Salt and war

Salt’s historical use as a food preservative, along with its medicinal use, made it a valuable commodity with political and military significance. The earliest recorded war over access to a supply of salt was over a salt lake in China in 3000 BC. In 2200 BC the Chinese emperor Hsia Yua declared that Shandong Province must supply the Imperial Court with salt.

An ancient Chinese philosopher once called salt “the sweetest thing on earth.” The words, “war” and “peace” originate from the words for salt and bread in ancient Hebrew and Arabic, while from the Latin “sal,” came words such as “sauce” and “sausage.”

Confederate Salt Works-Moremead City, North Carolina, USA. Destroyed by Union forces in 1862 during the American Civil War era as part of the strategy to deprive the South of salt for its armies

As an example of salt’s military import, we can look at the need to maintain a reliable salt supply to the army of the Old South in the 1860s during the American Civil War. Each Confederate soldier was provided with starch (26 pounds of coarse meal, 7 pounds of flour or biscuit, 3 pounds of rice), protein (10 pounds of bacon), and salt (one and a half pounds). Bacon was the meat of the South, and every pound of it required salt. As well as military personnel, horses also need salt in their diet. The Confederacy also needed this precious mineral to treat wounds, tan leather and dye cloth for uniforms.

Last century, the historian Ella Lonn (1933) devoted an entire book to the problem of reliable salt supply for the Confederacy during the Civil War. We know that the Confederate soldiers were hungrier than the Northerners throughout the war. We shall never know whether the hogs that were not slaughtered because there was no salt to preserve them took the edge off the Confederate troops, or whether the salt that was not available for the horses took the edge off the cavalry. “What hogs we have to make our meat, we can’t get salt to salt it,” wrote Mrs Sarah Brown to Governor Pettus of Mississippi in December 1861. In 1862, Governor Brown of Georgia wrote that only half of the meat of the State could be saved for the 1862-1863 season.

That most intelligent and brutally efficient of the Northern Generals, Sherman, did not doubt salt’s importance to any army and its morale, he considered it as important as gunpowder and declared. “Without salt they cannot make bacon and salt beef,” and, “Salt is eminently contraband, because [of] its use in curing meats, without which armies cannot be subsisted.” Sherman sent a captain for trial on a charge of aiding the enemy, because he had allowed salt through the lines to the Confederates. The Union forces were sent orders to destroy salt stores and salt works wherever they were found. Throughout the American Civil War the South’s salt production facilities in Saltville, Va., Virginia’s Kanawha Valley and Avery Island, Louisiana, were targets of the Union Army. The North fought for 36 hours to capture Saltville, Va., where the salt works were considered so crucial that Confederate President Jefferson Davis offered to waive military service to anyone willing to tend coastal salt kettles and so supply the South’s war effort.

In November 1863, General Burnside noted in a despatch to Grant that Lee had placed a strong defensive force in front of Saltville [Virginia]. Grant understood the significance of the deployment. In December 1863 he wrote to General Foster, “If your troops can get as far as Saltville and destroy the works there, it will be an immense loss to the enemy.” In the event, the Confederates guarded the works so well that the Union Army did not take (and destroy) the salt works until December 1864. General Burbridge boasted that the loss of Saltville would be “more felt by the enemy than the loss of Richmond.” Meanwhile the North, even with salt sources of its own, imported 86,208 tons of salt from England in 1864 alone.

Another salt-based conflict was the San Elizario Salt War, also known as the Salinero Revolt or the El Paso Salt War, was an extended and complex range war in the mid-19th century that revolved around the ownership and control of immense salt lakes known as Salt Flat Playa at the base of the Guadalupe Mountains in West Texas. What began in 1866 as a political and legal struggle among Anglo Texan politicians and capitalists gave rise in 1877 to an armed struggle by ethnic Mexican and Tejano inhabitants living on both sides of the Rio Grande near El Paso against a leading politician, who was supported by the Texas Rangers. The struggle reached its climax with the siege and surrender of 20 Texas Rangers to a popular army of perhaps 500 men in the town of San Elizario, Texas. The arrival of the African-American 9th Cavalry and a sheriff's posse of New Mexico mercenaries then caused hundreds of Tejanos to flee to Mexico, some in permanent exile. The right of individuals to own the salt lakes, which had previously been held as a community asset, was established by force of arms supporting a privileged wealthy few.

Salt Flat Playa at the foot of the Guadalupe Mountains, West Texas

The French retreat from Moscow in 1812. Painted in 1874 by Illarion Pryanishnikov

In 1812, after a somewhat pyrrhic victory, hundreds of thousands of Napoleon's troops died during the winter retreat from Moscow, because, in part, for lack of salt, their wounds would not heal, while lice carrying typhus continued to kill healthy, but filthy, soldiers and the Russian Winter did the rest. The decimation of Napoleon's Grand Army followed on from the capture of Moscow, an event that did not compel Alexander I to sue for peace. Napoleon stayed in Moscow for a month, waiting for a peace offer that never came. On 19 October 1812, Napoleon and his army left Moscow and marched southwest toward Kaluga, where Field Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov was encamped with the Russian military. After an inconclusive battle at Maloyaroslavets, Napoleon began to retreat to the Polish border. In the following weeks, the Grande Armée suffered from the onset of the Russian Winter. Lack of salt, food and fodder for the horses, hypothermia from the bitter cold and persistent attacks upon isolated troops from Russian peasants and Cossacks led to high losses in men, and a breakdown of discipline and cohesion in the Grande Armée. More fighting at Vyazma and Krasnoi resulted in further losses for the French. When the remnants of Napoleon's main army crossed the Berezina River in late November, only 27,000 soldiers remained; the Grande Armée had lost some 380,000 men dead and 100,000 captured during the Russian campaign.