A Pinch of Salt

By the end of 1864, the last major Confederate port through which any supplies from foreign sources could pass was up the Cape Fear River at Wilmington, NC. The reason that the Union was unable to blockade Wilmington effectively was Ft. Fisher. This superbly constructed and positioned fort commanded the mouth of the Cape Fear River and successfully withstood several Union raids.(1) While other Confederate coastal forts had been captured by naval bombardment alone, Ft. Fisher was too tough a nut to crack without a combined naval and infantry assault. During the period of January 13 - 15, 1865, Ft. Fisher was subjected to an expertly planned and gallantly executed combined attack. For the first two days, the naval forces under David D. Porter knocked out the Confederate guns facing the water. On the third day, the infantry forces under Alfred H. Terry stormed the ramparts. When the vastly outnumbered Confederate garrison was forced back in savage fighting from the landward side by General Terry's infantry toward the hail of heavy caliber shells being pumped into the seaward side by Admiral Porter's navy, they had no choice but to surrender at 10:00 p.m. on January 15th.

Early in the Civil War, captured soldiers were often quickly paroled. Paroling spared the victor the effort of moving the prisoners into camps and the cost of feeding and caring for them. In effect, paroled soldiers were required to go home and fight no more until exchanged for a paroled soldier from the opposing side. Then both soldiers could be returned to combatant status. This gentleman's approach to captured soldiers continued until the Confederacy once again demonstrated its inhumane attitude toward blacks. Upon learning that the Union was allowing blacks to enlist in the army as regular infantrymen, the South announced that any blacks captured would not be treated as soldiers and would not be paroled. They would be either immediately executed or sent to the rear and enslaved. Further, any captured white officers who had commanded black troops would be summarily executed.

The savage reality of the Confederate threat was confirmed on April 12, 1864 when several hundred black Union soldiers and their white officers were murdered in cold blood on the banks of the Mississippi River at Ft. Pillow in Tennessee by their Confederate captors, who were under the command of Nathan Bedford Forrest. Before the War, Forrest had been a slave trader in Memphis and after the War he founded the Klu Klux Klan. This outrage by the South ended the gentlemanly practice of paroling and exchanging prisoners. The result was the creation of some of the most barbaric and overcrowded prisoner of war camps the world as ever seen. The worst of these was in Andersonville, GA, and its memory remains an indelible stain on the honor of all Southerners.

Whatever promises of safety, regular meals, and warm beds the Northern prisoner of war camps had held at the beginning of the Civil War, by January 1865 their reality was all too well understood. Each captured Confederate knew that an overcrowded, bitterly cold hell awaited him in some Northern camp. One of these captured soldiers was my great-great-grandfather Allen Inman.

Before the war, Allen had lived in Iron Hill, NC--approximately fifty miles inland from Ft. Fisher-and engaged in farming and turpentine business.(2) He had supplemented his income by being a tailor for the more prosperous members of the Iron Hill and Tabor City business communities. Allen had continued to practice his tailor trade while a member of the garrison at Ft. Fisher. Among those for whom Allen made uniforms was the fort's commander, Colonel William Lamb. In the aftermath of the battle, General Terry visited Colonel Lamb in the hospital (he had been wounded in the hip) and complimented him both on the valor of his defense and the quality of his uniform.(3) Colonel Lamb thanked him for his kind words and added that an enlisted man by the name of Allen Inman, whose current fate was unknown, had made his uniform and those of several other officers.

General Terry initiated a search for Allen Inman and soon located him among the surviving prisoners. The General had acquired some fine blue cloth from which a uniform could be made. He made an offer, if Allen would agree to resume his tailor practice and make a uniform for him, then General Terry would parol Allen instead of sending him north to a prisoner of war camp. Allen took one look at the cold January wind whipping up white caps on the Cape Fear River and realized that he was already as far north as he ever wanted to be. Allen quickly assented to General Terry's generous offer.(4)

Allen measured General Terry and, as quickly as he could, made the requested uniform. When finished, it was worthy of a parole. True to his word, General Terry ordered that Allen Inman be paroled and in mid-February he was released with three days of cooked Union rations for his fifty-mile walk back home.

When Allen Inman got home, he discovered that Sherman's foragers had preceded him. Everything was gone but the land, his house, his wife, and a pack of hungry children. Because Sherman felt that North Carolina was less culpable in the commencement of the War than had been those hotbeds of succession, South Carolina and Georgia, homes in North Carolina were not burned indiscriminately the way they had been in these latter two states.(5) But still, Allen Inman was in dire straits. He had no food. He had no seeds to plant. Even if he did, the harvest would be months away. He had no money to buy food or seeds. He had neither cloth nor money to buy cloth from which to make clothes to sell. Even if he had, no one else had money to spend on nonessentials like new clothes. But Allen still had his wits and Sherman's foragers had not taken everything, they had left behind a cast iron wash pot.

