Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Salt Wars

By Rick Beard

On Christmas Eve 1863, the Union steamers Daylight and Howquah set out from Beaufort, N.C., with volunteers from the 158th New York State and Ninth Vermont onboard. Their destination was Bear Inlet, where they were to join the warship the Iron Age to destroy local salt works, as well as a cargo of salt offloaded by a Southern blockade runner that had been captured the previous day. Arriving at low tide, the steamers were unable to land their troops until Christmas morning. Once onshore, the federal forces set about destroying three Confederate salt works, as many as 400 sacks of salt and dozens of empty turpentine barrels. By 5:30 that afternoon, the expedition had returned unscathed to Beaufort.
No detailed record of this particular raid survives, but descriptions from other expeditions tell of sailors and soldiers armed with sledge hammers, awls and axes coming ashore to break up the brick furnaces, cast iron boilers, caldrons and drying pans. Often many of the boilers and vats could be destroyed only by using explosives or a small howitzer. Salt supplies that could not be carried off were most often ruined by mixing them with sand or dumping them into the ocean.

All of this seems a lot of effort to destroy something that modern people take for granted. But the raid on Bear Inlet was one of dozens of similar actions carried out throughout the Civil War by Union naval and military forces along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts. Their frequency speaks to an easily overlooked factor in the Union’s eventual victory: the ability of federal forces to deprive the Confederacy of the basic necessities of life. As one anonymous rebel soldier reportedly remarked, “C.S.A. stands for corn, salt and apples.” Of these three staples, salt was almost certainly most important.

The ease with which today’s shopper can purchase a round blue container of salt for less than a dollar a pound obscures the mineral’s central importance to 19th-century Americans. Before refrigeration, when the meatpacking and food processing industries were in their infancy, salt was the primary means of preserving meat and fish for future consumption. It took two bushels, about 110 pounds, of salt to cure 1,000 pounds of pork, and 1.25 bushels to cure 500 pounds of beef. And salt was useful in myriad other ways, from tanning leather to fixing the dyes in military uniforms and feeding livestock.

Americans in the mid-19th century annually consumed about 50 pounds of salt per capita, far more than Europeans did. Salt production in the United States was concentrated in the North, where in 1858 New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania produced 12 million bushels. That same year Virginia, Kentucky, Florida and Texas together produced only 2.4 million bushels. In 1862, the 6,000-acre Onondaga salt works in New York, which employed 3,000 workers, produced 9 million bushels alone, worth $30 million.

The antebellum South used approximately 450 million pounds of salt each year, most of it imported from Britain and her Caribbean islands. Between 1857 and 1860, the port of New Orleans unloaded about 350 tons of British salt a day, much of it arriving as ballast in vessels plying the cotton trade. At the Civil War’s outbreak, a 150-pound sack (about three bushels) of Liverpool salt sold for 50 cents in New Orleans. The dramatic rise in salt prices after the war’s outbreak reflects the effectiveness of the Union blockade: By the fall of 1862, a sack cost 12 times as much in Richmond, and by January 1863, 50 times as much in Savannah.

Southerners felt the shortage of salt almost immediately, and suffered all the more from the maneuverings of speculators and the South’s inadequate transportation network. In November 1861 The Daily Vicksburg Whig complained that “all the salt in New Orleans and elsewhere is now in the hands of speculators. … Something must be done,” continued the editorialist, for “we are not willing for them to suck the very life blood out of the people.” Gov. John Gill Shorter of Alabama lamented that “there is scarcely any misfortune which can befall us which will produce such wide-spread complaint and dissatisfaction” as a salt famine.

As shortages grew, Southerners resorted to a variety of increasingly desperate measures. They brushed off grains of salt on salted meat for reuse, or boiled the brine used in pickling to make salt. “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,” wrote Joshua Frier of the First Florida Reserves, Company B. “A piece of pork liberally smeared with it had the appearance of being wallowed in the mud.” Such initiatives were at best stopgap measures that did little to alleviate salt famines. By the war’s end, the Confederate States Almanac, published in Macon, Ga., offered the following advice: “TO KEEP MEAT FROM SPOILING IN SUMMER: Eat it early in the Spring!”

