Civil War, Cave Dirt, and the Rule of Law

Robert Barton Civil War

Robert Thomas Barton

Robert Thomas Barton was born in Winchester, Virginia, on November 24, 1842, to a life of comfort and security. Robert was one of ten children, consisting of six boys and four girls, born to David and Fanny Barton. Robert’s father prospered from his law practice enabling him to enlarge the size of their residence to accommodate an ever-growing family, as well as numerous slaves and servants.

The Barton residence, itself, was situated on a sizable lot off Market Street which “ran deep, back to the next street providing space for stables and carriage house, the pig sty, coops for birds, laundry house and other outbuildings for vegetable garden and fruit trees.” Located in the center of town, it was a short walk to the courthouse, their father’s law office, and the Episcopal church, which was attended regularly by the family.

Barton Home

Early 20th Century Photo of the Barton House on Market Street in Winchester.

A few miles south of Winchester on the Valley Pike, the family also owned an elegant mansion called Springdale. The splendor of the estate so dominated the neighborhood that the area became known as Bartonsville. Bartonsville was not a town, though, “but a collection of houses around two mills – one near the turnpike, milling wheat, the second, upstream, a woolen factory.” These industries were powered by the waters of Opequon Creek which flowed nearby.


Springdale at Bartonsville

Winchester was a community often described as being “closer to the North than to the South.” As a matter of fact, in 1860 most of the residents would have called themselves “Unionists.” As there were fewer slaves per capita in the Shenandoah Valley than in much of the rest of Virginia, the major issue for the populace was not slavery “but states’ rights and the encroachment of federal authority.”

In less than a year, though, the attitudes of the inhabitants of Winchester would be transformed. With their city in the crosshairs of civil war, the vast majority would become ardent secessionists. They would rally to “the cause”, and support the Confederacy, offering up their wealth, their fidelity, and most significantly, their lives.

In June of 1861, shortly after the commencement of hostilities, Robert Barton volunteered. He was just nineteen years of age when he joined his brother, Strother, in Company F of the 2nd Virginia Infantry. The regiment would be attached to a brigade made up of four other regiments, the 4th, 5th, 27th, and 33rd Virginia, in addition to the Rockbridge Artillery. Following the First Battle of Manassas, the unit would be labeled as the Stonewall Brigade in reverence to its commander, General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.

Shortly after joining the regiment Robert Barton became seriously ill, and was discharged for disability within a few weeks of his muster. He would spend the next eight months recovering from this malady and would not be able to rejoin the war effort again until early March of 1862. This time he would enlist as a private in the Rockbridge Artillery, also known as Poague’s Battery. Robert’s brother, David, was already serving in the unit at the time of his muster. Enrolling in time for duty during the McDowell Campaign, he and his brother would serve together for the remainder of Jackson’s Valley Campaign.

At the Battle of First Winchester, on May 25, 1862, Robert fought in the same brigade as his brothers David, Marshall, and Strother. For Robert, though, it was his first combat, and in the course of the fight he experienced several close calls. First, an enemy shell killed two horses as he was trying to tether them to a tree. Then a second round exploded at his feet. Somehow, Robert escaped unscathed.

All told his battery lost three killed, and eighteen wounded out of the eighty-nine men assigned to the battery. It was the highest percentage of casualties of any Confederate Unit on the field. Following the engagement, he tragically stumbled upon the body of his own brother, Marshall, who had been mortally wounded on a hill about one and a half miles from his parent’s house in Winchester.

Jackson’s Valley Campaign would continue to flow up and down the valley. The battery would next be engaged at the Battle of Port Republic. Robert, who had been gravely ill the night before the battle, could barely walk when he awoke the following morning. By five AM, however, Confederate infantry was on the march crossing the South River on a temporary bridge made of sunken wagons and planks. The surgeon, grasping Robert’s “poor condition,” allowed him to ride in an ambulance which would follow closely behind his battery.

On reaching the field of battle Robert had been “lying on the floor of the ambulance and had to roll out quickly from the rear.” He then “took his place with the guns” as they advanced to their first placement. The weapon immediately came under fire from the enemy’s batteries. Barton noted “the excitement of being under fire, seemed, until the fight was over, to be better medicine for me than any surgeon could have prescribed…”

Robert’s artillery piece was moved several times “under heavy fire, seeking each time to get a better place from which we could do more damage to the enemy.” At one-point Robert was asked to “run ahead of the guns and ask the colonel of an infantry regiment lying behind the shelter of a small hill in front of us to move out and let our battery take position there.” The regiment was the 27th Virginia and the commander, Colonel Andrew Grigsby, soon had his men repositioned to make room for the gun.

