What If England Had Cut Off Saltpeter Supply

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Saphroneth

Captain
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
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.
Do you have a source for that production? Particularly one which makes it clear they did 5 tons a day for two full years?

To be clear on this, though, 7.5 million pounds - if sustained - is 10% of imports from British possessions over the war.



What would have happened? Probably the same thing that happened in the Revolutionary War, a booming industry in outhouse cleaning.
Nitre beds take many months to mature (on the order of a year or two) and their productivity is limited. The ARW productivity of nitre was able to sustain combat leading to about 14,000 total British/Loyalist battle deaths over the eight years of the war, or about 2,000 a year; there are obvious difficulties scaling that up to a much more artillery-heavy combat which produced nearly 30,000 battle deaths a year over the last three years of the war.
 

67th Tigers

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 10, 2006
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.
NHCC supplied ca. 1,000 tons during the war. It was being made to order for the Navy, and they took the entire product, which was then turned into powder by DuPont. The contracts were:

September 1862: 10,000 lbs (ca. 5 tons) to test. Delivered in October '62
October '62: 500 tons to be delivered within one year. Contract completed in December 1863.
December 1863: a repeat of the previous contract, another 500 tons to be delivered within one year. This was completed on time, but by late 1864 there was no need to issue another contract.

During this, NHCC was consuming so much Potash (potassium carbonate) that the supply started drying up. Potash was supplied almost entirely from British Canada. After attempts to procure a sufficient domestic supply failed the process switched, post war, to muriate of potash (KCl) imported from Germany.

The American Chemist 1874 article says that sometimes 5 tons/day were completed. That is likely true, but misleading. However, the process is a multi-day one, especially the recrystallisation step. At full capacity the factory outputted 50 tons/month. Hence the 500 tons/ year contracts.
 
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kevikens

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Location
New Jersey
Do you have a source for that production? Particularly one which makes it clear they did 5 tons a day for two full years?

To be clear on this, though, 7.5 million pounds - if sustained - is 10% of imports from British possessions over the war.




Nitre beds take many months to mature (on the order of a year or two) and their productivity is limited. The ARW productivity of nitre was able to sustain combat leading to about 14,000 total British/Loyalist battle deaths over the eight years of the war, or about 2,000 a year; there are obvious difficulties scaling that up to a much more artillery-heavy combat which produced nearly 30,000 battle deaths a year over the last three years of the war.
Yes, but by 1860 there were more than twenty times the number of outhouses in America and some were around for four score and years longer building up.
 

Saphroneth

Captain
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Feb 18, 2017
Yes, but by 1860 there were more than twenty times the number of outhouses in America and some were around for four score and years longer building up.
More than twenty times the outhouses? Quite an achievement for a much smaller population increase than that.

As for building up for over eighty years... um, I beg leave to doubt that that's a difference, not least because the place was British North America for over a hundred years before the revolution. (In practice of course the fertilizing properties of the stuff would not have been ignored, but that means you can't mine it later.)
More seriously, though, the Confederacy would surely have tried it if it was a significant supply, but they got most of their nitre through imports and a large chunk of the remainder through cave mining. They did set up big new nitre beds, but they didn't quite mature before the end of the war IIRC.
 
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Saphroneth

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Feb 18, 2017
As a further note on the Revolutionary War supply of gunpowder, I should note that the domestic supply (such as it was) was supplemented by acquisition from the British (specifically from the Bermuda base, as well as other captures) and from massive importation from the French, including before the French entered the war. So in fact the domestic supply in the Revolutionary War was significantly insufficient to supply that war.
 

Saphroneth

Captain
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
So I was thinking about the effect of a complete shutdown of saltpetre flow from British possessions.

The Federal Government has the larger stockpile on hand, they can manage several months' worth of operations out of what they have on hand, but unless it's quite late in the war they don't have much of a truly domestic supply because that revolves around niter beds and cave deposits - and almost all of the cave deposits are under CSA control in the early war.

The Rebels have a better advantage in ongoing production early and mid war because they have the caves and the Texas deposits, though this wouldn't make up for the War Department stockpile.

And if both sides have to resort to niter beds then the CSA gets theirs going first, because they have the warmer climate.

