What If England Had Cut Off Saltpeter Supply

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An off site debate brought this company to my attention:

The Hazard Powder Company’s headiest years, however, were during the American Civil War, when the company’s sprawling factory village, consisting of over 120 buildings located in south Enfield, produced up to 12,500 pounds of gunpowder per day in order to keep up with domestic and international demand.​
 
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Tielhard

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This debate is a bit like being in Groundhog Day it happens over and over again and it changes just a tiny bit each time. This iteration is a little bit different as it has thrown up a few new questions. I also have a few comments that have not been made yet.

Historically in response to the boarding of RMS Trent in international waters and the siezure of the Confederate Commissiones to France and Britain by an American Union warship the British Government did embargo all of the vast quatities of Indian saltpetre that DuPont had purchased and already loaded on to ships in the port of London and all of the lead (for bullets and balls) in the cargo as well. The Government the gave orders that no further saltpetre should be sold or exported to foriegn interests in India itself. This message was sent telegraphically for most of it journey. Unfortunately for DuPont saltpetre is highly hygroscopic and storing it on a ship for a prolonged period can lead to significant losses so he was in the worst possible position.

The British Government then significantly reinforced the British Army in the Canadas and the Maritimes and sent out modern guns, rifle muskets and ammunition for the militias. Reinforcements of men, weapons and ammunition were also sent to Bermuda and the West Indies garrisons. They sent more weapons and ammunition around the Horn to Esquimalt and New Westminster. Naval reinforcements were sent to the North America and West Indies Station and the Mediterranean fleet earmarked a large number of ships as further reinforcement. All around the coast of Britain Royal Navy warships due in commission in the next year or so were hurried to completion and were queueing up at the victualing and powder wharves waiting for orders to sea. Those ships in deeper reserve had shiprights, riggers and engineers working on them two 12 hour shifts a day to make them ready for war.

From the above a number of things are clear:-

1) There is no obvious scenario where the British would hold the DuPont saltpetre for a prolonged period without going to war with the Union in respect of the Trent Affair.
2) In a situation where the European powers decided to impose a diplomatic solution on the Union and Confederacy the British (nobody else has much saltpetre to trade) might withold saltpetre along with all other materiel of war but it would probably be unnecesary.
3) The British Government were completely aware of the importance of the saltpetre to any military endeavours of the Union. This passed the Union Army by in the run up to the DuPont mission.

Through a quirk of geography and religion/culture India was the source of most of the world's saltpetre in the mid-19th century. The cow is sacred in Hindu society so they could go where they liked and urinate where they liked. All living matter contains potassium ions and they are continually excreted in urine. Cow urine is rich in potassium. The weather in India is monsoonal, it pours down in vast amounts for a few months and then is bone arid until the next annual monsoon. This is important because as already mentioned saltpetre (KNO3) the main potassium salt in the urine is highly soluble and even a small amount of rain will leach it out of the topsoil and deep into the ground where it is lost. However in India there are no rains between monsoons. So what you do is scrape the top centimetre off of everyone's farm yard just before the monsoon is due and extract the saltpetre from that. For these reasons and because Britain controls India Britain is sitting on a mountain of saltpetre.

If the supply of India saltpetre via Britain to the Union stops thier war making capacity is seriously compromised. They have other options but none of them are really viable, all of them together are not really viable.

The Union could import seabird guano which is rich in nitrates and potassium. The Union did this anyway and used it as a fertiliser. Unfortunately the British control the seabird guano trade most of which was located off the west coast of South America at that time. To get guano from there to the east coast of the Union a ship needs to sail through three different Royal Navy stations. So in the event of a Trent war at least there will be a blockade of the Union and the seabird guano supply will stop. Of course the Union Government could sieze all of the private stocks but that is a very small quantity and would not make much difference.

There is bat guano in caves in both Union and border states. Depending on the type of bat excreting the guano it may be between 1 and 3 percent by weight compounds of nitrogen and potassium. So the first thing you have to do is convert the mixture of compounds to a saltpetre solution and recrystalise the saltpetre. This was apparently a lossy process back then so you recover considerably less saltpetre than the total amount mined. Unfortunately these bat caves are widely separated, in general remote from transportation and the amount of guano in most of them is not large. So a possible source of saltpetre but mining processing and trasportation costs will be very high and there is not nearly enough of it to make up for what was imported from the British.

