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. Footnote

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, naval forces under David D. Porter knocked out the Confederate guns. On the third day, 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 inhuman 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 either be immediately executed or be 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. This outrage by the South ended the gentlemanly practice of paroling and exchanging prisoners. The result was the creation, on both sides, 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. Footnote

          Before the war, Allen had lived in Iron Hill, NC--approximately fifty miles inland from Ft. Fisher–and engaged in farming, store-keeping, and the turpentine business. Footnote

He had supplemented his income by being a tailor for the more prosperous members of the Iron Hill and Tabor City business communities. Allen continued to practice his tailor trade while a member of the garrison at Ft. Fisher. Footnote

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 was wounded in the hip) and complimented him both on the valor of his defense and the quality of his uniform. Footnote

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. Footnote

          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 the last week of February, after Wilmington had been captured, 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. Footnote

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 other two states. Footnote

But still, Allen Inman was in dire straits. He had little 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 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 a 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. Footnote

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. Footnote

          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 Perline Inman, my great-grandmother, always remembered how a lowly wash pot had made the difference between survival and death for her entire family. Footnote

The lesson of how little things can make a difference was taught to her four sons and down the generations to the present day.