Join Date: Dec 2004
Location: Route 66
The Mexican gunpowder dilemma
In the current thread on the Jaivana cannon in India, it has been a fascinating discussion with Philip, Wayne and Fernando, and has been most informational. Along the way, my interest in the important battle at the Alamo in March, 1836 has been rekindled, and a key topic which is often given only cursory note in most references pertains to the miserable quality of Mexican gunpowder.
I did not wish to burden the flow of discussion on the huge cannons being discussed on the other thread, so wanted to learn more on the effects of gunpowder quality here, and how in many ways, the outcome of warfare can depend on it.
It seems that at the Alamo, the well known versions of this famous thirteen day siege were not entirely as typically portrayed, and new research has revealed that faulty powder was indeed the culprit in many aspects.
Originally James Bowie had orders from Sam Houston to go to the Alamo, remove the 24 guns remaining there after General Cos of the Mexican army had surrendered Bexar (San Antonio) and the mission in December.
Apparently when he and his surrendered forces were allowed to leave, they were allowed their muskets, and one cannon for defense as they marched to Mexico. He was forced to leave the remainder of cannon as well as the stores of powder.
He shrewdly took the best measures of powder, leaving the already poor grade in store.
Col. Neill and Bowie in late February however decided with the notable strength of cannon there, it would be a well defended place to make a stand.
However, what they did not consider was the lack of ammunition and the deplorable powder in store.
In the bombardment of the Alamo at the outset of the siege, the antiquated and relatively light field cannon with inadequately charged shots which apparently did virtually no damage nor caused a single injury to the defenders.
In the ultimate and final attack by the Mexican forces, it was in the early AM in cold and darkness, and the defenders, exhausted by the constant thuds of artillery, were mostly asleep except a few pickets.
With the Mexican troops, the same poor powder dilemma affecting the artillery plagued the infantry, and the largely conscripted soldiers had barely handled muskets. The poor powder required extra charge for force, and the men, unable to hold at shoulder level due to flash and heat from explosion held the guns low and fired from the hip.
The disastrous result was these inexperienced men in a chaotic attack in complete cold and darkness firing almost wildly, but horrifically bringing down their own men ahead with the low firing.
The defenders asleep inside were caught with unloaded guns, as the damp Texas weather in March would have been fouled if not freshly loaded. They had some measure of good Dupont powder, but largely the supply was the horrible Mexican powder.
One survivor, Mrs. Dickinson, claimed the Mexican powder was 'damaged'.
While this sounds like a circumstantial case with poor batches of powder with the Mexican forces, it seems that in 1846, with the Mexican American war, the Mexican powder situation had not improved.
At the Battle of Palo Alto, May 8, 1846, it was noted that Mexican artillery barrages often sent cannonballs bouncing 'lazily' across the battlefield.
Another reference regarding another battle in the 1830s Texas Revolution claims that in that entire day of battle, not one cannonball in a thousand reached the enemy, most fell about half way.
My question is,
Why, in this period of time, with all the attention given to 'Napoleonic uniforms' etc. and the acquisition of all manner of artillery and arms, was there apparently no attention to adequate gunpowder?
The British, who sold the Mexicans tens of thousands of muskets (despite being deemed obsolete) had access to much of the world saltpeter supply from India. Would that not be considered part and parcel to the acquisition of firearms?
The Mexicans had considerable pieces of French artillery, again, France had developed notable saltpeter production.
Mexico itself had notable natural saltpeter resources, near Mexico City as well as others. There were sources for sulfur and of course charcoal.
Yet Mexico continued to produce the absolute worst gunpowder on record, with seemingly no effort for resolution. Why?
It was said the powder was nothing more than charcoal (derisively)..so was it they were inept at the proper concentrations of components? or that they were 'cutting it' with more charcoal due to 'spreading the volume' more?