A Salty Story
Moonlight raids, fugitive slaves and hidden campsites—they’re all part of how Florida saltmakers tried to help the Confederate cause.
By Robert Taylor
Abraham Lincoln was elected president of the United States in November 1860, and by February, seven slave-holding Southern states had withdrawn from the Union. On Jan. 10, 1861, Florida became the third to secede. But few expected the state to count for much in the coming conflict. Only 140,000 people—about 40 percent of them enslaved—lived in widely scattered settlements, mostly in the Northern part of the state, where they made their living mainly by raising cattle and crops. Florida was a tropical wilderness.
Yet Florida would end up playing an outsize role in the Civil War, in large part because of an everyday commodity that both sides had taken for granted before the war—salt.
As war loomed, few leaders, especially in the Confederacy, harbored great concerns about securing supplies. After all, the rebels reasoned, any war fought with the Union would be short, easy and glorious. Most important was assembling their troops, and Florida contributed more than its share. Five
thousand Floridians either signed up or were conscripted by the end of 1861; in all, 15,000 Floridians would serve in the Confederate Army. (Some 5,000 of those would perish, and an estimated 2,000 deserted from the cause.)
But as Florida’s Governor John Milton promised Confederate leaders, the state’s real value to the Confederacy would be in supplying vital commodities rather than soldiers.
When the Union Navy began to blockade Confederate ports, it became clear that starvation could kill more men than battles. Leaders looked to Florida’s many cattle ranches to supply desperately needed beef. Perhaps even more important, the blockades were also cutting off supplies of salt, which was essential to keep meat and other foods edible in those pre-refrigeration days.
Salt had many uses on farms and plantations. It served as the primary means of meat preservation. Briny water was needed to tan the leather goods used to make saddles, harnesses and shoes. Before the war, the South got its salt from a number of other states, including New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, West Virginia and Louisiana, as well as from Caribbean sources.
Union leaders quickly realized the strategic importance of keeping salt away from the South. “It [salt] was the life of the Confederate Army,” recalled U.S. admiral David Dixon Porter 20 years later. “They could not pack their meats without it. A soldier with a small piece of boiled beef, six ounces of cornmeal and four ounces of salt was provisioned for a three-day march.”
Union forces moved to cut off land-based supplies of salt located in the Upper South and North and sent ships to the Caribbean to blockade salt shipments from the West Indies. Prices for what little salt that could be obtained skyrocketed. In New Orleans, a 200-pound sack of salt that sold for 50 cents before the war cost $25 a year later. The Confederacy needed 300 million pounds a year to feed its growing army. It was easy to see disaster coming.
By 1862, military leaders were warning that meat supplies were spoiling from lack of salt. Stories spread of Southerners trying to reuse salt, scraping it off sides of salted meat and even boiling the salt-saturated floorboards in smokehouses to remove the mineral.
In July 1862 General William T. Sherman said salt was so vital it should be considered contraband, just like gunpowder. “Salt is eminently contraband because of its use in curing meats, without which armies cannot be subsisted,” he wrote.
Alarmed by the prospect of its cause dying not from a lack of shot and shell but from table salt, the Confederacy decided to create its own supply.
Newspaper editors had already chided leaders for not acting sooner. In August 1861, the Daily Telegraph of Macon, Georgia, lamented, “The only trouble is salt, and that salt should be scarce and high with the great Atlantic lime tub on our borders is a reflection upon the intelligence and enterprise of the Confederate States.”
Suddenly, Florida assumed strategic importance. The state was a long peninsula surrounded by what had previously been an overlooked natural resource: immense stretches of salty water. Up and down the coastline, at the seashore and in salty marshes, Floridians—along with residents from bordering Georgia and Alabama—answered the Confederacy’s call by setting up camps where they could make salt as their pioneer ancestors did, bringing vessels of water to maximum boil, and scraping out the remaining salt crystals by hand. This quickly became a serious enterprise, growing to employ some 5,000 workers.
