Mercer Salt Works
Backstory and Context
The use of saltpeter is a critical component of gunpowder, and the destruction of the Mercer Salt Works was of strategic importance in diminishing the Confederacy's ability to make gunpowder during the Civil War. Colonel Hayes dispatched a detachment of cavalry to ride to the salt works and destroy it and it never operated after that date. The cavalry rode 50 miles that night. They reached the salt works at 2 A. M., found it going full blast, with steam operation, and it was burned out "root and branch." No one was hurt, but three horses were badly wounded.
One volley was fired, then the salt works was burned to the ground. The New-Kanawha River and The Mine War of West Virginia, by Kyle McCormick (Charleston: Mathews Printing and Lithographing Company, 1959), 38.
Below are excerpts from Diary and Letters of Rutherford Birchard Hayes, Volume 2.
August 9. Saturday. - Am planning an expedition to go to Salt Well and destroy it; also to catch old Crump if he is at home...
I send out today Company E, thirty-nine men, K, twenty-seven men, H, about thirty men, and a squad of men from A, I, and C of twenty-seven men, and about twenty-five cavalry to stop the salt well in Mercer, twenty miles above here. Total force about one hundred and fifty men. They go up to Crump's Bottom, catch him if they can, take his canoe and the ferry-boat and destroy the Mercer salt well. This is the programme...
Sunday, August 10, 1862, 9:30 A. M. - The expedition was completely successful, and was of more importance than I supposed it would be. They reached the salt well about 2:30 A. M.; found the works in full blast - a good engine pumping, two pans thirty feet long boiling, etc., etc. All the works were destroyed by fire.
I spent an anxious night. Jackson, Major Comly's scout, reported that the salt well was guarded. I slept little, was up often. But luckily all went well. Not a man was in sight. This morning, as they were returning, the cavalry were bushwhacked, horses wounded, clothes cut, but no man hurt. Diary and Letters of Rutherford Birchard Hayes, Volume 2, edited by Charles Richard Williams (Columbus: The Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society, 1922), 321-24.
Camp Green Meadows, August 10, 1862.
Your letter of the 2nd came last night. A great comfort it was. Several things last night were weighing on me, and I needed a dear word from you. I had got a reluctant permission to send a party to attempt to destroy the salt-works at the Mercer salt well twenty-five miles from here, over a rough mountain country full of enemies, and uncertain who might be at the well. I started the party at 6 P. M. to make a night march of it to get there and do the work and get fairly off before daylight. Captains Drake and Zimmerman were in command with twenty of Gilmore's gallant cavalry and one hundred and thirty of our best men. I had got all the facts I could before they left, but after they were gone three hours, a scout I have given up came in with information that the works were strongly guarded. I slept none during that night.
I was out at early dawn, walking the camp, fearing to hear the gallop of a horse. About half past nine Captain Drake rode in. The fifty miles had been travelled, and the Secesh salt well for all this saltless region was burned out root and branch. Three horses were badly wounded; many [men] had their clothes cut, but not a man was hurt. They reached the well at 2 A. M., found it in full blast, steam on, etc., etc., received one feeble volley of rifle balls and the thing was done. Diary and Letters of Rutherford Birchard Hayes, Volume 2, edited by Charles Richard Williams (Columbus: The Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society, 1922), 321-24.