Friday, January 27, 2012

January 27, 1862 - Gunpowder Mining in the Ozarks

Cave in the Arkansas Ozarks
In a previous post on Civil War industry in Arkansas (see Industry in Arkansas on the eve of the Pea Ridge Campaign), mention was made of the development of caves in the state as a source of raw materials for making gunpowder.

To field its armies, the Confederacy of course needed gunpowder and surveys conducted in Arkansas by Dale David Owens during the years before the war proved that the Ozarks contained some of North America's finest deposits for mining saltpeter.

Saltpeter (often spelled saltpetre in old documents) is another name for potassium nitrate. This mineral is key to the production of gunpowder and was found in the limestone caves of the Ozarks. These caves riddle the hills in the northern half of the state and by the time the Pea Ridge Campaign began to develop in late January of 1862, saltpeter mining was developing as a major industry in Arkansas:
Ozark Mountains of Arkansas

...We sometime ago gave an account of the saltpetre caves of Arkansas, and stated that machinery was being sent from this city [i.e. Memphis] for working some of the caves up White river; so successful has been the experiment that the Jacksonport Herald states that a Mr. Carlton ships about a ton and a half of saltpeter every week to Nashville, to be made into powder, and that he soon expects to ship two and three tons per week.

This account, from the Memphis Appeal, was published in late January of 1862 and was picked up by newspapers throughout the South as evidence of the growing capability of the Southern war effort.

The article mentioned the White River, one of several areas in Arkansas where saltpeter mining took place. Additional mines were located in Newton County and elsewhere. The mineral was prepared on site at mines like the one in Boxley and then carried by wagon or ox cart to the Arkansas or White Rivers. From there steamboat transportation was available to carry it own to powderworks throughout the South.

The Pea River Campaign would spell the beginning of the end of saltpeter mining in Arkansas. By firmly planting themselves in Northwest Arkansas, the Federals opened the door for raids on mining operations in the Ozarks. As a result, the importance of Arkansas saltpeter to the Confederacy would diminish rapidly following the Battle of Pea Ridge.

I will continue posting on the 150th anniversary of the Pea Ridge Campaign over coming days and weeks, so be sure to check back often. You can also read more on the Battle of Pea Ridge at

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