By John E. Carey
“Salt is eminently contraband, because of its use in curing meats, without which armies cannot be subsisted,” Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman wrote in 1862.
Salt, the primary chemical in most meat curing processes of the time, also proved a critical element in human and animal nutrition and health, as well as leather tanning and industrial processes such as affixing dyes in uniforms. Without salt, the manufacturing of shoes was next to impossible – leading some Southern manufacturers to make wooden shoes.
Salt, and salt production facilities, consequently became valuable military targets, especially by Union troops hoping to deprive the Confederacy of all kinds of valuable assets in support of the Union Navy’s blockade.
Salt Recognized as Essential
Even before Major Anderson surrendered Fort Sumter on April 13, 1861, leaders in the future Confederacy knew salt had become a valuable, even an invaluable, commodity. On January 6, 1861, the Alabama Senate passed a law regulating the prices of “absolute necessities.” It provided that “salt, wheat, flour, bacon, lard, cotton, leather shoes, [and other unnamed commodities] shall not be sold for more than 60% over last April’s prices.”
Nearly every state of the Confederacy had some salt production. Salt was “mined” by removing rock salt from the earth, or by extracting a dirt and salt mixture from the ground, then boiling the compound in water to extract the salt from the mix. Other methods of salt production included distillation of sea water: evaporation of the non-salt bearing water from sea water, usually in salt flats near the seashore, to produce a brine called “yellow salt.” But yellow salt usually required further expensive processing making the total process cumbersome.
The Kanawha Valley, in what is now West Virginia, may have been the largest salt production center before the Civil War. In 1846 it produced 3,224,786 bushels. But a flood in 1861 and the loss of West Virginia to Union forces quickly changed everything.
At the dawn of the Civil War, nearly every southern state had or needed to immediately create some salt manufacturing.
Beginning in the late summer of 1861, Confederate Brigadier General Felix Kirk Zollicoffer started sending wagon trains of salt south from the Goose Creek Salt Works in Clay County Kentucky. On October 21, 1862, about 500 U.S. troops worked 36 hours to destroy the salt works along with about 50,000 bushels of stored salt. In November, the price of the salt used in the curing of pork rose from 50 cents to $2.00 per bushel because of the shortage caused by the Goose Creek action.
In Texas, the Confederate government ran the Richardson salt works and produced 500 pounds of salt daily. James L. McMeans, Sr., operated the Palestine salt works and sold salt to the Confederacy at the fixed price of eight dollars a sack, but customers from East Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas sometimes paid as much as $20 per hundred pounds for salt at Palestine during the war.
In 1863, when the Union Army landed at Brazos de Santiago, Texas, the first raid against the Confederate Army targeted “El Sal del Rey” to confiscate the valuable salt production facility.
Florida became a key salt producing state – resulting in numerous raids by Union Army and Navy forces. The State of Florida, recognizing the vital importance of salt workers, gave them the same protections as soldiers and exempted them from other “military” service.
In Louisiana, Union forces targeted salt works. One of the more famous salt facilities, at Avery Island, featured salt domes that actually pushed up mounds of salt through the topography. Owned by Edmund McIlhenny, the Union Army captured Avery Island soon after the fall of New Orleans. [The McIlhenny family fled, but returned after the Civil War to start the famous tobasco works.]
Salt as Currency
All through 1862 salt shortages became an impossible obstacle to meat curing and the proper provisioning of the Confederate Army. Salt became so valuable that, in many parts of the Confederacy, it was the preferred “currency” of exchange.
Mississippi Governor John J. Pettus wrote to Confederate President Jefferson Davis that “the destitution of salt is alarming.” Mississippi still had cotton, and the governor wanted to trade it for the desperately needed salt. In his letter of October 17, 1862, Pettus begged Davis to allow the exchange:
His Excellency JEFFERSON DAVIS: The importance of salt to be exchanged for cotton is regarded here as a necessity. Many have no bacon and no salt; are living on vegetables and bread without salt. I hope you will not order it stopped until you have all the facts.
J. J. PETTUS Governor, Mississippi.
Jefferson Davis rebuffed Governor Pettus. “Orders have been given to prevent cotton from being sent to any port in possession of the enemy. The penalties…are very heavy, and…are a clear expression of the legislative will.”
John Gill Shorter, Governor of Alabama, in a letter to the Secretary of War, said, “The salt famine in our land is most lamentable.” Alabama established a system of salt distribution and control, regulated by a state Salt Commissioner. No household could receive more than 25 pounds of salt unless the state approved a special purchase.
