The Most Hated Man in the Southern States

Chapter 11

When it came to establishing a gunpowder mill, I met with less resistance than I had supposed. Everyone, it seemed, knew there was no powder mill in the Southern states capable of making more than a few hundred pounds, and everyone knew gunpowder was essential for all sorts of tunneling and mining. I was able to play on the vanities of Governors and local politicians alike, ensuring that we had a fistful of orders and intents before taking this scheme to the Board. But as I did not repeat the impromptu, ad-hoc acquisition of the rifle works, I did make other mistakes equally or more severe.

The formula for gunpowder is no secret: seventy-five per cent saltpeter or niter as it is sometimes called, fifteen percent charcoal and ten per cent sulfur. The process is lengthy and can be hazardous, but is commonly known in all its steps, from milling to wetting, caking to grinding. The equipment was not difficult to procure; our own metal shops were able to forge and cast the boilers, pans and other equipment. No, difficulties in these areas were predictable and could be overcome with planning, hard work, careful management and adequate capital, this last a consideration as we were in the middle of the worst financial crash in American history. Our difficulties came in ways we had not at all forseen.

Our works were constructed on the outskirts of Atlanta along the banks of the Chattahoochee River, the same I note as flowed past our rifle works in Columbus. The overall design was simple and sound, conceived and executed by a fellow Rhode Island man, Ambrose Burnside. Yes, the same General Burnside who served so ably in the Great War. It is well known that he remarked on several occasions that he wished he had not done such good work on the Atlanta mills! The design as I say was efficient and simple, and so laid out as to be easily and rapidly expandable, as happened later. The walls of the milling rooms for example were immensely thick save for the thin pine outer wall that overlooked the river; any explosion would thus blow out the thin wall and preserve the main structure from damage.

Burnside had left the Army in 1853 to pursue the manufacture of a breech-loading carbine of his own design. Unable to find backers in the North and acquainted with my family he had contacted me in regards to our rifle works in Columbus. We examined his design carefully, found it quite sound, and purchased a license. In the end we made only a few thousand of them before the War broke out (it was popular with Confederate cavalry during the War, however, and manufactured in quantity then), and the license and fees were insufficient for Burnside's needs. Appraised of our desire to open a powder mill, he prepared plans and supervised construction himself, the work proceeding smoothly and quickly, and for which efficiency he was well compensated. He served as manager of the mill until just before Georgia left the Union, returning North to serve as his conscience dictated, and I have never seen him since.

As I say, constructing and opening the mill were not great obstacles. Finding material was a greater difficulty, but we did have the advantage of a large rail network under one operator. Louisiana sulfur and saltpeter from the caves of Alabama, Tennessee and the Carolinas were easily brought to our Atlanta works. The charcoal was easiest of all to obtain; willow, or common cottonwood, made an excellent charcoal for the purpose. Of these, the supply of saltpeter was the most critical as it constituted the bulk of the material required, and saltpeter is not found in great quantity anywhere in this country. Some is found in limestone caves, or under dung-heaps, but the greatest quantities are found in the deserts of Chile in South America. From that source we made quiet, steady purchases and warehoused the niter in barrels and tanks, acquiring in that fashion hundreds of tons of the material before the War interrupted all overseas trade.

Since the early days of the American republic the DuPont family had been making gunpowder in Delaware, and their product was of high quality, efficiently made, attractively priced and widely used. This was not enough, not nearly enough, for the family DuPont; complete domination of all gunpowder manufacturing in North America was their goal and they worked ceaselessly toward that end. Ruthlessly they would slash prices and drive competitors to ruin, buying up the small or insolvent and making thus a gigantic gunpowder monopoly. Heretofore they had supplied every federal and state arsenal of note as well as private suppliers, and the emergence of a rival company was not, they believed, to be tolerated. Hence we found all our promises of orders had evaporated under threats of boycott from DuPont, or were filled by DuPont agents at lower prices than we had offered. I was at one point sorely tempted to sell the works and avoid a protracted struggle, but Heaven itself intervened to place two weapons in my hand.

The first was telegraphed to me by a former station manager who had been offered a post of some importance in a state government; his name, and that of the state, it would not be proper to reveal. The upheaval in Kansas had reached such a riotous pitch that the federal government had decided to augment its stocks of gunpowder in St Louis, moving tons from arsenals on the Atlantic Coast and replacing them with newly made powder.

