By Janice R. Edwards
Salt was very important during the Civil War, so what happened at the Cedar Lake Salt Works had a profound effect on the soldiers. Salt was as vital as gunpowder. Without either, armies could not function.
Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman wrote in 1862: “Salt is eminently contraband, because of its use in curing meats without which armies cannot be subsisted.”
In the early 1860s, salt shortages made salt so valuable in parts of the Confederacy that it became the preferred currency of exchange. The price of salt in Georgia in 1863 rose to $125 a bag.
Though more plentiful in Texas, a donkey load of salt in the same year was worth $36, the equivalent of two and a quarter ounces of gold then. Salt was still so scarce that some Texans along the coast dug up the floors of their smokehouses and leached the dirt to salvage the salt.
Destroying the enemy’s salt was strategic, making coastal salt mining a target for the Union Army. Most of the physical evidence of the Cedar Lake Salt Works is long gone, but some records remain, although they don’t paint a detailed picture of what exactly happened.
What is clear, though, is that the Union Army destroyed whatever was there. The Salt Works were located nine miles southwest from what is now Brazoria, on FM 2611 at the Brazoria/Matagorda county line.
I found the following information in the “Joseph Reese/Charles Keller Reese/Stephen P. Winston/Fountain Winston/Lafayette Winston Asa Stratton Woodlawn Plantations” research paper for the Brazosport Archeological Society.
“During the early part of the Civil War a set of salt works was built on Cedar Lake near the Gulf of Mexico by Lafayette Winston. The Winstons kept summer houses nearby at the mouth of Cedar Lake in Matagorda County. It is not clear who undertook the financing of the operation.”
A reference of the destruction of the Cedar Lake Salt Works is found in the “Official Records of the War of the Rebellion,” by Acting Master Commander H.W. Washburn of the Morning Light vessel. It also indicates that Lafayette Winston owned the salt works, and that it was destroyed.
“November 27, 1862 - Sir: Agreeable to your orders, we this day destroyed the extensive salt manufactory near Cedar Lake, Texas. Acting Master Fowler with one party destroyed one factory of eight large kettles and all the building belonging to it. I with another party destroying those extending to the northward, consisting of four large tubular boilers, ten large and four small kettles.”
He added: “The whole amount of salt ready packed for transportation was not far from ten tons, all of which was ruined. “
A case can also be made for Laurent Ducroz being the owner of the Cedar Lakes Salt Works. Both the family records and James A Creighton’s, “A Narrative History of Brazoria County” (pg. 239), credit Laurent Ducroz as the owner of the Salt Works.
Ducroz family records describe his salt works at the mouth of the San Bernard:
“Laurent Ducroz had built vats where the Bernard meets the Gulf on the west side of the river. Salt water would come up into the vats, be trapped there, and eventually evaporate, leaving salt. In 1862, the Yankees bombarded the Ducroz installation, doing considerable damage.”
In addition to the family records, Ducroz’s Salt Works is alluded to in an official account by John Dillingham, also Acting Master Commander of the U.S. Ship, Morning Light, when he described a second attack of Salt Works “4 miles farther down the coast…While in the act of destroying the works, which were not very extensive, a mounted troop of guerillas charged on them, driving them to the boats.”
Accounts of the destruction of two salt works exist. Winston’s Salt Works were always described as “extensive,” while the Ducroz family records stipulate that it was much smaller.
Perhaps, the story the records tell is that, taken by surprise, Winston’s Salt Works were destroyed on Nov. 27, and Ducroz’s Salt Works were attacked, but defended by the alerted Texas Calvary, the “guerillas,” on Nov. 28, 1862. But it was also destroyed.
But we’ll never know the whole story of what happened at Cedar Lake, as time and lush undergrowth continue to reclaim the little evidence that has remained.
(Write Jan in care of The Bulletin. Email: email@example.com. Snail mail: The Bulletin, PO Box 2426, Angleton TX, 77516.)