Cooks and Cooking in the Union and Confederate Armies at Gettysburg

Tom Elmore

2nd Lieutenant
Member of the Year
Jan 16, 2015
Differences were apparent in the process of cooking and feeding the two opposing armies during the Gettysburg campaign, but they were similar in the sense that the preparation and distribution of food was done differently when a command was in camp, than on the march.

Generally speaking, on the march there was simply no time or opportunity for assigned cooks to prepare meals for their commands. Instead, individual uncooked rations were simply issued to the men, who were ordered to cook one, two or three days’ worth of food during extended rest stops that might last from a few hours to a few days.

During the battle itself, the Confederate army had the advantage of having handy access to commissary and cooking utensil wagons parked in the vicinity of Cashtown. While the battle was in progress, there was sufficient time to prepare rations, although delivery might be held up until the onset of darkness. Beef and pork were plentiful, having been duly “requisitioned” (confiscated) from area farmers. Some examples:

-July 2, detailed to go to wagons to cook up rations for our company. (Diary of Robert T. Douglass, Company F, 47th Virginia)

-John Coxe of the 2nd South Carolina recalled that about 9 p.m. [on July 2] “our cooks from the rear brought camp kettles of fine boiled beef, but without either salt or bread.” (Confederate Veteran, vol. 21, p. 435)

-Before daybreak on July 3, “Uncle” John Price delivered rations to Company B, 4th Texas, posted at the western base of Big Round Top. John was a servant (slave) of 2nd Lieutenant John T. Price of the company, who appears to have missed the campaign owing to illness, in which case he must have arranged for his slave to follow the army and cook for the company. (Rags and Hope, The Recollections of Val C. Giles, Four Years with Hood’s Brigade, Fourth Texas Infantry, 1861-1865, comp. by Mary Lasswell, New York: Coward-McCann Inc., 1861, p. 183; Unveiling and Dedication of Monument to Hood’s Texas Brigade, by F. B. Chilton, p. 292)

-On July 3, while in line of battle, Thomas B. Reed of the 9th Louisiana was ordered to “take a detail of men and go and have a lot of rations cooked.” (A Private in Gray, by Thomas Benton Reed)

-On July 4, details were sent from each company of the 61st Georgia to cook three days’ rations. (A Soldier’s Story .. G. W. Nichols, 61st​ Georgia)

The Union army’s higher echelons, on the other hand, had ordered their commissary and baggage wagons to assemble at Westminster, Maryland, distant some 20 miles to the rear. Nevertheless, the rules might be skirted if done discreetly, unlike the group of Eleventh Corps cooks with pack mules who made a noisy racket when passing General Meade’s headquarters at the Leister cottage. Meade, not known for his patience, immediately sent for his Provost Marshal, Marsena Patrick, to deal with them. Soon one of the black cooks was heard to exclaim (perhaps more colloquially): “For the Lord’s sake, if that ain’t General Patrick a coming.” (Gettysburg, Snapshot Impressions of a Great Battle as Told by the Chief of Orderlies, Patrick McEneany, Headquarters, Army of the Potomac, National Tribune, March 22, 1900)

As a result, food was generally scarce on the Federal side. Nevertheless, despite stringent orders, a few enterprising quartermasters and commissary officers skirted the rules and managed to slip through to the front, earning the gratitude of their commands:

-During the retreat on July 1, most of the officers and men lost all their rations, and from the morning of the first until 5 p.m. on the 4th of July we received or had nothing to eat, except small issues of fresh beef, which was eaten without salt. (Lt. Henry H. Lyman, 147th New York, Bachelder Papers, 1:330)

-After dark on July 1, four wagons loaded with hard bread, pork and coffee were brought up by General Stannard’s brigade quartermaster, Charles Field, to the 14th Vermont and perhaps a few others in the brigade. However, at least portions of the 13th and 16th Vermont missed out and had to wait three more days for something more substantive than a hardtack to munch on. (Vermont in the Civil War, vol. II, by G. G. Benedict, p. 449; A Short History of the 14th Vermont Reg’t, by Colonel G. G. Benedict; Pictorial History, Thirteenth Regiment Vermont Volunteers, War of 1861-1865, by Ralph Orson Sturtevant, p, 251; July 6 letter of Lt. Col. Charles Cummings, 16th Vermont, The War of the People: Vermont Civil War Letters, ed. by Jeffrey D. Marshall)

