Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Powder to the People!

That's right...powder to the people!

One of the firms I feature in my forthcoming book, Lincoln's Labels: America's Best Known Brands and the Civil War (Edinborough Press, 2008), is du Pont.

Du Pont was America's chief producer of black powder, itself responsible for nearly forty percent of the country’s production in 1860. Located on the Brandywine River near Wilmington, Delaware, the role of the du Pont gunpowder mills during the American Civil War is grand in its scope:

  • keeping powder out of enemy hands
  • protecting itself from marauding enemies
  • supplying the immense needs of the Union Army and Navy
  • participating in clandestine missions
  • supplying boan fide family heroes on sea and land
  • losing more than forty powdermen during the war, who gave the ultimate sacrifice by simply doing their job

Indeed, more than any of the other companies I cover in the book, du Pont proves that there are cases where a company of employees can have as dangerous a war as a company of soldiers.

Even the casual Civil War enthusiast can guess at the importance that a reliable and healthy gunpowder supply held for both the North and the South during the war. Still, for my part, one of the most interesting parts of the role of the company was looking beyond the obvious supply of powder to the Union army and navy. Here is what I mean by "powder to the people":

Previous peacetime enterprises that relied on powder for blasting – especially the mining of gold and coal – became important military ventures during the Civil War, and supplying these needs was every bit as important (and subject to enemy action) as supplying the armies and navies. In the book, I draw on some wonderful correspondence from the du Pont archives at the Hagley Museum and Library to make the point:

When the successes of Confederate sea raiders prompted an increase in insurance rates and a tightening of permission to ship powder to California, a du Pont powder agent warned that if miners were not adequately supplied with powder, shipments of bullion to the East would be cut in half and that the effect of such a reduction to the country’s currency would be “greater than would be experienced by the loss of a dozen battles."

A similar warning came from an agent in Cincinnati anxious to keep his coal-mining customers in powder as well:

“Coal cannot be mined without powder and the naval fleet on the Ohio and Mississippi will be powerless unless they can get coal for the boats…Cutting off the supply of coal from the fleet would be the very best kind of assistance to the rebels. Coal for the Furnaces is as important as Gunpowder for the Guns.”

I think it's a good example of the importance of looking beyond the obvious when considering logistics and supply during the Civil War.

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