By David A. Carrino, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2017-2018, All Rights Reserved
Editor’s Note: Since 2007, each Roundtable meeting has opened with a ‘History Brief’ presented by the Roundtable Historian, each ‘brief’ providing a small glimpse into a less-explored corner of the story of the Civil War. This page collects the History Briefs from this particular Roundtable season.
The Most Fulfilling Kind of Immortality
In its most basic sense, immortality simply means to live forever. However, there are several different concepts of immortality. In a religious sense, immortality means to pass into the afterlife and exist for all eternity. Napoleon Bonaparte characterized his view of immortality when he asserted, “There is no immortality but the memory that is left in the minds of men.” Comedian and filmmaker Woody Allen expressed a desire for a more practical immortality in his remark, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying.” The kind of immortality that Woody Allen wished for was granted to the ancient Greek mythological character Tithonus, but with a very unpleasant side effect. According to the myth, Tithonus became the lover of Eos, the goddess of the dawn. As a result, Eos beseeched Zeus to make Tithonus immortal, so that he could remain her lover for all time. Zeus was not at all pleased that a goddess would take a mortal as her lover, but in spite of that, Zeus granted Eos her wish. However, he did so with a tragic twist. Zeus made Tithonus immortal, but he did not bestow eternal youth on Tithonus. As a result, Tithonus lived forever, but never stopped aging, and eventually his body became so crippled by the ravages of age that he was uselessly infirm. Technically, the immortality that was conferred on Tithonus conforms to the immortality that Woody Allen said he desires. But if Woody Allen realizes that Tithonus’ immortality is an option that fits his request, then he might be more specific about the immortality he craves.
Perhaps the most lofty expression of immortality is found in an ode by the ancient Roman poet, Horace. In that ode, Horace described his concept of immortality as “a monument more lasting than bronze and higher than the royal structure of the pyramids, which neither devouring rain, nor the unrestrained North Wind can destroy, nor the immeasurable succession of years and the flight of time. I shall not totally die, and a greater part of me will evade death.” Horace’s concept of immortality is the kind of immortality that comes to people who live on in history through their deeds and accomplishments. This type of immortality fits with Napoleon’s version, and while it does not satisfy Woody Allen’s version of immortality, it at least avoids the highly unpleasant aspects of the immortality of Tithonus. Moreover, the immortality of which Horace wrote is especially fulfilling, because, as Horace wrote regarding his concept of immortality, “a greater part of me will evade death.” While the immortality that was espoused by Horace is not perfect, it is certainly very desirable. This kind of immortality came to many people who were part of the Civil War, and it came to one Civil War recipient of the Medal of Honor in a way that remains unique to this day.
The person who has this unique immortality is Mary Edwards Walker. Mary was born on November 26, 1832 near Oswego in upstate New York. She was the youngest of five daughters, and she had a younger brother. Her parents, Alvah and Vesta Walker, were abolitionists who were strong supporters of education for all of their children. Alvah and Vesta instilled in their children the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities. Mary’s father had an interest in medicine and owned a number of medical texts. During her youth, Mary read these books and became interested in medicine. After she spent a few years working as a teacher, Mary entered Syracuse Medical College (which is now Upstate Medical University). She was the only woman in her class, and she graduated in 1855 with honors. She was reputedly the second woman in the United States to receive a medical degree. Shortly after graduation Mary married one of her classmates, Albert Miller. Mary’s feminist views were evident in three aspects of her wedding. First, she kept her own surname rather than take the surname of her husband. Also, she deleted the word “obey” from her wedding vows. Lastly, she wore trousers and a coat rather than a wedding dress. Mary’s clothing choice for the wedding was due to her belief that women’s clothing of that time was unnecessarily restrictive and also unhealthful, which is an opinion that was instilled in her by her father. Even during her youth, Mary did not wear women’s clothing. Instead, she wore clothing that was not conventional for young women of her time, which led to her being taunted. Mary and her husband went into medical practice together, but their marriage quickly began to unravel, and there is evidence that Mary’s husband was unfaithful. They separated around the time that the Civil War began, and their divorce was finalized in 1868, 13 years after their wedding.
Shortly after the outbreak of the Civil War, Mary attempted to join the Union army as a surgeon, but she was denied. She was able to volunteer as a civilian, and her first duty was in a hospital in Washington. She later served in hospitals at a number of battlefields, including the first battle of Bull Run, in Chattanooga after the battle of Chickamauga, and in Atlanta. Although Mary worked as a surgeon, she was listed as a nurse, and she actively petitioned to have her designation changed to reflect her true status, but without success. Finally, in September 1863, Mary was appointed a contract acting assistant surgeon (civilian) in the Army of the Cumberland. During her service in battlefield hospitals, Mary designed and made clothing for herself that consisted of a calf-length skirt over trousers. This clothing allowed her to more easily move about and care for the wounded.
