Southern Historical Society Papers/Volume 31/How the South got Chemicals and Medicines During the War

Southern Historical Society Papers: Volume 31  (1903)  by John William Mallett
How the South got Chemicals and Medicines During the War

[From the Richmond, Va., News-Leader, July 27, 1903.]



Salt From Louisiana Proved Valuable—Smugglers Helped with Opiates.

Manufacture of Gunpowder.

It is difficult for anyone in the North who was not a participant in the Civil war to appreciate thoroughly the great sufferings that were experienced by those who lived in the Southern States at that time. The continual blockade along the water-front on the east and south, the armies on the north, the Mississippi river and the mountains on the west, made it almost impossible for the introduction of materials essential for the carrying on of a great war. The heroic struggle waged under these disadvantageous circumstances make the four years' combat one of the most remarkable wars of modern times.

A description of the efforts made in scientific directions has never been satisfactorily written, but within a few weeks, in a pleasant way, under the title of "Applied Chemistry in the South During the Civil War," Professor John W. Mallett, of the University of Virginia, spoke before the Chemical Society of Washington of some of his experiences.

In beginning, he referred to the great lack of preservatives that were essential, and indeed required, for the preservation of food. Fortunately, the salt deposits in Louisiana were promptly thought of, and advantage taken of their existence for exploitation and production of that every-day essential, so that an ample stock at least of the preservative was soon available. The supplies of coffee and tea were very soon exhausted, and substitutes were introduced. For coffee, roasted beans of various kinds, sweet potatoes, and cereals, came into every-day use, and the leaves of various herbs were employed in place of tea. The joy of the first cup of coffee after the close of the war formed a delight that never can be forgotten. The necessity of preserving the cattle, and the employment of horses in the army as well as the demand by the soldiers for shoes, soon exhausted the leather supply. As a result leather became such a rarity that a good pair of boots at the close of the war was worth several hundred dollars in Confederate money. As a substitute, fibers were worked up and coated with a varnish, forming a sort of material similar to oilcloth, which came into use for many purposes. The employment of petroleum oil as an illuminant was at its beginning. Colza and other oils were similarly used at that time, but these soon disappeared, and the old-time candle dip prevailed. For purposes where an oil was absolutely essential, recourse was had to fish oil. Paper was very scarce, and there were but few, if any, mills in the South, and these produced a very inferior quality of paper, so that for writing purposes the blank leaves of old account books were employed, and for printing purposes wall paper, on which many newspapers of the time were printed, was largely used. Only the crudest kinds of ink were to be had, and in most cases they were made by adding water to the refuse in the ink bottle until the writing became so faint as to be scarcely visible.

The great coal deposits of Pennsylvania being no longer available for fuel, recourse was had to the bituminous beds of Virginia, although of course in many cases wood was all that was required. It goes without saying that the supply of paint rapidly disappeared. However, there were numerous deposits of ocher that were available, and crude varieties of paints were soon manufactured in sufficient quantities to supply the demand.

One of the important, indeed necessary, elements in the carrying on of a war is artillery, and to fight without gunpowder is practically impossible. Accordingly, gunpowder mills were established at several localities in the South. The supply of niter was soon exhausted, and search was made for that material in caves and elsewhere throughout the South. These yielded a certain amount, but the future was provided for by the establishment of niter beds. Still, the end came too soon to permit of their being available. There were no sulphur deposits in the South, but fortunately at the beginning of the war there was a large supply of that article in New Orleans, where it had been used in the clarification of sugar. Charcoal was of course more readily obtainable, and after some experiments it was found that the wood from the cottonwood tree yielded the most satisfactory material.

The manufacture of fulminate of mercury for percussion caps was carried on to a limited extent, and the copper for the caps was obtained from the turpentine stills, which were all collected from North Carolina and used for that purpose.

There were four principal medicines required, namely, quinine, morphine, ether and chloroform. These were procured, so far as possible, by smuggling, either through the lines or by blockade runners, and numerous substitutes were introduced. For instance, for quinine bitter barks were used wherever possible, especially dogwood, and the dread malaria was by this means held practically in check. Morphine was almost entirely brought in by means of the blockade runners.

At the beginning of the war there were no large metallurgical works in the South, with the single exception of the iron foundries at New Orleans and Richmond. The early capture of New Orleans left in Richmond the only large available foundry, and the Tredegar Iron Works became the principal source for articles made of iron. For ores, recourse was had to the deposits from the South, and it was necessity that led to the exploiting of the deposits of iron in Alabama and elsewhere along the Appalachian Mountain range; indeed, a primitive blast furnace was erected where the city of Birmingham now stands. Copper was had to a limited extent from the Ducktown Works in Tennessee, but more largely from the stills, as previously mentioned, that had been used in the manufacture of turpentine. Lead and zinc were only to be had in limited quantities, and were obtained chiefly from mines in Virginia.