Port Republic Map

The Hill Mentioned by Barton is Shown on the Map as well as a Stream Named Little Deep Run in which He Took Cover. (Adapted: Krick, Conquering the Valley)

The Battery soon found itself firing briskly at “a large body of Federal infantry that was bravely advancing to charge us, and we were losing men and horses by their rifles.” At this point a portion of the Stonewall Brigade and General Richard Taylor’s Louisiana Brigade “charged the enemy that was advancing upon us and were repulsed with heavy loss and fell back through our guns, thus stopping our fire for the time.”

The enemy troops were soon upon them. The battery was ordered to retreat but with their horses all dead they were forced to make a stand. Their officer, Cole Davis, “ordered us to stand and fire in their faces.” “We could almost tell the color of the eyes of the enemy before we were ordered to cease firing and fall back, leaving the gun to its fate.”

Barton found himself too weak to retreat from the enemy. “Sick, worn out, in the mud and wheat, I could not even run, so I took to the shelter of an apple tree not far from where the battery stood and lying down, tried to protect myself behind it.” Shot after shot struck the tree.” Later that day he counted seven bullet holes in that sapling.

Realizing his position was untenable Robert sought a safer spot. To his front, and closer to the enemy, Robert discerned a ditch that appeared to offer better cover. He “jumped for it, hoping to tumble in and escape the dreadful fire.” His foot “caught in a dewberry bush and he tumbled head long into the ditch, which proved to be nearly full of cold water, accumulated by recent rains.”

The shock of his sudden emersion into the cold water was powerful. Still, Robert knew “to stay in that water was my only chance for escape, so I stayed with my body under the water and only my face above, while the heavy fire of bullets and of our gun which they had turned on the fugitives, swept over me.” Robert remained there until the firing had diminished. He then arose and advanced to the nearest friendly infantry unit situated to his front.

The regiment he approached turned out to be a West Virginia regiment of the Union persuasion, and he was very fortunate not to have been captured. When he finally reached Confederate lines, he discovered his own battery had gone off in pursuit of the retreating enemy. As he drifted through the battlefield a Louisiana Colonel took him for straggler and ordered him placed in a guard house with a sentinel to watch over him. He was subsequently spotted by Captain Poague, upon his return to the battlefield, and ordered released from captivity.

Port Republic was Robert’s last battle. He was sent to the rear on June 12, due to what was described as a “seriously weakened state.” He would “convalesce at Ivy Depot for nearly a month.” Too ill to continue in active service, however, he was soon discharged for phthisis,” or what is now termed pulmonary tuberculosis.

By October of the same year, Robert was still seeking a way to support the war effort in spite of his affliction. He considered several options but was finally mustered into the Nitre and Mining Bureau where he would serve under his uncle, James F. Jones. This would prove to be a most noteworthy assignment.

In his role at the Nitre and Mining Bureau, Robert was assigned to the Staunton area with the rank of agent and placed in charge of nitre production. We have previously discussed how critical the Shenandoah Valley’s pig iron production was to the Confederacy. What few people know, however, is how indispensable the manufacture of nitre from cave dirt was to the Confederate States. Virginia’s western highlands, and the Shenandoah Valley in particular, had an abundance of nitre, or saltpeter caverns. As a result, the Shenandoah Valley helped lead Virginia, as well as all of the other Confederate States, in its production by supplying nearly thirty percent of the South’s supply of saltpeter.

Robert Barton would have been responsible for managing production, transportation, and for making monetary disbursements to his suppliers. His responsibilities would have included several caverns in the Shenandoah Valley, including Clark’s Cave at Fort Lewis, and Weyer’s Cave near Port Republic. As part of his duties with the Nitre Department Robert would “frequently visit the neighborhood of Weyer’s Cave, near to which I had some men engaged in getting dirt out of a cave and extracting nitre from it.”

During one of his visits to the nitre production facility at Weyer’s Cave, Robert took the opportunity to call on a distant relative of his named Samuel Lewis. Mr. Lewis, a Union man at heart, owned a large plantation there known as Lewiston. The mansion is itself located just below and adjacent to the Coaling. It had played a central role in the Battle of Port Republic by serving as headquarters for Union General Erastus Tyler and Colonel Samuel Carroll. Robert had noted in his journal that he had “observed it during the fight and was in the yard in the afternoon of the battle.”