In April 1864, seven months after her appointment as a surgeon, Mary was taken prisoner in northwest Georgia when she went alone behind enemy lines to treat some wounded civilians. She was held as a prisoner of war in Castle Thunder near Richmond, Virginia. While Mary was there, her captors voiced disdain for her. This contempt is apparent in a description of Mary that was written by a Confederate captain. This Confederate wrote that those who saw Mary were “both amused and disgusted,” and he went on to characterize Mary as “a thing that nothing but the debased and depraved Yankee nation could produce—’a female doctor.’ ” He also took note of Mary’s clothing when he added that she was wearing “the full uniform of a Federal surgeon, looks, hat & all, & wore a cloak.” Regarding Mary’s appearance and feistiness, the Confederate captain described her as “not good looking and of course had tongue enough for a regiment of men.” A Richmond newspaper wrote about Mary, “She is ugly and skinny, and apparently above thirty years of age.” Mary spent four months as a prisoner of war until an exchange of prisoners swapped her and a number of other Union physicians for some Confederate physicians. At the time of her release, Mary, who weighed 110 pounds when she was captured, weighed only 65 pounds. Mary spent a few weeks recuperating and then returned to duty in Georgia. Her title was soon changed from contract acting assistant surgeon to acting assistant surgeon, and she was assigned to a female military prison in Louisville, Kentucky, where 2,000 inmates, mostly spies, were confined. Mary served there until March 1865 when she was transferred to an orphanage in Clarksville, Tennessee, and she remained there until the end of the war. After the war she returned to her home in upstate New York.
On November 11, 1865, Mary Edwards Walker became the first woman to be awarded the Medal of Honor. Mary’s Medal of Honor citation notes that she “devoted herself with much patriotic zeal to the sick and wounded soldiers, both in the field and hospitals, to the detriment of her own health.” Mary’s Medal of Honor citation also indicates that the Medal of Honor was conferred with the recommendations of William T. Sherman and George H. Thomas. (Ironically, in light of one of the primary reasons that Mary received the Medal of Honor, her medal was awarded to her on the day after the execution of Henry Wirz, the commandant of the notorious Confederate prison, Andersonville.) Mary’s Medal of Honor and over 900 other Medals of Honor were rescinded in 1917 when the criteria for the medal were changed to include only those who had engaged in combat. But Mary refused to relinquish her Medal of Honor, and she continued to wear it every day for the rest of her life. In 1977, 58 years after Mary’s death, Mary’s Medal of Honor was restored by President Jimmy Carter.
Mary’s post-Civil War years were marked by her involvement in two causes. One, not surprisingly, was women’s suffrage. However, Mary only tepidly supported the Constitutional amendment that was the goal of the women’s suffrage movement. This is because Mary and some others in the women’s suffrage movement felt that the Constitution, as written, gave women the right to vote. When the suffrage movement became focused on an amendment, Mary fell out of favor. The other cause that Mary championed involved women’s clothing. This is a cause that she had both embraced and put into practice from a young age. In 1866 Mary was elected president of the National Dress Reform Association, a little-known organization that advocated changes to women’s clothing. Eventually Mary lost standing in this group because of her extreme views and practices with regard to women’s clothing. In her later years, Mary took to wearing men’s clothing and regularly dressed in trousers, a men’s shirt and jacket, bow tie, and top hat. Having fallen out of favor with the two movements that she had actively supported, Mary spent the last three decades of her life on her family’s farm near Oswego. During that time, those who knew Mary and interacted with her considered her eccentric, but harmless. Mary died poverty-stricken on February 21, 1919 at the age of 86.
Economist John Kenneth Galbraith once noted, “If all else fails, immortality can always be assured by spectacular error.” There are many people who followed this path to immortality, and it can be debated whether this type of immortality is better or worse than the immortality of Tithonus. Nevertheless, this is not the route that Mary Edwards Walker traveled to immortality. Mary Edwards Walker achieved immortality by being the first and thus far only woman to receive the Medal of Honor.
In the movie Gladiator, as the main character, Maximus, was entering the arena for the competition that many expected would end with Maximus’ death, Maximus’ owner shouted to him, “We mortals are but shadows and dust.” Sadly, that is the reality for most of us mortals. But Mary Edwards Walker is one mortal who was able to escape this fate, because she achieved the kind of everlasting immortality that was extolled by Horace. Some people felt, and some people might now feel, that Mary Edwards Walker does not deserve the Medal of Honor. In large part this is because she never saw service in combat, but Mary’s valor, patriotism, devoted service, and personal sacrifice are beyond question. In the end, this controversy does not matter, because it is a fact of the historical record that Mary Edwards Walker is the first woman to be placed on the roster of Medal of Honor recipients, and she will hold this honored distinction for all time. By virtue of this extraordinary accomplishment, Mary Edwards Walker achieved the most fulfilling kind of immortality.
Like Father, Like Son… or Not
I remember when I was much younger, maybe age 12, my father took my brother and me to see the movie Taras Bulba. The movie stars Yul Brynner and Tony Curtis as, respectively, a father and son, and I suppose that this pairing strains credulity for genetic inheritance of physical appearance. The father and son in the movie are members of a Cossack community, and this community is in conflict with a Polish principality. During the movie, the son falls in love with a Polish woman and makes the decision to fight with the Poles in their conflict against the Cossacks. Near the end of the movie, the enraged father kills his son for supporting the cause that he opposes. As it happens, the Civil War had something of a Taras Bulba episode, and it occurred at the battle of Galveston.