In July 1862, General Sherman captured Memphis. But he never instituted a system of passes to regulate civilians intent upon entering or leaving. The Cincinnati Commercial came after Sherman, pointing out that spies weren’t the main problem. The paper noted that Memphis’ number one product that could equate to cash was slipping away: “The whole Confederacy is in a fair way to be supplied with salt through what may be termed the Memphis sieve.”
Union Navy’s Salt Interdiction
In September, 1862, a U.S. Navy officer engaged in salt interdiction operations along the Florida coast, wrote a long letter to Harper’s Weekly.
His letter gives a typical description of attacks on Confederate salt production facilities from the Carolinas’ to Texas. “I send you a sketch. The whole coast of Florida is lined with these [salt] works ….. This one, when finished, would have been capable of making five hundred bushels a day, at $10 per bushel.”
He wrote that the ships approached the “salt-works at the town of St. Joseph, making from 100 to 150 bushels a day, and not yet completed. We sent a flag of truce, and politely informed them that they must stop, or we should destroy them….We gave them two hours to quit, and then fired a few shells into the works, which had the effect of bringing two contrabands to the beach with a salt-bag, which they waved most furiously.”
The Navy landed sailors to destroy the salt works. “You may imagine that was rather skittish work with twenty men to go into the woods out of sight of the ship; but we all drew up on the beach…. loaded muskets and fixed bayonets….started, whistling Yankee Doodle. I advanced my men in a straight to…. the works…… The main body then began their work of destruction, and in less than two hours the whole place was in flames, and the machinery broken up.”
In another engagement, on October 4, 1862, USS Somerset, commanded by Lieutenant Commander English, attacked Confederate salt works at Depot Key, Florida. Men from USS Tacoma augmented the force from Somerset and together they destroyed the salt works.
In February, 1863, Captain F. E. Porter, U.S. Navy, reported on his raid on the salt works at Wale’s Head, North Carolina. Typically, this was a follow-up raid to a previous engagement. “Pursuant to information received from you…of there being salt-works in operation on Currituck Beach, I…went with a force of 90 men on the United States steamer Halifax and succeeded in destroying the same, together with about 100 bushels of salt, without opposition. These same works are located at a place called Wale’s Head and have before been destroyed by our forces, but were rebuilt and in full operation and, I should say, were manufacturing salt at the rate of about 50 bushels per day. My expedition was a perfect success. Trusting my actions may meet your approbation, I am, captain, respectfully, your obedient servant….”
The price of salt in Georgia rose to $125 per bag. Even in Texas, where salt was plentiful, a donkey load of salt was suddenly worth $36, the equivalent of two and a quarter ounces of gold and worth approximately $1,250 on today’s market.
Desperation for Salt
By early 1964, diary entries, letters and other contemporary records indicated an almost total lack of the needed salt throughout the Confederacy. Smoke house floors were even scoured for any morsel. “Some inventive person discovered that by taking up the dirt out of the meat houses, and leaching it a — fair article of salt could be made …A piece of pork liberally smeared with it had the appearance of being wallowed in the mud,” wrote Confederate soldier Joshua Frier of the First Florida Reserves, Company B, on May 20, 1864.
The mother of a soldier from Tennessee wrote to him that “crops are an entire failure, and salt can’t be had.”
With the salt resources of West Virginia in Union hands, the salt in Texas under assault and trapped in the west after the fall of Vicksburg in July 1863, Avery Island lost to Union Troops and the coastal salt resources of the Confederacy under repeated attack by the U.S. Navy; two large salt suppliers remained: Alabama’s salt wells and the saltworks of Smyth County, Virginia.
Smyth County, home to Saltville, was serviced by the Virginia and Tennessee railroad. The railroad moved salt and lead from the mines in nearby Wythe County. Another prime area military target for the Union was the ironworks at Marion County. These collocated assets, salt, lead and iron, dictated Union military strategy in southwestern Virginia for the last two years of the war.
From July, 1863, until late 1864, Union attacks on the industrial southwest of Virginia, including the saltworks at Saltville, sharply increased in both frequency and intensity.
July 18, 1863, Union Colonel John Toland lead about 1000 cavalry and mounted infantry toward Wytheville. Toland had orders to destroy the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad tracks and bridges. If all went well, Toland hoped to also capture and destroy the salt and lead mines nearby.
