Salt in the American Civil War

(This article is reprinted from Chem 13 News, March 1999.)

In his novel Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier describes the hardships that civilians and soldiers alike endured during the American Civil War (or, War Between the States, depending on your side of things). On page 79 of the book, the author describes how two women barter for food.

“The most valuable trade, though, was the five-pound sack of salt they had gotten, it having become so scarce and dear that some people now dug up their smokehouse floors and boiled and strained the dirt and then boiled it down and strained it again. Over and over until the dirt was gone and the water steamed away, so that in the end they had reclaimed the salt fallen to the ground from the hams of yesteryear.”

Each year in my general chemistry course, students perform some kind of separation based on physical properties — salt, sand, iron filings, benzoic acid, for example. This year I gave them the following question as a quiz after their separation lab.

Before electricity and refrigeration became common, people used iceboxes to preserve foods. Before that, they salted, dried, canned or smoked foods to preserve them. Otherwise, they would not have had much to eat in the wintertime. During the American Civil War, salt became very scarce in the countryside. People resorted to gathering up the dirt from their smokehouse floor (where smoked and salted meats were kept) to recover salt that had fallen from pieces of meat over the years.

Describe how they could go about separating the salt from the dirt.

Cold Mountain is an award-winning novel and is highly recommended for its literary value.


  1. Cold Mountain, by Charles Frazier, 356 pages, Atlantic Monthly Press, New York, 1997.

[Editor’s note: A movie based on this book was made in 2003.]