Even when the mineral was readily available, intrastate train lines often charged exorbitant tolls for out-of-state shippers using their rails. A North Carolina merchant calculated that it would take 12 days and cost $24,000, or $10 per bushel, for one eight-car train to carry 2,400 bushels of salt the 200 miles between Saltville, Va., and Danville, N.C. By the fall of 1862, one exasperated North Carolina farmer, noting that “we have a large supply of hogs … and there is thousands of bushels [of salt] at Saltville,” threatened “to go and take it by force if the owners of it won’t let us have it for a fare price.” Moaned another disheartened planter, “Blessed are they that have no hogs.”

The Southern states possessed many of the resources needed to alleviate these shortages, and relied on three primary means to produce salt — extracting it from saline artesian wells, boiling off water from the ocean or inland salt lakes, and mining deposits of rock salt. Five major salt-producing areas fell within the Confederacy: the Great Kanawha River near Charleston, Va.; Goose Creek near Manchester, Ky. (at times under Southern control); salt wells near Mobile, Ala.; New Iberia in northern Louisiana; and artesian wells in southwestern Virginia near Saltville. In May 1862, Confederate “prospectors” also discovered a major rock salt deposit on Avery Island, a swampy area in southern Louisiana. Finally, salt works sprang up along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts of Florida in numbers “as plentiful … as blackbirds in a rice field.”

Both the central and state governments of the Confederacy sought to solve the salt shortage. Richmond exempted the superintendents, managers, mechanics and miners involved in salt production, who were invariably white, from military service. Coastal states leased salt lands or seaside plots to planters and entrepreneurs from the interior regions of the Confederacy. Slaves, and in some cases Quakers seeking an alternative to military service, labored in these areas to produce salt, transporting seawater or sinking wells to locate salty water, gathering rocks to build a furnace and chopping wood to fuel the furnaces.

The work was exhausting and dangerous, with accidents and diseases claiming hundreds of lives. Yet as many as 5,000 men labored along the Florida coast, most of them on the western shore between Saint Andrews Bay and St. Marks, where they boiled salt water and all the while kept a sharp eye out for the Union Navy. Another 500 to 600 men worked at Wilmington, N.C.; 5,000 more on Alabama’s Gulf Coast and along the Tombigbee River, north of Mobile; 1,500 in northern Louisiana at Lake Bisteneau; 3,000 in Texas; and 400 to 600 men at New Iberia in Louisiana.

Responsible for providing salt to their civilian populations, individual states created an array of administrative procedures for distributing the essential mineral within their borders. In Georgia, for example, heads of families could purchase a half-bushel of salt for $2.50. If a widow had a son in the Confederate Army, the price dropped to $1; if her husband had died fighting for the Confederacy, she paid nothing. States also began to embargo shipments out of state, prohibit monopolies, and go into the business of purchasing and manufacturing salt.

Although trade between North and South did not cease with the outbreak of hostilities, it became far less frequent as the war progressed. Considered contraband of war after July 1862, salt became the particular target of aggressive action by both the Union Army and Navy. In late October of that year, federal troops destroyed the salt works in Kentucky, and a month later those in western Virginia’s Kanawha River Valley. In 1863 Union forces raided salt-producing facilities in Texas, and in July they captured the recently discovered salt deposits at Avery Island. After four unsuccessful attempts, Union troops finally captured Saltville in late December of 1864, setting off a two day “orgy of destruction” and effectively ending most of the salt making in the South.

The Union Navy matched the Army’s aggressiveness. Four ocean fleets — the North Atlantic, South Atlantic, East Gulf and West Gulf — carried out raids on a regular basis from 1862 until the end of the war. One such expedition against St. Andrews Bay by the East Gulf Squadron on Dec. 10, 1863, illustrates their destructive nature. Over the course of a single day, Union forces burned over 350 buildings, 27 wagons and five flat boats; destroyed over 600 steam boilers and 2,800 kettles; and ruined over 2,000 bushels of salt, supplies of corn meal, bacon, syrup and other food stuffs. Contrabands assisted in this orgy of destruction, showing Union troops where kettles had been buried. The superintendent for some of the works considered the destruction of the salt industry in St. Andrews Bay “a greater blow and more severely felt than the falling of Charleston.”

The war over salt was ultimately just one small part of the Union’s strategy of economic starvation against the South. But its extent and viciousness demonstrated the extent to which many Union officers and soldiers – not just those on the hills of Georgia or eastern Virginia – were willing to grind the South into submission.



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