-About 2 a.m. on July 2, soupy meat rations were issued, which greatly strengthened and refreshed [the men]. (The Volunteer’s Manual, by William Simmers and Paul Bachschmid, 153rd Pennsylvania, Easton, PA: Free Press Publishing Co., 1907)

-During the morning of the 3d we had a welcome visit from our quartermaster, Lieutenant Hartley, who was then quartermaster sergeant, and afterwards promoted to be quartermaster, and rations were served. (Lt. Col. E. R. Bowen, 114th Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania at Gettysburg, II:617)

-Hunger had such a grip on us that it dragged us forth. Most had not eaten in 36 hours and felt we could devour a horse or a mule … The teams with rations didn’t arrive until 9 a.m. on July 3. (The Rebel Yell & Yankee Hurrah, Journal of John Haley, Company I, 17th Maine)

-On the morning of the 3rd we went up [from Westminster] with several wagons to issue rations to the boys. We reached the field about sundown. (July 8 letter of Sebastian C. Duncan, Jr., Company E, 13th New Jersey)

-July 4, we were without anything to eat for 36 hours previous. (Letters of Charles A. Hopkins, Company K, 13th New Jersey)

If especially hard pressed, the haversacks of the dead might be scavenged:

-During the whole of July 3 and part of July 2 the men had nothing to eat, and were very often without water. … Captain Hero detailed some of us to gather food from the dead Federal infantry, whose haversacks were furnished with three days’ rations. It was not the kind of food that fastidious stomachs could endure. (Washington Artillery, from the Military Record of Louisiana by Napier Bartlett)

Black cooks served in both armies, the difference of course being their status. In the Union army they might be hired to help feed a regiment, on up to a corps. Even individual officers could afford to hire a “contraband” as a servant. For instance, junior Lieutenants Noyes and Page of the 28th Massachusetts each chipped in $4 a month to pay Jackson Hughes to cook, clean their clothes and blacken their boots. (Letters of John B. Noyes, Company F, 28th Massachusetts)

In the Confederate army, slaves, being private property, presented an interesting contrast. Of the 27 slaves I have identified as cooks during the war, 20 served but a single officer or enlisted man (their owner or son of their owner), one slave served two brothers, and the remaining six (presumably hired out) cooked for a company (like John Price), regiment or battery. This posed a dilemma, as a Mississippi officer described it: “There is a great deal of dissatisfaction in camp about a new regulation made by the captain. He is going to make the negroes of the company cook for the whole company and cook it all together. The boys say they will send their negroes home first. The company held a meeting and drew up resolutions asking the captain to let the cooking go on as before. … [The captain] is mad because we will not approve of his new arrangements for cooking.” (A Life for the Confederacy, as Recorded in the Pocket Diaries of Robert A. Moore, Company G, 17th Mississippi)

The Confederate captain apparently was trying to introduce some efficiency in the cooking realm, but encountered stiff resistance from the slave owners who were usually unwilling to share their human property without compensation. Therefore, soldiers had to be detailed from the ranks to cook for the rest of the command. This dual, or competing, arrangement still existed during the Gettysburg campaign, with the great majority of slave cooks tending only to one individual or a small group (mess).

Some camp cooks (soldiers, not slaves or contrabands) were pressed into service when the shooting started. Private William H. House, who apparently cooked for Company C of the 38th North Carolina, and had previously cooked for their colonel, was killed in action on July 1. On July 2, General Pettigrew armed all the cooks and extra duty men in the 26th North Carolina; so did Colonel Chamberlain of the 20th Maine. (Addendum to the Official Records, 38th North Carolina; compiled service record of William H. House; North Carolina Troops, ed. By Walter Clark, 26th Regiment; Joshua Chamberlain, 20th Maine, Supplement to the Official Report)

Other cooks in the Union army, absent the provision wagons, made themselves useful by bringing water or coffee forward to the front lines, despite the danger:

-Between 1 and 2 p.m. on 2 July our company cook, Lem Rogers, brought us a camp kettle full of hot coffee. (George Whipple, Memories, 64th New York)

