked up by the NHCW. They then supplied Dupont and other through the middle of 1864 when one of the ingredients for that process became scarce due to wartime demand.
 
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67th Tigers

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 10, 2006
Actually, after May 1862 the larger amount of saltpeter was coming out of New Haven. New Haven Chemical Works were supplying saltpeter to both Dupont and Hazard, which combined made more than 60% of the Union's gunpowder.
Very little nitre was made at DuPont compared to the need. DuPont was manufacturing ca. 50 tons per month from Chilian guano and potash by the late war. The US were averaging 660 tons a month imported from British India to fuel the war effort.

The manufacturing facilities mentioned indeed produced almost all gunpowder, but two of the principle ingredients (saltpetre, i.e. potassium nitrate, and sulfur) were almost exclusively imported from British India and the island of Sicily respectively. Without global trade the US factories would simply have had nothing to work with.

The imports, in lbs were:

US%2BNiter%2Bimports%2BACW.png


In round terms the US imported all saltpeter, and saltpeter making materials (>95% from the British Empire and ca. 5% from Chile), all sulfur (from Sicily) and at least two years supply of lead for bullets from the UK over the course of the war.
 

Saphroneth

Captain
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
Actually, after May 1862 the larger amount of saltpeter was coming out of New Haven. New Haven Chemical Works were supplying saltpeter to both Dupont and Hazard, which combined made more than 60% of the Union's gunpowder.
But DuPont also purchased large quantities of the saltpeter which came from the British, which was on the rough order of 8,000 tons a year and more in 1862. That New Haven Chemical Works was supplying saltpeter doesn't really compare.

NYT, December 1863:
During the past Summer, the New-Haven Chemical Works have delivered, under their contract with this bureau, 500 tons of domestic nitre, which has nearly all been made into powder. Its strength has proved to be fully equal to that of powder fabricated from the foreign article, and it only remains to be seen whether it will stand as well the tests of service at sea.

So 500 tons of domestic nitre over the "past summer". That's a non trivial amount, but the amount imported from India and Britain in 1863 was on the same scale per month; imports over the whole course of the war (1861-5) from Britain come to 3,821 tons and from India come to about 30,000 tons; to a first approximation each month of the war saw 700 tons of import per month, and the comparatively low imports in 1864 and 1863 appear to derive directly from the comparatively huge imports in 1862. (Note that the average import per year is 15,000,000 lbs, which is also the average for 1862-4.)

Lead figures from the UK are above 24,000 tons of lead over the war years. Per the ORs the amount of lead and lead bullets furnished in the long first year of the war was about 8,600 tons; the equivalent figure from the start of the war to June 30 1863 is about 16,800 tons of lead, along with about 6,000 tons of "lead bullets" which may be included.

June 30 1864 - June 30 1865 sees about 10,000 tons of lead "issued to the army and expended in manufacture", though this is probably mostly double counting and the actual amount of lead used was likely about 5,000 tons.


Interestingly this is the expenditure in absentia of any real program of target practice, at least among the infantry. A typical expenditure of ammunition in a period musketry practice regimen might be a hundred rounds a year for target practice; this would lead to the ca. 500,000 Union infantry Present in a typical year using 50 million cartridges, for about 150 tons of powder (comparatively minor) and 1,700 tons of lead (decidedly not).*
*this indicates that the artillery was the hungry side of things, though the artillery needs iron and even iron was sourced from the British in significant quantities.



The New Haven Chemical Works process can probably be compared to coal hydrogenation from WW2 - it's far better than nothing, don't get me wrong, but it doesn't really replace the world-market purchases it's supposed to. It just applies a patch.

A similar comparison can be made with Confederate production. Niter beds take some time to mature (longer in colder climates, but a long time even in the South) and blockade running was a major source if not the major source for the South, while the cave mines in the USA served admirably to handle the needs of the US in the War of 1812 - but not a much more intense conflict involving armies much, much larger.
 
