Authentic Chowing Down

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Sergeant Major
Apr 1, 2016
Atlanta, Georgia
Chowing Down

The first part of this article focused on what items Civil War soldiers used to prepare and eat their meals. Here we will discuss the food itself and how it was obtained. (A third part will wrap up the topic.)

There’s a simple answer to the question “What did troops eat?” It is: everything they could get their hands on! I once read a story about an officer poking around an old campsite. Coming across an abandoned tin can, he pulled a spoon from his pocket and ate the rancid pork fat it contained—no doubt with relish.

Soldiers had four sources for food: rations, foraging, express boxes and sutlers.

Rations came in two varieties: camp rations and marching rations. In both cases regulations specified the items to be issued daily and in what quantities.

Prepared by army cooks, camp rations were distributed to groups of troops at appointed times. While the following list is quite long, it’s important to understand that not everything was given out simultaneously, and that what was issued relied on availability. This, in turn, depended on the army’s proximity to its base of supply.

The Yankee soldier expected to dine upon these victuals whilst in camp: salt pork or cured bacon or salt or fresh beef; hard bread (commonly referred to as hardtack) or soft bread or flour or corn meal; beans or pease, rice or hominy; green or roasted coffee beans or tea.

Now a word about “desiccated vegetables,” the substance that could be substituted for beans, pease, rice or hominy. Before the Civil War navies knew that the availability of fresh fruits and vegetables was crucial in staving off scurvy among ships’ crews. This disease is caused by a deficiency of vitamin C, characterized by swollen bleeding gums and the opening of previously healed wounds.

Desiccated vegetables were a solution to the problem armies faced in providing their men with vitamin C. A mixture of dried potatoes, cabbage, turnip, carrots, parsnips, beets, tomatoes, onions, peas, beans, lentils and celery, desiccated vegetables were formed into slabs for shipment to the front. Breaking off a piece and putting it into a coffeepot filled with boiling water “resurrected” the dried vegetables. While they supplied a measure of vitamin C to those that ate it, the substance nicknamed “desecrated vegetables” by soldiers wasn’t among their favorite dishes.

I think it fair to say soldiers relied more on coffee than any other ration item. Many accounts say it was common for a man to consume several pints of coffee “strong enough to float an iron wedge” during the course of a day. Troops availed themselves of every opportunity to brew the magic elixir. While the men didn’t know of caffeine’s effects, they quickly learned that chewing beans during an arduous march wicked away exhaustion and put a spring in their step. So protective of their coffee were soldiers that they wouldn’t let camp cooks prepare it, for fear the end product would be too weak to enjoy!

The marching ration pared down what the soldier got to the essentials. These consisted of hardtack, salt pork or fresh meat, sugar, coffee and salt. Regarding fresh meat, sometimes cattle herds followed campaigning armies. When the men stopped for the day army butchers would slaughter enough the beasts to feed them.

Hardtack ranks next to coffee in the Pantheon of soldier rations. Consisting only of flour, salt and water, hardtack was ubiquitous. While on the march troops often had only hardtack and coffee in their haversacks. The tasteless, 3 x 3” baked squares were not particularly nutritious but at least it gave the men something to gnaw on.

The chorus of the popular song “Hard Times Come Again No More” was the basis for a parody on hardtack.

“’Tis the song and the sigh of the hungry,
Hard crackers, hard crackers, come again no more!
Many days have you lingered upon our stomachs sore,
O hard crackers, come again no more!”

Hardtack was the basis for any number of recipes. It was crumbled in coffee or used to thicken soup; soaking it in cold water and fried in pork fat it became skillygalee; then there was lobscouse, a stew of fatty meat, vegetables & hardtack. At Christmastime in winter camp soldiers used pieces of hardtack and salt pork to decorate holiday trees.

The method of issuing coffee and sugar was as follows. Little piles of each item were put on gum blankets placed on the ground. Soldiers receiving their rations gathered to one side of the blankets; an orderly sergeant with roster stood opposite, facing away from them. As another soldier pointed to each pile in turn, saying, “Which man shall have this?” the sergeant called out a name from the roster. By this means the rations were handed out fairly.

When it came to rendering salt pork edible the most important thing was to leech out as much as the preservative as possible. First the salt that coated the pork was scraped off. The meat was cut into chunks and soaked in cold water, further reducing its salt content. Only after these steps had been taken would the meat be fried up. FB_IMG_1551745453232.jpg
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