What If England Had Cut Off Saltpeter Supply

Tielhard

Corporal
Joined
May 18, 2010
Hi wausaubob

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,

So apart from the war which wasn't necessary this is what actually happened. Commissioner released (NOT diplomats if they were diplomats this would have been de facto recognition of the Confederacy by Britain and France, Britain was very careful to treat them as private gentlemen).

because the merchants want to sell the powder.

In late 1861 DuPont brought almost all the saltpetre available for sale in London and a significant amount of what was available in India. As the monsoon is approximately June to Sept it is reasonable to assume that the 1861 'crop' was available for purchase in India. So at the time the Trent Affair was resolved there is almost nothing to sell him the merchants can sell him there is no more. By the time the 1862 'crop' becomes available European nations may also be buying by 1863 they definitely will.

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.

When you say the US do you mean the Union Government, military, business or ordinary people? The Union government will not be angry or stupid enough to store saltpetre and plan a new war against Britain even if it has had to let the Confederacy go as a result of a Trent war. Especially as key officers of the Union Navy made very clear during the historical Trent Affair they had no chance whatsoever against the Royal Navy. I suggest to you that even in this case they cannot collect enough powder to fight the British in less than three years (even assuming as I have they are not fighting the Confederacy).

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.

On the matter of the Trent Affair the Russians were on side with the British and French against the Union as Union actions threatened Russian interests. Later 1863 I think, when there was a concern that Britain might go to war with Russia over Poland they sent nearly all of thier serviceable small ships nothing bigger than a screw steam frigate to winter in neutral ports where they would not be icebound and could sally forth to attack British commerce in the event of a war over Poland. The ports the Russians chose were San Francisco and New York City. I think I am right in saying that from the Trent Affair onwards there was no time when the Royal Navy on the Pacific did not completely over match the combined Russian Pacific squadron and the Union Pacific squadron combined and the NAWIS station overmatched the Russian squadron at New York and both Union Atlantic Blocading squadrons combined. Of course the Russian had no intention to offer a fleet action.

The Irish made up 25% of the British army, volunteer to a man. Wolfetone and Emmet were executed, Michael Dwyer was transported. Then there was An Gorta Mor and mass migration to England, the Americas, the Autralian Colonies and the Argentine anything to escape the hunger. The Young Ireland rebellion was a joke. It was not until after Parnell, the Land leagues, the formation of the IRB, the Fenian raids, Gaelic athletics, the cultural revival and finally the coming together of the Socialists, nationalists and the woman's movement that Ireland was ready to rise again. Anything else such as another rising furing a Trent War is 'Fenian Fantasy'.

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.

As you did with the Union you are now doing with the British you are assuming it is some sort of monolithic organisation. There were disagreements over slavery everywhere even at the highest levels of Government. The Europeans as a group Britain, France, Russia and Prussia could have imposed a peace simply by recognising the Confederacy but there would have been no point if the Confederacy did not demonstrate its independence and its ability to govern and defend itself. It never did win enough military victories to demonstrate that. British backers of blockade runners and producers of materiel and weapons made money. Textile manufacturing concerns struggled and some textile workers, many became destitute in Manchester and the mill towns during the cotton famine. I am not aware of anyone wanting to break the connevtion between cotton and slavery. Who did you have in mind? Don't forget that both Union and Confederacy were slave holding countries during the ACW. Why would the post bellum USA import sugar from the West Indies when they can import it from an independent Confederacy?
 

Tielhard

Corporal
Joined
May 18, 2010
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.

Seward and the Postmaster.
 

Saphroneth

Captain
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
I agree with your assumptions about California but as always looking for some records to validate the assumption.

There's about a ton of powder at one known mine in the Fort Yuma area in early 1862.


And a "large quantity" at the magazine at Mare Island:


No specific returns, but if I were defending California and I had a ton of powder to do it with on top of whatever was in the official magazine I'd probably not consider powder availability my biggest problem.
 

Tielhard

Corporal
Joined
May 18, 2010
Thanks for the info Saphroneth,

The powder at Mare Island is for Naval usage. It is my understanding that some of this powder was transferred east early in the ACW. Now I need to remember where I read that and check :smile:

Ah! Fort Yuma the key to the South West. What I found interesting is that the commander at Yuma is in no hurry to get his grubbies on the powder just keep it out of Confederate hands. This suggests he already has all he needs at Yuma. It is also worth mentioning that copper production at the mine is going down without powder for blasting. I assume the mine gets its product out via the Rio Colorado through Mexico to the sea of Cortez?
 

wausaubob

Lt. Colonel
Joined
Apr 4, 2017
Location
Denver, CO
But since the thread is about nitre, it has produced evidence that the US took the nitre situation very seriously.
Within 20 months of the Trent crisis, they had built up their stockpiles. Also by August of 1863, the US controlled New Orleans, the entire Mississippi and most of the movement of cotton from the most productive areas in the south.
The worm had turned in 20 months and it was the US that had enough nitre and controlled whether cotton exports would be restored to the previous level.
 