On New Year’s Day 1863, when the second day of the battle of Murfreesboro took place, a much less known but nonetheless fierce battle occurred at Galveston, Texas. In this battle on the Gulf Coast, a Confederate force recaptured Galveston from a Union force that was occupying the city. Galveston had been taken by the Union in October 1862, and its recapture by the Confederates returned to them an important shipping port. As significant as this was to the Confederacy as a whole, an occurrence of much less significance to the overall war effort of either side had much greater significance for one person who participated in the Galveston battle that New Year’s Day and brought home to that person, as no other event could, just how costly his cause could be. For this person, the new year of 1863 began with an indescribable personal loss. The person in question was Albert M. Lea, who was an officer in the Confederate army (and whose surname rhymes with that of Robert E. Lee, although they are not related). Ironically, despite Albert Lea’s allegiance to the Confederacy, he has two naming legacies, both of which are in Union territory. A small city in southern Minnesota is named after the Confederate officer, as is the small lake next to which this city is located. In addition, Albert Lea is credited with giving the state of Iowa its name.
Albert Lea was born on July 23, 1808 in a small town several miles northeast of Knoxville, Tennessee. At the age of 19, he entered the U.S. Military Academy, and he graduated fifth in the class of 1831, which consisted of 33 cadets. Among Lea’s classmates was Samuel Curtis, who commanded the Union army that was victorious at the battle of Pea Ridge. Prior to the Civil War, Albert Lea, who was both an artillerist and a topographical engineer, did much service for the army in the West. One of his most noteworthy missions occurred in 1835 and involved exploration in what became the state of Iowa. The unit that was assigned to this expedition was directed to explore northward from Fort Des Moines and was commanded by Colonel Stephen Kearny, the uncle of Philip Kearny, a Union general. Stephen Kearny’s unit consisted of three companies, one commanded by Albert Lea, one commanded by Nathan Boone, the youngest son of Daniel Boone, and one commanded by Edwin Sumner, a corps commander in the Union’s Army of the Potomac. After this expedition was finished, Lea resigned from the army and published a short book about the mission, in which he described the territory that had been explored. In that book, Lea referred to the territory as Iowa, presumably after the Iowa Indian tribe. When Iowa became a state, the name that Lea had used was adopted as the state’s name. During the expedition, one of the places at which Lea’s unit set up camp was a short distance across the border between Iowa and Minnesota. Years later, when a town was established on this site, the town and the lake next to the town were named Albert Lea. Albert Lea, Minnesota is now a small city with a population of approximately 20,000.
On May 5, 1836 Albert Lea married Ellen Shoemaker. The following year on January 31, while they were living in Baltimore, Albert and Ellen welcomed a son, whom they named Edward. In 1841 Ellen died, and for the next 16 years Albert Lea moved around the country while he held various positions. During this time Albert remarried to a woman named Catherine Heath. In 1857 Albert moved to Texas, where several members of his family had previously moved. His son, Edward, who was now 20 years old, had stayed in Maryland when his father moved away and later attended the U.S. Naval Academy. After Edward graduated, he served on the steam frigate Harriet Lane, a ship that was named after James Buchanan’s niece, who filled the role of first lady during the presidency of the bachelor Buchanan. (Although Harriet Lane was not the wife of a president, she is the first person to be called first lady while she lived in the White House.) While serving on the Harriet Lane prior to the Civil War, Edward went on voyages to France and China.
When the Civil War began, Albert sought and received a commission with the Confederate army. Early in 1862 Albert was sent to Cumberland Gap to design fortifications and to supervise construction of the fortifications. These fortifications deterred a Union commander from attacking Cumberland Gap and led to this strategic pass remaining in Confederate hands. Albert’s son, Edward, remained loyal to the U.S. and continued to serve on the Harriet Lane. The Harriet Lane was part of the expedition that was sent to resupply Fort Sumter in the spring of 1861, and while the ship was in the vicinity of Fort Sumter, the Harriet Lane reputedly fired the first naval shot of the Civil War. After service along the Florida coast, in the Gulf of Mexico, and on the Mississippi River, the Harriet Lane was part of a combined army-navy Union force that captured Galveston on October 4, 1862. After that battle the Harriet Lane remained as part of the occupation force. At this time the captain of the Harriet Lane was Jonathan Wainwright, and the first officer was Edward Lea.
On January 1, 1863 a Confederate combined army-navy force launched an attack in an attempt to retake Galveston. The Confederate force was under the command of John Magruder, who had distinguished himself at Yorktown, Virginia during the early stages of George McClellan’s Peninsula campaign. After Robert E. Lee assumed command of the Army of Northern Virginia and reorganized that army, Magruder was sent west. Shortly after Magruder’s transfer, Albert Lea was also sent west and was assigned to the force that was assembled to attack Galveston, where Lea’s artillery and engineering expertise was of great use to Magruder. As the battle unfolded, Confederate army units entered Galveston, and Albert Lea was directed to occupy a tall church steeple, from which he could observe the naval battle in the bay and provide information to the army about the naval battle. During that naval battle, two Confederate gunboats, the Neptune and the Bayou City, attacked the Union fleet in Galveston harbor, which numbered six vessels. The Neptune was sunk, but the Bayou City managed to ram the Harriet Lane, and a Confederate boarding party took control of the stricken ship. When the boarding party stormed onto the Harriet Lane, Jonathan Wainwright, the Harriet Lane’s captain, was killed, and Edward Lea was severely wounded in the abdomen. The ramming of the Harriet Lane initiated a series of events that caused a complete collapse of both the Union army and navy forces, and this led to a Confederate victory.
