There’s a place in Florida where you can walk on the beach and probably stub your toe on a 150-year-old relic of the Civil War.
That relic is a brick that once was part of saltworks that boiled salt from seawater, and the place in Florida is in the Panhandle between Panama City and St. Marks in Wakulla County.
Many people who live in Florida today – mostly because they’re from someplace else – don’t realize that Florida was a slave state in the Civil War. It was the second state to join the Confederacy. Some historians say salt, along with cattle, might have been Florida’s main contribution to the Confederacy.
Today, we take refrigeration for granted, but when the Civil War was fought there was no refrigeration. How important was salt during the war? Without salt, Johnny Reb couldn’t cure his meat. Nor could he cure the leather for his boots and saddles.
‘Une armee marche a son estomac,’ Napoleon Bonaparte said (circa 1800~). ‘An army marches on its stomach.’ How prophetic he was! Sixty years later, salt became the lifeblood of the Confederacy. And thus the seaside areas in Florida’s Big Bend area westward through St. Andrews Bay (near Panama City) became almost as big a battleground as some of the more famous Civil War battles.
That’s where the saltworks were – thousands of them along the beaches and inlets of what now is being called Florida’s Forgotten Coast. And that’s where today you can still find bricks that were used in the saltworks to capture salt from the sea.
Salt was as important to the Confederacy as gunpowder. Union Gen. William T. Sherman gave orders to destroy saltworks wherever they were found. Almost as soon as the Confederacy finished building a saltworks, Union troops would destroy it. Often there were skirmishes — never recorded as battles — on the Union raids, but that didn’t mean people didn’t get killed or wounded. One historian noted: ‘These ‘minor’ actions along this coast may have caused losses on faraway battlefields.’
Salt was so important that the Confederacy exempted Floridians from military service if they would work in the saltworks. About 5,000 took the offer. And some were killed, despite small cadres of Confederate troops guarding the saltworks. Many of the saltworks operated 24 hours a day, some producing as much as 4,800 bushels a day (valued at $12.50 per bushel – in 1862 dollars).
Some of the saltworks were huge. The one relatively hidden among the inlets on landlocked St. Andrews Bay was a major source of high-quality salt for the Confederacy, employing an estimated 2,500 men. Union forces raided the St. Andrews Bay saltworks again and again, but the Confederacy rebuilt it again and again. This went on from 1862 into 1865. One historian estimated that Union troops caused $3 million in damage at this saltworks alone. In the St. Marks area on northern Apalachee Bay, losses sustained at seaside saltworks approached that.
You’re more likely to find the bricks that sheltered the salt kettles while strolling on the beach at Cape San Blas, south of Port St. Joe. Perhaps because it’s less populated, but this place in Florida seems to be the best place to stub your toe on a Civil War brick.