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Tielhard

Corporal
Joined
May 18, 2010
Thanks for the info wausaubob much appreciated,

It is going to take me some time to read Dr Calhoun's Doctoral dissertation. Actually that is the first interesting thing, they must do things differently at Kansas State. I have never come across a Doctoral dissertation before normally it is a bachelor's or master's dissertation and a doctoral thesis. You live and learn.

The things you seem to be missing about the historical situation is that at the start of the ACW there had been years of over production of cotton and the importers and the manufacturer's had huge stocks. This was in part why the Confederate's 'King Cotton' strategy failed. The other part being that the British Government would never have allowed itself to be blackmailed over supply of a single raw textile especially as it was also the world centre of wool, silk and linen production too.

Then there is the fact that many of the textile workers of Manchester, Salford and the mill towns were completely against slave labour and endured the long cotton famine as a matter of principle. Neither were all of the manufacturers supporters of the Confederacy. Britain was very divided over the ACW as I discussed in an earlier post and not on simple class lines. It is often said in the British North West that the American Civil War was won and lost in the fight between Liverpool's ships and Manchester's textile workers. It is obviously not true per se but there is more than a grain of truth in the idea.

Until the mid 19th century India provided most of the cotton used by European manufactories, mostly British but it was overtaken by American cotton thereafter because most American cotton has a longer grain and is much easier to machine weave. It was my understanding that most of the expansion in production of cotton during the historical ACW was in Ottoman Egypt and Australia rather than India itself which was already producing quite a lot. I shall see what your man Calhoun has to say on the subject.
 

Tielhard

Corporal
Joined
May 18, 2010
But since the thread is about nitre, it has produced evidence that the US took the nitre situation very seriously. Within 20 months they had built up their stockpiles.

I would say your first statement here is wrong. The USN knew they had a saltpetre problem. The Army was in blissful ignorance and I have never seen any decent evidence one way or the other the Government appreciated the problem. Your second statement is also probably wrong but I cannot be definitive about it as there is not enough data available to produce an annual mass balance of saltpetre for the duration of the war. So you can't tell if the Union is stock piling or just keeping up with usage but it does appear they are simply keeping up with usage. You can't tell.

Rate of change of size of stockpile = imports + manufactures - usage - losses

Also by August of 1863, the US controlled New Orleans, the entire Mississippi and most of the movement of cotton from the most productive areas in the south.

Look at map. Mississippi is an important route but not the only route to export cotton. Further I am not sure what you believe the significance of this point to be? Can you explain.

The worm had turned in 20 months and it was the US that had enough nitre and controlled whether cotton exports would be restored to the previous level.

This is somewhat confusing are you talking about historically or in the event of a Trent war?

Historically unless you can show the Union had a sufficiently large stock of saltpetre, which I have explained you can't then the British can still embargo it again and wreck the Union war effort against the Confederacy at the stroke of a pen. Especially as the Union never built nitre beds as a risk reduction measure.

A country in an expensive war and in as much debt to the Cohong and others such as the Union found itself in during late 1863 (20 months) has no real control over cotton exports. They have to export to bring money into the economy and that is what they did.

Another war or renewed war with Britain just makes the situation much worse.
 

Saphroneth

Captain
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
We know the situation on 30 June 1862 with the mass balances since the beginning of the war, but let's see if we have it for 30 June 1863...


Okay, it looks like there's something unusual going on. The data from start to 30 June 1862 is:


Category
On hand at start
Purchased from start to 30 June 1862
Expended by 30 June 1862
Remainder on 30 June 1862​
Powder​
1110584​
7659595​
7733308​
1036871​
Saltpeter​
3822704​
5231731​
9054435​


But the stats in the 30 June 1863 report don't quite line up:


Category
Purchased from start to 30 June 1863​
Therefore, purchased in Q3 1862-Q2 1863​
Expended from start to 30 June 1863​
Therefore, expended in Q3 1862-Q2 1863​
Calculated remainder on 30 June 1863​
Actually listed as remainder​
Difference​
Powder​
13424363​
5764768​
13071073​
5337765​
1463874​
1463874​
0​
Saltpeter​
5230731​
-1000​
0​
0​
9053435​
8155079​
-898356​


Basically it seems that they might have either "lost" about 450 tons of saltpeter, or just discovered that their prewar stockpile was not as large as they thought it was.