From his perch in the steeple, Albert Lea saw the ramming and boarding of the Harriet Lane, the U.S. ship which, according to Albert’s most recent information, was the ship on which his son, Edward, was serving. Albert Lea informed his commanding officer, John Magruder, that Edward was a member of the Harriet Lane’s crew, and Magruder immediately granted permission to Albert to search for his son. When Albert boarded the Harriet Lane, he found Edward dying from his wound, and Edward was no doubt surprised to see that his father had come to his aid. At some point, some of the members of the Confederate boarding party asked Edward if they could help to ease his suffering. Edward responded with the moving words, “No. My father is here.” Soon thereafter Edward died, and Albert had lost his son in a battle in which father and son participated on opposing sides.
On the following day Edward Lea and his commanding officer, Jonathan Wainwright, were buried together in the same grave. Edward’s father, Albert, read an invocation at the ceremony, and in this invocation he referred to himself when he asked of those who attended the ceremony, “Allow one so sorely tried in this, his willing sacrifice, to beseech you to believe that while we defend our rights with our strong arms and honest hearts, those we meet in battle may also have hearts as brave and honest as our own.” Edward was not quite 27 years old when he died. The marker for Edward Lea that was placed on the grave is inscribed with his name, birth date, date of death, and the words he spoke while he lay dying on the deck of the Harriet Lane, “My father is here.” Wainwright was later reinterred at the Naval Academy Cemetery in Annapolis. When someone suggested to Albert Lea that his son’s remains be reinterred next to Edward’s mother in Baltimore, Albert replied that Edward would have preferred that his final resting place be near where he had fallen in battle. Edward Lea’s grave remains where he was originally buried, marked with the headstone inscribed with the touching words spoken by Edward shortly before he died. Albert Lea continued to serve the Confederacy at various assignments in Texas until the end of the Civil War. After the war, he lived in Texas and worked in various professions, none of which was particularly successful. Albert Lea died on January 16, 1891, six months after his 82nd birthday. Ironically, the day within the month of January on which Albert died is equidistant in days between the days of the month on which Edward was born and on which Edward died.
In the movie Taras Bulba, just before the father killed his son for choosing to fight with the enemy, the father shouted to his son, “I gave you life. It is on me to take it away from you.” In contrast to the father in Taras Bulba, who actually shot and killed his son, Albert Lea did not pull the trigger of the gun that mortally wounded his son, Edward. Nevertheless, because Albert and Edward were fighting on opposing sides in the battle that led to Edward’s death, it can be said that in the extended sense of battlefield comradeship, Albert, who gave Edward life, took that life away. However, unlike the father in Taras Bulba, Albert did not harbor virulent hostility toward his son for choosing to fight for the Union. Consequently, the father’s quote from Taras Bulba is not really the most appropriate quote to describe the tragic incident involving Albert and Edward Lea. Rather, the most appropriate quote comes from the ancient Greek text The Histories, which was written by Herodotus. I used this quote once before in a history brief, and it definitely applies to the story of Albert and Edward Lea. The quote reads, “In times of peace sons bury their fathers; in times of war fathers bury their sons.” This quote is even more poignant with regard to the story of Albert and Edward Lea, because not only did Albert Lea bury his son because of a war, Albert Lea was part of the military force that made this burial necessary.
The Chief Chemist of the Confederacy
The statement, “An army marches on its stomach,” has been attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte, but it may have originated with Frederick the Great. It may even be that this statement, or at least the concept embodied in it, originated much earlier with the Roman physician Claudius Galen. But whoever deserves credit for this anatomically incorrect statement, it is meant to convey that an army must be well provisioned in order to conduct operations. Nevertheless, an army has to do more than just march and eat. Often when an army arrives at its destination, it then has to fight, and to do this it needs more than just food, unless the battles resemble the cafeteria scene from the movie Animal House. For the Confederacy, one important ingredient necessary to fight Civil War battles was in perilously short supply early in the war. Fortunately for the secessionist war effort, a resourceful and industrious person who was knowledgeable in chemistry found a way to provide ample amounts of this ingredient, although this person’s success worked to the detriment of any Union military personnel who were killed or wounded by projectiles that were propelled by gunpowder.
The ingredient in question is potassium nitrate, also known as saltpeter or niter, which is an essential ingredient in the production of gunpowder. Early in the Civil War, Confederate President Jefferson Davis, who, having served as Secretary of War, was knowledgeable about such things, reputedly said that the Confederacy had only enough gunpowder for a month of light fighting. Prior to the war, most gunpowder production was in the North, which necessitated that the South now initiate its own production or importation. With the tightening Union blockade restricting importation, production was the more reliable option, but there was a serious issue with this option, namely that most saltpeter mines were in the North. The person who was tasked with solving the problem of gunpowder production for the Confederacy was George Washington Rains. The surname Rains may sound familiar to Civil War enthusiasts, and not because it is the surname of the actor who played Inspector Renault in the movie Casablanca or The Invisible Man in the movie of the same name. This is because George Rains was the younger brother of Gabriel Rains, who was the person most responsible for providing torpedoes to the Confederacy and who also was the head of the Confederate Torpedo Bureau. Because of their contributions to the Confederacy, Gabriel Rains, the subject of the September 2017 history brief, and George Rains, the subject of this history brief, were perhaps the most important pair of brothers for the Confederate war effort.
