Musket volley by English civil war reenacters in West Sussex. Credit: Wikipedia

Here’s a rule of thumb that will never let you down: if you come across a magazine more than 20 years old, pick it up. We all like to think we live in exciting times, but the truth is we’re all so jammed by the details of lives needing to be lived that today is in many ways the least interesting day there is.

The day before yesterday shines by comparison.

Even more brightly shines the day before that. The other day I posted a story on the Bleader inspired by a 1997 issue of New England Quarterly that I’d spotted in the lounge of the Newberry. The issue offered an article on the 17th century Indian rebellion remembered as King Phillip’s War, and I thought it had more to say about matters that currently bedevil us than the next three Republican presidential debates possibly could.

On my next trip to the Newberry lounge I came across the summer 1993 edition of the Quarterly Journal of Military History. I opened it at random and what I read will forever alter my understanding of the ancient relationship between God and War.

The article I came to was a discussion of Marston Moor, the biggest and bloodiest battle of the English civil war, the one that put Oliver Cromwell in power and Charles I on the chopping block in the early 17th century. The author, popular historian Christopher Hibbert, went into how important it was for the soldiers to guard their gunpowder, and then I read this:

Saltpeter, an essential ingredient [in gunpowder], was never in large supply. It had been a royal monopoly before the war; and, since it was a by-product of bird droppings and human urine, government officials had authority to enter any properties they chose, to dig in henhouses and privies. In 1638 ‘saltpeter men,’ as they were known, had sought permission to extend their activities to the floors of churches, ‘because women pisse in their seats which causes excellent saltpeter.’

Here was a service by women to history that has gone unsung, even in our enlightened age. But the passage raised questions. In the 17th century preachers rambled on for hours, and if the faithful were stirred at first by spiritual fervor, it’s understandable that they eventually stirred for other reasons. But were the womenfolk any more vexed than their husbands? Did the menfolk not pisse in their seats as well? Was it because only they wore the long dresses that accusations of laxity could be limited to the ladies? 

Did parsons who went on forever understand their sermons were serving the cause of war? How could they not? 

And when they preached the blessings of pregnancy, was it to serve God or the needs of the king or local militia?

Firm conclusions are hard to tease out of limited data; but we can surmise.

My research clearly tells me this: As warfare advanced from whetted iron to musketry, the trade of the saltpeterman became essential to the cause. Any cakey patch of urine-soaked earth attracted him. One experienced saltpeterman confided to Thomas Henshaw of London, a Restoration scientist who lectured on saltpeter, “that no place yields Peter so plentifully, as the Earth in Churches, were it not an impiety to disturb the Ashes of our Ancestours, in that sacred Depository.”

Impiety is often overcome. Charles I demanded all the saltpeter the crown could get its hands on, and Thomas Hilliard and Nicholas Stephens became virtual saltpeter barons by following the scent (unpleasant though it was) wherever it took them. “The women piss in their seats, which causes excellent saltpeter,” explained Stephens’s crew to the sputtering parish clerk at Chipping Norton church, as they tore up the seats and set up their tubs in the churchyard. Stephens and Hilliard caused such upheaval they wound up in the dock. A four-page report accused them of digging “in all places without distinction, as in parlours, bed-chambers, threshing floors, malting houses and shops; yeah, God’s own house they have not forborne, but have digged in churches, hallowed chapels and churchyards, tearing men’s bones and ashes out of their graves to make gunpowder of.” 

The two saltpetermen defended themselves as loyal servants of the Crown doing the king’s bidding in perilous times. The tale is told by David Cressy in his 2013 book, Saltpeter: The Mother of Gunpowder.

Saltpeter needs were no less acute in the colonies, and I think it’s no coincidence that sermons were no less interminable. If I may quote from The New England Soul: Preaching and Religious Culture in Colonial New England, by Harry Stout:

Twice on Sunday and often once during the week, every minister in New England delivered sermons lasting between one and two hours in length. . . .The average weekly churchgoer in New England (and there were far more churchgoers than church members) listened to something like seven thousand sermons in a lifetime, totaling somewhere around fifteen thousand hours of concentrated listening.

And nearly as many hours of desperate Kegel exercises. Britain finally found a reliable source of potassium nitrate—saltpeter—in colonial India. But armies in the Americas still had to forage, and women continued to play a vital role.

As America’s Civil War raged, a southern chemist, Jonathan Harrelson, in 1863 found a way to extract potassium nitrate from urine. Says an article recalling this development, “The men were all away fighting. But women could collect their urine out of bedpans and pour it into a huge truck pulled by a horse around town and they would make potassium nitrate out of it.”

This act of devotion to the cause didn’t play as large a role as it might have in the romanticizing of Confederate womanhood. But it did inspire some poets. One poem composed in the Confederacy began:

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 

The Union weighed in with:

John Harrelson, John Harrelson, we’ve read in song and story
How a women’s tears through all the years have moistened fields of glory,
But never was it told before, how, ‘mid such scenes of slaughter,
Your Southern beauties dried their tears and went to making water,
No wonder that your boys are brave, who couldn’t be a fighter,
If every time he shot a gun he used his sweethearts nitre?
And, vice-versa, what could make a Yankee soldier sadder,
Than dodging bullets fired by a pretty woman’s bladder.

These days the occasional orator who goes on forever is most likely a dictator—such as Fidel Castro, who in 1986 addressed the Communist Party Congress for more than seven hours. Perhaps it was Castro’s intent to restock ammo supplies in Cuba’s armories. Here in the U.S. we haven’t had a civil war since the first one, and in the meantime both sermons and hemlines got astonishingly shorter. What is the correlation? What is cause and what is effect? So much more research is necessary.