Gunpowder was made from Women’s Urine (Pee) during the Civil War – Saltpeter or Potassium Nitrate

Gunpowder was made from Women’s Urine (Pee) during the Civil War – Saltpeter or Potassium Nitrate

One dedicated Southerner collected wagons full of women’s pee to make gunpowder for the Civil War.  On October 1, 1863, the women of Selma, Alabama, opened the newspaper. There in black and white was a young man asking for their pee.

“The ladies of Selma are respectfully requested to preserve all their chamber lye,” wrote John Haralson, “for the purpose of making Nitre.” It was the tail end of the Civil War, and the South was desperate for ammo. “Nitre,” also known as saltpeter, was a main ingredient in the manufacture of gunpowder, you see. And to make saltpeter, you needed nitrogen, and urine had plenty of that.

Why women? Not only were Confederate belles already heavily involved in the war effort — knitting socks and dyeing wool for uniforms — but they were some of the only ones left in town. Roughly 300,000 men were serving in the Confederate army at the time, and by the end of the war, more than 483,000 had died.

John Haralson saw a golden opportunity. As a lawyer in Selma, he had opened a processing plant on the side, which converted nitrogen to saltpeter for making gunpowder. Thus far, the plant had used soil from where animals lived and grazed. But there simply wasn’t enough urine to make weapons. So after posting his ad, Haralson sent wagons around to collect lady pee.

The barreled wagons inspired some fine jokes. One of his legal colleagues, Thomas Wetmore (last name coincidental), wrote a wee poem entitled “Rebel Gunpowder,” which reads in part:

John Haralson! John Haralson!
Where did you get the notion
To send your barrel ‘round the town
to gather up the lotion?
We thought the girls had work enough
making shirts and kissing,
But you have put the pretty dears
to patriotic p_____g.
John Haralson! John Haralson!
Do pray invent a neater
And somewhat more modest mode
of making your saltpetre;
For ’tis an awful idea, John,
gunpowdery and cranky,
That when a lady lifts her skirts
she’s killing off a Yankee.

The taunts didn’t dampen Haralson’s plans. His plant manufactured ammunition during the last two years of the war. However, according to Life of Pee: The Story of How Urine Got Everywhere, when Union troops stormed Selma on April 2, 1865, they flattened the town’s arsenal, ordnance center, ironworks, and saltpeter factory. One week later, the South surrendered, ending the Civil War.

According to Wikipedia, saltpeter is one of the main ingredients in gunpowder, also known as black powder.
According to, Saltpeter is the natural mineral source of the chemical “potassium nitrate”, KNO3. Potassium nitrate was isolated from [bat] guano by soaking it in water, filtering it, and harvesting the pure crystals that grow. It may be produced in a similar manner from urine or manure.

Gunpowder in the Civil War

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