Gunpowder, the substance largely responsible for shaping the modern world-

has a fascinating history ripe with ingenuity and adventure.

MORE THAN LIKELY, the history of gunpowder started with a bang------------- possibly an experimental magic trick that literally went up in smoke. Now, most historians believe that 9th century China was the birthplace of black powder. And that originally the new substance was used only for fireworks. However, it wasn’t very long before the Chinese realized that rockets capable of lighting up the sky at a festival could also be turned against their enemies.

By: Gary Lantz

For this reason, in 1067 the Emperor of China placed the production of sulphur and saltpeter under state control. Recent archeological findings in China suggest that the manufacture and trade in gunpowder was more extensive and broadly based than previously believed. Knowledge of gunpowder spread rapidly through the ancient world from China to Europe via Arab traders Gunpowder was most certainly known in Europe by the mid-1200s. It was described by Marcus Graecus in his treatise “Liber Ignum” (Book of Fires.). circa 1225. About 1248, an English monk named Roger Bacon published a treatise in which he recorded the formula for gunpowder.

Almost immediately, if not sooner, European alchemists appreciated that, in gunpowder, they possessed a powerful new weapon to propel objects of any kind through the air with great force, if only they could harness it. The most pressing problem was devising a means of controlling and directing gunpowder’s power. It did not take long to solve this pressing problem. In 1259, the city of Melilla was defended by a cannon and the first guns appeared in China in 1280. From a lowly beginning as fuel for firecrackers, gunpowder soon became big business. Recent archeological findings in China suggest that the gunpowder trade was a lucrative one as international commerce began to dominate world politics only a millennium past the time of Christ. The demand for saltpeter from caves in China’s Sichuan Province is evidenced in unearthed workshops, storage pits and kitchens capable of feeding over a hundred workers. Archeologists believe the mines fed a bustling enterprise supplying large markets in surrounding towns, where gunpowder ingredients were sold under the trade name, “Chinese snow.”

Following careful refinement, this potent snow, when packed into a keg, could be launched or rolled downhill towards an enemy unaware of the existence of such a king-sized cherry bomb. Certainly archers were still much more lethal when military push came to shove, but soldiers conscripted from deep in the hinterland could be driven from a battlefield simply by the psychological shock wave from such an explosion.

Eventually advances in metallurgy allowed the Europeans to refine the role of gunpowder and slowly harness its military might. Early in the l300s, the Italians were beginning to manufacture metal cannons and projectiles, and the English were experimenting with individual firearms. By 1326, cannon were illustrated in Walter de Millimete’s manuscript “De Officiis Regum,”, dedicated to the ascension of Edward III to the English throne. This was no accident as Edward III later became well known for his use of cannon in battle. Records dated in 1338 show that gun- powder was being stored in the Tower of London and by 1344 Edward’s household employed “artillers and gonners Edward III became the first to employ cannon at sea during the Battle of Sluys in 1340.

The Battle of Crecy in France on August 26, 1346, was a pivotal event in the history of gunpowder. On that day, King Edward III, leading 20,000 troops, clashed with the 44.000-man French Army led by King Philip of Valois. Seemingly outnumbered, the English Army had two surprises for the French— 11,000 long- bowmen and two cannon. Both the longbow and the cannon made their battle debut that day and enabled the English Army to completely rout the French Army

Gunpowder forever changed military tactics by making it possible for common ~ii foot soldiers with firearms to defeat an armored knight. This doomed the feudal social and political system and enabled the rise of nation—states and absolute monarchs.

By the time Columbus reached the New World in 1492, gunpowder represented the epitome of military might. And by the time the colonists were sufficiently angry to rebel against British tyranny, the highly refined artillery pieces made massed numbers of infantrymen advancing shoulder to shoulder little more than mass suicide. Marksmen could now do decisive damage to the enemy from hiding, and guerrilla-style warfare, learned from the Indians and while fighting against them, allowed wilderness sharpshooters to eventually overthrow what was believed to be at the times the most powerful army on earth.

The American colonies held great treasures, among them numerous saltpeter caves that yielded the raw materials needed to make gunpowder. Virginia was noted for the quality of its saltpeter deposits, and eventually the wildlands that stretched beyond the southern mountains were found to harbor vast saltpeter deposits as well. During the American Revolutionary War, the Continental Army was constantly short of gunpowder as the British government discouraged production of this material in colonial America and relegated to a few very small mills.

