By Marilyn Turk
|Union raid of Confederate Salt Works in Florida|
Did you know the Civil War was fought over salt? Well, maybe not exactly, but there were quite a few battles because of salt.
Salt is so commonplace these days that we take it for granted. In fact, we can find it in almost every processed food, every grocery store, restaurant and most homes, leading health professionals to tell us we consume too much of it.
Yet, what we use for seasoning had a much more important role during the Civil War. First of all, it was the only way to preserve meat and fish before the days of refrigeration. And for an army on the move, food preservation was vital to keep the soldiers fed and reduce the chance of disease.
In addition to its function in food, salt was used in leather tanning and setting the dyes in uniforms. The manufacturing of shoes was almost impossible without salt, leading some southern shoe manufacturers to resort to making wooden shoes when salt was unavailable.
Nearly every state in the Confederacy had some form of salt production. It was either mined by removing rock salt from the earth or by extracting dirt and salt in the ground by boiling it. Near the seashore, salt was made by distilling saltwater. When the Union forces succeeded in cutting off supply lines by railroad or by blockading ports, salt shortages threatened provisions for the Confederate Army. As a result, rationing for household use was ordered in some southern states.
|Confederate salt kettle which could make 150 bushels of salt a day.|
Besides cutting off the supply lines, the Union Army was ordered to find and destroy all salt-making operations. Perhaps the largest salt works in the confederacy was at Saltville, Virginia. The Union Army launched five major battles to capture and destroy the town and its salt manufacturing, before it finally succeeded in late 1864. However, two months later, the salt works were back in business, but their distribution was hampered by the damaged railroad system.
The state of Florida became a key salt-producing state, leading some scholars to declare that salt was the state’s largest contribution to the war. The Florida government gave those employed in the enterprise the status of soldiers, exempting them from military service. It is estimated that some 5,000 workers were employed in the industry, which worked 24 hours a day boiling salt from seawater.
The biggest areas of production were between Saint Andrews Bay, near present day Panama City, and St. Marks, Florida. By 1863, the main Florida salt works produced more than 7,500 bushels per day. However, the location of these facilities near the water and the visibility of smoke emitting from their boilers made them vulnerable to raids from Union ships which sat just offshore. Also, slaves seeking refuge rowed out to the ships and disclosed the locations of salt works.
As General Sherman wrote, “Salt is eminently contraband… without which armies cannot be subsisted.”
So next time you reach for that salt shaker, ask yourself, “Would I fight for this?”
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