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History Briefs 2017 - 2018
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.
Past Briefs:
2007-2008 2008-2009 2009-2010
2010-2011 2011-2012 2012-2013
2013-2014 2014-2015 2015-2016
2016-2017 2017-2018 .

 

October...

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.

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, 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."

 


George W. Rains
Josiah Gorgas
 
 
 
 

 

September...

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.

 


Gabriel J. Rains
David Farragut
 
 
 
 

The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable