Major George Washington Rains left Richmond, Virginia, during the early days of July 1861. North and South had not yet met on the fields of Manassas, but Confederate officials surely knew they would soon need ample supplies of gunpowder and other war matériel. Shortly after volunteering to don the gray, Rains received the assignment to find a suitable site to build a powder mill. The vision of Augusta native Henry Cumming, who in the 1840s formed the idea to create an industrial artery flowing through the city – a canal – benefited Rains, and the Confederate war effort 20 years later.
Augusta offered many incentives for Rains in his search for a proper location to erect the powder works. Besides the canal, Augusta also provided easy access to the railroad and the Savannah River, and the city’s distance from any imaginable battlefront early in the war solidified the spot as the ideal setting. Design of the shops needed to supply the various armies in the field with reliable powder began, and gathering building materials and machinery took much of Rains’s time. In September, just two months after leaving Richmond, the major oversaw construction getting underway for “…the largest and finest Gunpowder Factory to be found in any country.”
Receiving promotion to the rank of colonel, Rains supervised the works through the end of the war. Various threats from Federal troops – namely Major General William T. Sherman’s armies during the November 1864 March to the Sea, and later in the 1865 Carolinas Campaign – kept the colonel and his staff ever at the ready to disassemble, and move the irreplaceable machinery. However, Sherman, unwilling in either campaign to slow his progress to attack Augusta, steered clear of the city, and the powder works.
Stacking of arms at Appomattox Court House, and later at the Bennett Farm in North Carolina, signaled the end of a need for powder. Rains pointed out from the time the mill first opened, until he silenced the machinery on April 18, 1865, the works produced “… 2, 750,000 pounds, or one thousand, three hundred and seventy-five tons of gunpowder.”
Signaling a status, which remains to the present, Rains recalled the “…great extent of the Powder Works and their immense capabilities, were the admiration of all visitors.” The vast works, which consisted of multiple buildings on both sides of the canal, stretched for two miles. Progress, in the form of tearing down and rebuilding, took place several years after the war, when all vestiges of the powder works crumbled away to make room for building new textile mills.
Rains wanted the chimney to remain as a lasting shrine for Southern soldiers who gave their all. He got his wish, thus creating one of the first Confederate monuments in the country. Rains could take solace in knowing his tower beside the canal would serve as a reminder of the horrendous casualties during the American Civil War. The obelisk, with “…its battlemented tower and lofty shaft, large proportions and beautiful workmanship,” bearing “…evidence of the magnitude and style of their construction to future generations.”
Today, the Canal Authority, in partnership with the National Park Service, manages the canal and obelisk site. Plans call for development of an interpretative plaza beneath the chimney, so visitors can enjoy the placid setting, while learning about the history of the region. Visit http://www.augustacanal.com for details in planning your next visit to historic Augusta, and check out the ‘Food, Fabric, and Firepower’ tour, a Civil War-themed journey leaving at 1:30 p.m. daily.
 George Washington Rains, “History of the Confederate Powder Works,” Newburgh Daily News Print, https://archive.org/details/powderworks00rainrich (accessed July 14, 2015).
Michael K. Shaffer is a Civil War historian, author, newspaper columnist and lecturer. He can be contacted at: www.civilwarhistorian.net.