Last edited:

agibson2

Cadet
Joined
Aug 31, 2018
Very little nitre was made at DuPont compared to the need. DuPont was manufacturing ca. 50 tons per month from Chilian guano and potash by the late war. The US were averaging 660 tons a month imported from British India to fuel the war effort.

The manufacturing facilities mentioned indeed produced almost all gunpowder, but two of the principle ingredients (saltpetre, i.e. potassium nitrate, and sulfur) were almost exclusively imported from British India and the island of Sicily respectively. Without global trade the US factories would simply have had nothing to work with.

The imports, in lbs were:

US%2BNiter%2Bimports%2BACW.png


In round terms the US imported all saltpeter, and saltpeter making materials (>95% from the British Empire and ca. 5% from Chile), all sulfur (from Sicily) and at least two years supply of lead for bullets from the UK over the course of the war.
But DuPont also purchased large quantities of the saltpeter which came from the British, which was on the rough order of 8,000 tons a year and more in 1862. That New Haven Chemical Works was supplying saltpeter doesn't really compare.

NYT, December 1863:
During the past Summer, the New-Haven Chemical Works have delivered, under their contract with this bureau, 500 tons of domestic nitre, which has nearly all been made into powder. Its strength has proved to be fully equal to that of powder fabricated from the foreign article, and it only remains to be seen whether it will stand as well the tests of service at sea.

So 500 tons of domestic nitre over the "past summer". That's a non trivial amount, but the amount imported from India and Britain in 1863 was on the same scale per month; imports over the whole course of the war (1861-5) from Britain come to 3,821 tons and from India come to about 30,000 tons; to a first approximation each month of the war saw 700 tons of import per month, and the comparatively low imports in 1864 and 1863 appear to derive directly from the comparatively huge imports in 1862. (Note that the average import per year is 15,000,000 lbs, which is also the average for 1862-4.)

Lead figures from the UK are above 24,000 tons of lead over the war years. Per the ORs the amount of lead and lead bullets furnished in the long first year of the war was about 8,600 tons; the equivalent figure from the start of the war to June 30 1863 is about 16,800 tons of lead, along with about 6,000 tons of "lead bullets" which may be included.

June 30 1864 - June 30 1865 sees about 10,000 tons of lead "issued to the army and expended in manufacture", though this is probably mostly double counting and the actual amount of lead used was likely about 5,000 tons.


Interestingly this is the expenditure in absentia of any real program of target practice, at least among the infantry. A typical expenditure of ammunition in a period musketry practice regimen might be a hundred rounds a year for target practice; this would lead to the ca. 500,000 Union infantry Present in a typical year using 50 million cartridges, for about 150 tons of powder (comparatively minor) and 1,700 tons of lead (decidedly not).
But DuPont also purchased large quantities of the saltpeter which came from the British, which was on the rough order of 8,000 tons a year and more in 1862. That New Haven Chemical Works was supplying saltpeter doesn't really compare.

NYT, December 1863:
During the past Summer, the New-Haven Chemical Works have delivered, under their contract with this bureau, 500 tons of domestic nitre, which has nearly all been made into powder. Its strength has proved to be fully equal to that of powder fabricated from the foreign article, and it only remains to be seen whether it will stand as well the tests of service at sea.

So 500 tons of domestic nitre over the "past summer". That's a non trivial amount, but the amount imported from India and Britain in 1863 was on the same scale per month; imports over the whole course of the war (1861-5) from Britain come to 3,821 tons and from India come to about 30,000 tons; to a first approximation each month of the war saw 700 tons of import per month, and the comparatively low imports in 1864 and 1863 appear to derive directly from the comparatively huge imports in 1862. (Note that the average import per year is 15,000,000 lbs, which is also the average for 1862-4.)

Lead figures from the UK are above 24,000 tons of lead over the war years. Per the ORs the amount of lead and lead bullets furnished in the long first year of the war was about 8,600 tons; the equivalent figure from the start of the war to June 30 1863 is about 16,800 tons of lead, along with about 6,000 tons of "lead bullets" which may be included.

