Send ice to South Carolina? In the summer of 1864?

The sweltering inhabitants of Charleston and New Orleans, of Madras and Bombay and Calcutta, drink at my well,” wrote Henry David Thoreau.   He was referring to ice harvested from Walden Pond by the “Ice King” Frederick Tudor.  Considering the average temperature in Charleston during July is 86°, there is a natural market for ice – be that today or 150 years ago.  In fact, Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren made a special request to the Navy Department for ice on July 17, 1864:

Owing to the extreme heat of the weather and the approach of the sickly season in this latitude, I would respectfully ask that a supply of ice be sent for the use of this squadron.

The ice furnished by the supply vessels is barely sufficient to preserve the fresh provisions obtained from them for the consumption of the officers and men, while the sick are chiefly dependent upon the army sanitary commission.

In view of these facts will the Department send a vessel laden with ice to Charleston and another to [Port Royal].

The recent cases of smallpox and other cognate diseases which have occurred in the New Hampshire, and their possible recurrence are additional reasons for this request.

So the requested ice was not simply a garnish for social gatherings.  There was a direct, practical medical requirement.  (And looking over at Jim Schmidt’s Civil War Medicine blog, I see he has a piece in regard to ice and treatment of Yellow Fever.  Maybe this is a queue for a wider discussion of medicinal applications of ice in the war?)

It’s the logistics that interest me, however.  One does not simply haul a ship load of ice to South Carolina in the middle of the summer without deliberate packing – lest it become a ship load of water!  And these were the days before refrigerated warehouses.  While some artificial ice production means existed by 1864, the bulk of the ice consumed was from natural sources.  Frederic Tudor, mentioned above, practically created a global ice market – and a personal fortune along the way – prior to the 1850s.  Although he died in February 1864, the practices he introduced served well into the next century.

The photo above is that of a boat being loaded with Norwegian ice (try Googling for “ice boats” and see what YOU get!).  But the premise was the same.  Ice could survive a while inside the cargo hold of a ship or boat, provided it was cut and packed properly.  Some melting occurred, of course, but insulating materials (as you might expect) could delay that until the ice arrived at the intended market… or in Dahlgren’s case, naval station.  Often ships carried ice as ballast on outbound trips from New England states.  But ships dedicated for ice cargoes were not uncommon.  Tudor used sawdust, which was conveniently available in large quantities in New England as result of the logging industry there,  as an insulator.

Commercial practices were to land the ice and store in a dedicated warehouse… er… ice house.  I don’t know of any ice houses built on Morris or Folly Islands during the war.  Perhaps some small ice houses existed from before the war around the Port Royal area.  But I’d venture to guess that most of the ice sent to South Carolina for military use was issued for consumption quickly on arrival due to the large demand.  So storage on the ship would be a practical course of action.

Not quite the ice cubes to cool that glass of tea, but 150 years ago there were shipments of ice supporting the operations outside Charleston.  I, for one, am glad someone invented air conditioning….

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 15, page 573.)



One thought on “Send ice to South Carolina? In the summer of 1864?

  1. Interesting information. Thanks for sharing it. The medical requirements for ice are particularly interesting to me; I had not heard of it being used in the treatment of Yellow Fever.

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