George W. Rains was born in 1817 in North Carolina. In 1842 he graduated third in a class of 56 from the U.S. Military Academy, two places ahead of William Rosecrans and well ahead of John Pope, Abner Doubleday, D.H. Hill, Lafayette McLaws, Earl Van Dorn, and James Longstreet. Rains served in the Mexican-American War and the Seminole War and then taught chemistry at West Point. Rains married Frances Ramsell in 1856, and that same year he left the army to become president of an iron works in Newburgh, New York. When the Civil War broke out, Rains sided with the Confederacy and was commissioned a major in the army. However, his services were of greater benefit to the Confederacy not in combat, but in providing one of the essential ingredients for Civil War combat.
Josiah Gorgas, a West Point graduate who had served in the Ordnance Department of the U.S. Army, had been appointed to head the Ordnance Department for the Confederate Army. Gorgas described the bleak situation that he faced in April 1861 by stating, “Within the limits of the Confederate States there were no arsenals at which any of the material of war was constructed.…All the work of preparation of material had been carried on at the North; not an arm, not a gun, not a gun-carriage, and except during the Mexican War, scarcely a round of ammunition had for fifty years been prepared in the Confederate States.…No powder, save perhaps for blasting, had been made at the South; there was no saltpetre in store at any Southern point; it was stored wholly at the North.” Gorgas appointed George Rains to address the gunpowder shortage, because Rains possessed the perfect background in chemistry, geology, mineralogy, and iron fabrication to solve the Confederacy’s gunpowder shortage. He was also energetic and a skilled administrator, which were qualities that aided him in completing his daunting task.
To make gunpowder Rains needed three ingredients: sulfur, charcoal, and potassium nitrate (that is, saltpeter). Sulfur was in good supply in the South, and the South also had a large supply of wood to make charcoal. The critical component was saltpeter. At that time, one of the most common raw materials for saltpeter production came from limestone caves. This is because nitrate compounds are formed in nature from bacterial action on animal waste, and the highly nitrogenous bat guano that accumulates in caves is a rich source of these nitrate compounds. George Rains left Richmond on July 10, 1861 to search for such sources of material for saltpeter production. Rains later claimed, “I almost lived in railroad cars” as he travelled throughout the South. But his efforts were grandly rewarded, because he and his assistants were able to identify a number of caves in Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, and Arkansas that could supply large amounts of starting material for saltpeter production. The guano-containing material was mined from the caves, with most of the labor being done by slaves, and was then used to make saltpeter through a multi-step chemical process. One estimate is that 2,500 pounds of guano-containing raw material were needed to produce 100 pounds of saltpeter. Eventually Rains authored a booklet titled Notes on Making Saltpeter from the Earth of the Caves, in which he described his process for producing saltpeter, and this pamphlet allowed others in the Confederacy to become skilled in this work.
To supplement the material from caves, Rains sought additional supplies of saltpeter. He oversaw the procurement of saltpeter from Europe, and a considerable amount of saltpeter was obtained in this way. However, this supply became more precarious as the Union blockade tightened, which increased the importance of the Confederacy’s own saltpeter production. In addition to the nitrogenous material mined from caves, other sources of nitrified soil were obtained by scraping dirt from under barns and henhouses. Any dirt that contained waste material was a potential source for producing saltpeter. Another potential if terribly unpleasant source was a centuries-old practice of building so-called nitriaries, which are also known as niter beds. Nitriaries consisted of long trenches into which was dumped any available waste material, such as manure, rotting vegetation, animal carcasses, and even human waste from outhouses, latrines, and chamber pots. Alkaline material, such as wood ashes or pulverized mortar, was added to the organic matter along with dirt, and the mixture was moistened and covered to protect it from the weather. Each week the mixture was to be watered with liquid waste material, such as urine or dung water, and then turned over to a depth of several inches. The process that occurs in nitriaries involves soil bacteria converting the nitrogenous compounds in the waste material into nitrates. Even though nitriaries are nothing more than foul-smelling microbial ecosystems, the plan was for private citizens to construct a nitriary on their property in order to provide the Confederacy’s war effort with additional starting material for saltpeter production. In fact, in 1862 South Carolina published a pamphlet in which instructions were given for the preparation of nitriaries, and the pamphlet urged Confederate citizens to build nitriaries “under the noble impulse of patriotism.” Because nitriaries require as much as two years to generate saltpeter in reasonable quantities, no saltpeter was harvested from the nitriaries before the Civil War ended. But it is estimated that in time the nitriaries would have provided a large amount of saltpeter.
Having established enough sources of saltpeter, Rains then needed to develop the infrastructure for large-scale gunpowder production in the South. His initial efforts involved converting two unused mills near Nashville into a gunpowder factory, and this factory was producing 3,000 pounds of gunpowder a day by October 1861. Rains also established facilities for gunpowder production near Richmond and New Orleans. But the combined output of these powder works was not sufficient to supply the needs of the Confederacy, and the factories near Nashville and New Orleans were lost by the spring of 1862 when these cities fell to the Union. Soon after his appointment to oversee gunpowder production, George Rains had decided that the long-term solution to the Confederacy’s gunpowder shortage was the construction of a large production facility.
