Looking for more from Sean McLachlan? He also hangs out on the Midlist Writer blog, where he talks about writing, adventure travel, caving, and everything else he gets up to. He also reproduces all the posts from Civil War Horror, so drop on by!

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Destroying a Confederate saltpeter works

The Civil War in Missouri and Arkansas was made up of mostly small skirmishes. Researcher Carolyn Bartels counted 1100 fights in Missouri alone, and suspects that estimate is low. Only a couple of dozen of them could rightly be called battles. As I've written before, there's no such thing as an insignificant skirmish. One small action in Arkansas in January of 1863 shows why.

At this time, northern Arkansas was a sort of No-Mans-Land between the two sides. There was little infrastructure in the Ozarks to support a large force, and the rough hills and thick brush made any supply wagons easy targets for ambush. The region was full of deserters and bushwhackers, sandwiched between the Union army to the north and the Confederates to the south.

There was one Confederate outpost, however. Along the Buffalo River in northern Arkansas was a large saltpeter works. Saltpeter, of course, is a key ingredient in gunpowder, something of which the rebels were always in short supply. While they didn't have the manpower to control the Buffalo River, they left a few men to run the saltpeter works in order to supply the beleaguered Arkansas Confederates.

Union troops learned of this operation and decided to put a stop to it. Major J.W. Caldwell of the First Iowa Cavalry took 300 men from Huntsville in northwestern Arkansas and rode out on the morning of January 9. That evening he camped in the general vicinity of the works and sent out scouts to find its exact location. Before dawn the next day, he set out and completely surprised the rebels. Of the 20 workers, only three escaped and the rest were captured.

In his report, Maj. Caldwell says he destroyed 14 buildings, 2 steam engines, 3 boilers, 7 large iron kettles, and half a ton of saltpeter. This was a large enterprise indeed. As a bonus, his men found a second, smaller works four miles downriver and destroyed that too. The workers there managed to escape but the Iowa boys had made a good haul. The expedition also netted 20 bushwhacker prisoners.

While military histories tend to focus on the big battles, these skirmishes had an accumulated effect far beyond any single battle. The works on the Buffalo River weren't the only supply of saltpeter for the rebels in Arkansas, but its loss exacerbated their supply problem and made them that much weaker. Losing all those men to Union prisons didn't help their cause either.

This Wikipedia photo shows a reproduction of Anderson Mill, built in the 1850s as a corn mill and cotton gin. It was converted to a gunpowder mill for the Civil War. After the war it resumed as corn, wheat, and cotton processing. It was bought by Pioneer Mills of San Antonio and idled at the turn of the century. This reproduction was built in 1965 in Anderson Mill, Texas when the original site was flooded by the Lake Travis reservoir. OK, so it isn't a saltpeter works. I couldn't find a good public domain photo of one! Here's one I couldn't use.


  1. I haven't paid attention to my dad well enough to know the details, but both (I think) great great grandfathers (opposite sides of the family) fought in the CW on opposite sides. One I think was from MO and the other from Arkansas. This may explain my split personality.

    Great post.

  2. A sudden lack of ammunition puts a big dent in things.

  3. I never knew saltpeter was used to make gunpowder. I know it's important to destroy your enemy's supplies, but it seems like such a waste, huh? The picture's gorgeous! :-)

  4. Interesting. One branch of my maternal ancestors lived in south central Missouri during this time period. And Anderson Mill is about an hour or so north of where I live.

  5. I always learn something when I visit your blog, Sean. Saltpeter was used to make gunpowder--I'll add that to my list of trivia. Thanks for another intersting post.


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