Then there is Chile nitrate (sodium nitrate) mined in the arid deserts of Chile. You can react this with potassium hydroxide to get potassium nitrate. This is what they did at New Haven. It works. However there are a few problems with this approach too. The way to obtain potassium in this period was to burn a forest down collect up the ash and leach out the potassium. I exagerate only slightly, vast amounts of wood are needed for small amounts of potassium. As for seabird guano so too the Chile nitrate is three Royal Navy stations away so in a Trent war this material would be blockaded. Oh and once again Britain controls the trade.

Nitre beds are beds of rotting vegetable matter drenched in urine. Europeans and Chinese have been building nitre beds as long as they have had guns and fireworks. There are numerous approaches and methods. Historically the Confederacy did an excellent job of building vast nitre beds unfortunately nitre beds take an absolute minimum of 6 months to start producing saltpetre and 18 months is more realistic and the Confederate beds only really started producing in quantity at the end of the war. So this option is open to the Union but adding in planning and construction time it would not make a significant contibution until 1864 if started at the begining in 1862. There is one additional problem facing the Union in this approach, most European small farms at this time were clustered around a village making collecting and transporting urine, dung and other rotting matter relatively easy. Union farms at this time were widely spaced and remote from villages making collection, transportation and centralisation of nitogenous material time consuming, difficult and expensive.

It might be possible to import saltpetre from a non-British supplier? At this time most European nations are not disposed to sell saltpetre or gunpowder due to the British supra-abundance and national requirements. The Union did make equiries in Japan I understand but the saltpetre was of low quality and the regional lords would not sell as civil war in Japan (the Boshin war) was looking highly probable. I think but cannot say with certainty that approaches were also made to the Chinese Empire. In any event if there is war with Britain there is a blockade and any material from the far east has to get to the east coast of the Union so it is no more likely to get through than the guano and Chile saltpetre, less in fact as it has further to go. There is no point landing it in the California as there is no easy way of getting it overland to the Mississippi. At this time 2-5% mortality was common for wagon trains on the California and Oregon trails and the Great American Desert is still a desert pretty much.

There will be no smuggling saltpetre from Britain as this is a serious crime and if a British blockade is in place almost impossible anyway.

The annual gunpowder needs of the Union are very roughly 1/3 army, 1/3 navy and 1/3 civilian. In 1861/2 there are almost no other viable explosives military or civilian. Civilian use is nearly all mining, quarrying and a bit of civil engineering. If you want to supply your military with powder you can starve the civilian sector but there will be consequences for domestic production. The most significant of these being a drop in both coal and iron ore production. In the historical American Civil War iron production fell far short of consumption and the difference was made up by imports from Britain. In a scenario where the Union re-allocates gunpowder from mines to military purposes the shortage of iron becomes larger than it was historically and presumably without British imports even more of a problem. The other impact might be on gold mining in California but gunpowder there cannot be transfered overland east so it isn't really an issue.

If we assume a Trent war or any other European military intervention the overall requirement for saltpetre goes up as the coastal fortresses will need to be garrisoned.

Should things move to a Trent war the Union blockade of the Confederacy is raised immediately as the Union Navy has no means to sustain it and they can buy as much powder as they wish.

So my conclusions are:-

1) The British will embargo saltpetre until thier demands are met or until they go to war in which case the embargo becomes part of a blockade.
2) In the event of a Trent war the Union has no means of making up its immediate powder short fall and as a result of that will sue for peace with Britain at least very quickly.

I have a few questions.

1) The other component of gunpowder after charcoal and saltpetre is sulphur. In 1862 this is still mined by hand. The Confederacy is awash with the stuff, there are a few small mines and it was widely imported before the ACW for cotton processing. I want to know where the Union got it from and how much they imported. Does anyone know?
2) How much gunpowder and saltpetre was in California in 1861?
3) Someone suggested that kerosene would be in short supply in Britain if the Union stopped exporting it and that this would cause Britain to reconsider its position. It is my understanding that 1861 was only just after the peak of whaling, that they were already producing coal oil in Scotland, British cities have been lit by gas for decades and that the Baku fields were already open with the Russians refining oil. So I think this is a non-issue for the British. Does anyone else have a view or information?
 
