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 Posted: Mon Aug 5th, 2013 06:03 am
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Hellcat
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Ok, ended up finding Greek Fire in a source I wasn't considering before. Pulled out Clint Johnson's Civil War Blunders last night because I wanted to look up what he said about General Stone and Colonel Baker at Ball's Bluff and as I was flipping through the book like an idiot (I didn't bother going to the table of contents to get the right page so I was flipping backwards) I came across a chapter titled Double-Barreled Cannons and Greek Fire: The Bad-Weapons Follies. Obviously with my recent predilection to the use of Greek fire during the war this chapter caught my eye. Pages 52 and 53, here is what Johnson has to say on the subject

All good ideas do not work as expected. Take "Greek fire," an incendiary substance made by mixing phosphorous with bisulfide of carbon, an extremely unstable combination. During the siege of Charleston, South Carolina, in the summer of 1863, the Federals tried filling artillery shells containing Greek fire. They hoped the shells would explode once they struck a house, church, or store. The cannon they first experimented with was "the Swamp Angel," a giant Parrott rifle with an eight-inch bore that fired two-hundred-pound shells.

The Federals set up the cannon in a swamp on James Island several mils from downtown Charleston, an engineering feat in itself considering the swamp's mud. The Swamp Angel blew upon the thirty-sixth round when Greek fire inside the shell exploded as the powder charge for the shell ignited. Avery expensive cannon that had taken weeks to place was ruined thanks to experimentation with an unstable substance.

The Confederates did not have much better luck with Greek fire. On November 24, 1864, eight Confederate spies journeyed to New York City with a supply of the stuff. Their plan was to set fire to the entire city by igniting the Greek fire at their hotels and selected other sites such as P. T. Barnum's museum.

The Greek fire ignited just fine, but the eight men had apparently never taken a chemistry course. They did not know that fires need oxygen to burn and spread. Concerned with the chilly temperatures in New York that November, they did not open their hotel-room windows on the night of the plot. Their fires burned so slowly that other guests were able to put them out before the hotels caught. Only the Barnum museum burned, and no one was harmed in the fire.

Had the Confederates studied how to use their weapon, they might have create the worst fire in American history.


Ok, so in the sixth post I questioned if the cannon was the Swamp Angel, this seems to confirm that. Johnson also adds a third element to the list of the Greek fire cocktail. Bisulfide of carbon. Could this be another name for carbon disulfide? If so, then this would explain why Headley's description said the Greek fire looked like water as carbon disulfide is a colorless liquid.

However, there are some contradictions with other sources. Namely Garrison's Civil War Schemes and Plots. According to that source the Saint Nicholas hotel was destroyed by fire and the fires in the Astor, the Metropolitan, and the Belmont were either contained to a single room or to a floor. Of course on these last three their not an entire hotel catching fire and Johnson probably meant the entire hotel catching fire. But the one source claims it was destroyed by fire on the night of the plot and the other says no hotel caught.

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