Allen put the wash pot on a cart and he pulled them both thirty miles to what is now known as North Myrtle Beach. There on the Atlantic Ocean, Allen gathered driftwood and filled the wash pot with sea water. He lit the fire and boiled seawater until only salt remained. He scraped out the salt and refilled the wash pot. He repeated this exercise until he had made enough salt that its sale would allow him to purchase the seeds needed to plant his crops and a little food for his children.(6) Over the course of the next few years, Allen repeated his pilgrimage to the Atlantic Ocean for salt many times. Eventually, the farm regained its self-supporting status and Allen ceased the arduous salt-making expeditions.(7)

In time, the entire Southern economy recovered to the point where once again there was a demand for Allen's services as a tailor. With this extra income supplementing the farm crops, Allen was able to provide a better life for his children. One of his children, Mary Pearline Inman, my great-grandmother, always remembered how a lowly wash pot had made the difference between survival and death for her entire family.(8) The lesson of how little things can make a difference was taught to her four sons and down the generations to the present day.

1. Ft. Fisher had been designed by and had its construction overseen by Major General W. H. C. Whiting. General Whiting, a Mississippian by birth, was a remarkable engineer and while at West Point attained the highest scholastic average ever recorded at that school. Unfortunately, this intellectual brilliance proved to be his undoing as a field commander while attempting to flank General Ben Butler's "Army of the James" that was threatening Richmond in the Spring of 1864. His ability to foresee all the ways in which a military operation could go disastrously wrong paralyzed him into inaction, hesitation, and finally retreat on May 16, 1864. A less insightful commander might have acted more decisively on that day and routed General Butler's Army. Had the threat that Butler's army posed to Richmond been eliminated, approximately 10,000 troops would have been available to reinforce General Lee's Army of Northern Virginia in its running battle with General Grant's Army of the Potomac.

2. My father says that his grandmother's, Mary Perline Inman Cox, most vivid memory of the Civil War was of her mother, Calista Baldwin Inman, walking back and forth on her front porch weeping with her hands over her ears. The deep-throated bass notes from Porter's big naval guns-fifty miles away at Ft. Fisher--could be clearly heard in Iron Hill and Calista knew her husband was in the middle of it.

3. Colonel Lamb would survive both his wound and a stint in a Union prisoner of war camp at Fort Columbus in New York Harbor. The man in the adjoining bed, Major General W. H. C. Whiting, would not. General Whiting arrived during the naval bombardment on January 13th with news that Ft. Fisher would not be reinforced, but that he intended to remain and be sacrificed along with the garrison. This time, the disaster his intellect allowed him to foresee was all too true and he died of his wounds eight weeks after the fall of Ft. Fisher.

4. General Terry was just as aware, if not more so, of the conditions in prisoner of war camps as Allen Inman was. Wanting to spare any man, rebel or not, the fate that awaited him in these dreadful places, Union officers often seized upon the slightest of pretexts to parole a captured soldier, rather than send him north.

5. To this day, a solitary brick chimney with no house around it, is known in the South as a Sherman monument.

6. Early in the first summer, the Inman family ran out of food and money before the crops were ready for harvest. So they harvested a little of the green corn and spread it out in the sun to dry. Once dry, it was ground into cornmeal and the resulting corn cakes sustained the Inman family until the crops had ripened and could be harvested.

7. While Allen did stop going to the shore to make salt, he continued going there in the fall for the mullet run. When the time was right, a group of men from the Tabor City area would go to the beach to catch mullets. They would build a tower to spot the mullet run from a distance. Just before the mullets came abreast of their position, a long purse seine net would be run out in front of and then around the school of mullets. With both ends on the beach, the men would pull their catch ashore. The mullets would be quickly cleaned and packed in wooden barrels between layers of salt. However, a few mullets would always be left out for Allen Inman. Using the same wash pot that had served him so well, Allen would cook up a fish stew so good that it alone justified the trip to the beach. The recipe for the mullet stew was passed down to my grandfather, R. L. Cox. My father says he can remember as a young boy his father participating in the mullet catch and cooking up a batch of Allen Inman's mullet stew for the assembled men. However, by this time the relative priorities of the salt mullet and the mullet stew had been reversed.

8. Another story tells of just how fiercely Mary Pearline Inman Cox guarded her wash pot years later.

Submitted by John N. Cox.