From first to last, salt was the most precious of all commodities. To be worth one’s salt was to have a value indeed. Its price, scarcity, and the methods by means of which its use could be largely dispensed with were subjects uppermost in every mind, and topics as common as the weather in every conversation. Its exposure for sale could draw even the long-hoarded pittance of silver from its hiding-place; and when the Confederate government could purchase supplies on no other terms, an offer of part payment in salt never failed to work wonders. It was possible to subsist, or at any rate to exist, with little leather and less iron. Old utensils might be mended and mended again, and their use extended almost indefinitely; people might go barefoot and yet live; but at least salt enough to cure the bacon was a sine qua non.
The State of North Carolina, after making it unlawful to speculate in salt, appointed a salt commissioner and made an appropriation to establish evaporating stations on the coast; and when these proved inadequate, and the approach of Federal fleets and armies rendered them insecure, state works were established at Saltville, Virginia, the great saline of the Confederacy. Even this last resource was uncertain, and the supply never continuous. Sometimes the government monopolized the wells, still oftener the transportation; while the danger of having teams impressed at the works by the military authorities became so great that nothing save extreme individual necessity could induce the people to run the risk. At times not a pound of salt could be bought at any price. Many were driven to dig up the dirt floors of their smoke-houses, impregnated with the meat drippings of years, and by a tedious process of leaching and boiling to obtain an apology for salt. Every method practiced by civilized or uncivilized man for the curing of meat without or with a modicum of salt was attempted. While many of these processes were failures, occasioning the loss of more or less priceless bacon, some effected cures which in point of durability might have competed with petrifactions themselves, and with fair prospects of success, supposing them to have been subjected to any agency of destruction short of Confederate hunger.
Boundless was the excitement and indignation in North Carolina when, in 1864, it was falsely rumored that the governor of Virginia had determined to prohibit by proclamation the removal of salt beyond the borders of that State, as the governor of North Carolina had long before done in regard to cotton and woolen fabrics. “We give Virginia blood,” cried the press, “and she refuses us salt. We have paved her soil with the bones of our best and our bravest, and now she forbids us to gather what may without blasphemy be called the crumbs of life, which she lets fall. Our women and children must die at her hands, in requital of their husbands and fathers having died in her defense.”
All the salt that the State was able to procure from Saltville and through the blockade was sold to the people — giving the wives and widows of soldiers the preference — at cost, which was usually about one fourth the market price. The greater part of the former was of very inferior quality; the “coast salt” especially, being quoted at just half the price of the imported article. The last installment of state salt, issued for the hog-killing in December, 1864, was at the rate of six pounds per capita of population. Shortly after that the works were destroyed by a Federal raid. Indeed, it was a matter of wonder to us, considering the vital importance to the Confederacy of this unique place, which had sprung into being and prominence with the suddenness of a mushroom city of the West, that the Federals should not earlier have put forth even more strenuous efforts than they did for its possession.
Dodge, David; “Domestic Economy in the Confederacy,” The Atlantic Monthly, Volume 58, Issue 346; pp. 229-243; August 1886; Boston: Atlantic Monthly Co.
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