Samuel Lewis showed some animation when the subject of the battle came up in their discussions. He “showed me where a shell from one of our batteries had penetrated the wall of his house and exploding in his china closet, had utterly destroyed his stock of porcelain ware. From the direction from which the shot came, it was very probable that it was fired by my own battery and I told the General so.” Fortunately, Mr. Lewis did not hold a grudge and the incident served as a “theme for jokes at the table that night.”

The following day Robert took the opportunity to cross the battlefield in company with Samuel Lewis. He detected spots “where the hogs had rooted up the dead, and bones and skulls lay thick around. It was then I found again my friendly apple tree and counted the seven bullet holes in it.” The dead still lay upon the field, victims of the deadly missiles the opponents had hurled at each other.

Robert realized that gunpowder had performed its deadly mission there upon the Battlefield at Port Republic. Now it was he who was responsible for procuring one of the critical elements in the production of this substance. Call it what you might, nitre, potassium nitrate, or saltpeter, it was an essential component in the production of gunpowder, and for the continuation of the war effort.

Niter is the mineral form of potassium nitrate, KNO3, also known as saltpeter. It is commonly detected as “massive encrustations and effervescent growths on cave walls, ceilings, and floors.”  Along with sulfur and charcoal, niter is a crucial ingredient in the manufacture of gunpowder. Each grain of gunpowder is by composition seventy-five percent potassium nitrate, fifteen percent charcoal, and ten percent Sulphur.

Known as cave dirt, or calcium nitrate, when combined with potash during the manufacturing process, potassium nitrate is produced. Virginia caves are known to have been mined for this compound as early as 1740. They had even supplied the substance during both the American Revolution and the War of 1812.

“The dispersed nature of the caves, and their location in remote areas, kept them relatively safe from Union raiders.” The majority of operations were small and were encouraged to remain so by the Confederate Government. It was “largely a cottage industry — the caves were usually worked by mountain folk from small farms with no slaves and who were only marginally loyal to the Confederacy, resulting in a notoriously unreliable work force where absenteeism and desertion were common”

At the outbreak of hostilities in 1861, the Confederate states had no organized gunpowder industry. “Though several regions had long produced the primary ingredients — niter, charcoal and sulfur — the entire South had less than 30 tons of powder and no one source that produced more than a few pounds a day when the war started.”

By employing basic procedures outlined by the war department three men could produce up to two hundred pounds of saltpeter every three days. The War Department published a booklet in 1861 called “NOTES ON MAKING SALTPETRE FROM THE EARTH OF THE CAVES.” Major George W. Rains, who was in charge of the Confederate Gunpowder Department, was its author.

Included in the publication was the following: “ARTICLES WANTED TO MAKE SALTPETRE ON A SMALL SCALE. One ordinary iron pot, for boiling; three or four tubs, pails, or barrels cut off; two or three small troughs; sonic coarse bags or a wheelbarrow to bring the earth from the cave, and four strong barrels with one head in each, empty vinegar, whiskey or pork barrels are very good, are about all the articles required for a small saltpetre manufactory. To these, however, must be added some ash barrels to make potash lye, as it is better that this should be made at the same time and place, the ashes from the fire under the pot for boiling assisting in the production.”

“The actual production of niter from cave earth was a relatively simple process that could be done on a small scale using fairly common implements. Workmen (sometimes called “peter monkeys”) excavated the nitrate-bearing earth (”peter dirt”) using various tools such as shovels, mattocks, wooden scraping paddles, hoe-like scrapers, and chisel-shaped bars, the latter needed to obtain material from ledges and cracks and to serve as pry bars.”

Payment for nitre was also described in the pamphlet: “The Ordnance Department, Confederate States, will pay thirty-five cents per pound for all saltpetre delivered before the first of February, 1862, at any of the following points; Capt. W. G. Gill, Augusta, Ga.; C. G. Wagner, Military Store Keeper, Montgomery, Ala.; Lieut. M. H. Wright, Nashville Tenn.; Capt. W. R. Hart, Memphis, Tenn.; Sandford C. Faulkner, Military Store Keeper, Little Rock, Ark., and at Richmond, Va.”

Providing a production facility was capable of producing four hundred pounds of nitre a week the product would have a cash value of $140.00 in 1861 dollars. In today’s money that would be the equivalent of about $4,235.00. That is a tidy sum no matter how you look at it.

