Drawing by Hazel and Richard Brough
from the book “Food, Fun, and Fable.”
While the Yankee fleet cruised off the mouth of Mobile Bay many blockade runners slipped in and out and, on dark and stormy nights, in all probability the fishing schooners sailed past them, too. At Bon Secour a salt factory, busy in the two years of its existence, was as important to the Confederacy as it was to the local people. The factory was a community effort, using the skills its inhabitants knew best. Employment was available to everyone, even young boys. With an output of 250 bushels a day (Navy records state up to 2,000 bushels a day) the schooners were constantly transporting the salt to Mobile. As long as Fort Morgan was not captured the bay remained open to local traffic.
There is no doubt that someone communicated with the Yankee Fleet offshore. Even after a hundred years rumors persist of men slipping out of the lagoons in row boats on dark nights and visiting with Yankee officers. Such oft repeated and long lived rumors must have some basis in fact. After the fall of New Orleans in April 1862, the northwest coast of Florida and Alabama was undefended except for Forts Morgan and Gaines. The big squadrons of the Yankee fleet cruised offshore, but never attempted a landing, and no one has ever adequately explained why.
The garrison of Mobile Point, exclusive of the force at Fort Morgan, consisted of Captain Billy McNeil, some boys in butternut, six parrot guns, and a herd of beach ponies. These guns were moved from place to place and fired from behind the dunes at any boat, which approached the shore. This gave to the fleet the fictitious impression that there was at least one gun complete with crew behind each dune, but any truthful informer could have set them right on that fact. There was not and had not been for two years any military force in Baldwin County able to stop a battleship's crew, much less a regiment. Some historians think that its impassable terrain defended Baldwin County. However, when the Yankees finally decided to move an Army Corps across the almost roadless country, they did so with ease, conveying ten thousand men with their baggage and guns from Fort Morgan to Spanish Fort in less than four weeks.
Only one thing could have deterred the Yankees and that was mis-information, Unreliable Intelligence Reports, we would call the same thing today. Men were visiting the fleet and talking wisely for a little money about things that were not so. From the vantage point of one hundred years later it is so clearly discernable that one wonders how it escaped the history books.
Thus at Bon Secour were centered two projects important to the Confederacy. In modern military terms one was Operation Salt Vats and the other was Operation Mis-Information. The importance of salt cannot be over emphasized. All food was preserved with it. In the southern country, where the coolest temperature was in a deep well or a springhouse, refrigeration was unknown; without salt food spoiled and without food armies came to a grinding halt.
Operation Mis-Information was the weapon of desperation. There were no Confederate troops to send into Baldwin County. By using the old and the lame and the untrained, with the help of boys in their teens, they had managed to garrison Spanish Fort, but that was all that they could do. As for the rest of the County, Lincoln's maxim applied; it was "Root hog or die", and I rather think that they developed some gifted mis-informers in the process of surviving. For instance there was the brilliant fellow who gave Farragut just the right information to send the Tecumseh, complete with the fleet payroll, to its death on the one torpedo left that would fire when hit; information necessary to every schooner from Bon Secour which slipped out of the bay entrance on dark nights.
Early in 1863, when the salt works were newly constructed, Mr. George Brown, a widower with one son, came to Bon Secour. This son must have been about seventeen at the time. Mr. Brown and his boy worked in the salt factories, and the father became a foreman and finally a boss. He owned a fast schooner, the MARGARET, in which he had arrived in Bon Secour and in which he often transported salt to Mobile. His great-grandson thinks he was about forty-five when he arrived in Bon Secour, but he really knows very little more than we do because when people asked the first George Brown where he came from, he didn't say, and when they asked him how old he was, he didn't say that either.
From the evidence already presented and his really remarkable self-containment, it would seem possible that Mr. Brown was a Confederate G. man, a sort of captain and organizer of the mis-informers. He certainly was an experienced labor boss and acquainted with the Bon Secour method of manufacturing salt, and he came equipped with a fast schooner, which could out-sail most boats with ease. This much we know, and when we add the pertinent fact that he was accused by the Yankees of being an "informer" it all seems very plausible. Perhaps he worked it two ways and took back true information about the Yankees to the Confederates, even while he peddled mis-information to the officers of the fleet. No one will ever know because Mr. Brown didn't say.
However, someone kept the Yankees out of the salt works and off the shores of Baldwin County for two years by telling them the most amazing collection of stories about the shifting channels, impassable swamps, and of fierce inhabitants in the interior armed to the teeth and large companies of local militia. We know this from records of officers' reports to their Naval superiors.
The facts of this story were furnished by Mr. George Brown, great grandson of George Brown. Mr. Brown has a framed copy of the following report by Captain Stone on the capture and destruction of the salt factory. Also, he provided a description of the salt works.