For several reasons, Rains selected Augusta, Georgia as the location for the powder works. Augusta was located well within the interior of the Confederate States of America, which made defense of the factory more practicable, and the weather in Augusta is mild enough to allow easy year-round operation. Also, there was ample wooded area near Augusta to supply wood for the charcoal that was needed to make gunpowder. Moreover, much rail transport emanated from Augusta, which provided readily available transportation for raw materials and finished product. To facilitate water transportation, the site that was chosen for the factory lay between the Savannah River and a canal. The site where the facility stood is about three miles from Augusta National Golf Club, the location of the Masters Tournament. Rains was guided in his design of the facility by what he called “a singular good fortune.” Shortly after his appointment, Rains came into possession of a pamphlet that described a powder factory in England that was at that time the best such facility in the world. While the textual descriptions were thorough, there were no diagrams or drawings, and Rains’ experience and expertise in chemistry and iron works were invaluable in interpreting the textual descriptions.
Construction began in September 1861, and gunpowder was being produced at the facility by the following April. The facility, which was named the Confederate Powder Works, consisted of a two-mile long complex of 26 buildings arranged such that raw materials entered at one end and finished gunpowder exited at the other. The buildings were separated by a large enough distance so that an explosion in one building would not damage any other buildings. As it happened, there were only four accidents during the entire operation of the powder works, two of which were minor and none of which interrupted production. The iron machinery for the facility was made at the Tredegar Iron Works. At the time that the facility began making gunpowder, the Confederate government was paying $3 per pound for gunpowder that was brought in through the Union blockade. Even accounting for the $385,000 cost of the facility, the gunpowder produced by the Confederate Powder Works was so much less expensive compared to imported gunpowder that the savings for the government have been estimated at almost $2,000,000. The facility operated until the end of the war and produced 2,750,000 pounds of gunpowder. However, the massive quantity of gunpowder that was produced is only part of the story. George Rains developed improvements in the chemical process for refining saltpeter, so that the saltpeter that his factory produced was of greater purity, which resulted in gunpowder of much higher quality, even compared to the gunpowder produced in the North.
After the Civil War, the facility was confiscated by the U.S. government, and in 1872 the buildings were demolished. However, George Rains requested that the distinctive obelisk chimney at the facility be allowed to remain standing. Today that chimney is all that remains of the facility that produced the majority of the gunpowder that the Confederacy used in its failed attempt to separate from the United States. In 1879 the Confederate Survivors’ Association of Augusta attached a plaque to the chimney, and that plaque reads, “This Obelisk Chimney — sole remnant of the extensive Powder Works here erected under the auspices of the Confederate Government — is by the Confederate Survivors’ Association of Augusta, with the consent of the City Council, conserved in Honor of a fallen Nation, and inscribed to the memory of those who died in the Southern Armies during the War Between the States.”
George Rains, the person who designed the Confederate Powder Works and under whose supervision the facility was built, has been called the chief chemist of the Confederacy, which is a fitting description for him. A historian named Maurice Melton characterized George Rains’ immense contributions to the Confederate war effort by stating, “Rains showed a genius for getting things done, and to him—almost alone—is due credit for keeping the guns firing.” After the war, Rains became a chemistry professor at the Medical College of Georgia and later served for a time as dean. In 1894 he returned to Newburgh, New York to go into business. He died there in 1898 at the age of 81 and is buried in St. George’s Cemetery in Newburgh.
Words that were spoken by one of the characters in William Shakespeare’s play Henry IV, Part 1 almost seem to presage George Rains’ work on behalf of the Confederacy. In Act I, Scene III, one of the characters says, “It was great pity, so it was, this villanous salt-petre should be digg’d out of the bowels of the harmless earth, which many a good tall fellow had destroy’d.” As this quote seems to foretell, the saltpeter that George Rains used to supply gunpowder to the Confederacy resulted in the killing and wounding of many men who fought for the Union. Moreover, if Jefferson Davis was correct about the length of time that the Confederacy could fight with the supply of gunpowder that it had early in the war, then it can be said that George Rains’ efforts led to the killing and wounding of many men, both Union and Confederate, by prolonging the Civil War. In that sense, George Rains is one of the people who was most responsible for causing many, from both the North and the South, to give “the last full measure of devotion” by falling victim to that “villanous salt-petre.”
The Man Whose Torpedoes Farragut Damned
One of the most famous quotes in U.S. naval history purportedly occurred at the battle of Mobile Bay in August 1864, when Union Admiral David Farragut famously ordered, or maybe did not order, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.” Whether or not Farragut actually said these exact words, this quote has become one of the most esteemed wartime quotes in U.S. history, because it embodies the qualities of bravery and determination to press on even in the face of life-threatening danger. Farragut certainly deserves much credit for making this decision and for stating his decision in such forceful and memorable language. However, Farragut does not deserve all of the credit for this superb quote. In fact, some of the credit for this quote should go to a Confederate general. It may not be clear why a general in the Confederate army deserves some of the credit for something that was said by a Union admiral in a naval battle. The reason is that, without this Confederate general, there would not have been any torpedoes for David Farragut to damn, because it was a Confederate general, Gabriel J. Rains, who was chiefly responsible for the torpedoes in Mobile Bay and in other places that the Confederacy protected with torpedoes.
