15

This article goes into some detail about the state of cooking in the Union and the Confederacy during the American Civil War. One of its interesting claims is that the South was suffering from a lack of salt which greatly limited their ability to cure and preserve meat. It states that much of their salt had previously come from Wales, but that had been cut off by the Union naval blockade.

Why would the South be getting its salt from across the Atlantic? Why wouldn't they make salt from seawater in the coastal regions and ship that to the various parts of the Confederacy?

  • 1
    I suspect it was simply that the technology to extract salt from seawater on an economically viable, industrial scale didn't exist at the time. – Steve Bird Jun 3 '15 at 5:38
  • 3
    Hmmm. If only the south had huge numbers of unpaid laborers, they could harvest salt rather cheaply. – Clint Eastwood Jun 3 '15 at 11:18
  • 1
    It was at least considered, see this 1862 publication: docsouth.unc.edu/imls/lecontej/menu.html – njuffa Jun 3 '15 at 17:59
  • 3
    There may have been a transportation problem - you could accumulate a mound of salt on the coast. Now what? The railways were breaking down. Many draft animals were being used by the military. How do you get the salt from the coast to all over the confederacy? – Patricia Shanahan Jun 3 '15 at 20:30
  • 1
    @ClintEastwood - the problem with the South using slaves on the coastline for salt production, is that that was where the US Navy hung out. This results in neither salt nor slaves. – Oldcat Oct 26 '15 at 22:11
27

Its not quite that simple. Since the process typically relies on evaporating out water from pools, it turns out you either need a somewhat reliably sunny climate to do this, or you have to set up a lot of extra large boilers. So some places are much better than others to set up shop.

That being said, the South did in fact have large-scale salterns they tried to run during the war. There was one at a salt marsh in inland Virginia, and another in the Florida panhandle. There was(/is) also a major salt mine in Louisiana.

Of course this brings us to the next major problem: these large manufacturing sites were all vulnerable to enemy action. The Union had command of the sea, which enabled them to seize the important bits of Louisiana, and to raid and destroy the Florida works at will. Presumably they could do this anywhere on the coast that the Confederates might chose to set up shop. The inland Virginia site was right next to the border with Union-controlled West Virginia, and was raided twice in 1864. On their second attempt Union forces prevailed, and were able to destroy the works.

  • 1
    If the extraction of salt required reliable sunny whether, why was it imported from Wales? Wales is a country associated with lush green fields, due to the amount of cloud and rainfall there. – BanksySan Jun 3 '15 at 17:04
  • 6
    @BanksySan salt production from sea water requires a sunny climate. But salt is also found in deposits, and mined. Obviously, underground mining has little correlation with the climate. bbc.com/news/uk-scotland-29879012 – SJuan76 Jun 3 '15 at 19:06
  • @BanksySan: Production of salt from sea water requires sunny weather. Presumably the salt from Wales was mined. I know there have been salt mines just across the border in Cheshire for centuries. – jamesqf Jun 3 '15 at 19:08
  • 1
    @user54609: Perhaps because the amount of salt in seawater (about 4%) is much less than in a concentrated solution (35%), so you'd have to boil off a lot more water. – jamesqf Jun 3 '15 at 23:28
  • 1
    Might be worth noting, en passant, that the over-aggressive mining of salt domes in Florida is the cause of their many sink-holes. – Pieter Geerkens Aug 23 '17 at 12:22
8

Without seeing data on salt imports versus domestic production before the war, I'm suspicious of the assertion that Wales was the primary source. If that was indeed the case, it was presumably because Welsh salt was much cheaper and/or of different quality then the salt produced domestically, for whatever reason. A lot of salt produced in the United States before the war would have come from the mines at Syracuse, NY and other places in the North.

As far as the situation during the war itself, T.E.D. has discussed the major supply and production issues. It's also worth mentioning the demand side. Soldiers on the front lines ate a lot of salted meat, and used a lot of leather, both of which required salt to produce. So even if the Confederacy produced a lot of salt, it wasn't enough that the average household could afford to use as much as they had before.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.