The 30 June 1864 report carries forwards the 1863 numbers, and gives:


Category
Purchased Q3 1863-Q2 1864​
Expended Q3 1863-Q2 1864​
Remainder 30 June 1864​
Powder​
8409400​
7544044​
2329230​
Saltpeter​
34839​
8120240​


The general pattern here seems to be that:

- The stockpile from the start of the war was smaller than previously thought.
- The purchase of powder pretty much matches the expenditure, though in 1863-4 they began to build up a surplus.
- At any given time post-Trent there's about four months of gunpowder stockpile on hand, plus niter to keep going for a while.

Given the scale of niter imports from Britain and from India, I believe it's the case that DuPont (etc.) were buying the (ed: nitre) and manufacturing the gunpowder, and then selling it on to the Ordnance Dept. (and the Navy).
 
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wausaubob

Lt. Colonel
Joined
Apr 4, 2017
Location
Denver, CO
Given the scale of niter imports from Britain and from India, I believe it's the case that DuPont (etc.) were buying the powder and manufacturing the gunpowder, and then selling it on to the Ordnance Dept. (and the Navy). Is there a typo there? Did you mean nitre?
Looks like DuPont purchased all he could get and made sure he got it all shipped before the British could change their minds again.
 

wausaubob

Lt. Colonel
Joined
Apr 4, 2017
Location
Denver, CO
We know the situation on 30 June 1862 with the mass balances since the beginning of the war, but let's see if we have it for 30 June 1863...


Okay, it looks like there's something unusual going on. The data from start to 30 June 1862 is:


Category
On hand at start
Purchased from start to 30 June 1862
Expended by 30 June 1862
Remainder on 30 June 1862​
Powder​
1110584​
7659595​
7733308​
1036871​
Saltpeter​
3822704​
5231731​
9054435​


But the stats in the 30 June 1863 report don't quite line up:


Category
Purchased from start to 30 June 1863​
Therefore, purchased in Q3 1862-Q2 1863​
Expended from start to 30 June 1863​
Therefore, expended in Q3 1862-Q2 1863​
Calculated remainder on 30 June 1863​
Actually listed as remainder​
Difference​
Powder​
13424363​
5764768​
13071073​
5337765​
1463874​
1463874​
0​
Saltpeter​
5230731​
-1000​
0​
0​
9053435​
8155079​
-898356​


Basically it seems that they might have either "lost" about 450 tons of saltpeter, or just discovered that their prewar stockpile was not as large as they thought it was.

The 30 June 1864 report carries forwards the 1863 numbers, and gives:


Category
Purchased Q3 1863-Q2 1864​
Expended Q3 1863-Q2 1864​
Remainder 30 June 1864​
Powder​
8409400​
7544044​
2329230​
Saltpeter​
34839​
8120240​


The general pattern here seems to be that:

- The stockpile from the start of the war was smaller than previously thought.
- The purchase of powder pretty much matches the expenditure, though in 1863-4 they began to build up a surplus.
- At any given time post-Trent there's about four months of gunpowder stockpile on hand, plus niter to keep going for a while.

Given the scale of niter imports from Britain and from India, I believe it's the case that DuPont (etc.) were buying the powder and manufacturing the gunpowder, and then selling it on to the Ordnance Dept. (and the Navy).
I don't think gunpowder could be inventoried. Doesn't it change in composition if stored?
 

Tielhard

Corporal
Joined
May 18, 2010
Saphroneth,

Thanks for this. A couple of questions to clarify.

1 Who is holding the stocks of powder and Saltpetre. Is it DuPont the Army or the Navy in who's magazines is it held?
2 Is the powder listed just that in magazines or does it include that issued to or in transit to field armies? Does it include powder issued to naval vessels?
3 I am not clear why the Federal Government is sitting on Saltpetre. I have worried about this in the past. Does the Union government have its own powder mills?

Observation this does not appear to account for Saltpetre or powder in Civilian hands.

Answer I suspect that the loss of Saltpetre is due to it getting damp and leaching away. The stuff is highly hygroscopic.
 

Saphroneth

Captain
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
1 Who is holding the stocks of powder and Saltpetre. Is it DuPont the Army or the Navy in who's magazines is it held?
The stocks are Ordnance Department stocks. DuPont presumably has more.


2 Is the powder listed just that in magazines or does it include that issued to or in transit to field armies? Does it include powder issued to naval vessels?
It is the Ordnance Department stockpiles and does not include issued powder - the expended column is in fact "issued/expended".