Overall it probably benefits the CSA just by making combat much less intense, by hampering naval operations and by generally making the war happen slower. Infantry fighting isn't much impeded but artillery suffers drastic curtailment, and that cuts against a Union advantage overall; fortifications are much stronger sans rifled artillery.
Ultimately this means the CSA gets more of a chance to consolidate, possibly even garnering enough time to build a line of permanent forts along the Rappahanock line. (This would be an enormous advantage to the CSA because it would let them economize on manpower - historically all the attempts to get over the Rappahanock relied in their base concept on getting over as quickly as possible, and forts are a big impediment to that kind of movement.)
 
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agibson2

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Aug 31, 2018
Do you have a source for that production? Particularly one which makes it clear they did 5 tons a day for two full years?

To be clear on this, though, 7.5 million pounds - if sustained - is 10% of imports from British possessions over the war.




Nitre beds take many months to mature (on the order of a year or two) and their productivity is limited. The ARW productivity of nitre was able to sustain combat leading to about 14,000 total British/Loyalist battle deaths over the eight years of the war, or about 2,000 a year; there are obvious difficulties scaling that up to a much more artillery-heavy combat which produced nearly 30,000 battle deaths a year over the last three years of the war.
Yes, there is a Journal Article from Autumn 1949 that outlines the change in process from 1862-1863 that Dahlgren and DuPont initiated at the New Haven Chemical Co. after the Trent affair held up the export of British Saltpeter. Also, if you look at the amount of saltpeter imported year over year from Calcutta,you will notice a decline in the import of saltpeter from there by almost 50% right at the time that Dupont and the NHCC started producing saltpeter domestically. Dupont made approximately 50% of the Union's gunpowder during the Civil war (at least according to a couple sources) and Dupont for that period was exclusively using the NHCC as its supplier of saltpeter for that 2 year period. Thats more than just coincidence considering that demand for gunpowder only increased as the war dragged on. I'm not saying that the new process completely eliminated the need for foreign saltpeter. I honestly have no evidence that suggests that the other gunpowder producers were using the NHCC at any large scale. Ive included links to the article and the commerce departments reports for that period. Hope you have access to JSTOR.

http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0026-3931(194923)13:3<142:DPDATC>2.0.CO;2-O

https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=iau.31858045199217;view=1up;seq=106
 

Saphroneth

Captain
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
Also, if you look at the amount of saltpeter imported year over year from Calcutta,you will notice a decline in the import of saltpeter from there by almost 50% right at the time that Dupont and the NHCC started producing saltpeter domestically.
You mean a decline for one year only based on the stats for British imports covering the whole of India (rather than just one, albeit large, port) - and given the relative balance of imports and issuance over the previous few years, something that could be explained by DuPont letting their stockpile run down a bit. Imports from 1861-3 amount to about 54 million lbs of saltpetre, which is enough to make more gunpowder than was issued by the Ordnance department for the entire war (specifically about twice as much).


Thats more than just coincidence considering that demand for gunpowder only increased as the war dragged on.
Powder issued:

Gunpowder issued up to June 30 1862 (Ordnance dept.) 7.73 million lbs
Gunpowder issued up to June 30 1863 13.07 million lbs
(so June 1862-3 5.34 million lbs)
June 1863-4: 7.54 million lbs
June 1864-5: 5.58 million lbs

Thus the demand remained fairly static.

Ordnance department stocks:
Stock remaining on hand June 30 1862 1.03 million lbs powder and 9.05 million lbs saltpeter
Stock remaining on hand June 30 1863 1.46 million lbs powder and 8.16 million lbs saltpeter
Stock remaining on hand June 30 1864 2.33 million lbs powder and 8.12 million lbs saltpeter
Ditto June 30 1865 3.37 million lbs powder and 8.10 million lbs saltpeter

I can't access JSTOR so I can't check the DuPont detail; I believe @67th Tigers has access to it though.
 

67th Tigers

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 10, 2006
Also, if you look at the amount of saltpeter imported year over year from Calcutta,you will notice a decline in the import of saltpeter from there by almost 50% right at the time that Dupont and the NHCC started producing saltpeter domestically.
Correlation =/= causation.

The imports from the British Empire have been given (in lbs):

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The army was averaging ca. 6 million pounds used p.a. The Navy and mining used the rest.