People found ingenious methods of extracting sodium chloride from water. Some converted old steamboat boilers or metal channel buoys into industrial-size boiler pots. More sophisticated chambers were lined with porcelain to ease removing the salt after the boiling process. Recycled sugar caldrons were more common among salt boilers. Though much smaller, they could produce roughly three pounds of salt per day. To maintain such output required a steady supply of firewood to fuel the boilers, sacks or bushels to contain the finished salt itself, and the ability to endure the extreme heat as well the pungent odor of boiling salt water.
Supporting the rebel cause wasn’t the only motive inspiring Floridians to make salt. By 1862, the Confederate states had established a national conscription act to compel men between 18 and 45 (the age was later extended to 50) into the rebel armies.
Slaveholding plantation owners, who made up only about 2 percent of the state’s population, supported the war, but most people were poor and didn’t own slaves. They weren’t eager to risk their lives in what was proving to be a murderous conflict. They were especially infuriated by the law’s provisions exempting large slaveholders and allowing wealthy men to hire someone else to serve for them. But another exemption proved popular: Salt makers were deemed vital to the war effort and excused from the draft.
A few months after the conscription act, Governor Milton deplored the draft dodgers, calling them “ lazy loungers, more anxious to avoid military service than to make salt.”
Some legitimate salt makers also came under fire for holding back their product in hopes of selling when prices rose even higher, thus feeding the Confederacy’s deadly inflationary spiral.
In February 1863, in a letter to his wife, Florida soldier Michael Raysor criticized her relatives for making salt instead of fighting, especially “when they sell it as high as they do.” Indeed, he wrote, “If they were up here in Tennessee, I’d insure they would be conscripted and that soon.”
In 1864, officials changed directions and made salt workers liable for the draft. But safe on isolated coastal outposts, far away from government conscription officers, few workers left the salt camps to enlist.
Eventually, the exemption was restored. But although the workers were officially civilians again, Union forces considered anyone engaged in salt operations an enemy combatant and liable for capture.
Salt was produced in almost every part of Florida, including in St. Augustine, along the St. Johns River and in small family camps in such frontier towns as Fort Myers. Farmers even brought in wagonloads of Georgia clay, which was as strong as cement after it dried, to make salt boilers on Merritt Island.
But the greatest concentration of salt plants could be found on the shores of Saint Andrew’s Bay in the Panhandle’s Washington County. Today this area holds the bustling tourist destinations around Panama City, but in 1862, it was all but deserted. Here salty water was plentiful, wood for the fires abundant, and the bay’s geography offered protection and early warning of any Yankee attacks from the Gulf of Mexico. A fairly usable path of wagon trails made it easy to transport the finished product to salt-hungry markets in Tallahassee, then on to Montgomery or Macon, Georgia.
Entrepreneurs crowded to the site, which took on the spirit of California gold rush camps. Soon the night skies over Saint Andrew’s Bay were alight with the fires from numerous salt plants.
Such unnatural industrial activity could not go long unnoticed by watchful Union sailors on blockade patrol on the Gulf. The lights and smell coming from these shores signaled that salt was being made to supply the South. The officers began to send their sailors and U.S. Marines out in raiding parties.
One gunboat, the USS Restless, was active in the Saint Andrew’s Bay area beginning in late 1863. Bluejackets rowed ashore from the ship with sledgehammers and sharp axes and smashed the targeted salt work to rubble. They poured any sacks of salt they found back into the bay.
In November 1861, James Boyd, an engineer aboard the USS Albatross, described St. Andrews salt raids in a letter to his wife:
“The salt pans are generally Situated in Small Creeks and Swamps. We cannot get to them in the [ship], therefore we have to go in small boats. We would leave the ships about four o’clock in the morning and proceed up the Bay until we discover Smoke, for that is the only way these pans can be found by a stranger. As soon as we would get near enough we would Fire at them with a Small Cannon and such Skidaddeling you never saw in your life. They would leave everything behind them. We went in Several of these camps and found Breakfast cooked and on the Table ready for eating, which our boys would soon demolish. We would then set about breaking up their pans and works.”
