Virginia's Mineral Resources and the American Civil War
Salt was a particularly important commodity in the days before refrigeration, as it was the only practical method to preserve the huge amount of beef and pork necessary to feed the army and the civilian population, roughly nine million people in the South. It also was added to butter to stave off deterioration, it was used to pack eggs and cheese, and it was supplied as a nutrient to livestock. In addition, it was used to tan leather, a ubiquitous commodity which at the time had a multitude of everyday functions. It has been estimated that the average per capita consumption of salt in nineteenth century America was 50 pounds (Lonn, 1933). At the beginning of the Civil War, the United States imported 12 million bushels of salt annually, much of it going to the South.
Salt springs occur in the Valley and Ridge Province of southwestern Virginia. The salt is derived from the Mississippian-age Maccrady Formation, a sequence of shale, siltstone, limestone, dolostone, and evaporite minerals such as halite, anhydrite, and gypsum, all laid down across a mud-rich tidal flat on an ancient, arid coastline. After burial and lithification, these rocks were sheared and crushed along the Saltville Thrust Fault, a major structure that can be traced for hundreds of miles from northern Alabama to southwest Virginia (Whisonant, 1996). Migrating groundwater dissolved the salt, creating natural brine springs and ponds that attracted prehistoric animals such as mammoths, mastodons, and giant ground sloths.
From Harper’s Weekly, January 14, 1865
It is not known exactly when the first Europeans came upon the brine springs of the Holston Valley in southwestern Virginia, but by the 1750s a tract of land containing many of the springs had been granted to Charles Campbell, whose nephew, Arthur, began the first commercial development in 1782 (Whisonant, 1996). Brine was drawn up through wells and boiled off in large iron kettles. In 1795, William King built salt works on property adjoining Campbell’s and for the next several decades the two operations ran in competition. By 1842, production from six wells had reached 200,000 bushels annually (Whisonant, 1996). The 1840 census reported that Virginia produced 1,745,618 bushels that year. By 1850, Virginia salt production, primarily from Saltville and Kanawha (now in West Virginia), had reached 3,478,890 bushels per year, about 36% of the total domestic supply. In 1856, the Virginia & Tennessee Railroad was completed with a spur to Saltville.
By the fall of 1861, the Saltville works had been acquired by Stuart, Buchanan & Company, who managed the operation throughout the Civil War. Shortly after the war began, the company negotiated a contract with the Confederate government to supply the rebel army with 22,000 bushels per month (Whisonant, 1996). One of the partners, William A. Stuart, was the older brother of famous Confederate cavalryman General J.E.B. Stuart, whose wife and children spent much of the war at Saltville.
From the onset of the Civil War, the Union strategists undertook a concerted effort to neutralize southern salt works, including coastal operations in Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, and Alabama, along with inland facilities in Kentucky and Arkansas. The price of salt, which sold for as little as 17¢ per bushel before the war, shot up to over $8 in 1862 (Lonn, 1933). By the beginning of 1863, the wells at Saltville were the only remaining significant source of salt in the entire Confederacy, and production ramped up considerably. Prior to the war, the Saltville operations consisted of a single furnace and about seventy kettles; during its peak in 1864 there were thirty-eight furnaces operating upwards of 2,600 kettles, capable of producing 4,000,000 bushels annually (Whisonant, 1996).
The importance of Saltville was not lost on Union commanders, but forays against the salt wells in July and September 1863 and May 1864 never got close. However, on October 1, 1864, five thousand Union soldiers under General Stephen Burbridge managed to get to the outskirts of Saltville. The next day they attacked the outnumbered Confederate defenders, but were driven back and withdrew. Then, in December 1864, Union General George Stoneman’s cavalry raiding northward from Knoxville, Tennessee, ripped up the Virginia & Tennessee Railroad from Bristol to Wytheville, defeated weakened Confederate forces and overwhelmed the Saltville defenses, burning buildings and smashing kettles and kilns. Afterward, the Confederates made attempts to revive the operation, but by then the war was essentially over.
Salt production picked up slowly after the war. In 1893, the Holston Salt and Plaster Corporation was sold to a British company, Mathieson Alkali Works, and Saltville became a company town. Mathieson owned most of the nearby land and homes; it operated the utilities and paid the salaries of the police, ran company stores, built and staffed the hospital, and subsidized the school system (Tennessee Valley Perspective, 1973). Facilities expanded to include the world’s largest dry ice plant and the second largest chlorine plant, but there were environmental problems. In July of 1970, the Mathieson Company, which for decades had dumped its effluent into the Holston River, announced that it would be unable to meet new EPA water pollution standards and closed the plant.
Lonn, Ella, 1933, Salt as a factor in the Confederacy: Walter Neale, New York, 322 p.
Whisonant, Robert C., 1996, Geology and the Civil War in southwestern Virginia: the Smyth County salt works: Virginia Minerals, v. 42, no 3.
Tennessee Valley Perspective, Summer 1973: Tennessee Valley Authority.