Thursday, February 25, 2010

Extended "Lincoln's Labels" Excerpt (FIRE AND BRIMSTONE)

Another extended excerpt from Lincoln's Labels: America's Best Known Brands and the Civil War (Edinborough Press, 2009)!

This excerpt is from Chapter Five - "Fire and Brimstone" - which describes the interesting and important role that the du Pont gunpowder works played in the American Civil War.

This particular excerpt describes the challenge that du Pont faced in guarding their works against sabotage, accidents, and concerted Confederate movements.


Excerpt - Chapter Five - "Fire and Brimstone"

“A strong feeling in the two lower counties of Delaware is aroused in favor of Delaware joining the Southern Confederacy… With a man or two from you to give directions and a hint that arms would come if necessary, the people of Sussex themselves would destroy the Delaware railroad terminating at Seaford…The arms that Delaware own are in the hands of the secessionists. The powder mills on the Brandywine (owned by relations of mine) should be secured at all hazards. With a not very large force, if we cannot hold them, they should be destroyed. If it is possible to guard these works for a few weeks the stock of powder for the southern confederacy would be largely increased….Come to our help.”(24)

This urgent appeal to Virginia’s governor, Henry Alexander Wise, written by Charles du Pont Bird - a purported du Pont relative (he wasn’t) and ardent secessionist, gives a description of the situation in Delaware in April 1861. As a border state, Delaware – like the du Pont family - was home to divided loyalties. Sussex and Kent counties, in particular, had southern leanings, while New Castle County, home to the powder mills, was strong for the Union. Mississippi authorities led an effort to lure Delaware into the Confederacy, but Delaware’s legislature, led by a Unionist (albeit anti-abolitionist) governor, rejected secession. Still, Delaware had sufficient Southern sympathizers to give the du Ponts pause.

Not unexpectedly, the security of the du Pont mills was a constant concern throughout the Civil War, for, as Bird had declared in his appeal to Governor Wise, their capture or destruction would have been a great coup for the Confederacy. Within days of the firing on Fort Sumter, Henry du Pont wrote to Secretary of War Simon Cameron on the tenuous situation in his state:

“I will remark that the gunpowder mills in this neighborhood, of which I am the head, are of importance to the Government in these times, from their extent and immense facilities of production. They are wholly unprotected, and there is not a musket or rifle in the place; but we have over 300 good men, true, and loyal, and if we could get some 200 or 300 stands of arms from Franklin Arsenal and accoutrements, if there, we could take care of ourselves for the present, as far as mobs and disaffected persons are concerned.”(25)

Similarly, New Jersey’s Governor Charles S. Olden, wrote directly to President Lincoln on the “exposed and defenseless condition” of important points on the Delaware River and the port of Philadelphia. Among specific targets of concern, Olden wrote that a rebel expedition of sufficient force “would with ease destroy the machine-shops and Du Pont powder mills at the city of Wilmington.”(26)

The fears were well-founded. Although it would be more than a year before serious Confederate military movements would threaten the mills, Henry du Pont had to wait only a day after his letter to Cameron for the specter of Rebel sabotage to rear its head. On April 20, he received a telegram warning that a large band of Maryland secessionists – as many as 150 men – were planning to seize a du Pont powder magazine on the Delaware River. Cameron had not yet had time to respond to du Pont’s appeal (he wouldn’t till weeks later, anyway), so Henry, his nephews, and a party of workmen armed themselves and retrieved the powder in the middle of the night.

Less than two weeks later, a sordid-looking interloper was spotted on the mill grounds. Workmen – yelling “A spy! A spy!” - chased the stranger and might have beat him had he not been rescued by Lammot and another. Some of the powdermen claimed that the intruder had asked about the whereabouts of the powder magazines, but Lammot, after an interview with the “spy,” let him go with a word of warning. The du Ponts were also put on alert over rumors that two men, dressed as women, had been seen near the yards; another warning had a “known desperado” from Philadelphia on his way to blow up the works.(27)

All the incidents proved to be false alarms, but Henry du Pont – keen to prevent sabotage – organized the workmen into the “Brandywine Home Guards” (Delaware’s Governor William Burton appointed him as major general of the state militia in May 1861; he insisted on being called “General Henry” from that point on). Lammot, who turned thirty the day after Sumter, was named captain of Company A. He supervised the drilling in the manual of arms (still without guns); Lammot’s cousin, Ellen, thought that his company “looked mighty well in ranks” and drilled “infinitely better” than Company B. Lammot’s men bested the rival company in a May 1861 competition, winning a sword for their captain.(28)

While the du Ponts and the Home Guard guarded against perceived threats to the mills, there was in fact a very real and constant danger: explosions. Accidents had happened at the powder works about every fourteen months on average since their inception. The first had occurred on August 18, 1807; it broke windows in founder Irenee du Pont’s home, but caused no deaths. The first fatal accident, on June 8, 1815, claimed nine lives and caused $20,000 in damage. The du Pont family was not immune: the founder’s son, Alexis, was killed in an 1857 explosion.