It was a matter of little difficulty to find 'irregularities' in the shipping manifestos and freight contracts, sidelining both the outgoing and incoming gunpowder. Days were spent deflecting telegraphs from Washington City and from Delaware, and as days lengthened into weeks I called in favors from the state government and from judges who were beholden to the railroad or to others who were themselves in our debt. Suddenly there were questions of proper weight and quality and no evidence of haste in reaching a decision on the issues. In vain did DuPont dispatch new gunpowder to St Louis and attempt to cancel the existing, troublesome contracts, and questions of liability and public safety hung in the air like storm clouds.

Needless to say, no transportation could be made for any DuPont chemicals or product while these matters were in dispute. Inability to transport their product on the Great Southern meant, in fact, an inability to move it in the Southern states by any means. Not only would the Great Southern refuse such freight but other railroad and steamship companies were not inclined to risk our wrath by providing assistance. DuPont attempted to strike back by alleging 'monopoly' and 'collusion', and these charges did play well in certain newspapers, Charleston's Mercury among them, but this sensationalism moved no freight and only hardened my resolve.

The arrival of the steamship Woodford at the port of Savannah placed the second weapon in my arsenal. Damaged and driven into refuge by a late season hurricane, the Woodford was laden with hundreds of tons of Chilean nitrate, listed on the manifest as intended for 'Bridgeman Fertilizer and Chemical' of Wilmington, Delaware, at an address that corresponded with the DuPont mills. The station manager was a quick-witted man who telegraphed the information with the highest priority; unloading was not yet complete when I returned my answer. The cargo was indeed unloaded, railed up into the South Carolina Piedmonte country, shunted to a siding, and abandoned. 'Complications related to ongoing legal proceedings' was the phrase, I believe.

Having made strenuous efforts to obtain either the powder or the niter or both, having in fact failed to ascertain when or if legal proceedings might be allowed to begin, and faced with a veritable blockade to its sales in half of the United States, the DuPont company reacted with swift decision. Ten days after tons of niter disappeared into the Carolina pines, Lammot DuPont called upon me in my office.

Our meeting was unpleasant but in the end productive; the young DuPont was cold, haughty and supercilious verging on insolence. For my part I was cool, proper and polite until he began to recite his demands a second time, whereupon I checked him rather hard. "You may argue the case until Gabriels' Trump," I said, "but you will not shift me by threats. You may even win a legal decision, supposing you are able to persuade a judge to hear the case in your lifetime. Meanwhile your sulfur supply is interrupted, your niter impounded and your gunpowder is undeliverable in the South. If you annoy me further I shall do you and your family more serious harm yet, for I have the resources of the Great Southern behind me and I can wage such a war of prices as will quite alarm you. My finance derives from the railroad, which is immune to your attack, and your gunpowder business is open to my competition should I choose to fight you there."

That left him speechless. This little lordling was unaccustomed to such frank talk, nor do I think he had fully apprehended his family's position until that moment. "What I ask is very moderate; grant me what I require and all your property will be on its way to you this very afternoon." He did not trust himself to speak, but indicated by gesture that I should continue. "These sharp practices of yours will cease, and I will deal fairly with you and yours in return. No underbidding and selling at less than cost, no efforts to drive me out of the gunpowder business, or to seduce away clients from signed contracts."

"You mean then to claim any contract you desire and we should make way?"

"No. I mean only that you should bid honestly on any contract in the Southern states and we will do likewise, and if you fairly win so be it. Look you, my powder mill is a tiny fraction of my business and does not need to be so very busy to earn its keep, but I will not see it ruined by your connivance. On the contrary, I can easily afford to run that mill and a dozen more at a loss! My business is the railroad, as I have said, and even in these parlous times my railroad makes a profit. I can spend those profits on the railroad, or I can give gunpowder away at a loss until we are both bled out. Which then, shall it be?"

He nodded slowly; the success of the Great Southern could not be unknown to him. "In exchange for peace and fair competition between us, what do you require? Bring out a document and I will sign."

"I ask no more than your word, sir. Give it not lightly, as I keep my honor sacred and never forget or forgive a man who breaks his word."

"Done, then... done, and my word upon it."

We shook hands then and he left in not much better humor than he had arrived. Miraculously the legal tangle dissolved, the commodities were delivered and all was set aright. The years before the War saw DuPont give us a wide latitude, and if they did not conduct themselves scrupulously they did at least observe some limits.