Details of the Confederacy's Augusta Powder Works Comes to Light

As it turned out, Davis' fears were unfounded with respect to one of the most important aspects of the Confederate war machine

Details of the Confederacy's Augusta Powder Works Comes to Light

When the Confederate Congress convened in Montgomery, Alabama, in February 1861, many Southern leaders seemed to think that courage and dreams would be enough to secure victory for their cause. The Confederate congressmen did not seem to realize that winning the impending conflict with the North would require fighting equipment and lots of it.

As it turned out, Davis' fears were unfounded with respect to one of the most important aspects of the Confederate war machine. Though scholars may never reach satisfactory agreement as to the most important reason for Confederate defeat, lack of gunpowder will certainly not be one of them. The decision by Davis and Josiah Gorgas, chief of ordnance for the Confederacy, to place Colonel George Washington Rains in charge of Confederate gunpowder production was certainly wise. Under Rains' supervision, the Confederate Powder Works at Augusta, Georgia, produced almost fourteen thousand tons of what many called the best gunpowder in the world. Because of its superior quality, the Union Army confiscated the seventy thousand pounds of gunpowder remaining at Augusta for its own use after the war.

Surprisingly, though he had a strong technical background, Rains had no experience as a powder maker before the war. At the outbreak of hostilities the South had no large powder mills and no one with enough experience making gunpowder in the quantities needed. Considering the exorbitant price and inconsistent quality of imported gunpowder and the strength of the Federal Navy's blockade of Southern ports, Davis and Gorgas knew that the Confederacy had to produce its own powder. Their solution was Colonel Rains.

The story of Rains' achievement is one of determination, ingenuity, and resourcefulness. By judicious use of the South's sparse industrial resources and by scavenging equipment from all sorts of factories, Rains was able to piece together a successful powder factory.

The factory consisted of a two-mile-long stretch of buildings, arranged like a massive conveyor belt, that ran along the Augusta Canal. For safety reasons the individual buildings were separated by at least one thousand feet. Rains' factory was one of the first examples of a large-scale assembly line in the United States, foreshadowing the mass production that would sweep the nation forty years later. In addition to being well constructed and efficient in operation, the buildings--designed to Rains' specifications by architect C. Shaler Smith--were also beautiful in appearance.

The raw materials for making the powder were unloaded for processing at the southeastern end of the plant and were then worked up the canal. After refining and purifying the raw materials, factory workers sent them to the incorporating mills, where they were mixed in the correct proportions for gunpowder, pulverized, and ground into a thick cake. After time in a cooling building, the powder was sifted by grain size (large grains for artillery and smaller for rifles and pistols) in the granulating building, and then moved farther down the canal to be dried, dusted, and glazed. At the packinghouse the powder was boxed in special crates designed by Rains and then moved up to the magazine for shipping. A railroad spur tied the plant to the Georgia Railroad.

Rains' design for the works was ahead of its time. He was repeatedly confronted with seemingly insurmountable technical problems without adequate resources to solve them. Each time, however, Rains conjured some sort of creative solution. In the process he created a product superior to the rest of the world's finest gunpowder.

Until recently, most of the information on the Augusta powder works has come from a speech given by Rains after the war. In 1880 the Sibley Cotton Company erected a factory on the site where the powder works once stood, leaving the 150-foot-high chimney of the refinery building as the only reminder of Rains' creation. In 1882, tablets commemorating Rains and his works were inserted into the base of the chimney. On April 26 of that year, Rains traveled from his home in Newburgh, New York, to give a speech to the Augusta Confederate Survivors Association during the dedication ceremony for the tablets. The text of Rains' speech was later published by the Newburgh Daily News Print and has since been available in a number of libraries.

In addition to the speech, a photograph of the refinery and several of Smith's elevation sketches have surfaced and appeared in various works. Still, the appearance and layout of most of the buildings at the powder works were left to the imagination. And though Rains spent a considerable amount of time in his speech describing his technical innovations, gaps remained that even the finest engineers would have trouble filling.

In the course of researching a book on science and technology in the Civil War, I traveled to Augusta in August 1998. Curator Scott Loeur of the Augusta-Richmond County Museum mentioned that he thought there might be more drawings of the powder works packed away in a local bank vault. I went with Loeur and assistant curator Gordon Blaker to a massive bank vault in downtown Augusta. In the far corner were two wooden crates marked as property of the museum. Unscrewing the lids from the crates, we were delighted to find many of Smith's original blueprints and sketches showing details of all the buildings at the powder works and the machinery in each. Smith's work remains in pristine condition and brings to life what had before been only words from a little-known speech.

Many of the drawings and blueprints clarify aspects of Rains' address and at times go far beyond the level of detail available in that text. Rains spent most of the technical portion of his speech describing the refinery building where the three essential ingredients of the gunpowder (saltpeter, sulfur, and charcoal) were purified. The drawings give a clear picture of the layout of the facility and also give some insight into how Rains' plans for the factory developed during the war. For example, an early plan of the facility dating from 1861 differs considerably from the final version dated 1863.

Another sketch shows the details of a special wooden railway Rains designed to transport the powder from one building to another. The wooden tracks and wheels were designed to prevent sparks from igniting the material during transport. Several other sketches show the elaborate machinery in the charcoal refinery. Cranes for moving the raw and processed material around the room were operated by an intricate network of supports, called "spiders" by Schaler Smith, and unusual gearing mechanisms, which he referred to as "crabs." Additional sketches show overhead and side views of Rains' most impressive creation--the incorporating mills. This series of twelve mills was housed in a single building and operated simultaneously via an iron shaft nearly three hundred feet long. The arrangement of the mills is clearly shown, as are their connections to the shaft.

In his address, Rains referred to some of the buildings without going into much detail about their construction or appearance. He offers no other information on the cooling magazines. The recently uncovered sketches include an elevated drawing of the building that housed these magazines and a diagram showing their size and the method by which they were separated from each other. Similar details in other drawings will help scholars form a picture of the building used for packing and those used for drying, dusting, and glazing the gunpowder.

These drawings shed a whole new light on the fledgling Confederate powder industry and its important role in the Civil War.

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