previous next
Contraband of war, constipation, and combustion.--The Secretary of the Treasury at Washington has added to his list of contraband of war articles the following:--“Mercury in all its compounds, chlorate of potash, muriatic acid, chloride of potash, nitrate of soda, chloride of potassium, potash and pearlash, and nitric acids.” You doubtless remember, Messrs. Editors, how a member of the Plymley family was once disturbed, when a British minister undertook thus to interfere with the bowels of mankind, and the inalienable right of people to take medicine. Old Peter Plymley, with commendable indignation, described it as an attempt “to bring the French to reason by keeping them without rhubarb,” and to “exhibit to mankind the awful spectacle of a nation deprived of neutral salts.” “This,” said old Peter, “is not the dream of a wild apothecary, indulging in his own opinion; this is not the distempered fancy of a pounder of drugs, delirious from smallness of profit. * * * What a sublime thought, that no purge can be taken between the Weser and the Garonne; that the bustling pestle is still, the canorous mortar mute, and the bowels of mankind locked up for fourteen degrees of latitude. * * * When was this great plan of conquest and constipation fully developed? In whose mind was first engendered the idea of destroying the pride and plasters of France? Without castor oil they might, for some months, to be sure, have carried on a lingering war; but can they do without bark? Will the people live under. a Government whose antimonial powders cannot be procured? Will they bear the loss of mercury? ‘ There's the rub.’ Depend upon it, the absence of Materia Medica will soon bring them to their senses, and the cry of Bourbon and Bolus burst forth from the Baltic to the Mediterranean.”

Now, Messrs Editors, I should like to know where our Secretary took his degrees in, Chemistry and Pharmacy? Why this war upon Chlorides, Nitrates, Muriatic and Nitric Acids? What is there about the Chloride of Potassium to make it a contraband of war? Its principal use is in the manufacture of Alum; and the Confederate troops cannot have much use for that, unless the Union forces intend to [69] set the Secessionists on fire, and prohibit the use of Alum in order to prevent the Southerners from making their clothes and bodies fire-proof. I can understand the objection to Chlorate of Potash, because that makes a terribly explosive compound, being the chief agent in the manufacture of percussion powder. But it is a dangerous article to handle, and why not let the Southerners have it, and blow themselves sky-high with it? But the prohibition in this particular amounts to nothing. The Muriatic Acid is prohibited in order to prevent the Confederate army from manufacturing Chlorine gas, by which Chlorates and Chlorides are made. Muriatic Acid is not only not essential to the manufacture of Chlorine, but it is not used at all in making that article on a large scale. It is easily made with manganese, table salt, and unconcentrated sulphuric acid. This produces Chlorine, and neither of these articles is prohibited. The manufacture of Chlorine from the Binoxide of Manganese and Muriatic Acid is so perilous, owing to the action of the acid on the lead, and the evolution of Hydrogen gas, by which a spontaneous explosive mixture of Chlorine is produced, that the attention of the Secretary is respectfully asked as to the utility of preventing the seceding States from blowing themselves up. Why prohibit them from using the dangerous articles, and allow them free access to means unattended with any peril? And why prohibit Potash, when it can easily be manufactured wherever wood can be obtained? The small quantity of Chlorine and of Potash needed for war purposes, can be obtained without the use of the Secretary's interdicted articles, and might be dispensed, as the authorities of Massachusetts sold whiskey some years since — for medicinal purposes.

The prohibition against Nitric Acid and its compounds can answer no very useful purpose. The circular explains that Nitric Acid is prohibited because it can be used in the manufacture of gun-cotton. Why should the Secretary discourage the manufacture of this article? Its use is attended with a good deal of peril to those who handle it. For war purposes it cannot be compared with gunpowder. It is much less tractable, very perilous in itself, and terrible on weapons. It has much more force than gunpowder, and does not make smoke, but it has disadvantages that counterbalance all these qualities. It may ignite from percussion, or even spontaneously, or it may be decomposed by the moisture of the atmosphere, or even spontaneously, and thus become worthless. Its explosive force is subject to great variations, and the great danger attending its manufacture has caused the almost universal abandonment of attempts at making the article. The velocity of its combustion is too great for all fire-arms, except those of unusual strength and the smallest bore. If it gives out no smoke, it gives out something more deleterious — acid fumes, which destroy health. Then, again, cotton is a fibrous body, and the physical conditions of a fibrous body are strongly opposed to its use in fire-arms.

The projectile power of gun-cotton is nearly or quite double that of gunpowder. When prepared by the American method, by treating Schonbein's gun-cotton with a saturated solution of Chlorate of Potash, it acquires a remarkable force. A pistol loaded with one grain of this cotton has driven a ball through a yellow pine board one inch thick, at the distance of twenty feet.