The black powder of the time consisted of approximately two parts sulfur, three parts charcoal and 15 parts saltpeter Caves containing rich nitrate deposits were mined for their “peter dirt’ which was then leached with water and treated with potassium salts derived from wood ashes. The substance that remained following this process, potassium nitrate or nitre, was ready for processing into gunpowder. The mountainous South, famed for its limestone and dolomite caves, has throughout history been the realm of bats that produce toils of droppings that, in turn, supply the basic ingredients of saltpeter, or potassium nitrate.

Conversion of tons of guano to military quality gunpowder required charcoal, easily available in the surrounding woodlands, and sulfur, made by cooking pyrite or lead ore. Caves as far west as Missouri were yielding gunpowder makings as early as 1810. Diggings along the Gasconade River yielded saltpeter shipped to St. Louis, and by 1816 several caves were supplying the basic ingredients for onsite gun-powder plants. From 1816 to 1818, a cave near Montauk Spring yielded some 6o,ooo pounds of saltpeter, earning the miner around $30,000—a handsome sum at the time.

Gunpowder mills were already established in the Virginia during the Revolutionary War. Afterwards, entrepreneurs searched Kentucky, Indiana and Tennessee for saltpeter sites, and production escalated during the War of 1812. One of the few advantages the South had over the North later in the Civil War was the great number of saltpeter caves south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Eleuthère Irénée du Pont earned a reputation for making quality gunpowder in the years following the revolution, and established water powered mills on the Brandy-wine River in Delaware. But the operations of the time did not have the capacity for large—scale production. Confederate blockade runners managed to slip several million pounds of European gunpowder through the Union naval blockade. How-ever, the enterprise was risky, the black market powder of dubious quality, and soon the rebels felt it was in their best interests to establish a means of manufacturing their own powder in the southern heartland.

Four minor gunpowder mills existed in the South at the time of the rebellion. Efforts to increase saltpeter or nitre production were stymied by the Union occupation of mines in Kentucky. As a result the Confederate government pushed its field operatives to discover new sources. Fortunately for the impoverished South, limestone caves in Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia and Arkansas contained what appeared to be almost limitless sources of gunpowder’s most precious raw material. A deposit in Texas yielded 2,000 pounds of refined saltpeter per day. Even privies and latrines were mined for their combustible contents, the take shipped to Nashville and New Orleans for processing.

Eventually Yankee occupation and explosions—a frequent byproduct of powder milling—resulted in the construction of a large and centrally located powder works in Augusta, Ga. The facility consisted of 12 mills powered by steam engines. The finished product was stored in a magazine capable of holding 100 tons of gun-powder.

Making gunpowder was dangerous work, and the plant found it difficult to retain skilled employees. Conscription carted workers away to battlefields no matter how necessary their jobs were to the overall war effort. And men were lost to explosions.

In August of 1864, 6,000 pounds of gunpowder went up in smoke, killing nine. The mishap was blamed on careless smoking habits. However, even with the explosion and a labor shortage, the August plant manufactured nearly 3 million pounds of powder from 1862 through 1865, enough to supply the Confederate army’s needs and still have 70,000 pounds left over when Lee surrendered.

 With the surrender of the Confederate armies, the Augusta Powder Works became U. S. Government property, and was never put back into operation. It will remain, however, the only Confederate construction that took place during the war. Eventually modern chemistry would make black powder virtually obsolete, except for those who connect to their heritage through hunting or competing with traditional black powder firearms. Yet the mystery remains for those of us who pick up a canister of black powder from the shelves of the local sporting goods store and head outdoors hoping to imagine what it would have been like to be Daniel Boone or Davy Crockett. As the grainy material slides down the barrel of a replica Kentucky long rifle, it is difficult to imagine that this is the stuff that truly changed the course of human events.

The atomic bomb may have been more spectacular. but it was gunpowder that decided the Napoleonic wars, the American Revolution and Civil War and World Wars I and II. Countless millions died due to the fact that some Chinese impresario searched for the secret of immortality or maybe something as simple as a way to impress the crowd at a magic show. The atomic threat kept the lid on the Cold War, but it was gunpowder that won all the hot ones. The former is a product of the space age; the latter obtained from the lowly leavings of bats. Thus the fate of man has hung in the balance for thousands of years. somewhere between the stars and a substance commonly referred to as peter dirt.



March 2004, pgs.26-30 & 62

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