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Saphroneth

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1) The other component of gunpowder after charcoal and saltpetre is sulphur. In 1862 this is still mined by hand. The Confederacy is awash with the stuff, there are a few small mines and it was widely imported before the ACW for cotton processing. I want to know where the Union got it from and how much they imported. Does anyone know?
There was overseas purchase:


'Later in 1862, E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company was again secretly commissioned by the armed forces to undertake the purchase of saltpeter and also sulphur. This time the firm bought through regular trade channels, which it considered less disturbing to the market.' (Harold B. Hancock, Norman B. Wilkinson, '"The Devil to Pay!": Saltpeter and the Trent Affair', Civil War History, Volume 10, Number 1, March 1964 p.31.)
The footnote to this statement cites three letters, all written in August (Du Pont Co. to J. A. Dahlgren, Aug. 2, 1862; Asst. Secy, of War Peter H. Watson to Du Pont Co., Aug. 4, 1862; Dahlgren to Du Pont Co., Aug. 12, 1862).



2) How much gunpowder and saltpetre was in California in 1861?
My guess is that the supply in California for mining purposes would be sufficient that the scant weapons in the state could be considered to be well supplied. There simply aren't many guns in California so we would not expect the supply to be run down fast.

3) Someone suggested that kerosene would be in short supply in Britain if the Union stopped exporting it and that this would cause Britain to reconsider its position. It is my understanding that 1861 was only just after the peak of whaling, that they were already producing coal oil in Scotland, British cities have been lit by gas for decades and that the Baku fields were already open with the Russians refining oil. So I think this is a non-issue for the British. Does anyone else have a view or information?
The statistics of the foreign and domestic commerce of the United States note a sudden increase in exports in petroleum from the US to Britain from 1861 (low) to 1862 (high) and 1863 (higher) - seen on p.43. This is noted to have partially replaced the cotton trade.
Based on this my opinion is that if the Union does not export kerosene etc. then the British wouldn't really notice the shortfall as such because their consumption would simply remain flat or not change much (instead of undergoing the historical large increase).

In 1861 the export of petroleum products from the US to Britain was about 140,000 gallons, worth about $8,000.
 

wausaubob

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OK, the British embargoed saltpeter. If that goes on for very long, the war ends, for awhile. The US releases the diplomats. The embargo probably ends, because the merchants want to sell the powder. The US ships as much powder as it can while the armistice lasts, and then the war resumes, and the US is very angry with the British. So very close to the actual events, except the US is driven closer to Russia, and the Irish/Americans are pressing harder for anti-British intervention.
Pretty clear that the British could have frozen the war by embargoing both sides. They didn't. They made money on the war and they wanted the connection between slavery and cotton permanently broken. And if the US started importing sugar from the Caribbean that would have been another plus.
 

wausaubob

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The extensive buying of gunpowder is further evidence that the threat of British intervention was taken very seriously throughout 1862 and remained a concerned until the US controlled Vicksburg and Port Hudson.
 

Saphroneth

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OK, the British embargoed saltpeter. If that goes on for very long, the war ends, for awhile. The US releases the diplomats. The embargo probably ends, because the merchants want to sell the powder. The US ships as much powder as it can while the armistice lasts, and then the war resumes, and the US is very angry with the British. So very close to the actual events, except the US is driven closer to Russia, and the Irish/Americans are pressing harder for anti-British intervention.
Why would the US want to resume the (Trent) war? The US had been talking a big game about invading Canada for decades but never actually did it, and in any reasonable Trent war the US has either been blockaded extensively or suffered some kind of economic collapse upon the arrival of the declaration of war - meaning that it's clear either way that war with Britain is bad for your economy.
 

wausaubob

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Why would the US want to resume the (Trent) war? The US had been talking a big game about invading Canada for decades but never actually did it, and in any reasonable Trent war the US has either been blockaded extensively or suffered some kind of economic collapse upon the arrival of the declaration of war - meaning that it's clear either way that war with Britain is bad for your economy.
The US would not resume a war with Britain. They would renew the war with the Confederates.
The British had enormous advantages in the short run, but the US was still the faster growing economy.
After 1844, the US had few long term grievances with Britain, although both countries were competing for trade in the Pacific.
The US had serious grievances with the existence of an independent Confederacy.
At any rate, I don't see President Lincoln being trapped in the proposed war for very long. He may have even been testing his cabinet as to who was going to tell him the truth. The truth was that the US could not fight the Confederacy without trade with Britain, to purchase gunpowder, iron, armaments, and high other high quality items.
And under any settlement after the US Civil War, the US was going to desire further immigration from Ireland and England, and much more investment from England and Scotland.
If the US and Great Britain had wanted another big shooting war, the could have had one long before 1862.
 
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Saphroneth

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The US would not resume a war with Britain. They would renew the war with the Confederates.
Then I'm not sure how you can argue that the war would be going much the same as historically. Any cessation of hostilities even for a few months which gives the Confederates time to consolidate their position is massively helpful, especially since it lets the Confederates import too and they've got more to gain from unrestricted imports. I wouldn't want to be the Union commander fighting a Confederate army equipped with a couple of dozen Krupp guns or Armstrong guns...

At any rate, I don't see President Lincoln being trapped in the proposed war for very long. He may have even been testing his cabinet as to who was going to tell him the truth. The truth was that the US could not fight the Confederacy with trade with Britain, to purchase gunpowder, iron, armaments, and high other high quality items.
This doesn't really seem to work, to me, because if Lincoln was "testing" his cabinet he kept up the "test" until after the technical expiration of the ultimatum.
It seems more plausible to me that he was of the honest opinion that Wilkes was legally in the right and that international opinion was on the side of the Union.
 

CanadianCanuck

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At any rate, I don't see President Lincoln being trapped in the proposed war for very long. He may have even been testing his cabinet as to who was going to tell him the truth. The truth was that the US could not fight the Confederacy with trade with Britain, to purchase gunpowder, iron, armaments, and high other high quality items.

This is actually one of those weird historical events where the opposite of what you'd expect was true. In the historical Trent affair Lincoln was very gung-ho to keep the commissioners, alongside the rest of the Cabinet. The only member of the Cabinet adamant they should be released? William Seward! He had to argue the whole cabinet away from the idea of submitting the matter to international arbitration, and Lincoln finally came around to his view as he could not see any way around it. It was, from my understanding, one of the events that cemented their excellent relationship which lasted through the whole war.
 

wausaubob

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This is actually one of those weird historical events where the opposite of what you'd expect was true. In the historical Trent affair Lincoln was very gung-ho to keep the commissioners, alongside the rest of the Cabinet. The only member of the Cabinet adamant they should be released? William Seward! He had to argue the whole cabinet away from the idea of submitting the matter to international arbitration, and Lincoln finally came around to his view as he could not see any way around it. It was, from my understanding, one of the events that cemented their excellent relationship which lasted through the whole war.
I am aware of that. But Lincoln was an experienced lawyer and he may have been testing the other lawyers, to see who would come around to reality first. The first casualty of the testing was probably Simon Cameron who had no clue how the US would cope without British imports. The second casualty was probably slower, as Salmon Chase was a more dangerous rival.
 

wausaubob

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The Lincoln pushed the pro war argument until it became clear that Seward would start leaking anti-war, pro British rationalizations.
Of course the whole thing takes place with Seward and Lyons posturing their hostilities while they were working on the long sought British right of inspection of ships claiming the American flag as protection for slave trading.
Later, in February 1862, Lincoln declined to commute the death sentence of the slave trader who had been prosecuted in NYC.
Nothing on the surface corresponded to what was happening behind the scenes.
By the time Mason and Slidell got to London and spoke with British For Sec'y Russell, the US brief on the real progress of the war in the border states had been delivered to the British.
 