Gabriel Rains was born on June 4, 1803 in New Bern, North Carolina. He entered the U.S. Military Academy in 1822 and graduated 13th in his class in 1827. Among Rains’ classmates were Leonidas Polk, Philip St. George Cooke (a Union cavalry commander and the father-in-law of JEB Stuart), and Napoleon Bonaparte Buford (the half-brother of Gettysburg hero John Buford, who, like John Buford, was a general in the Union army, but who, despite his more militarily grandiose name, did not distinguish himself to nearly the level as his half-brother). In 1839 Gabriel Rains served in the Seminole War in Florida as commander of an infantry company. During one clash with Indians, Rains was shot through the body and wounded so severely that reports of his death were published. However, he recovered and later served in the Mexican-American War. When the Civil War began, Rains resigned his commission in the U.S. army and joined the Confederate army as an infantry commander. He was assigned to command a division in John B. Magruder’s Army of the Peninsula, which was opposing George McClellan’s advance up the York-James Peninsula. After Magruder’s army was assimilated into Joseph E. Johnston’s army, Rains continued as a division commander.
Gabriel Rains, who was an expert in explosives, first showed his true worth to the Confederacy in the aftermath of the battle of Yorktown. In early May 1862, Joseph Johnston decided to execute one of his tactical withdrawals and evacuated the Yorktown defenses. During this retrograde movement, Gabriel Rains’ unit was part of the rear guard. While Rains was moving westward, he buried some artillery shells in the roads and essentially used these shells as land mines. He also left buried shells in the Confederate earthworks around Yorktown. Rains had first dabbled with land mines during the Seminole War and found them to be quite useful. After the battle of Yorktown, when Union troops, particularly Union cavalry, pursued the retreating Confederate army, some Union troops detonated Rains’ land mines and became some of the first ever battlefield casualties due to land mines. One Union soldier wrote in a letter dated May 7, 1862, “We passed through the Rebel fortifications near us shortly after leaving our camp & on our way a shell which they set as a trap hurt & killed one man & wounded six.” Although the total number of Union casualties from Rains’ land mines was not especially large, the fear that the land mines instilled in the Union soldiers caused them to pursue the Confederates with great caution and resulted in a slow pursuit.
While Rains’ land mines were effective at impeding the Union pursuit, Rains’ superiors were not entirely supportive of his land mines. This is because opinion, both Union and Confederate, was that the use of land mines violated the rules of engagement. For example, George McClellan characterized the land mines as “the most murderous and barbarous conduct.” James Longstreet, Rains’ wing commander, ordered Rains to cease using land mines, which Longstreet did not consider a “proper or effective method of war.” Rains’ land mines were viewed in much the same way as improvised explosive devices are viewed nowadays. To settle the issue, input was obtained from Confederate Secretary of War George Randolph, who was Thomas Jefferson’s grandson. Necessity being the mother of approval, Randolph stipulated that land mines were permissible in certain situations, specifically “in parapet to repel assault, or in a road to check pursuit,” but not permissible “merely to destroy life and without other design than that of depriving the enemy of a few men.” With authorization from the War Department to employ land mines in certain situations, Rains made improvements to the crude land mines that he had used at Yorktown, in particular a superior mechanical detonator that was protected from rainfall. By 1864 the approaches to the Confederate capital, Richmond, were protected by over 1,300 land mines.
After the battle of Seven Pines, in which Rains participated as an infantry commander, he was removed from field command and focused his efforts on water defenses in Confederate ports and rivers. In this capacity Rains oversaw the construction and deployment of what were then called torpedoes, that is, stationary explosive devices that were submerged in water. Eventually Rains was placed in charge of the Confederate Torpedo Bureau. Torpedoes had been used for decades prior to the Civil War, but Rains made significant improvements to them. As with the land mines, Rains improved the mechanical detonators and also developed torpedoes that were detonated from shore with a wire. He also made design improvements to the devices, themselves. Rains’ torpedoes were deployed in many rivers, such as the James River, and in many ports, such as Charleston, Savannah, and Mobile, which is where David Farragut damned them. Rains claimed that his torpedoes sank over 50 Union vessels, and it is estimated that Rains’ torpedoes inflicted greater loss of enemy ships than all other causes combined. At the battle of Mobile Bay, the Union warship Tecumseh was sunk by a torpedo, and the only reason that there was not greater loss of Union naval assets in that battle was because the torpedoes in Mobile Bay had become corroded by prolonged submersion in water. In fact, according to accounts of the battle, men on board the Union warships claimed to hear the bottoms of their vessels scraping against the submerged torpedoes. The torpedoes presumably did not detonate because they had become corroded due to their lengthy submersion in the waters of Mobile Bay. If not for that, David Farragut might be remembered not for a bold quote, but for a reckless one.
