While Blacksburg's "boys" were away fighting the war, activities took place at home in which local men and detached soldiers participated, two of which were mining for coal and saltpeter. Montgomery County had many coal mines, and the Confederacy needed another source of coal to fuel its foundries after the coal fields in the Richmond Coal Field Basin were destroyed. Locally, the coal was mined at present-day Merrimac as well as at other small coal mines in the area. After the coal was dug by hand from the mines, it was loaded on wagons and hauled to the James River at Buchanan, Virginia; then it was shipped to Norfolk by boat. When the Confederate ship Merrimac and the Union ship Monitor engaged in battle at Hampton Roads, the coal burned in the Merrimac was said to have come from Montgomery County; after that, the mine became known as the Merrimac Mines.
Another little-known operation was that of mining for saltpeter, which, along with sulphur from many springs in the area, was used to manufacture gun powder. The men participating in this operation were considered slackers who were trying to escape military service. Dr. Harvey Black, in one of his letters to his wife, mentions a Blacksburg man digging for saltpeter and shirking his military duty. Dr. Black told his wife to get Bill (thought to be a neighbor boy) to dig some for him so that he (Dr. Black) could return home from the war.
Saltpeter was found in caves and under old buildings; the powder was dug from the ground and then refined. Since it was desperately needed by the government, it was bringing a very high price by the end of the war. Several Blacksburg men dug for this mineral in the caves of Montgomery and Giles counties.
Another mineral mined in the Blacksburg area was manganese, which was also used in manufacturing during the war.
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