by Grace Allen
Do you get tired of eating the same thing over and over? I am sure you’ve had to eat leftovers that weren’t too exciting. During the Civil War, Union and Confederate Soldiers didn’t have a lot of options. They had to make do with the food they were given, called rations. Food was not always easy to get because of the war. Most soldiers were just happy to get food, even if it was the same thing, again and again.
The most common food given to soldiers was bread, coffee, and salt pork. The typical ration for every Union soldier was about a pound of meat and a pound of bread or flour. The Confederacy started out following the same rules. As the war went on, they weren’t able to keep up. Before trucks and highways, it was very hard to get food to other places. The war made it harder, especially for the south. The Union blocked southern ports and railroads, which made getting food to Confederate soldiers difficult.
Tintype of soldiers posed eating hardtack and coffee rations,Tennessee State Library and Archives.
Confederate soldiers were more likely to get cornbread or cornmeal than flour or bread. Corn was a local crop and easier to get. The main bread for most Union troops was hardtack. It is made of only flour and water and looks much like a cracker. It does not spoil easily. It was said that some of the hardtack used during the Civil War was left over from the Mexican American War. Sometimes the hardtack might have worms or weevils in it. Does that sound like a good meal? Do you think the soldiers threw their food away? No way! The soldiers made do by boiling it in coffee. The weevils floated to the top and the soldiers scraped them off. This made hardtack tastier and solved the bug problem.
Hardtack from the Civil War, Tennessee State Museum Collection.
Do your parents drink coffee in the morning? Coffee was very important to troops. It gave the soldiers energy after long days of working or marching. It was also the safest thing to drink. Bad drinking water made many people sick. More soldiers actually died from disease than battle. Boiling the water to make coffee killed the bacteria that made them sick. Most soldiers didn’t know about germs and bacteria, but they did see that drinking coffee was both delicious and safe. Because the Union blocked imports to the Confederacy, they didn’t always have coffee. Confederate soldiers made do by boiling a flower root called chicory and other plants they could find to make a warm drink.
Coffee Beans issued to a Confederate Soldier. This was one of the last rations issued to the Army of the Tennessee, Tennessee Historical Society Collection at the Tennessee State Museum.
Salt pork was the most common meat ration. It was similar to bacon and preserved by using a lot of salt. It was not very tasty. Have you ever had country ham? Salt pork was even saltier. They had to scrape the salt off and soak it in water or partially boil it first to make it edible. The leftover salt could be saved for later to season another meal. Troops sometimes received other additional rations like beans, rice, sugar, and dried vegetables or fruit. Troops on both sides foraged for fresh food from homes and farms. Some officers also bought food for their company if they were able. But mostly living on hardtack, coffee, and pork was not very nutritious. Many soldiers got scurvy, an illness caused by not getting enough vitamins.
List of Rations sold to an Officer to be given to troops, Tennessee State Library and Archives.
Despite this, soldiers got pretty creative. They came up with different recipes that used the same ingredients. A number of recipes were published in military handbooks to help soldiers find variety. They made stews with hardtack, which would thicken the soup. If they had it, flour was used to make a number of things. They made gravy with leftover grease from cooking meat. One drummer boy wrote about wrapping dough made of flour and water around his bayonet and cooking it over the fire!
It is interesting to think about how a few ingredients can make many different things. Civil War soldiers didn’t have access to the best food. But, there were many things the soldiers did to spice up what they had. Next time I have leftovers, I am going to think about how I can use them in a new way. What are some things you can do to experiment with leftovers at your home?
Union –Another name for the United States, the states that did not separate during the Civil War.
Confederacy – The states in the American South that separated from the United States during the Civil War.
Forage – To hunt or search for things and take them
Imports – Items brought in from another country or place
Scurvy – An illness caused by not getting enough vitamin C
Salt Pork – A cut pork preserved using salt
What were three common rations?
What foods did Confederate soldiers not have often? Why?
Why was drinking coffee the safest drink?
What were some of the things soldiers made with their rations?
Why do you think food was important during the Civil War?
How do you think food impacted soldiers during the war?
Follow the link and read about John Billing’s memories of hardtack. Then follow the recipe and make your own hardtack at home.
Watch this video about Civil War Rations
Primary Source Reading: John Billing’s Memoire Hardtack and Coffee
Primary Source Reading: Camp Fires and Camp Cooking by James Sanderson Printed by U.S. Government
Grace Allen is an Educator at the Tennessee State Museum.