The Saltpetre Poems

Students and devotees of the great Emory Professor Bell I. Wiley are very familiar with The Bell Irvin Wiley Reader, edited by Hill Jordan, James I. Robertson, Jr., and J. H. Segars (LSU Press, 2001).


Researching for the book, Mr. Jordan spent several weeks perusing the 176 boxes of personal papers that Dr. Wiley bequeathed to the Emory University Library. He found quite a lot of interesting material, including research notes used by Wiley in his memorable Life of Johnny Reb (1943) and Life of Billy Yank (1952). Example is the Alabama newspaper announcement that a Confederate agent of the C. S. Nitre and Mining Bureau was seeking out an ingredient used in the production of niter: human urine. In Johnny Reb, Wiley writes that the agent, Jonathan Haralson, advertised in a Selma, Alabama newspaper “requesting the women of the town to save all the ‘chamber-lye’ accumulating around their premises so that it might be collected in barrels sent around by the Bureau.”


The advertisement sparked a lot of off-color quips, and some vulgar doggerel. Wiley had seen copies of the poetry printed as funny broadsides circulated among Southern soldiers, but noted, “unfortunately the content is not of a publishable character.” Not to be outdone, Northern versifiers composed their own renditions of the Haralson story, and Wiley commented upon them too in Billy Yank.


Mr. Jordan copied two of these “Saltpetre Poems.” I thank Hill, today a resident of Sautee, Georgia, for allowing me to print them from his Wiley material.


The Confederate View of It

John Harralson, John Harralson

You are a wretched creature;

You’ve added to this cruel war

A new and useful feature.


You’d have us think, while every man

Is bound to be a fighter

The Ladies—bless the pretty dears—

Should save their pee for Nitre.


John Harralson, John Harralson,

Where did you get the notion

To send your barrel around the town

To gather up the lotion?


We thought the girls had work enough

In making shirts and kissing

But you have put the pretty dears

To patriotic pissing.


John Harralson, John Harralson,

Do pray invent a neater

And somewhat immodest way

Of making your saltpeter.


For ‘tis an awful idea, John,

Gunpowdery and cranky,

That when a lady lifts her skirts

She’s killing off a Yankee.



The Yankee View of It

John Harralson, John Harralson,

We’ve read in song and story,

How women’s tears, in 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 were brave!

Who couldn’t be a fighter,

If every time he fired his gun

He used his sweetheart’s nitre.


And vice-versa, what could make

A Yankee soldier sadder

Than dodging bullets fired by

A pretty woman’s bladder.


They say there was subtle smell

Which lingered in the powder.

And as the smoke grew thicker and

The din of battle louder,


That there was found in this compound

One serious objection:

No soldier boy could sniff it

Without having an erection.

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