When secession of several Southern states led to bombardment of Fort Sumter, S.C., and the beginning of war with the North in April 1861, Confederate President Jefferson Davis recognized the South’s vulnerability as a predominantly agricultural region that lacked manufacturing facilities.
To address an important aspect of that shortcoming, Davis turned to Maj. George Washington Rains, who had graduated first in his class in scientific studies from the military academy at West Point in 1838.
After West Point and prior to the outbreak of civil war, Rains had performed combat, staff, quartermaster and diplomatic duties, in addition to gaining private-sector manufacturing experience. His considerable talent coupled with these varied accomplishments prepared him for a challenging assignment from Davis — to construct a facility capable of producing enough gunpowder for an entire army.
Rains realized that the most important decision he would make at the outset would be where to locate this gunpowder-producing enterprise, because of potential danger of Northern invasion. Following exploration of several locales, Rains settled on an area just outside Augusta, Ga., along a canal running parallel to and connecting to the Savannah River, that he believed would be safe from attack.
As Theodore P. Savas relates in two articles on the subject, “Heart of the Southern War Machine” and “The War’s Biggest Blunder” (Civil War Times, June and August 2017), by September 1861, Rains began construction of what would become a 2-mile long series of buildings along the Augusta canal that would produce the powder. They included a refinery in a building with wings that housed warehouses, laboratories, machine shops and other facilities.
The workforce in Augusta numbered 50 to 60 personnel, including mostly whites in skilled roles and enslaved blacks who performed physically demanding jobs. Later, that mix changed due to conscription of white workers for military service; requiring blacks to replace them in skilled assignments.
Gunpowder consisted of saltpeter, sulfur and charcoal, and, when combined, was a combustible substance. An explosion and the death of several workers occurred when one of the men with a smoking habit apparently lit a cigarette in the workplace.
The “mixing house” was a large building that had separate mills with circular iron beds and massive rollers that ground the sulfur-saltpeter-charcoal mixture into mill cake, before it was cooled and granulated into powder. In case of explosion, each of the mills had large water containers that would drench all the bed plates simultaneously.
After the mill cake cooled and hardened, it was granulated into various sizes and separated into receptacles. The larger grains were for artillery, and smaller grains for rifles and handguns.
The next stop was a brick building where the drying phase took place. That required particular care, because the powder was at its most explosive stage at that point.
Finally, the gunpowder was weighed and packed in wooden boxes, rather than barrels, at considerable distance from the operations plant itself — again, for safety reasons. The boxes were then stored in a magazine nearly a mile away from the packing location.
The operation in Augusta was similar to Eleutherian Mills, the DuPont powder works located along Brandywine Creek near Wilmington, Del., that produced large quantities of gunpowder for the Union army during the Civil War. However, the DuPont family had been in business for more than 50 years before the Civil War, while Rains had to construct his facility from the ground up.
In the opinion of Confederate Chief of Ordnance Maj. Josiah Gorgas, Rains’ operation was “far superior to any in the United States.” While debatable, it was a remarkable achievement given the enormity of the responsibility.
Despite its location away from the main scene of battle, the Augusta powder works remained vulnerable to attack throughout the war. That was particularly true when Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s Union forces arrived in the Augusta vicinity in 1864, aware that it had “the only powder-mills and factories remaining in the South.”
Yet Sherman bypassed Augusta — not once but twice — when his army marched on Savannah, Ga., in late 1864, and on Columbia, S.C., in early 1865. Sherman is acclaimed for capturing those two important cities, though destruction of the Augusta powder works might have been the better choice — given that it could have shortened the war by several months.
Tom Ryan is the author of the award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign,” available at Bethany Beach Books, at Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach and at Cardsmart in Milford. His latest book, “Lee is Trapped, & Must Be Taken: Eleven Fateful Days after Gettysburg, July 4-14, 1863,” is due out in May 2019, and can be pre-ordered on Amazon.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.
By Tom Ryan
Special to the Coastal Point