The incidents made a great impression on Lammot du Pont; as a teen, he wrote his brother: “This morning just as I got out of bed I saw a flash of light and then a loud explosion. I dressed as soon as I could and ran down to the refinery…There were two men killed, entirely blown to pieces, there were 4200 lbs of powder in the mill, all finished ready to pack, so you may know it made a pretty good crack…Every window or door that was shut was burst open in our house.”(29)

More than ten explosions occurred at the du Pont mills during the Civil War- an average of one about every five months. The first explosion, in October 1861, caused no fatalities, but did level a number of buildings. An explosion a month later claimed the lives of three men. Others that followed killed nearly forty more workmen. Newspapers across the country carried bulletins of the wartime explosions; of one incident, Gettysburg’s Adams Sentinel reported that “large pieces of timber and barrels were thrown by the force of the explosion entirely across the Brandywine creek, and for a great distance evidences of the disaster were visible.” Of another, an Iowa paper reported with just amazement that a correspondent “distinctly heard the explosion of the du Pont powder mills at his residence [in Clifford, Pennsylvania]; the distance…he says, is 135 miles.”(30)

None of the explosions could be categorically attributed to saboteurs; certainly the accelerated pace of production and inexperience of newly-hired hands contributed to the accidents, and any clues would be lost in the destruction. Still, the truism that “the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” makes one wonder whether Rebel saboteurs may have indeed been successful in attempts to damage the mills.


With the du Pont mills under careful watch of the Home Guards and a plentiful supply of saltpeter on hand, the du Pont principals and the powdermen went to work in earnest. Lammot in particular poured himself into work at the mills. Aunt Sophie wrote her husband that Lammot was “killing himself in the refinery, working day and night.” His Cousin Sallie testified to the same, writing her brother, Henry A.: “They have night work all the time in the refinery; and as it is all lighted up with kerosene-lamps, the illumination is quite splendid all night, from the back windows. Cousin Lammot and Gene work there, night bout; and are both there all day, so are never visible.”(37)

Orders poured in from the Union Navy and Army ordnance bureaus on a regular basis for thousands of hundred-pound barrels of powder at a time, to be delivered within weeks to depots in Philadelphia, Boston, Portsmouth and elsewhere. Although government orders took first priority, du Pont did its best to keep up with its regular trade (including gold miners in California and coal miners in Ohio). The du Ponts sold more than $1,000,000 worth of powder every year of the war, with a peak of $1,625,305 in 1864 – more than twice their best year ever before the war.

The war made the du Ponts quite wealthy - especially “Boss Henry,” who held the greatest number of shares. Income tax returns for 1863 (Congress passed the “Revenue Act of 1861,” which included a tax on personal incomes, to help pay war expenses; it was repealed ten years later) show that Henry du Pont’s income of $123, 968 was the largest in Delaware that year. Though they didn’t reach the scale of Henry du Pont’s share, the workmen did benefit from the increased production and sales. Wages increased from $22-26 a month in 1861 to $32-35 in 1865. Actual take-home pay was even higher: with the mills operating ‘round-the clock, many of the men put in several days of overtime each month.

In the summer of 1862, threats of sabotage were replaced with by the dangers of concerted military movements as the Confederate Army moved through Virginia and into Maryland. In order to fill its quota of volunteers to meet the emergency, Delaware drafted nearly four-dozen men from the powder works into the ranks. Lammot was keen to volunteer himself, but was dissuaded by his mother, his Uncle Henry, and his Aunt Sophie, who wrote to Lammot’s “Uncle Frank”:
“Lammot, it seems, has been wanting to go for a good while, but the consciousness that he was absolutely needed here withheld him from volunteering. It is perfectly absurd, for he serves his country far more usefully here, not only in making powder, but in other ways. Any Irishman could be drilled to make as good a soldier in the ranks – but there is not one man in a thousand with Lammot’s scientific genius and knowledge, and his acute mind.”(38)

