Today’s post comes from Rachel Bartgis, conservator technician at the National Archives at College Park, Maryland.
During the U.S. Civil War, the manufacture of gunpowder became a serious concern for the Confederacy. While there were several powder mills located in the country, the United States had imported most of the wood ash, sulfur, and saltpeter (potassium nitrate) needed to actually make gunpowder. While the Union was adequately supplied through international shipping and its own gunpowder mills, the limited powder manufacturing capacities of the South as well as the Union blockade soon led to concerns about shortages.
Potassium nitrate, in particular, is a critical element of gunpowder, and the Confederacy acquired it through several methods. One was through removing potassium nitrate–rich bat guano from caves; another method was through creating “nitre beds.” These were large rectangular pits filled with rotted manure and straw and covered weekly with urine and the liquid removed from privies and cesspools. The solid matter was rotated regularly with the urine by hand to create the desperately needed saltpeter.
The urea in human urine breaks down via bacteria into nitrate ions when “in solution”—like sitting in a nitre bed of human and animal waste. Manufacturers next passed the mixture through wood ash, which contains potassium carbonate. This mixture will form soluble potassium nitrate, which can then be washed out and collected by evaporating off the liquid.
The people employed by the Confederacy to do this noxious work were enslaved. Short on manpower, the Confederate government paid enslavers to lease their enslaved workers to perform work like digging entrenchments and tending to the nitre beds.
Unusual among the Confederate Slave Payrolls, the Ashley Ferry Nitre Works, Charleston Nitre Works, and Nitre Works District No. 4 all employed enslaved women as “laborers.
At Ashley Ferry Nitre Works near Charleston, South Carolina, the Confederate government paid enslavers between $13 and $26 a month per enslaved woman for her lease—often the same amount paid for enslaved men.
Between 1863 and 1864, Adelle, Bella, Charlotte, Clara, Cretia, Dinah, Dorcas, Eliza, Eugenia, Grace, Hannah, Hetty, Jane, Judith, Katy, Linda, Lucy, Polly, Nancy, Sarah, Silla, Silvia, and Tenah all labored for the Confederate States Nitre and Mining Service, turning the human excrement and urine in the nitre beds through the sweltering southern summer and cold fall weather without receiving any pay themselves.
Meanwhile, at Nitre Works District No. 4 in Virginia, the enslaver of two women laborers named Lindy and Clary were paid only $8.33 a month, while the same enslaver received $20 a month for an adult man and $12.50 for a boy.
At Charleston Nitre Works, Peggy, Becca, Scilla, Dinah, Sibby, Sarah, and Betsy made 50 cents a day for their enslaver.
While much of the history of the Confederacy focuses on the contributions of White soldiers, it was the unpaid enslaved Black women who had no choice that helped make the saltpeter that made the Confederate gunpowder that kept the war going.
Learn more about the Confederate Slave Payrolls in the National Archives News article by Victoria Macchi, “Confederate Slave Payrolls Shed Light on Lives of 19th-Century African American Families.”