June 30 1864 - June 30 1865 sees about 10,000 tons of lead "issued to the army and expended in manufacture", though this is probably mostly double counting and the actual amount of lead used was likely about 5,000 tons.


Interestingly this is the expenditure in absentia of any real program of target practice, at least among the infantry. A typical expenditure of ammunition in a period musketry practice regimen might be a hundred rounds a year for target practice; this would lead to the ca. 500,000 Union infantry Present in a typical year using 50 million cartridges, for about 150 tons of powder (comparatively minor) and 1,700 tons of lead (decidedly not).
The New Haven Chemical Company was producing around 5 tons of refined saltpeter a day, or about 150 tons + per month , or 300,000 pounds, between June 1862- mid 1864. That's 3.6 million pounds in one year, or roughly 7.6 million pounds over the two year span where their production was the greatest. Mind you most of that 7.5 million pounds was going to Dupont, who was using this supply almost exclusively during that period. By that time Dupont was making about half of all gunpowder for the Army. And all of the British saltpeter wasn't being used to produce gunpowder for the Army. The Navy in particular was also stockpiling large amounts.
 
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agibson2

Cadet
Joined
Aug 31, 2018
But DuPont also purchased large quantities of the saltpeter which came from the British, which was on the rough order of 8,000 tons a year and more in 1862. That New Haven Chemical Works was supplying saltpeter doesn't really compare.

NYT, December 1863:
During the past Summer, the New-Haven Chemical Works have delivered, under their contract with this bureau, 500 tons of domestic nitre, which has nearly all been made into powder. Its strength has proved to be fully equal to that of powder fabricated from the foreign article, and it only remains to be seen whether it will stand as well the tests of service at sea.

So 500 tons of domestic nitre over the "past summer". That's a non trivial amount, but the amount imported from India and Britain in 1863 was on the same scale per month; imports over the whole course of the war (1861-5) from Britain come to 3,821 tons and from India come to about 30,000 tons; to a first approximation each month of the war saw 700 tons of import per month, and the comparatively low imports in 1864 and 1863 appear to derive directly from the comparatively huge imports in 1862. (Note that the average import per year is 15,000,000 lbs, which is also the average for 1862-4.)

Lead figures from the UK are above 24,000 tons of lead over the war years. Per the ORs the amount of lead and lead bullets furnished in the long first year of the war was about 8,600 tons; the equivalent figure from the start of the war to June 30 1863 is about 16,800 tons of lead, along with about 6,000 tons of "lead bullets" which may be included.

June 30 1864 - June 30 1865 sees about 10,000 tons of lead "issued to the army and expended in manufacture", though this is probably mostly double counting and the actual amount of lead used was likely about 5,000 tons.


Interestingly this is the expenditure in absentia of any real program of target practice, at least among the infantry. A typical expenditure of ammunition in a period musketry practice regimen might be a hundred rounds a year for target practice; this would lead to the ca. 500,000 Union infantry Present in a typical year using 50 million cartridges, for about 150 tons of powder (comparatively minor) and 1,700 tons of lead (decidedly not).*
*this indicates that the artillery was the hungry side of things, though the artillery needs iron and even iron was sourced from the British in significant quantities.



The New Haven Chemical Works process can probably be compared to coal hydrogenation from WW2 - it's far better than nothing, don't get me wrong, but it doesn't really replace the world-market purchases it's supposed to. It just applies a patch.

A similar comparison can be made with Confederate production. Niter beds take some time to mature (longer in colder climates, but a long time even in the South) and blockade running was a major source if not the major source for the South, while the cave mines in the USA served admirably to handle the needs of the US in the War of 1812 - but not a much more intense conflict involving armies much, much larger.
And mind you, according to that article, that is only one contract for 500 tons that is mentioned. That says nothing of their total capacity for production.
 

kevikens

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Jun 7, 2013
Location
New Jersey
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.
What would have happened? Probably the same thing that happened in the Revolutionary War, a booming industry in outhouse cleaning.
 
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