Caroliniana Columns UNIVERSITY SOUTH CAROLINIANA SOCIETY SPRING 1998
Newsletter of the friends of the South Caroliniana Library.
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Civil War History in the Wateree Swamp
Dr. E. Cantey Haile, Jr. In 1989, following the devastation of Hurricane Hugo, two friends of mine, who are interested in history, were searching an area in the Wateree swamp along the South Carolina Railroad roadbed that was used during the Civil War. Gen. Edward Potter's United States troops, including the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, had been sent from Georgetown to locate and eliminate a number of boxcars loaded with munitions on the tracks of the South Carolina Railroad. Their raid was successful as Potter's troops
liquid could have
from a high explosive
such as nitro glycerin
to an early form of
destroyed the Confederate munitions. Knowing the approximate location of these boxcars, my friends dug into the side of the trestle and uncovered the remains of a wooden box that contained test tubes. Inside these test tubes were small hermetically sealed vials of a clear liquid which were protected on each end by a wad of cotton. Although they had no idea what the nature of the liquid inside these vials was, because of where they came from, they were certainly curious as to the possible contents.
Knowing my connection with the University, my friends called and asked if I could find anyone who would help identify the liquid. I knew that if anyone could get to the bottom of this mystery, it would be Dr. David Rembert, a professor at the University, who might know chemists interested in analyzing the liquid. I took Dr. Rembert one of the vials, and about two weeks later he called back to relate a wonderful story of how they had approached this unknown liquid which could have been anything from a high explosive such as nitro glycerin to an early form of biological warfare or perhaps chloroform.
The chemists knew immediately that the cotton in the test tubes indicated explosiveness. Nitro glycerin was an unlikely option as it will explode at the slightest vibrations. The chemists felt the best way to render the liquid inert was to subject it to super cooling which they did in a special chamber. When it did not freeze, the chemists scored the vial and broke it open. In order to determine if the liquid was organic or inorganic, a small amount was put in water. USC chemist
Dr. David Rembert
that the cotton
in the test tubes
Since organic materials usually don't mix with water and the substance did not dissolve immediately, it was concluded that the substance was organic. During the test the tube got almost too hot to hold. After the next test determined the material was extremely acidic, the chemists were able to determine that what they were dealing with was concentrated sulphuric acid.
Now that we knew what it was, the next mystery to solve was why on earth these vials were on a Confederate munitions train? Again, our imaginations went wild. The answer came like a bolt out of the blue. I was reading an account of the Confederate torpedo service in an 1898 Century Magazine by R.O. Crowley. He discussed the potential use of "torpedoes" or mines as offensive instead of defensive weapons. The first problem was to prepare a fuse that was "not dangerous to handle but would explode quickly on contact with any substance."
During field trials
in Virginia, Confederates
succeeded in blowing a
wharf on the James River
to smitherines with rockets
loaded with only
twenty-five pounds of powder.
They made some sheetlead tubes about three inches long and one inch in diameter with one end being very thin. "Into this tube was inserted a small glass tube of similar shape filled with sulphuric acid, and hermetically sealed. The vacant space about the glass tube was tightly packed with a mixture of chlorate of potash and pulverized white sugar and the mouth of the tube was closed by fastening a strip of muslin over it.
Now, if the rounded end of the leaden tube is brought into contact with any hard substance, the thin lead will be mashed, the interior glass tube broken, and the sulphuric acid becoming mixed with the preparation of chlorate of potash and sugar, an immediate explosion is the result. We then prepared a copper cylinder containing about fifty pounds of powder, and placed several of the leaden fuses in the head, so that no matter what angle the butt struck the hull of the ship, one of the fuses would be smashed in and flame from the potash and sugar ignite the powder." There we had it, the complete answer to our mystery. Mr. Crowley goes on to discuss the field trials of the device and how they blew a wharf below Richmond on the James River to smitherines with rockets loaded with only twenty-five pounds of powder.
One can only wonder if this was the very mechanism used by the Confederate submarine Hunley in sinking the Housatonic in Charleston harbor. Maybe this was the very reason these vials were on the train in the middle of a South Carolina swamp. Of course, we may never know if the answer is affirmative as to the type of fuse and explosive device used to sink the first warship ever sunk by a submarine. Although with the recent location of the Hunley off Sullivan's Island, it surely is exciting to think that we may have unearthed another peice of the puzzle.
This episode and its description now comprise a chapter in one of the most respected textbooks of chemistry being used throughout the nation. The book is entitled Chemistry, Principles and Practices by Daniel L. Reger, Scott R. Goode, and Edward E. Mercer of the University of South Carolina. This account is found in chapter four under "Insights into Chemistry." We are reminded that the war between the States was the breeding ground for many unusual and inventive devices which have evolved into today's modern military weaponry.
Editor's Note: Caroliniana Columns may print articles of special interest to our members on topics related to South Carolina history or the collections of the South Caroliniana Library.
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