Though few Civil War battles were fought there, Southwestern Virginia was critically important to the Confederacy. One reason was the salt works in Saltville, which provided the Confederacy’s main source of salt, used as a preservative for army rations.
Two battles took place in an effort to control the works. In the first, on October 2, 1864, Brig. Gen. Stephen G. Burbridge’s Union cavalry column struck, but was defeated by Southern forces patched together from several reserve units, commanded by Brig. Gen. John Echols & Maj. Gen. John C. Breckinridge. However, Union General George Stoneman’s troops overwhelmed the town on December 20, and this time managed to destroy the saltworks.
In its coverage of the battles, Harper’s Weekly provided an interesting side bar discussing how salt was produced:
The salt manufactured here is of the very best quality. The works have been deemed so important by the rebels that a Richmond paper lately declared the loss of Savannah an inferior consideration.
“The valley at the head of which Saltville stands,” says Porte Crayon [onsite sketch artist for the newspaper], “contains several hundred acres of rich meadow. It is surrounded by a chain of conical hills, from 500 to 800 feet in height, so regularly formed that, but for their extent, they might be mistaken for artificial mounds.
“At the distance of 230 feet below the surface is a bed of fossil salt. The salt is procured by sinking beds to the depth of the salt bed, when the water rises within 46 feet of the surface, and is raised from thence by pumps into large tanks, or reservoirs, elevated a convenient distance above the surface. The brine thus procured is a saturated solution, and for every hundred gallons yields twenty-two gallons of pure salt.
“The process of manufacturing it is very simple. An arched furnace is constructed, probably 150 feet in length, with the doors at one end and the chimney at the other. Two rows of heavy iron kettles, shaped like shallow bowls, are built into the top of the furnace. Large wooden pipes convey the brine from the tanks to these kettles, where the water is evaporated by boiling, while the salt crystallizes and is precipitated.
“During the operation a white saline vapor rises from the boilers, the inhalation of which is said to cure diseases of the lungs and throat. At regular intervals an attendant goes round and with a mammoth ladle dips out the salt, chucking it into loosely woven split baskets, which are placed in pairs over the boilers. Here it drains and drips until the dipper has gone his round with the ladle.
“It is then thrown into the salt-shells, immense magazines on either side of the furnaces. The salt thus manufactured is of the purest quality, white and beautiful as the driven snow. Indeed, on seeing the men at work in the magazines, with pick and shovel, a novice would swear they were working in a snow-bank: while the pipes and reservoirs, which at every leak become coated over with snowy concretions, sparkling like hoar-frost and icicles in the sun, serve to confirm the wintry illusion.
“To avoid land-carriage the brine is piped to the banks of the Holston, and manufactured on the spot. The salt is packed in barrels and is carried Westward down the river, or Eastward on the railroad. An immense coopering establishment is the characteristic adjunct of the lower salt-works.”
sources: Harper’s Weekly, January 14, 1865; online at www.sonofthesouth.net/leefoundation/civil-war/1865/january/making-salt.htm