-After being wounded on the evening of July 2, while behind a large rock on the Baltimore Pike, Luther Mesnard of the 55th Ohio met Bill Star, the company cook, bearing hot coffee. (Diary of Luther B. Mesnard, 55th Ohio)

-The cook of Company D, during the heavy artillery firing of 2 July, came along with a big iron pail of steaming coffee, intending to deal it out to the men of his company. He was a simple-minded fellow, always looking for the comfort of his comrades. When near the company he shouted, “Coffee for Company D.” Just then a shell exploded near him, a piece of which struck his coffee pot, knocking it out of existence, leaving only the handle in his hands. He stood still for a moment … then shook his fist in the direction of the enemy and shouted, “You scoundrels! Wait till I get you; I’ll fix you for that!” He turned and started at a dead run for his cooking quarters. (Gettysburg, by Edward S. Salomon, Lieutenant Colonel, 82nd Illinois)

-On July 1, as the men of the 157th New York hugged the ground under the exploding shells, Pat Matthews, an assistant cook of Company G, walked up with a kettle of fresh water. His brother Jim called out, “Pat! I say, Pat! Lie down, you devil. Don’t you hear the shells, Pat?” Pat replied in his Irish brogue, “Divil do I care for them, anyhow. B’ys, duz yes want any wather, any of yez?” and then passed it among the thirsty soldiers. When the kettle was empty, Pat calmly walked to the rear. (A. R. Barlow, 157th New York, The National Tribune, September 25, 1884, p. 3)

-Solomon Goodbread, our cook, was wounded July 4 by a rebel sharpshooter whilst serving coffee and beef to our exhausted boys. A ball entered his loins near the backbone, passing out through the abdomen. It is unlikely he will survive. He was a good soldier, and much esteemed by everyone who knew him. (New York State Military Museum, newspaper clippings, Company K, 1st New York Artillery)

It was only after July 4 that widespread hunger began to appear in both armies, when the Confederates sent their wagon trains on ahead of their retreating army, while the Federals in turn pursued them toward the Potomac, leaving their commissary wagons further behind with each passing day:

-[During the retreat] we had not one single full-day’s rations in nearly a week. We had been forced to kill sheep, hogs and chickens wherever we could get them to partially allay our hunger. (July 15 letter of Alex McNeill, Company F, 2nd South Carolina)

-1st Corporal Asa C. Pipkin, Company K, 49th Georgia, went five days without food at Hagerstown during the retreat. (Confederate Military History, Extended Addition, Georgia, pp. 920-921)

-July 14, drew rations, the first in three days. (Diary of James Thomas McElvany, Company F, 35th Georgia)

-July 6, no rations in camp, boys mumbling, swear they will not go a step farther without something to eat. Felt weak and faint; one hardtack for supper. July 7, morning, I was so weak and faint I could hardly walk. This past week lived without rations. Our boys have been out foraging today and returned with a stock of bread. July 7, p.m., drawing rations and cooking them for the march. (Diary and Letters of Stacey Manley, Company D, 111th New York)

-July 7, waited for our supply train, as it did not come up, levied on the people, took flour, soldiers baking. (Diary of Lewis H. Crandell, Company E, 125th New York)

-July 6, marched from near Fairfield at 9 a.m., over Catoctin mountain passes, reached the summit at midnight, until the following morning. No rations. July 7, continued march, passed through Emmitsburg … marched up the mountains past midnight. Rations consisted of one hardtack. July 8, continued march … camped at Middleburg at noon. Rations consisted of one hardtack. (“STEW,” 5th Wisconsin, Edwin B. Quiner Scrapbooks, Wisconsin Historical Society)

-We had nothing to eat for two days except two crackers. I was so weak ... (July 11 letter of Griffith Lytle, 49th Pennsylvania, to Margaret Williams)

Grant's Tomb

Apr 4, 2020
Interesting I had no idea that so many Union soldiers went hungry during and after Gettysburg. Grant's Army of the Tennessee certainly did not go that long without food and forage during the Vicksburg campaign after he cut loose from his supply base. It helped that he was regimental quartermaster in the US 4th infantry regiment during the Mexican War so that he knew what supplies, provisions, and ammunition his armies needed and how much. Rufus Ingalls who was Army of the Potomac's quartermaster general had been a roommate of Grant's at West Point.

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