Gunpowder mill was built to curb shortage

It is said that an army marches on its stomach, but no one ever lost a battle for lack of biscuits.


A shortage of gunpowder, however, could spell disaster in 19th century warfare.

The cannons had barely cooled from the bombardment of Fort Sumter when Confederate leaders realized a sobering truth: Their fledgling army had only 491,000 pounds of black powder on hand, enough to last maybe a month of battle.

The Provisional Congress in 1861 authorized Confederate President Jefferson Davis to begin immediate production of munitions. Davis turned the task over to Col. George Washington Rains, a West Point graduate and chemistry professor who invented the land mine during the Seminole Wars in Florida.

Rains was given carte blanche to start construction of the new powderworks as soon as possible. Davis' only instructions were that the works be constructed "as nearly central as practical; to be permanent structures, and of sufficient magnitude to supply the armies in the field and the artillery of the forts and defenses."

Rains had little experience with gunpowder. His inexperience, combined with the reality that the future of the Confederate Army might rest squarely on his shoulders, proved stressful.

"Without plans, without machine shops, without powder makers, without mechanics," he wrote. "I was required to erect somewhere a giant works. I was thrown upon my resource to supply these deficiencies."

Rains set out from Richmond, Va., on July 10, 1861 and 10 days later settled on Augusta, which met most of Davis' criteria.

The city was served by the Georgia, Augusta & Savannah and South Carolina railroads, and was located on the Savannah River. The temperate climate meant the water supply wouldn't freeze and the workshops wouldn't have to be heated in the winter (a danger at a gunpowder factory).

Unique to Augusta was that the water in the city canal was free of lime and earth salts. This unpolluted water was necessary for the refinement of the key gunpowder ingredient potassium nitrate.

That the city was deep in the heart of Confederate territory sealed the deal.

"It was remarkable that the most favorable conditions ... were all met at this location, and nowhere else attainable," Rains wrote.

Erecting the powderworks was only half of Rains' difficult task.

Gunpowder only has three ingredients -- potassium nitrate, sulfur and charcoal -- but mixing them correctly is a complex task. Rains' only resource was a pamphlet describing the process at the gunpowder plant at Waltham Abbey in England.

The architect Rains chose for his powder works was Charles Shaler Smith, a Pittsburgh native with experience drawn from bridge and railroad projects. By Sept. 13, work was under way on the series of buildings that would stretch for two miles along the Augusta Canal.

The 13 main buildings were arranged like an assembly line, beginning with the reception of raw materials, the refineries and ending with the powder magazine.

The only remaining building of the powder works is the tall central chimney, but the elegant red-brick Sibley Mill that took its place has a similar Norman-style design.

There are eight steps to creating powder from sorting the crude ingredients to packing and storing it. In abbreviated terms, the raw materials were refined into powder, then mixed, hardened into cakes then ferried up the canal and broken into grains.

Fine-grained powder, with its quick combustion, was used for short-barreled weapons, as opposed to the thick grains for cannon shot. The final step was to remove all dust from the gunpowder, then rotate it in a barrel to give it a "glaze" that protected it from moisture.

Safety, of course, was paramount in a factory that generated explosives. The flammable dust was collected on tarps and shaken out 50 yards from the buildings, as well as swept out before, during and after shifts.

Copper or copper alloys such as bronze and brass were used when possible during construction instead of iron to avoid deadly sparks.

All the walkways from the canal to the buildings were padded with sawdust and Rains required his men to wear rubber boots when entering buildings.

Over the years, Rains developed innovative and elaborate techniques for quality control purposes. The resulting powder was shipped to arsenals across the Confederate States and distributed from there to battles in the area.

Work briefly ground to a halt at the end of 1865, when it appeared that Sherman was about to storm Augusta. The machines went back into operation after the threat passed and workmen were on the site until April 26, 1865.

On the day Gen. Joseph Johnston surrendered to Sherman, Rains himself lowered the mill's garrison flag and shut down operation.

Through his tenacity, ingenuity and doggedness, Rains had managed to produce more than 3.1 million pounds of gunpowder from April 1862 to April 1865.

At the end of the war, the clang of the machinery was silenced, the shouts of the workmen faded into an echo.

The whirlwind of the past three years was over and Rains found himself in a familiar place: "One by one the workmen slowly went away, and once more I stood on the banks of the canal alone -- all lost save honor."

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About the series

As 150th anniversary observations of the Civil War begin next week, The Augusta Chronicle looks back on our city's role in and connections to war.

MONDAY: Berry Benson is the model for the anonymous soldier atop Augusta's Confederate Monument.

TUESDAY: Alexander Stephens served as vice president of the Confederacy.

WEDNESDAY: Robert Toombs led troops into the battle at Antietam.

THURSDAY: The Battle of Aiken kept the city out of Union Gen. William T. Sherman's hands.

FRIDAY: Archaeologists have unearthed artifacts of one of the largest Confederate prisons in Millen, Ga.

TODAY: Augusta's Confederate Powderworks produced millions of pounds of gunpowder.

SUNDAY: Two seminal figures on their path to Civil War legend made stops in Augusta.