A CATALYTIC COMPOSITION
A Desperate Shortage
n 1775 and 1776, the American colonies found themselves in a hor-rifying predicament. Every legislative body across the continent,from the Continental Congress down to county committees in every province shared the same anxiety. The colonists had been confident inthe success of their resistance to Britain, but they suddenly realized adramatic gap in their strategy. The colonists lacked something crucial,something embarrassing. The Americans needed saltpeter. This may seem strange like a strange point of consensus, until we reflect upon the circumstances. Since April 1775, the Americancolonies had been involved in open war with the most formidable army and navy in the world. The colonies had also virtuously refused to trade with Great Britain, which they knew would roil British commerce andhopefully advance their cause. But what they didn’t consider was wherethey would get saltpeter, which in the past they had always receivedfrom Britain. They needed saltpeter, potassium nitrate, because it was acrucial ingredient in gunpowder.If the situation hadn’t been so desperate, it would have beenhumorous. The politicians in white powdered wigs rose in the assembly rooms of every American colony and declaimed on their commitmentto preserving the liberties of the people with the fullest measure of theirof blood and treasure. These rhetorical flourishes sounded magnificentuntil reports from the field began to note depleting stores of black gun-powder. Gunpowder was made of three granular ingredients: sulfur,charcoal, and saltpeter, the last of which provided oxygen to the reac-tion. Without saltpeter, gunpowder doesn’t explode.
The shortage grew dire very quickly, and the American colo-nies found themselves in the unenviable position of fighting a war without ammunition. To make sure that the Continental Army rank and file understood the seriousness of the situation, General George Washington from his headquarters in Cambridge ordered that any sol-dier caught firing an unnecessary round would receive 39 lashes.
Some delegates from the Continental Congress, especially Robert Treat Paine of Massachusetts, spent a tremendous amount otime organizing the American effort to produce saltpeter. In October1775, Richard Henry Lee wrote from Philadelphia to the VirginiaCommittee of Safety,
There is no powder here that can possibly be shared, and the wickedactivity and power on the Sea of our enemies, render it an essential andindispensable duty on our Colony in particular to push the making of Salt Petre with unremitting diligence. We earnestly entreat you to