Hdqs. U.S. Forces
Ft. Morgan, Mobile Pt. Ala. Sept. 11, 1864
Sir: In pursuance to written instructions received from Gen'l Bailey, on the morning of the 9th instant, I proceeded with the steamer PLANTER, with two barges in tow and 250 men, under command of Major Pettibone, 20th Wisconsin Volunteers, to the mouth of Bon Secours River. 3 Gunboats under the command of Capt. Wiggin, USN. entered the bay some distance in advance of the PLANTER and took such position as would enable them to assist us in case we were attacked. As soon as the troops were landed, a strong picket guard was posted on the road leading into Bon Secours, there being but one road leading into that place, the country on both sides being an impassable swamp. The remainder of the force was placed at work taking down buildings, which had been constructed for the manufacturing of salt, and in loading the lumber into the barges. I suspended all labor at dark, but resumed my work at an early hour on the succeeding morning. And before night I had loaded into the barges about 30,000 ft. of lumber, that being all the available lumber in the salt works. The naval forces had been engaged in the mean time in breaking the kettles belonging to the salt works, the tools which I had with me being too light for this purpose, many of these kettles being fully two inches in thickness, while other were made of a heavy quality of boiler iron. Capt. Wiggins, USN informs me that 990 of these kettles were destroyed.
In addition to the lumber, I loaded onto the barges 9 head of beef cattle, belonging to a citizen who is at present inside our lines in the employment of Capt. Perkins, asst. quartermaster. I left Bon Secours at 8 P.M., having previously fired all buildings used as salt works, as I ascertained that they were owned by parties who are at present in Mobile, and that these works had been manufacturing salt for the Confederate Army, and also a number of buildings having been constructed by the Confederate forces as quarters for soldiers, the place being known as Camp Anderson. I arrived at this place at midnight. I also brought in two prisoners, Geo. Brown and J. F. Yeend. They both being reported as being engaged in conveying information to Mobile.
No improper depredations were committed by the troops, all conducting themselves in an orderly and soldier like manner.
Much credit is due to Major Pettibone and his officers for the manner in which they ass't me in discharging my duties, all taking an interest in forwarding the work as much as possible.
Very respt. Sir, your obed. servant
C. W. Stone
Capt. 6th Michigan Vol.
Arty. Acting Asst. Q.M.
Major Geo. W. Durgin
Acting Asst. Adj. Gen.
The salt works were cleverly planned and constructed. The buildings were open sheds down the center of which ran a big rectangular brick box resting on brick pavement. It had holes opposite each other like those in an iron stove but much larger. Into these holes, and held up by a wide flange, fitted huge iron pots. This elongated stove had a huge brick firebox at one end and at the other end a tall chimney. When the pots were filled with brine a large fire was built at the firebox end, and the smoke, heat and flame drawn through the stove by the draft boiled the pots and evaporated the water, leaving the salt to be scraped out.
The pits from which the brine was derived were sunk into the salt marsh and faced with heavy squared timbers. The top of the pits were above high tide and the strong, salt brine seeped through the loosely jointed sides. Salt water is heavier than fresh, therefore the salt water sinks and collects at a lower level. Each day as the salt brine rose in the pits it was removed in buckets and conveyed to the boiling vats. Hundreds of pits lined the sides of the river in the salt marshes, and the report states that 990 kettles were destroyed. If there were as many as fifty kettles in each shed there were approximately twenty such sheds in operation.
Whatever Mr. Brown was engaged in, he managed to cover his tracks well because he was imprisoned at Fort Morgan, but not carried to New York as were some of the other prisoners, and he was back in Mobile to be present at his son's wedding in 1866. There exists an excellent daguerreotype of him, which shows a large man with a little girl by his side. He has a broad, strong face, with a wide, determinedly shut mouth, and his expression is that of a man with strong convictions. He is handsomely dressed in his heavy, best suit, wearing a white shirt and wing collar, and he is apparently a blond for his eyes are light. Somehow power and control look out of that picture at the observer. Whatever Mr. Brown was up to, he doesn't look frustrated.
He and his fellow "informer", Mr. J. F. Yeend, evidently succeeded in fooling the Yankees handsomely, and he is not in the least cowed or repentant. Given the opportunity, he would do it all over again. After studying his picture for a few moments I came to the firm conviction that he and Mr. Yeend got back those nine head of cattle that some lying neighbor had confiscated. This being done by means of Captain Stone's gentle little expedition, conducting itself "in an orderly and soldier like manner", by destroying the livelihood of a whole town when the war was practically over, and the sale of salt could have been controlled by the Federal Government. Indeed there is a rumor that pillaging troops carried off much more than two barges of lumber and nine head of cattle. However, I suppose that the inhabitants of Bon Secour were thankful that General Bailey had not ordered the destruction of their schooners also for they certainly had been used to transport salt and, since salt was "Contraband" that was technically "an act of war". Legend says that several of the schooners were carried up the river and sunk to keep the Yankees from confiscating them, a most intelligent precaution.
Some things were lacking in the South all during the Civil War because of this same arbitrary designation of "Contraband." One of these was spices, and another medical supplies.
Written in 1965 by Charley and Meme Wakeford for the book “Food, Fun, and Fable.”