What these numbers actually show is panic buying by the U.S. post Trent, followed by a reduction once DuPont etc. had overflowing warehouses. The Polish crisis of 1863 lead to a major increase in demand as Russia, Prussia, Austria and others prepared for war, leading to a price increase to over 17 cents per pound.

Dupont made approximately 50% of the Union's gunpowder during the Civil war (at least according to a couple sources) and Dupont for that period was exclusively using the NHCC as its supplier of saltpeter for that 2 year period. 6
No. NHCC supplied the following to DuPont via the Navy contract (their only customer):

1862: 10,000 lbs (vs 26.1 million lbs from Britain)
1863: 1,000,000 lbs (vs. 13.4 million lbs from Britain)
1864-5: 1,000,000 lbs (vs. 7.7 million lbs from Britain)

During the whole war NHCC produced 2.01 m lbs vs 79.04 m lbs imported from the UK and Empire. There were additional imports from other nations. Roughly 2% of the saltpeter available to the US during the whole period was domestic.

NHCC domestic saltpeter was slow and expensive to make, and relied on two other imported products - Chilean Guano (rich in sodium nitrate) and potash mostly from Canada (a mix of potassium salts from burning certain trees). It was more expensive than British nitre, and only the upswing in demand temporarily equalised prices.

It should be stressed that in the event of a war with the UK then NHCC's guano supply would also be severed.

I can't access JSTOR so I can't check the DuPont detail; I believe @67th Tigers has access to it though.
It is uploaded here.
 
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67th Tigers

1st Lieutenant
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Ah, thanks.
This... this doesn't say that Du Pont got all his nitre from the NHCC. In fact it says that Dwight got a contract for 500 tons of manufactured nitre and it took him the entirety of 1863, and that domestic supply was fifty tons a month - not 150.
Yep.

The 150 is derived from a later article (which I ref'd above ISTR) stating sometimes 5 tons was produced in a day. Sloppy researchers multiplied by 30 and bingo. In fact it is a multi-day batch process, and probably was producing 5 tons per batch, but with a batch taking three days.
 

67th Tigers

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Joined
Nov 10, 2006
FYI, the process is similar to getting nitre from beds. There you leach calcium nitrate from the rotting matter and mix with potash. Calcium carbonate is insoluble in water (c.f. your kettle) and the ion exchange precipitates CaCO3, leaving 2 KNO3 in solution.

The NHCC process started from potash, but reacted this with lime (calcium hydroxide), precipitating out calcium carbonate and leaving a potassium hydroxide solution. After settling the solution is decanted. To this the sodium nitrate was added, and the least soluble product in solution is the potassium nitrate. As the water slowly evaporates the KNO3 crystallises from solution, leaving a sodium hydroxide solution.
 
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Apr 13, 2018
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.
I contend England had every intention to involve themselves. In fact, they did everything possible to instigate war. War is what Lincoln declared to his letter to the people of Manchester. What history books are you reading?
 
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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.
This is inaccurate. England most certainly did break neutrality. On such a degree, it is amazing what you are saying.
 

Saphroneth

Captain
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
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.
Couple of corrections here.

Firstly, in looking at the stockpile you need to look at the flows involved. Where do you think all that saltpeter came from, and how much do you think was issued over the course of 1861 and 1862?
The answer is that the saltpeter came from Britain, and that without British imports (which the US recieved in 1862) the Union would have run out of spare powder by the end of June 1862.

Secondly, in looking at food supply you need to take "British food supply minus US food" and compare it to British food supply in other years; the answer that comes out is that without US grain the British food supply is typical for a normal year.

This is inaccurate. England most certainly did break neutrality. On such a degree, it is amazing what you are saying.
They certainly made several pro-US decisions!
 
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Do you have a source for that production? Particularly one which makes it clear they did 5 tons a day for two full years?

To be clear on this, though, 7.5 million pounds - if sustained - is 10% of imports from British possessions over the war.




Nitre beds take many months to mature (on the order of a year or two) and their productivity is limited. The ARW productivity of nitre was able to sustain combat leading to about 14,000 total British/Loyalist battle deaths over the eight years of the war, or about 2,000 a year; there are obvious difficulties scaling that up to a much more artillery-heavy combat which produced nearly 30,000 battle deaths a year over the last three years of the war.
Question.... When the Union Armies overtook southern mining operations, did they convert them for Union purposes?
 
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