The Salt Famine
A book excerpt from the Denver Post, "Starving the South: How the North Won the Civil War" by Andrew F. Smith, posted on 5 June 2011 -- Prior to the Civil War, Southerners used an estimated 450 million pounds of salt annually. Very little salt was produced in the antebellum South; most of it came from Wales on ships, which carried salt as ballast when they sailed to Southern ports to pick up cotton. In the nineteenth century, salt was used for commercial purposes, such as tanning leather for use in making harnesses and shoes. Salt’s most important use, however, was as a preservative. In an age without refrigeration, virtually all pork and beef that was not cooked and served immediately after slaughter was preserved in brine. Salt was used to preserve fish, and other foods, such as butter, had to be salted. Salt was also used in cooking and was added as a condiment at the table. At the time, Americans consumed more salt than any other nation in the world, and more salt was used in the South than in any other region of the United States.
Once the blockade was declared, ships no longer brought salt into Southern ports. New Orleans had large stockpiles of salt, but this accumulation had shrunk to nothing by the fall of 1861. The price for salt surged so high that many farmers who raised hogs were unable to preserve them because they had no salt. One farmer wrote to the governor of Mississippi: “With a great many now, the deepest anxiety prevails to keep our families from suffering for want of salted provisions. Meat is now ready to be slaughtered.”
The shortage of imported salt was only one reason for its rising price; another cause was speculation. An editor of a Mississippi newspaper reported in November 1861 that “all the salt in New Orleans and elsewhere is now in the hands of speculators.… Something must be done in the matter, and be done quickly. We are willing that speculators should reap a rich profit, but we are not willing for them to suck the very life blood out of the people, if we can avoid it.”
The salt famine became severe in 1862. In March of that year an Alabama official reported that speculators were using “every artifice and fraud” to acquire salt. In May 1862 the editor of Atlanta’s Southern Confederacy announced that “we will be in a dreadful condition unless we get salt.” In December twenty women from Greenville, Alabama, became fed up with the salt famine. They marched on the local railroad station shouting “Salt or Blood,” and forced an agent to give up the contents of a large sack of salt.
Facing severe shortages, Southern leaders encouraged domestic salt production. States offered rewards for locating salt deposits and bonuses for its production. Southerners began to manufacture salt from salt lakes, saline artesian wells, and seawater. While such domestic production helped families and small farmers, these sources did not produce enough salt to meet the military and civilian needs of the Confederacy. Only five areas in the South had sufficient concentrations of salt to produce the large quantities needed to replace imported salt. These were the Great Kanawha River, near Charleston, then in Virginia; Goose Creek near Manchester, Kentucky; the salt wells in Clarke, Washington, and Mobile counties in Alabama; the saline wells near New Iberia in northern Louisiana; and the great saline artesian wells in the extreme southwest corner of Virginia, near Saltville. In addition, large-scale operations to convert ocean water to salt emerged in Florida. These operations produced enough salt for military, industrial, and civilian needs, but it was difficult to transport due to the lack of railroads in Florida.
When the price of salt skyrocketed in early 1862, Daniel D. Avery and his son-in-law, Edmund McIlhenny, began working the salt springs on Avery Island, not far from New Iberia, about 140 miles west of New Orleans. By accident, Avery discovered a source of dry, pure rock salt a mere fifteen to twenty feet below the surface. Avery and McIlhenny began to quarry this salt in May 1862. A Confederate agent sent out to evaluate the site claimed that the mine could supply “the Confederacy if properly managed.” As the Union forces controlled New Orleans, salt from Avery’s Island had to be shipped by a circuitous route overland to the Red River, and to the Mississippi, where it could then be distributed throughout the eastern Confederacy.
Union forces were well aware of the importance of salt to the Confederacy, and they targeted salt production facilities. The salt manufacturing areas around Kanawha Valley in Virginia and Goose Creek in Kentucky were taken or destroyed by the North early in the war. In Louisiana, Union forces seized New Iberia and took control of Avery Island in 1863. Saltville, Virginia, was regularly targeted, but it wasn’t finally captured until December 1864. Meanwhile, the Union navy conducted continuous amphibious efforts to disrupt salt manufacturing in North Carolina and repeatedly assaulted saltworks and plantations along Florida’s Gulf Coast. Many plantation owners took their slaves inland, where, often, both master and slave became subsistence farmers.
Another solution to the salt famine was for Southerners to curtail their use of salt. Those living near the coast cooked rice, grits, and hominy in seawater. Civilians were encouraged to eat tinned corned beef, which didn’t need salt added at the table. Southern newspapers, journals, and books published dozens of recipes made with little salt. Salt conservation and even salt recycling became common practices. Southerners collected and reused loose salt grains from cured meat. Troughs and barrels used for brining meat were dried and the salt recaptured for future use. The floorboards in salt houses were ripped out and soaked in water, which was then boiled down to produce a little salt. People even dug up the soil under old smokehouses and recovered salt, which was fed to cattle and horses. In addition to conservation and recycling efforts, Southerners experimented with numerous methods for curing meat with little or no salt, but the meat often spoiled. Experimenters also produced a substance that tasted somewhat like salt, according to Varina Davis, the wife of Jefferson Davis; however, this had no preservative property.
Without salt, Southerners frequently went without meat, and as time went on, things only got worse. After the occupation of Avery Island and New Iberia by Union forces in 1863, a resident of the area told the Confederate Congress that those living in “Louisiana lying east of the Mississippi River are starving for the want of salt and salt meat.” Southern governors spoke of “salt famines” and established programs for citizens to buy salt cheaply, yet the price continued to rise.27 Despite these efforts, the salt famine meant shortages of pork that would previously have been preserved. The beef supply also dwindled because salt was essential to the diet of cattle, and without it, the animals did not fatten up. Likewise, cavalry and artillery horses sickened from the absence of salt (a necessary electrolyte for animals kept hard at work) in their diet. By the end of the war, Confederate leaders were offering exorbitant fees for blockaders to bring in salt and salted meat. Had the South just figured out a better way to tap the natural salt deposits that they had, imports would have been unnecessary. Then there was the transportation problem. (source: The Denver Post -- A book excerpt from the Denver Post, "Starving the South: How the North Won the Civil War" by Andrew F. Smith, posted on 5 June 2011)