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 Texas : Features : Columns : "Letters from Central Texas"
"Letters from Central Texas"

Salt of the South

by Clay Coppedge
The Civil War has been called by some historians "The War Between the Salts" because salt was only slightly less important to the Union and Confederate armies than ammunition.

The Union had plenty of salt but the South did not. As a result, you might say that the North salted away the South. Or you may say nothing of the kind.

Much of the salt used by the Confederate Army was produced about eight miles south of where Lometa is now, at a place called Swenson Salines. Before that it was called Salt Creek, one of about two dozen so-named creeks in the state.

Salt was a precious commodity long before the Civil War. The City of Jericho was founded almost 10,000 years ago as a salt trading center, and the demand for salt established the earliest trade routes. Marco Polo used it like money. Homer called it a "divine substance." The English word "salary" comes from the Latin word "salarium," which was a soldier's pay in salt.

Military leaders from Napoleon to George Washington learned, often the hard way, the value of salt to an army, which was also used as a medical disinfectant; Napoleon lost many soldiers during his retreat to otherwise simple wounds because his army had run out of salt.

Salt was used in the Civil War as part of a soldier's diet and for the cavalry horses and work horses that hauled supplies and artillery. The herds of livestock necessary to feed an army also depended on salt.

"Salt is eminently contraband, because of its use in curing meats, without which armies cannot be subsisted," Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman wrote in 1862.

By 1865, when the Southern cause was all but lost, the Confederate manual had this bit of advice for its soldiers: "To keep meat from spoiling in the summer, eat it early in the spring."

The Confederate Salt Works at Lometa operated in a manner common to France and Germany but almost unheard of in the south.

The process began with water pumped from the springs into a trough placed on a 40-foot high scaffold. This was done by means of a horse-drawn rotary lift. The water was then spread over cedar boughs to partially evaporate. 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 20 bushels of brine. A bushel of salt sold for about a dollar.

The Lometa operation produced a great deal of the salt used by the southern army, especially after a series of Union raids on salt works in Florida and Louisiana depleted Confederate supplies.

The Swenson Salines (or Salt Creek) rises about three-and-a-half miles northwest of Lometa and flows 12 miles to the Colorado River. Indians are believed to have used Salt Creek for hundreds of years before Anglo settlement. They used it as an infirmary and what might be viewed today as a crude day spa.


Texas had its fascination and frustrations with salt long before and after the Civil War. The Chisholm Trail zigzagged like it did not only to pass by watering holes but to take advantage of salt licks.

The people of San Elizaro and other villages along the Rio Grande River 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 Confederate Salt Works in Lampasas County continued for a few years after the war. Cyras James, William Kea and Thomas Seale were operating a salt work 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 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. Highway 183 and 190.

Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas"
July 15, 2005 column
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