The Chief Chemist of the Confederacy

By David A. Carrino, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2017-2018, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the October 2017 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.

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.

George Rains

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. (The history brief that focuses on Gabriel Rains is titled The Man Whose Torpedoes Farragut Damned.)

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

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.

Pamphlet describing the procedure for constructing a nitriary

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.

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Confederate Powder Works, Augusta, Georgia

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, later in life

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.”