The Secretary of War went further stating: “Military commanders are directed and officers of the Niter Bureau are authorized to seize niter in the hands of private individuals who either decline to sell it or ask more than 50 cents per pound for it. Records from the Nitre and Mining Bureau reported that “through 1864 Virginia produced 505,584¼ pounds of niter, accounting for about 29% of the total Confederate domestic supply.”

Cave tally marks

Tally Marks on the Wall of a Shenandoah Valley Cave

One of the unusual facets of saltpeter caves is a feature known as tally marks. At least one of the Shenandoah Valley caves is known to have these designs. Though nobody is certain, “the marks may have been a record of the number of days worked or one man’s production in bags of peter dirt.”

As a point of interest, there were times during the war when saltpeter production from cave dirt slumped due to war related events. A Southern chemist, however, named Jonathan Harrelson, figured out how to craft nitre by extracting it from human urine. I can find no indication that this process was performed in the Shenandoah Valley, but women in some of the South’s larger cities were urged to collect urine from their bedpans. The fluid would then be poured “into a huge truck pulled by a horse around town and they would make potassium nitrate out of it.”

The Selma Sentinel published the following article on the subject on October 1,1863.

The ladies of Selma are respectfully requested to preserve all their chamber lye collected about their premises for the purpose of making Nitre. Wagons with barrels will be sent around for it by the subscriber.
(signed) Jno Haralson
Agent Nitre and Mining Bureau

Southern Belle

Southern Belle \ Yankee Killer

As you can imagine the idea of collecting women’s urine became the subject of a great deal of amusement. Several poems were written poking fun at the practice. Following is the only poem I found which was deemed suitable for reprinting. Several others of a more questionable nature are available on line.

John Harrelson, John Harrelson, you are a wretched creature,
You’ve added to this war a new and awful feature,
You’d have us think while every man is bound to be a fighter,
The ladies, bless their pretty dears, should save their p** for nitre,

John Harrelson, John Harrelson, where did you get this notion,
To send your barrel around the town to gather up this lotion,
We thought the girls had work enough in making shirts and kissing,
But you have put the pretty dears to patriotic pissing,

John Harrelson, John Harrelson, do pray invent a neater
And somewhat less immodest mode of making your saltpeter,
For “tis an awful idea, John, gunpowdery and cranky,
That when a lady lifts her skirt, she’s killing off a Yankee.

Robert Barton 1900

Robert Barton about 1900.

The critical nature of Robert Barton’s new posting can be easily recognized. He would resign his position at the Nitre and Mining Bureau, however, on August 26, 1863, due to his continuing medical condition. Robert would return home following the death of his father, David R. Barton, “to assume family duties and to continue with his recovery from consumption.” He was present at the family residence during the Third Battle of Winchester and was driven from the community during the Confederate retreat. In mid-October of 1864 he traveled to Baltimore where he lived with his sister’s family in order to continue his recovery.

Following the war Robert Barton returned to Winchester and studied law under Richard Parker, the judge that had presided over the trial of John Brown. Robert was admitted to the Virginia Bar in 1865. He became one of Virginia’s leading lawyers, serving one term as president of the Virginia Bar Association. He also authored several textbooks on law and its practice.

Robert Barton had a political life as well. He would be elected Mayor of Winchester and serve in the Virginia House of Delegates. He also completed several terms as president of the Farmers and Merchants National Bank of Winchester. Robert died on January 18, 1917, at the age of seventy-four having lived a life of principle, public service, and self-sacrifice. He is buried at Mount Hebron Cemetery in his hometown of Winchester.

Colt, Margaretta Barton. Defend the Valley. A Shenandoah Family in the Civil War. Orion Books. New York, N. Y. 1994.

Krick, Robert K. Conquering the Valley: Stonewall Jackson at Port Republic. William Morrow and Company, Inc. New York, N. Y. 1996.

Rains, George W. Making Saltpetre from the Earth of the Caves. Daily Delta Job Office. New Orleans, La. 1861.

One thought on “Civil War, Cave Dirt, and the Rule of Law

  1. As a firearms enthusiast in general, and a muzzle-loader hobbyist in particular, I long ago looked into the methodologies of black powder production.

    I learned that saltpeter was obtained by saturating with urine a bed of organic material like grass clippings, periodically turning over the material and keeping it moist for a period of weeks to months, depending on ambient temperature (faster in warmer climes, fortunately for the Confederates!), and resulting in a solution of calcium nitrate. That solution, filtered through wood ash, produced potassium nitrate.

    This was slower than starting with cave dirt, but had the benefit that raw material existed wherever people were.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s