-->

Using Primary Sources in the Classroom:
Civil War Unit
Lesson 1: Alabama's Saltworks

1. Background information for teachers:

 

One of the most acute shortages during the Civil War was an inexpensive item we take for granted today--salt. After the war started, no more salt was brought to Alabama by ships from New England. Salt was needed for every day use, and, more importantly, necessary for curing meat to feed the Confederate armies and the people on the home front in this period before the development of modern food preservation techniques. To alleviate this problem, the General Assembly of the State of Alabama passed Act 38 creating the Salt Commission on December 9, 1862.

 

The Salt Commission's purpose was to provide salt to the citizens of Alabama because of the shortages caused by the Civil War. The small supply of salt in the state, and in most of the South, was being sold at inflated prices, beyond most families' financial capabilities. With many families unable to afford such a needed product, most Confederate States created a commission or an agency to insure that citizens received salt at reasonable prices.

 

The act authorized the Governor to appoint a state Salt Commissioner to regulate the purchase, manufacture and transport of salt. The act also provided that an equal amount of salt, not to exceed 25 lbs., be sold to each household. If a household required more salt, a second purchase could take place according to need. It was the responsibility of each county commission to distribute salt within each county. The distribution of salt usually took place at the county seat. The need of each household was determined by a written notice of quantity needed, which was submitted by each household to the probate judge or the justice of the peace. The Governor appointed a county salt agent to secure storage areas for salt, and to oversee the equal distribution of salt.

 

The primary salt manufacturing area in the state was located in Clarke County. Two other counties, Washington and Mobile, also had small manufacturing facilities. The Clarke County Salt Works consisted of three main areas located on the Tombigbee River. These areas were known as the Lower, Central and Upper Salt Works. The Upper Salt Works was the largest center of salt manufacturing. These three areas had a work force of 5,000 men during the years of salt production (1862-1865). Salt works were also located on the Jackson, Steve and Salt Creeks. Much of the labor force consisted of slaves, who had been impressed by the state from their owners. The labor force also included white men who were unable to serve in the Confederate Army due to medical problems. Many deaths occurred at the works due to illnesses, such as malaria, caused by the swamp lands. The slaves generally performed the heavy labor in the salt works, though some helped keep the accounts. In spite of all efforts, the Salt Commission was unable to meet the great need for salt in Alabama and the legislature made it illegal to send salt out of the state. Desperate Confederates evaporated seawater in large pans along the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, boiled old beef and port barrels, and poured boiling water over soil dug from under old smokehouses in search of salt. When the war came to an end, so did salt manufacturing throughout the South.

 

2. Learning Objectives:
Upon the completion of this lesson, students should be able to:

1. Explain the value of salt as a necessary commodity during the Civil War.
2. Identify the geographic location of salt works in Alabama.
3. Identify the levels of government, which in time of war, become involved in producing, distributing and protecting natural resources; in this instance—salt.
4. Analyze how one seemingly insignificant element can influence the outcome of a much larger issue.
5. Discuss the economic concept of supply and demand in relation to the price of salt.

 

3. Suggested activities:

 

1. To demonstrate the value of salt, purchase a box of unsalted crackers and a box of salted crackers. Distribute the unsalted crackers to students, ask them to taste the cracker, and observe their response. Then distribute the salted crackers, take the taste test and ask for a response. Discuss their reactions and the value of salt to enhance the flavor of food, as well as its other uses, especially food preservation.
2. Make a classroom set of documents 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 . Distribute to students and ask them to read them silently.
3. Ask students to work in groups of three, with each member of the group being responsible for analyzing one of the letters and explaining it to the others. Use the suggested "Guidelines for analyzing a written document."
4. Locate the saltworks on an Alabama map.
5. Define "commodity."
6. Define "impressment."
7. Discuss conditions which may cause governments to take over private enterprise. Is this right or wrong?
8. Why was the governor of Alabama concerned about salt?
9. Consult additional references to identify General (D.H.) Maury and the governors of Alabama during the Civil War.

 

DOCUMENTS:

Document 1: "Letter from Gov. A.B. Moore to Q.M. General Duff E. Greene, 16 Nov. 1861," Alabama Salt Commission, General correspondence, SG5979, folder 23, Alabama Department of Archives and History, Montgomery, Alabama.

 

Document 2: "Letter from Col. F.S. Blount to Capt. Charles E. Sherman, 11 July 1864," Alabama Salt Commission, General correspondence, SG5979, folder 25, Alabama Department of Archives and History, Montgomery, Alabama.

 

Document 3: "Letter from A.P. Everett to Gov. Milton, 13 June 1864," Alabama Salt Commission, General correspondence, SG5979, folder 25, Alabama Department of Archives and History, Montgomery, Alabama.

 

Document 4: "Salt request from T. Stamp," Alabama Salt Commission, Affidavits to obtain salt, SG5979, folder 3, Alabama Department of Archives and History, Montgomery, Alabama.

 

Document 5: "Salt request from Eliza Coleman," Alabama Salt Commission, Affidavits to obtain salt, SG5979, folder 2, Alabama Department of Archives and History, Montgomery, Alabama.

 

Document 6: "Account for transportation of slaves," Alabama Salt Commission, Vouchers, SG6181, folder 27, Alabama Department of Archives and History, Montgomery, Alabama.