Toland failed miserably as Confederate troops and irregulars in Wytheville killed Toland in the street and drove off his force.
On October 1, 1864, Union General Stephen G. Burbridge sent a combined force of infantry and cavalry toward Saltville and its crucial salt stores, brine wells, evaporating kettles and furnaces. But confederate troops delayed the Union raiders at Clinch Mountain and Laurel Gap, buying time for Rebel reinforcements. Burbridge retired after failing to gain his objective.
Afterwards, Confederate soldiers were said to have murdered the captured black soldiers left behind. The exact number of killed and wounded is still debated to this day.
In all, four major Union operations failed to capture and destroy the saltworks at Saltville.
Finally, Union General George Stoneman succeeded. The former West Point roommate of “Stonewall” Jackson left Knoxville, TN, on December 10, 1864, with 5,500 men and four artillery pieces. The troops entered Virginia at Bristol and marched toward the industrial heart of Southwest Virginia—tearing up and burning railroad trestles, rolling stock, and depots as they progressed. On December 17, Stoneman’s men destroyed the lead works at Austinville. Three days later, Stoneman’s forces captured Saltville. A two day “orgy of destruction” brought saltmaking in the south to a virtual end.
No historian can accurately assess the difficulties and deprivations a lack of salt alone caused the Confederacy. Losses to the Union Army of vast quantities of livestock and crops supplemented by a loss of tons of needed supplies interdicted by the Union Navy blockade made a shambles of the Confederacy’s loosely organized systems of commissary and supply. By 1865, the general lack of all foodstuffs and supplies made the lack of salt something of a footnote. But that footnote should clearly state that more than a few good men fought and died in the Civil War over salt.
Salt Through History
A treatise on pharmacology written in ancient China at about 2700 B.C. called Peng-Tzao-Kan-Mu chronicled some 40 kinds of salt. The early Chinese also used coins made of salt.
Even today, in Sichuan province, home-made soya sauce is made from the Cheshire brine springs.
The ancient Egyptians used the evaporation of seawater in shallow lagoons on the Mediterranean coast to harvest salt. But sea slat was considered unclean and not used for cooking. Salt from the Siwa Oasis was served at the table.
Roman soldiers were often paid in salt. The Latin word for salt, salarium, is the root word for out “salary.” The phrase “worth his salt” comes from a Roman’s evaluation of a slave’s net worth. Romans also realized the down side of salt, using salt to permanently despoil the fields after the destruction of the Roman arch enemy, Carthage.
Homer called it a divine substance. Plato described it as especially dear to the gods.
“Holy salts” have had a role in religious celebrations for centuries. Jesus called his disciples “the salt of the earth,” a statement commemorated during Roman Catholic baptismal ceremonies for many years by placing a few grains of salt on the child’s tongue.
In the Middle East, the ancient town of Al-Salt, in what is now Jordan, was a stopover on the road between Amman and Jerusalem.
“Salami” invented in Genoa, Italy, derives its name from salt.
A tax on salt contributed to the French Revolution.
The Hopi Indian in the American Southwest had ceremonial salt mines.
“Salt; A World History,” (2003) by Mark Kurlansky explains that “Generals from George Washington to Napoleon discovered without salt…war is a desperate situation…salt was needed to treat wounds, preserve food for soldiers and for the diet of the cavalry’s horses.”
During the American Revolution the British targeted American salt assets, much as Union forces would attack Confederate salt works almost 90 years later. In October, 1778 the British destroyed saltworks on the Jersey coastline near Little Egg Harbor. Benjamin Franklin made a secret deal with Bermuda to supply salt to the American forces.
The Erie Canal was built “with a grain of salt” as a tax on salt helped fund the project. Salt also became one of the principal cargos of Erie Canal barges, due to its bulky nature when shipped. One of the main terminals of the canal was near Syracuse, NY. This city is to this day proud of its salt history and its nickname: “Salt City.” From at least the 1600s, Native American harvested salt by boiling the product of the salt springs near Syracuse.
Gandhi’s salt march in 1930 began the overthrow of British rule in India.
Salt has attained a special place in the world’s culture, traditions and folklore. Salt is intricately interwoven into many meanings, phrases and practices such as an “Old Salt,” “Salt of the Earth,” “Taken With a Grain of Salt,” and throwing salt over one’s shoulder.