At the siege of Moultan, in India, gun-cotton was used for the first time for military purposes, and the brilliance and breadth of flash are said to have shown a terrific intensity. But the British Board of Ordnance have decided against the adoption of this explosive article for fire-arms, for reasons already given. It is a clear case to one of the Plymley family, that Secretary Chase, if he designs evil to the Southern Confederacy, should encourage the transit of articles for the manufacture of gun-cotton. It would be likely to injure the Confederate more than the Union armies.

Gunpowder is by far the most manageable and perfect of all explosive materials for fire-arms. It is very curious that it was invented by a priest, and greatly improved by an English Episcopal bishop. Watson, of Llandaff, and George III. once twitted the soldiers of the gospel of peace about the gunpowder direction of his mental powers. The last great improvement is due to what is called “cylinder” charcoal, made by distilling wood free of resin, in iron cylinders, thus gathering its volatile products. Gunpowder made of this charcoal is so strong, that the charges for this used in ordnance were reduced nearly one-third, as compared with gunpowder made with ordinary charcoal. Mr. Faraday, in a paper read to the Royal Institution, showed the importance of time in the production of the effects of gunpowder. If it exploded as instantaneously as fulminating mercury, or those terrible explosives, chloride of nitrogen or iodine, it would be useless for its present applications. It would go the wrong way. For example: Mr. Faraday placed on a plate a small particle of the iodide of nitrogen, and touched it with a long stick. The parts in immediate contact with the iodide were shattered, the end of the stick was shivered, and the spot in the plate, covered with the iodide, was drilled through as though a bullet had passed through it. Yet the stick was not lifted by the explosion. The merit of gunpowder is, that it lifts and projects the materials in front of it, and thus acquires its force. Instantaneous as the effects seem to be, the explosive force “does not reach its intensity until the space it occupies has been enlarged by that through which the ball has been propelled during the first moment of ignition. Its expansive force is thus brought down and kept below that which the breech of the gun can bear, whilst an accumulating, safe, and efficient momentum is communicated to the ball, producing the precise effects of gunnery.” The inventor of the monster gun at Fortress Monroe has a powder made expressly for it on these principles: It is very coarse-grained, or it is made in perforated cakes, to secure the results just mentioned. But although the most perfect explosive article for war, it is wasted on a grand scale. In one day at Sebastopol the Russians fired 13,000 rounds of shot and shell, and the only result was the wounding of three men. At Ciudad Rodrigo, 74,987 pounds of gunpowder were consumed in thirty hours and a half; at Badajoz, 228,830 pounds in 104 hours, and this from the great guns only. I appeal to you, Messrs. Editors, should not the Secretary furnish all possible facilities to the Confederacy for manufacturing gun-cotton!

In order to prevent the manufacture of fulminating mercury for percussion powder and caps, mercury is prohibited; but why does the Secretary order an interdiction upon all the compounds of the article? Are we no longer to enjoy the privilege of being salivated? Are our teeth to remain wedged in our jaws 9 Are sluggish livers no longer to be spurred with the “divine remedy” ? Are inflammations to go on with their deposits and effusions, and are we to [70] use nothing to eat them up? Must we be under the combined tyrannies of combustion and constipation? Is not gunpowder direful enough, without depriving us of the benignant offices of Mercury? Are we to be feasted on lead pills, and be debarred from mercury pills? Is daguerreotyping to come to an end from the Ohio to the Gulf, from the Atlantic to the Indian country? Are we to use buckets of water or burnished copper for mirrors? Suppose, Mr. Secretary, your liver were locked up for a week, wouldn't you want blue pill? Think of going backwards in civilized medicine, in one class of cases, to times antecedent to Paracelsus. If, Mr. Secretary, you should be stretched in fever, learn the agencies of chlorate of potash, and then let us have blue pill and chlorate of potassa. If our sufferings become intolerable, and we order blue pill and calomel from Wolverhampton, would you be gratified in seeing it convoyed from Woolwich? Are the mountains of Cinnabar in California to stand idly kissing the mountain air, because you forbid mercury to flow through the Mississippi valley? Answer us that, Master Chase. Why not forbid lancets? They shed blood as well as Minie balls. Why are we allowed quinine, if we cannot have mercury? Why is morphine regular, and chlorate of potassa contraband? Alas, Mr. Secretary, if you starve us in health, is that any reason why we should be starved in the food of sickness? Do let the mercury and chlorate of potassa come in and go through us. Jonathan Plymley.

--Louisville Journal, May 28.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide People (automatically extracted)
Sort people alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a person to search for him/her in this document.
Editors (3)
Faraday (2)
Watson (1)
Jonathan Plymley (1)
Chase (1)
Bolus (1)
hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
May 28th (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: