How Far The U.S. Navy Went to Deny the Confederates

Salt Wars

State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory

This rendering circa 1862 depicts the destruction of a rebel salt factory on the Florida coast.

It was a highly successful raid. Or, it was a fearsome loss of valuable equipment. All depending on what side you were on. The three-day salt works raid in St. Marks by sailors and crew of the USS Tahoma in February 1864, was perhaps the most serious effort by the Union to target an essential “ingredient” in the Southern war effort. Back in the days before refrigeration kept our food fresh and safe, salt was used extensively to keep meat fresh. Salt was used as a preservative because it literally sucked the life out of any microbes or mold attempting to purchase a foothold in meat. The more salt you use, the longer the meat can be stored, but the saltier and less palatable the taste becomes.

The damage, detailed in a report by Theodorus Bailey, commander of the U.S. Navy’s East Gulf Blockading Squadron, indicates that much more than just salt was destroyed or captured by the Tahoma’s landing parties. Among the items were 390 salt kettles, 52 sheet-iron boilers, 170 brick and stone furnaces, 150 pumps, wells and aqueducts; 55 storehouses, 165 houses and shanties, 60 sheds and stables, 6,000 bushels of salt in barrels, a “large number of axes, shovels, and hoes,” one carpenter’s shop with tools, one fishing house, 600 bushels of corn and 350 cords of wood. In addition, the raid captured (or stole, again depending on your perspective) five large wagons, 15 mules, 2,500 pounds of bacon, two horses, 1,000 head of cattle and one prisoner, a “government agent” by the name of G.R. Paul.

It was perhaps the biggest haul of the war for the Union navy and certainly gave Southern supply officers a big headache. Although salt would continue to be produced here, it had officially become a strategic target. A week later the Tahoma’s raiding parties were at it again, this time in nearby Goose Creek. This raid netted 2,000 bushels of salt in barrels and bins, three corncribs (containing about 1,000 bushels), a large amount of hay and fodder, a blacksmith’s shop and tools, a carpenter’s shop and tools, about 100 storehouses and stables, 165 kettles and pans, 43 large boilers, 98 “well-constructed” brick furnaces, nine wagons and carts and 20 sets of mule harnesses. 

In terms of money value, the total damage done by the landing parties came to an estimated $2 million. The South could scarcely afford the loss of such a commodity. 

During the second half of the Late Unpleasantness, as the Union chokehold tightened around the whole Confederacy, Florida became a valuable supply source of this essential mineral (as well as other vital commodities like cattle, cotton, timber and turpentine). Numerous salt works dotted the Gulf Coast from Choctawhatchee Bay down to Tampa Bay. After building up its fleet, the U.S. Navy blockade squadrons decided it was finally ready to not only blockade Southern ports but to actively seek and destroy rebel salt works (as well as any other resource that supported the Southern war effort). Without the boilers and kettles, you couldn’t process seawater into salt. Without salt, you couldn’t preserve the meat. Without wagons, mules and harnesses you couldn’t haul the meat. It was that simple. 

The Union navy didn’t just attack the works around St. Marks. The salt operations around greater St. Andrews Bay were also a prime target. A recent drought in that region had caused an increase in the salinity of the huge bay, which allowed the salt-making business to boom. Some 2,500 men were employed in this one area alone. Devoted to the interdiction of this trade was the USS Restless, whose crew struck the targets here on a regular basis because they were often rebuilt. In early February 1864, the crew of the Restless conducted a raid by land and by sea to put the works out of business. Acting Master W.R. Browne filed this in his after-action report:

“I have the honor to make the following report: Learning that the rebels had erected new Government salt works on West Bay, on the site of the old salt works destroyed by us in December, and that they had a force of 50 men armed and stationed there for protection, I fitted out the first cutter, manned with 13 men, under charge of Acting Ensign James J. Russell, with orders to proceed up the Gulf coast 20 miles, and march inland 7 miles to the salt works and attack them in the rear, while Acting Ensign Henry Eason with 10 men, in command of the second cutter, would proceed by the inside passage and attack them in the front at the same time.”

Browne states in his official report that the expedition was “entirely successful” because the 50 armed men apparently skedaddled when the Yankees approached. Not clear is whether these were actual regular army soldiers, or armed civilians who were otherwise engaged in the commercial enterprise. It really didn’t matter, because civilian salt workers — although exempt from military service — were treated as soldiers by the Federals.

“Messrs. Russells and Easons … immediately proceeded in the destruction of everything connected with the manufactories, consisting of 26 sheet-iron boilers, averaging 881 gallons, and 19 kettles, averaging 200 gallons, making an aggregate of 26,706 gallons,” he reported. “These boilers and kettles were cut up or broken to pieces, some 600 bushels of salt were thrown into the bay, all the chimneys and furnaces hauled down, and everything rendered completely useless for any further operations. Seven slaves fled to us for protection and assisted in the destruction of this establishment, which had only been in operation ten days. This work covered a space of half a square mile, the boilers and kettles alone costing (an estimated) $146,883. Our party returned to the ship next day, bringing seven contrabands and six shotguns. You will please find enclosed a drawing of the boilers and kettles.”

About a week later, Browne and the Restless’ crew was back in the bay area, this time looking for a barge that was expected to arrive and pick up a cargo of salt on the southwest side of East Bay. An expedition was fitted and set out to ambush the barge, which didn’t show up. Instead, the crew landed and destroyed all the works they could find.

“… The men were landed and destroyed all the works at hand, 15 in number, among which were some of the largest Government salt works ever erected in Florida, the whole of which were successfully destroyed, consisting of 5 large steamboat boilers and 23 kettles, together with 16 log houses, 1 flatboat, a large quantity of salt, vats, tanks and other materials connected with the manufacture of this article. After destroying the above they returned to the ship, bringing with them six contrabands (slaves) found at this place,” Browne said in his report.

The Restless’ work would continue. It returned in October, 1864, and landed another expedition that destroyed 50 boilers, 90 kettles, 300 bushels of salt, 31 wagons, 500 cords of wood, 150 buildings and employee houses, sheds and storehouses. Amazingly enough, despite the destruction, the Confederate government — embroiled in a battle to stay alive — kept allocating men, money and other scarce resources to build and rebuild these works. That indicates how vital salt was to the war effort. But as persistent as the Confederates were, the U.S. Navy was just as dogged. 

“All this was the property of the Confederates, and although it is probable that they may again be rebuilt, it is certain that a severe blow has been struck at the rebel forces in Georgia,” reported Rear Admiral C.K. Stribling, who at that point had succeeded Bailey as commander of the East Gulf Blockading Squadron.

Naturally, salt prices skyrocketed during the war, and the Southern men handling the evaporators stood a good chance of being shot at and shelled by Federal gunboats or landing parties. In one case, three saltmakers from Alabama were executed in Campbellton during the Battle of Marianna, according to historian Dale Cox. The men were with the Dale County Militia and were escorting a salt wagon back to Alabama when they were intercepted by Union troops, Cox said.