Aside from the soldiers and supplies that Texas provided to the Confederacy, the state’s most important contribution to the Civil War might have been the salt processed at the Swenson Salines in Lampasas County, near Lometa. While the Confederacy lasted, the place was one of several across the country known as the Confederate Salt Works. Before it was the Swenson Salines, it was known as Salt Creek, one of around a dozen so-named creeks in the state.
This matter of salt might not seem so important in a world where we buy it by the box. But salt was an important commodity in the Civil War, right up there with ammunition. The Civil War is sometimes called The War Between the Salts. The North had plenty of salt; the South did not. The North won the war.
“Salt is eminently contraband, because of its use in curing meats, without which armies cannot be subsisted,” Union General William Tecumseh Sherman wrote in 1862.
The South could not be subsisted, as the general would have it. By 1865, when the Southern cause was clearly lost, the Confederate States Almanac had this bit of advice for its soldiers: “To keep meat from spoiling in the summer, eat it early in the spring.”
Civil War soldiers, horses and mules all depended on salt. So did the livestock. If an army travels on its stomach, as the saying goes, that army better have plenty of salt. Salt was also used as a disinfectant. Napoleon lost many soldiers to otherwise simple wounds because his army had run out of salt.
Salt was one of the world’s earliest precious commodities. The world’s earliest trade routes were established in response to a demand for the stuff. Almost 10,000 years ago, Jericho was a salt-trading center. Salt was literally worth its weight in gold during the Middle Ages, traded weight for weight. The English word “salary” comes from the Latin word “salarium,” which was a soldier’s pay in salt. A good soldier or hired hand was said to be “worth his salt.” Homer called it a “divine substance.”
Not that Texans ever needed to be convinced of salt’s importance. The Chisholm Trail zigzagged like it did not only to find watering holes but to take advantage of salt licks. Before there was the “black gold” of the oil boom, there was the “white gold” that salt represented. The people of San Elizario and other villages along the Rio Grande near El Paso used a salt basin in northeastern Hudspeth County as a road to transport salt. When Anglo politicians claimed ownership and tried to levy fees, war broke out—that old taxation without representation thing again.
The Swenson Salines became important to the Confederacy after a series of Union raids on salt works in Florida and Louisiana depleted Confederate supplies. Before the creek and springs were enlisted for the war effort, Indians used Salt Creek for hundreds of years, most likely as an infirmary and crude sort of day spa.
The Confederate Salt Works in Lampasas County operated in a manner common to France and Germany but almost unheard of in the South. Water was pumped from springs at the site into a trough placed on a 40-foot high scaffold by means of a horse-drawn rotary lift. The water was spread over cedar boughs where it was allowed to evaporate a bit before the briny remains dropped from the trees into two rows of vats, 25 to a row, situated under the trees. A rock chimney provided the draft. In such a manner, the Confederate Salt Works produced about a bushel of salt for every 50 bushels of brine. A bushel sold for about a dollar.
The Confederate Salt Works continued for a few years after the war. Cyras James, William Kea and Thomas Seale were operating a salt works there as late as 1870, but it was abandoned soon after that.
The site of the old salt works is on private property now, along with three graves that are believed to be those of a man, woman and child who used to live near the works.
A historical marker commemorating the salt works is located about half a mile west of the junction of U.S. Highways 183 and 190.
As innocuous as the marker might be, a case could be made that the most important battle of the Civil War on Texas soil was the struggle to produce salt at the Swenson Salines.
In the end, the Union salted away the Confederacy.
Clay Coppedge frequently writes history pieces for Texas Co-op Power.