Henry’s plea that his remaining workers be exempted from the draft was approved with dispatch. Nevertheless, Lammot got his wish to serve: the Brandywine Home Guards were incorporated into the Fifth Regiment of Delaware Volunteers, with Lammot receiving a commission as captain of Company A. For Lammot, the move required more attention to drills and an officer’s uniform, which – according to his cousin Ellen – he declared “a humbug” (and officers: “nonsense”).(39)

Despite a proviso that the companies were only to be used (and paid when doing so) to protect industry in and around Wilmington, the two companies were dispatched to the Union’s Fort Delaware on Pea Patch Island to quell a riot of Rebel prisoners kept there. As a captain, Lammot pulled several 24-hour-long stints as officer-of-the-guard or officer-of-the-day, which, he wrote his mother, gave him “the fort to look after as well as 4,000 prisoners. So you see my hands are full.” Lammot fell ill – a victim of the typhoid endemic to the POW camps. The disease, nearly fatal, left him “42 days delirious without intermission.” Even when the danger had seemed to pass, he was plagued with inflamed eyes and a sore back.(40)

Though the specter of sabotage seemed to have passed with the first months of the war, the remaining years saw the mills guarding against seemingly annual crises as Rebel movements threatened the mills. The first came during the Antietam campaign in the fall of 1862. On reports that 3,000 Confederate cavalrymen were set to ride across Maryland to destroy the mills, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton wrote to General-in-Chief Henry Halleck of the:
“…immediate necessity of a military force to protect the powder mills of Messrs. du Pont, on the Brandywine. You are aware that a large portion of the Government ammunition is made there, the works being the largest in the world. I have been informed that in the last war with Great Britain a guard of 4,000 men was kept there. It seems to me that at least an equal force is now necessary.”(41)

Halleck could not spare anywhere close to 4,000 men; with the emergency at Sharpsburg, he wrote that “every man must be sent to General McClellan.” He did, however, telegraph Brigadier General John Reynolds with the suggestion “that a guard of Pennsylvania militia be sent to guard these mills,” with the promise they could be soon replaced by volunteers. Within a day, an advance guard of several hundred men from the Third Regiment Pennsylvania Reserve brigade arrived and camped within a half-mile of the works and remained there until month’s-end.(42)

The powder works were threatened again during the Gettysburg campaign in the summer of 1863. Henry du Pont asked Union authorities to alert him when the enemy approached so that he could dump powder stores into the creek. Lammot’s Aunt Sophie, sure their home would be burned in retaliation for her husband’s signal victory at Port Royal, South Carolina, boxed the Admiral’s papers and had them ready to secret away. Despite the temporary states of “alarm and anxiety” that beset the mills over the course of the war, Henry du Pont’s wife wrote to her son that she was confident that “as a people and family we du Ponts are not easily frightened.”(43)

More Lincoln's Labels excerpts - and contest giveaways - to come soon!

Endnotes (From Excerpt)

24. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. LI, Part II, p. 46.
25. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. LI, Part I, pp. 328-329.
26. Official Records, Ser 3, Vol. I, pp. 765-766.
27. N.B. Wilkinson, Lammot du Pont and the American Explosives Industry, 1850-1884 (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1984), p75.
28. Ibid, p. 75.
29. N. Parker, “Biographical Essay on Lammot du Pont,” April 2005, Hagley Museum and Library (HML), p. 29
30. “Large pieces of timber…” in The Adams Sentinel, August 2, 1864, p. 4; “distinctly heard the…” in Burlington Weekly Hawk Eye, March 14, 1863, p. 4; an exceptionally detailed report of a wartime powder works explosion at the Hazard Powder Company (a chief competitor to du Pont) can be found in the Berkshire County Eagle, July 31, 1862, p.3.

37. “Lammot is killing himself…” in Wilkinson, Lammot, p. 87; “They have night work…” in Sallie du Pont to Henry A. du Pont, April 20, 1862, HML, Group 8, Series B, Box 11.
38. “Lammot, it seems, has been…” in Mrs. S.F. du Pont to S.F. du Pont, August 16, 1862, HML, Winterthur Manuscripts, 9/D/106.
39. Parker, p. 17.
40. “the fort to look after…” in Wilkinson, Lammot, p. 97; “42 days delirious with…” in Wilkinson, Lammot, p. 104.
41. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. XIX, Part 2, p. 307.
42. Ibid, p. 307.
43. Wilkinson, Lammot, p. 91.

No comments: