An Odd Story from America’s Civil War: Gunpowder

I have to thank Harry Sargent of Lake Jackson Texas for this information. I met him at the museum where I did my program this weekend. As my Confederate ancestor was assigned to the Mining and Nitre department that made gunpowder, I was very interested.

The Art of Making Saltpetre

During the American Civil War,  the Confederates, to provide nitrate for making gunpowder, had to resort to all sorts of devices.  This included digging out and leaching the earth from old smokehouses, barns, and caves and making artificial beds of all sorts of nitrogenous matter.  They designated agents for the purpose in every town and city.

The officer at Selma, Ala, was particularly energetic and enthusiastic in his work and put the following advertisement in the Selma newspaper on October 1, 1863.

“The ladies of Selma are respectfully requested to preserve the chamber lye to be collected for the purpose of making nitre.  A barrel will be sent around daily to collect it.  John Haralson, Agent, Nitre and Mining Bureau, C.S.A.”

This attracted the attention of army poets and the first of the following two effusions resulted.  It was copied and privately circulated over the Confederacy.  Finally it crossed the line, and an unknown Federal poet added the “Yankee’s View of It.”


John Haralson, John Haralson—you are a wretched creature;
You’ve added to this bloody war a new and useful feature.
You’d have us think, while every man is bound to be a fighter,
The Ladies, bless the pretty dears, should save their pee for nitre.

John Haralson, John Haralson, where did you get the notion,
To send the barrel ‘round to gather up the lotion?
We thought the girls had work enough to making shirts and kissing,
But you have put the pretty dears to Patriotic Pissing.

John Haralson, John Haralson, pray do invent a neater,
And somewhat less immodest way of making your saltpetre.
For ‘tis an awful idea, John, gunpowdery and cranky
That when a lady lifts her skirts, she’s killing off and Yankee.


John Haralson, John Haralson, we’ve read in song and story,
How women’s tears, through all the years, have moistened fields of glory.
But never was it told before, how ‘mid such scene of slaughter
Your Southern beauties dried their tears and went to making water.

No wonder that your boys were brave; who couldn’t be a fighter,
If every time he fired his gun, he used his sweetheart’s nitre.
And vice versa, what could make a Yankee soldier sadder,
Than dodging bullets fired by a pretty woman’s bladder?
They say there was a subtle smell which lingered in the powder
And as the smoke grew thicker and din of battle louder,
That there was found in this compound one serious objection—
No soldier boy could sniff it without having an erection!!

Thanks to Elinor Owens, Editor of the ACS Philadelphis Section’s Catalyst, for digging this up and publishing it first.

2 thoughts on “An Odd Story from America’s Civil War: Gunpowder

  1. Somehow I have never heard this story…very interesting. I’ve heard some very good speaches on gunpowder lately, because as you probably know the confederate powder works was here in Augusta. I’ll have to share this story with my scv camp, which by the way is in charge of preserving the lone smoke stack which still stands along the augusta canal.

  2. In the late Middle Ages, when gunpowder was re-invented in Europe, salpeter was already won from urine. It is said that the pee from monks was preferred, and the best pee of them was that from abbots and bishops – these drank the most and the best wine!

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