Saphroneth

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I am aware of that. But Lincoln was an experienced lawyer and he may have been testing the other lawyers, to see who would come around to reality first. The first casualty of the testing was probably Simon Cameron who had no clue how the US would cope without British imports. The second casualty was probably slower, as Salmon Chase was a more dangerous rival.
That doesn't hang together to me because of how long Lincoln went before he "gave in". Internal cabinet political brinksmanship is too risky to do when you're technically a day delinquent on the deadline of the British war ultimatum, especially if you as Lincoln know the British absolutely mean it; it's more plausible to me that Lincoln didn't know the British meant it and thought that it was basically a hard line before arbitration.
 

CanadianCanuck

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I am aware of that. But Lincoln was an experienced lawyer and he may have been testing the other lawyers, to see who would come around to reality first. The first casualty of the testing was probably Simon Cameron who had no clue how the US would cope without British imports. The second casualty was probably slower, as Salmon Chase was a more dangerous rival.

He wasn't an experienced lawyer in international or Maritime law however. It wasn't really until the Cabinet Meeting Christmas Day 1861 that he seemed to fully understand the matter at hand. It took all of Seward's considerable skills to bring the whole Cabinet around, and though there's two competing narratives (Edward Bates and Frederick Seward's) it seems he didn't fully make up his mind on the matter until the 26th where he finally sided with Seward and said the Commissioners would be released. Perhaps not coincidentally that was the day too which both the French diplomatic notes reached Washington and Seward dropped the bomb about the powder situation.
 

wausaubob

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That doesn't hang together to me because of how long Lincoln went before he "gave in". Internal cabinet political brinksmanship is too risky to do when you're technically a day delinquent on the deadline of the British war ultimatum, especially if you as Lincoln know the British absolutely mean it; it's more plausible to me that Lincoln didn't know the British meant it and thought that it was basically a hard line before arbitration.
Possibly. But have a much darker view of William Seward and Charles Sumner, who saw the confrontation with Great Britain as an opportunity to embarrass and dispose of the hick politician, Abe Lincoln, and negotiate some deal with the Confederates before there anymore big shootings.
Seward was one the talking up a distraction war with Spain, and he switched tunes pretty fast when it came to Britain.
 

wausaubob

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That doesn't hang together to me because of how long Lincoln went before he "gave in". Internal cabinet political brinksmanship is too risky to do when you're technically a day delinquent on the deadline of the British war ultimatum, especially if you as Lincoln know the British absolutely mean it; it's more plausible to me that Lincoln didn't know the British meant it and thought that it was basically a hard line before arbitration.
If the British absolutely meant it, that also helped Seward advocate that he was making a major concession of US sovereignty in agreeing to the right of inspection.
 

wausaubob

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I think Seward considered the nomination and the Presidency had been stolen from him, and he had a right to steal it back. Sumner always thought he and Adams had a right to run US foreign policy without interference from Lincoln or his eventual successor.
 

wausaubob

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The threat of British intervention was taken very seriously for the entirety of 1862. It wasn't until the US controlled the entire Mississippi River and the main cotton areas of Louisiana and Mississippi that the threat diminished.
 

CanadianCanuck

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I think Seward considered the nomination and the Presidency had been stolen from him, and he had a right to steal it back. Sumner always thought he and Adams had a right to run US foreign policy without interference from Lincoln or his eventual successor.

Probably he did in 1861, but by the time of the Trent affair, he had come to respect Lincoln and he certainly wasn't setting out to undermine him in an effort to add a second war to the one already raging across the country.
 

Saphroneth

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He wasn't an experienced lawyer in international or Maritime law however. It wasn't really until the Cabinet Meeting Christmas Day 1861 that he seemed to fully understand the matter at hand.
"I knew nothing about international law, and I thought we were quite en règle... I was a pretty fair advocate in one of our Western Courts; but we have very little international law down there. I thought Seward had been up to all that sort of thing, so I let him have his way. It's done now, and we can't help it. We must make the best we can of it."
 

Tielhard

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Saphroneth,

Thank you for your reply and reference to Civil War History I shall try and get hold of a copy whilst I am working for a Uni. No idea how to access the letters but the corespondees sound like they may be in the official record.

Sulphur/Sulfur is looking interesting. The only producers I know during the 1860s were Italy and the western Confederacy. Is this yet another problem for the Union or a non-issue I wonder.

I agree with your assumptions about California but as always looking for some records to validate the assumption.

Kerosene does look like a non-issue as I suspected.
 
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