Another component of Gabriel Rains’ Confederate Torpedo Bureau was a nefarious device known as a coal bomb or coal torpedo. The coal bomb was invented by Belfast-born Thomas Courtenay, who emigrated to the U.S. in 1842 and sided with the Confederacy in the Civil War. Sometime in late 1863, Courtenay went to Richmond to present his device to the Confederate authorities. As with land mines and waterborne torpedoes, coal bombs were not met with universal approval by members of the Confederate hierarchy, because coal bombs were considered by some to violate the rules of engagement. But at the time that Courtenay showed his invention to the Confederate government, the fortunes of the Confederate war effort were declining. Consequently, desperation and necessity became the determining factors, and by early 1864 coal bombs were being made in Richmond. (Because almost all of the records of the Confederate Secret Service were burned by Confederate Secretary of State Judah Benjamin just before the evacuation of Richmond, very little is known about the Confederacy’s use of coal bombs or, for that matter, the Confederacy’s use of land mines or waterborne torpedoes. Consequently, it is not known with certainty how many Union vessels were attacked with coal bombs. The Confederacy’s records regarding coal bombs, land mines, and waterborne torpedoes were burned because all of these devices were viewed with such disapproval that it was feared that the information regarding their use would lead to retribution for anyone connected to them.) Coal bombs, as the name suggests, were hollow cast iron shells that were manufactured to resemble a lump of coal. The coal bombs were filled with a few ounces of gunpowder, closed with a threaded plug, and then coated with wax and coal dust to give them the appearance of a lump of coal. The plan was to smuggle them into loads of coal that were to be used by Union ships. Although the amount of gunpowder in a coal bomb was not sufficient to destroy a ship, if the coal bomb was shoveled into a ship’s firebox, it would explode and cause an explosion of the ship’s boiler, which would disable or perhaps destroy the ship.
As it happened, a Confederate agent was captured while he was carrying documents that described the plan, and as a result great vigilance and caution were exercised for loads of coal that were intended for Union warships. Nevertheless, there were some explosions on Union ships that were likely caused by coal bombs. For example, a ship named the Chenango, which was in service to the Union navy, experienced an explosion in April 1864 on a voyage from New York City to Hampton Roads. The explosion, which is thought to have been caused by a coal bomb, resulted in the deaths of almost 30 men by scalding, and the damage to the Chenango left her out of commission for almost ten months. There was also a deathbed confession by a man named Robert Louden, a Confederate saboteur, who claimed that he smuggled a coal bomb onto the Sultana, which exploded on the Mississippi River on April 27, 1865 while it was transporting freed Union prisoners of war to the North. The explosion and subsequent fire resulted in an estimated 1,200 deaths. In spite of Louden’s confession, the specifics of the explosion on the Sultana are not consistent with a coal bomb explosion, and because of this it is thought that a coal bomb was not responsible for the sinking of the Sultana.
The most well-known coal bomb incident occurred on a ship named the Greyhound. The Greyhound was another ship that was in service to the Union navy, and late in the Civil War she was being used by Union Major General Benjamin Butler as a floating headquarters on the James River. On November 27, 1864, Butler offered his vessel for transport of Union Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter to Fort Monroe, where Porter had been summoned to meet with Assistant Secretary of the Navy Gustavus Fox. Porter had his own headquarters ship, but the Greyhound was faster and could transport Porter to Fort Monroe sooner. (Although it seems incongruous that an army general had a faster headquarters ship than a navy admiral, this was the situation that existed.) Shortly after the Greyhound passed Bermuda Hundred, there was an explosion in the engine room, and within minutes the Greyhound was engulfed in flames. Butler, Porter, and everyone else on board were able to abandon ship, and amazingly no one was killed. However, the Greyhound was destroyed, and Porter had to find alternate transportation to Fort Monroe. While the exact cause of the explosion was never determined definitively, Porter was convinced that the cause was a coal bomb. Many years after the Civil War, Porter wrote about the sinking of the Greyhound, “In whatever manner the Greyhound was set on fire, I am sure it was not one of the ordinary accidents to which all ships are liable. In devices for blowing up vessels the Confederates were far ahead of us, putting Yankee ingenuity to shame.” Gabriel Rains and the Confederate Torpedo Bureau that he headed were chiefly responsible for Porter expressing the opinion of Confederate superiority in producing explosive devices. (However, had Benjamin Butler been killed in the Greyhound explosion, Gabriel Rains, as head of the Confederate Torpedo Bureau, could have been reprimanded for assisting the Union war effort by eliminating the incompetent Butler. But although Butler was beyond ineffective, he has a pop culture distinction not held by any other Civil War general. Specifically, Benjamin Butler is the only Civil War general, Union or Confederate, whose image appeared in an episode of the television series Monty Python’s Flying Circus.)
After the war, Gabriel Rains lived for a time in Atlanta, and then, perhaps surprisingly in light of his important service to the Confederacy, he worked for a few years as a clerk in the Quartermaster’s Department of the U.S. Army in Charleston, South Carolina. Rains died on August 6, 1881 in Aiken, South Carolina at age 78. Years after the Civil War, Rains put into his own words the rationale that has been applied throughout history to overlook the brutality of certain weapons. Rains articulated this rationale when he stated that, in his view, the effectiveness of a particular weapon is a higher priority than any humanitarian concerns in determining whether or not a weapon is incorporated into the arsenal of war. Rains asserted, “Each new invention of war has been assailed and denounced as barbarous and anti-Christian. Yet each in its turn notwithstanding has taken its position by the universal consent of nations according to its efficiency in human slaughter.” Gabriel Rains is by no means a well-known Civil War figure. But Rains’ Civil War contributions certainly are well-known, especially his waterborne torpedoes, even if it is not widely known that Rains deserves much of the credit for these Confederate weapons. Moreover, Gabriel Rains has another Civil War accomplishment for which he deserves partial credit. David Farragut is known for his quote “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead,” but it’s damn time that Gabriel Rains receives his share of the credit for this quote.