ENSLAVED WORKERS JOIN THE UNION
Enslaved laborers, who were often put to making salt during slack times on their plantations, became a common sight at Florida Gulf coast salt plants. Leasing slave labor to salt-plant owners was profitable, as the owners would receive payment in either cash or salt itself. The enslaved workers were paid a little themselves as well, and some were eager to volunteer—perhaps also knowing they would be close to Union naval forces and a chance for freedom.
When Union sailors encountered enslaved workers during their raids, they often invited them back to their ships to gain freedom and a job in the Navy. Many sailed away with their liberators to a new life. Those who enlisted joined other free and escaped African Americans who fought for the Union. (Some 179,000 African Americans served in the Union Army, making up 10 percent of its total forces; 19,000 enlisted in the Navy.)
The freed workers became a valuable source of intelligence, providing information about the location and defenses of salt works and sometimes leading raiders to a camp hidden deep in the swamp. They also divulged details about blockade runners and other Confederate secrets.
The once enslaved salt workers played a critical role in the destruction of salt works and the resulting “salt famine” throughout parts of the South. For example, when the U.S. ship Kingfisher took aboard a group of enslaved men in 1862, they told the sailors about a salt work that was being built next to St. Joseph Bay on the Gulf coast.
The Kingfisher sailed to the site, sent a flag of truce ashore and gave the salt workers two hours to leave the area. This they did, taking four cartloads of salt with them. The Kingfisher men then went to work smashing the salt plant.
The ship’s commanding officer, Acting Lieutenant Joseph P. Couthouy, reported to his superiors that his St. Joseph raid “created excitement throughout Georgia and Florida, these having been the main source on which these states relied for a supply of salt.” Indeed, he declared, his men had achieved a victory on par with the great battles raging on land to the north.
That was more than empty boasting. The St. Joseph Bay works had been expected to provide enough salt to sustain Florida and Georgia troops through the winter. Without that salt, suffering and starvation struck many soldiers in the coming months.
Still, the Union was never able to eradicate all the salt works. Salt plants rose from the ashes to renewed production, in many instances before the enemy sailors had a chance to row back to their ship. The operators cached spare parts and equipment in the nearby woods or marshes to make repairs quick and easy. Union captains grew weary of pointless wrecking operations that brought little glory or prize money. The only way to stop the boilers for good was to have land forces permanently occupy the salt-making areas, a decision Union commanders were not willing to make.
By February 1865, Union operations against salt boilers had all but ended. The critical battlefields of the war were in Virginia, Georgia and the Carolinas. Florida was not considered vital to crushing the Confederacy, and commanders lacked the resources and desire to keep up anti-salt operations and risk men’s lives unnecessarily. Florida continued functioning as a rebel storehouse for Confederate supplies until there were no rebel armies needing supplies.
On April 9, 1965, General Robert E. Lee’s army surrendered at Appomattox; and by May, Florida was again under Federal control.
Even after the surrender, some Confederate leaders urged people to continue the fight to force better surrender terms from the Yankees. In Florida, General Sam Jones told the troops that Lee’s army was only one part of the Confederate forces, and they still had the capacity to fight. Soldiers in the ranks heard these stirring words and voted with their feet by leaving for home. Their war was over.
Florida salt workers kept at their steamy trade through the spring of 1866, but as traditional salt sources returned and postwar prices fell, one by one, the salt works shut down.
The production of salt, in monetary figures, was Florida’s most significant contribution to the Confederate war effort. An estimated $10 million to $12 million was invested in Florida salt works, and an even larger amount flowed back to investors. Thousands of workers came to Florida to produce salt.
Historians sometimes say that Florida has become the forgotten state in the Confederacy. Yet although Florida salt did not enable the rebels to triumph, it did help meet troops’ and civilians’ needs at home as well as in major sections of Alabama and Georgia. Salt played a major role in fueling the Confederate war machine, one that is largely forgotten today.
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Robert A. Taylor is professor of history and dean of the College of Psychology and Liberal Arts at the Florida Institute of Technology. He has a Ph.D. in American History from Florida State University and has edited, co-edited, authored, or co-authored eight books. Taylor is a past president of the Florida Historical Society and past board member for Florida Humanities.
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