3 I am not clear why the Federal Government is sitting on Saltpetre. I have worried about this in the past. Does the Union government have its own powder mills?
It's basically their emergency stockpile to be tapped in the event of running out, is my understanding; sort of a strategic stockpile, as it's less likely for 4,000 tons of saltpetre to violently explode than 4,500 tons of made up gunpowder. They would probably release it to DuPont if they had need.
 

Saphroneth

Captain
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
I don't think gunpowder could be inventoried. Doesn't it change in composition if stored?
Unlike later explosives, black powder does not deteriorate if stored correctly. Someone was killed in 2008 drilling into a Civil War cannon shell - the powder was still good.
If shaken then some black powder can separate, but stored in arsenals it keeps effectively indefinitely (at least on this timescale).
 

Saphroneth

Captain
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
Given the scale of niter imports from Britain and from India, I believe it's the case that DuPont (etc.) were buying the powder and manufacturing the gunpowder, and then selling it on to the Ordnance Dept. (and the Navy). Is there a typo there? Did you mean nitre?
Looks like DuPont purchased all he could get and made sure he got it all shipped before the British could change their minds again.
He did make a large purchase, but it still wasn't really enough to keep going indefinitely - normal imports from India were able to keep up with usage, and that meant there was a fairly significant stockpile, but normal operations could not be continued forever if the powder supply was shut off. (They'd have several months, though.)
And yes, I meant nitre.
 

Tielhard

Corporal
Joined
May 18, 2010
Saphroneth,

Thank you for the answers. I appreciate the information you have presented but I don't think there is enough info there to do a mass balance.

Unlike later explosives, black powder does not deteriorate if stored correctly. Someone was killed in 2008 drilling into a Civil War cannon shell - the powder was still good.

This statement is a tad disengenuous if literally true. Gunpowder is a mixture not a chemical compound so the Potassium nitrate (Saltpetre) in it is just as hygroscopic as it was before it is mixed in with the sulphur and charcoal. If the gunpowder is exposed to any water at all the saltpetre is dissolved and leaches out of the powder reducing its effectiveness.

Gunpowder does not deteriorate in dry conditions but it does if it is damp. The bowels of ships and powder magazines are not the dryest of places. It was hardly ever stored in dry conditions. As an example you will recall that it is often suggested that one of the reasons CSS Alabama performed poorly against USS Kearsarge is because the former had been at sea some time and her powder has deteriorated whereas the latter had fresh powder. I seem to recall that some of the powder stored by the USA before the war had to be remade as it had deteriorated.

If the shell was metal and well plugged it is both resistant to the ingress and to the escape of potassium nitrate solution. Drills do have a terrible tendency to make sparks.
 

Saphroneth

Captain
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
Gunpowder does not deteriorate in dry conditions but it does if it is damp. The bowels of ships and powder magazines are not the dryest of places. It was hardly ever stored in dry conditions. As an example you will recall that it is often suggested that one of the reasons CSS Alabama performed poorly against USS Kearsarge is because the former had been at sea some time and her powder has deteriorated whereas the latter had fresh powder. I seem to recall that some of the powder stored by the USA before the war had to be remade as it had deteriorated.
I'm aware that damp is a problem, but I rather assume that powder magazines built several centuries into the development of the science of storing gunpowder could be assumed to have put at least some thought into preventing the ingress of damp; as such I think it's reasonable to assume that if a government thought it could store gunpowder in a magazine on land for a period of time they'd be doing so with the expectation it wouldn't all go bad by the time they needed it.

There might perhaps be a small amount of depreciation of the powder, but it would not tend to interfere with the idea that powder could substantially be stored for a period of months or years and that the expectation of the time (even if false) was that it would not be ruined. (And it certainly wouldn't become unstable.)

Thank you for the answers. I appreciate the information you have presented but I don't think there is enough info there to do a mass balance.
IIRC there's also a balance of trade table floating around somewhere showing total imports from India, if that would help? On a ton scale not a lb scale.
 

wausaubob

Lt. Colonel
Joined
Apr 4, 2017
Location
Denver, CO
It seems more likely that building storage facilities that were safe, preserved the gunpowder correctly, and were physically secure, was a costly undertaking. Every such facility had to be inspected and guarded, so large stockpiles of manufactured gunpowder were a problem.
 

Tielhard

Corporal
Joined
May 18, 2010
The problem of damp in powder magazines on ships is obvious they were below the waterline.

In onshore magazines it is less obvious. The difficulty is that they need good ventilation and they were usually made with thick stone walls so after a cold winter in a wet spring the stone which has a huge thermal mass cools the air and Bob is mon oncle condensation! The leaching begins.
 
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