This essay investigates why guncotton was not commonly used by both sides of the American Civil War, despite it being a more powerful explosive than the standard explosive (gunpowder/black powder). The question hitherto has not been fully answered; it is proposed that both sides did realize its superiority yet chose different modes of action. The Union army tested the material in America, but chose the British course of action, to wait until the material, with its known instability, was improved. The Confederate navy was willing to take the risk and looked in mid-1864 for large amounts in Europe for use in certain types of sea and river mines (“torpedoes”). Large quantities did arrive, but were too late to be used. The types of torpedoes to be employed with guncotton are not known but it is estimated that the material was intended for those types where gunpowder limited their effectiveness.
CurtisWilliam S.2006. “Unorthodox British Technology at the Confederate Gunpowder Works, Augusta Georgia, 1862–1865.” In Gunpowder Explosives and the State: A Technological History ed. BuchananBrenda J.239–47. Aldershot and Burlington, vt: Ashgate.
Dyer Brig. Gen. Alexander Brydie. 1864. Letter to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton 22 Sept. 1864. In War Dept. et al. 1880–1901 ser. 3 vol. 4 799–804.
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RainsGeorge Washington. 1882. History of the Confederate Powder Works. Address Delivered by Invitation before the Confederate Survivors’ Association at its Fourth Annual Meeting on Memorial Day April 26th 1882. Augusta, ga: Chronicle & Constitutionalist Print.
WintjesJorit. 2015. ‘“Five of These Will Conquer Any Ironclad’: The Spar Torpedo Boat in the American Civil War.” In Astride Two Ages: Technology and the American Civil War ed. HackerBarton C.. Washington, dc: Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press, in press.