Was the diet of the Civil War era more healthy than our diet?

major bill

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Forum Host
Joined
Aug 25, 2012
Today we eat foods with so much sugar and so many additives. So how do we compare with the average diet of the Civil War era? Although we may eat more sugar, foods with saturated fat, and too many foods with additives, the average American also eat less foods with fats. At my house there is no lard for cooking and we have not had any in the house in decades. I can not remember the last time we had real butter
or whole milk in the house. As far as I know we have not had any bacon or pork in the house in years. I can not remember the last time we had beef in the house. Perhaps a month ago my wife bought me a frozen dinner with some kind of beef, but I am not sure of this. I almost never eat pork or beef when we go to a restaurant. I might eat beef once every two weeks. I am not sure the last time I ate any pork. Civil War era people often ate both pork and beef daily.

So although Civil War era people ate fresh vegetables and fresh fruit I am not sure they ate healthier foods. I have a salad most days and vegetables at most meals except breakfast. Often breakfast for me is fruit and low fat yogurt or perhaps low fat yogurt and a dry English muffin. Compare that to the average breakfast of the Civil War. Bacon, bread, perhaps eggs fried in lard or butter. The people of the Civil War might even eat potatoes fried in lard or butter for breakfast. Instead of a dry English muffin they ate jams, jelly, or preserves on bread.

However, I am not sure how most modern Americans eat. I would think most Americans watch the amount of fat and red meat they eat. Some modern Americans probably eat less healthy than others.
 

Rhea Cole

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 2, 2019
Location
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
Basically most were down for the count for several days with nausea, gas, and diarrhea. Another possibility (although this seems less likely) - camas root is poisonous unless it's thoroughly cooked. It was a staple for the Nez Perce so - unless somebody screwed up - this wouldn't seem to be the problem.
Brings to mind a food fetishist in Nashville who consumed a diet laced with carrots & carrot juice. His skin had an orangish hue. Against all medical advice, he continued to extol the benefits of his extreme diet until he succumbed from vitamin A poisoning. He is the only person I have ever heard of who literally ate himself to death with carrots.
 
Joined
Jun 27, 2017
You do realize that huge difference in deaths from combat wounds and those from disease. How many of those deaths were attributable to the food eaten. Remember the 2 staples of CW diet were salt pork and hardtack. You do know that most food was NOT canned. Pork was covered in salt and inch or two to prevent bacteria from doing it thing. Even so almost invariable when you got a chunk of pork you had to shave one or two inches of rotten meat from the outside before you cooked the remainder.

On the other hand the other staple was hardtack. Biscuits. Bread which may have been sitting in a warehouse for years if not decades. 50 or 60 years ago I remember one of the first things I ever read about the CW was a recipe for preparing hardtack. 1--Take a biscuit and pound it with your musket butt into dust so you can pick out the weavils. Or 2--chunk the entire biscuit into the pot and boil it weavils and bread together to get more protein.

Even forgetting the war entirely, I have no doubt that anyone on this discussion board having been sent to eat at CW era tables would be screaming for God to send them back.
 

Rhea Cole

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 2, 2019
Location
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
You do realize that huge difference in deaths from combat wounds and those from disease. How many of those deaths were attributable to the food eaten. Remember the 2 staples of CW diet were salt pork and hardtack. You do know that most food was NOT canned. Pork was covered in salt and inch or two to prevent bacteria from doing it thing. Even so almost invariable when you got a chunk of pork you had to shave one or two inches of rotten meat from the outside before you cooked the remainder.

On the other hand the other staple was hardtack. Biscuits. Bread which may have been sitting in a warehouse for years if not decades. 50 or 60 years ago I remember one of the first things I ever read about the CW was a recipe for preparing hardtack. 1--Take a biscuit and pound it with your musket butt into dust so you can pick out the weavils. Or 2--chunk the entire biscuit into the pot and boil it weavils and bread together to get more protein.

Even forgetting the war entirely, I have no doubt that anyone on this discussion board having been sent to eat at CW era tables would be screaming for God to send them back.
I believe you are harboring a misconception about soldier rations. It is true that anyone who attempted to survive on salt meat & hardtack alone would die of scurvy. For that reason, sugar dried beans, potatoes $ onions were included in the daily ration.

One of General Thomas’ many reforms was to issue rations to groups of soldiers. Having a designated cook eliminated waste & produced more wholesome meals. When fresh vegetables were not available, dried vegetables were issued. The ‘desiccated’ or ‘desecrated vegetables’ were made by dehydration.

You don’t boil hardtack. First you cut up the bacon & tender fat from it. Remove the meat from the pan & cook crumbled hardtack on the sizzling fat. Return the meat to the pan, mix in potatoes or beans & you have a hearty, delicious meal.

There were two types of preserved meat. Salted pork & beef were preserved in barrels of brine, i.e., heavily salted water. Salted meats had to be soaked in water to be palatable. Smoked pork was what we call pork belly & bacon. I am going to the ‘Hammery’ a few blocks from my house in Murfreesboro TN this morning & purchase some for my breakfast. That particular part of Civil War diets is alive & well today... mighty toothsome it is, too.

Whenever possible, fresh meat & vegetables were issued to soldiers. A little known aspect of Sherman’s famous signals from Kennesaw Mountain to Alatoona was his contact with a regiment herding 5,000 head of cattle. Units returning from leave were put in charge of herds of cattle in Chattanooga. They then drove them southward. Sherman signaled orders to the commander in charge of the drove that avoided contact with Hood’s hungry forces.

Like most of my fellow living historians, I have enjoyed many an authentic period meal. There is no reason to assume that period cooking was not good eating.
 
Joined
Jun 27, 2017
I believe you are harboring a misconception about soldier rations. It is true that anyone who attempted to survive on salt meat & hardtack alone would die of scurvy. For that reason, sugar dried beans, potatoes $ onions were included in the daily ration.

One of General Thomas’ many reforms was to issue rations to groups of soldiers. Having a designated cook eliminated waste & produced more wholesome meals. When fresh vegetables were not available, dried vegetables were issued. The ‘desiccated’ or ‘desecrated vegetables’ were made by dehydration.

You don’t boil hardtack. First you cut up the bacon & tender fat from it. Remove the meat from the pan & cook crumbled hardtack on the sizzling fat. Return the meat to the pan, mix in potatoes or beans & you have a hearty, delicious meal.

There were two types of preserved meat. Salted pork & beef were preserved in barrels of brine, i.e., heavily salted water. Salted meats had to be soaked in water to be palatable. Smoked pork was what we call pork belly & bacon. I am going to the ‘Hammery’ a few blocks from my house in Murfreesboro TN this morning & purchase some for my breakfast. That particular part of Civil War diets is alive & well today... mighty toothsome it is, too.

Whenever possible, fresh meat & vegetables were issued to soldiers. A little known aspect of Sherman’s famous signals from Kennesaw Mountain to Alatoona was his contact with a regiment herding 5,000 head of cattle. Units returning from leave were put in charge of herds of cattle in Chattanooga. They then drove them southward. Sherman signaled orders to the commander in charge of the drove that avoided contact with Hood’s hungry forces.

Like most of my fellow living historians, I have enjoyed many an authentic period meal. There is no reason to assume that period cooking was not good eating.
I can only respond that I remember over 50 years ago reading the account I gave of the 2 recipes. I have no doubt that there were many instances of perfectly palatable and nutritious meals eaten by both armies. But I also have no doubt that there were not hundreds but thousands of meals that any person reading this forum would have run screaming in terror had they been compelled to eat same.
 

Rhea Cole

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 2, 2019
Location
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
I can only respond that I remember over 50 years ago reading the account I gave of the 2 recipes. I have no doubt that there were many instances of perfectly palatable and nutritious meals eaten by both armies. But I also have no doubt that there were not hundreds but thousands of meals that any person reading this forum would have run screaming in terror had they been compelled to eat same.
I assume you are referring to meals prepared by college students?
 

Joshism

2nd Lieutenant
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Apr 30, 2012
Location
Jupiter, FL
If you long-distance hike the Appalachian Trail today expect to need about 5000 calories per day. That includes carrying a modern backpack that probably weighs less and distributes weight better than a ACW pack.

I doubt the infantry during long marches like the Kentucky or Gettysburg Campaigns got anywhere close to that.
 

Joshism

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Apr 30, 2012
Location
Jupiter, FL
You don’t boil hardtack. First you cut up the bacon & tender fat from it. Remove the meat from the pan & cook crumbled hardtack on the sizzling fat. Return the meat to the pan, mix in potatoes or beans & you have a hearty, delicious meal.

Assuming of course you like the taste of pork and beans. They're popular items, but some of us detest the taste (and others among us are of religious persuasions that abstain).
 

Rhea Cole

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 2, 2019
Location
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
Assuming of course you like the taste of pork and beans. They're popular items, but some of us detest the taste (and others among us are of religious persuasions that abstain).
I think that you will find that away from the supermarket & Starbucks, food is fuel. I can say from personal experience that when you live in the Amazonian headwaters with Shuara tribesmen, you eat what is put before you. Food is fuel, not a fashion accessory. Fire roasted monkey anyone?
 

atlantis

Sergeant Major
Joined
Nov 12, 2016
Was the diet more healthy, depends on how honest and efficient the commissary was. One thing you didn't want was a civil war army union or confederate coming thru your community cause if it had legs or wings it was going to get eaten.
 

Belfoured

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Aug 3, 2019
I think that you will find that away from the supermarket & Starbucks, food is fuel. I can say from personal experience that when you live in the Amazonian headwaters with Shuara tribesmen, you eat what is put before you. Food is fuel, not a fashion accessory. Fire roasted monkey anyone?
No kidding. I can vouch for rattlesnake as actually pretty good the times I've had it. And I've devoured stuff during back country climbing trips that I may have tossed back in "civilization". So that gets us to a food promotion I saw this week based on the upcoming hatch of the 17-year Cicada "Brood X" ...... 🧂
 

Belfoured

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Aug 3, 2019
If you long-distance hike the Appalachian Trail today expect to need about 5000 calories per day. That includes carrying a modern backpack that probably weighs less and distributes weight better than a ACW pack.

I doubt the infantry during long marches like the Kentucky or Gettysburg Campaigns got anywhere close to that.
My ancestor's diaries during his service in the Army of the Potomac describe occasions of getting "real bread", beans, onions, and similar items the way we might talk about winning PowerBall.
 

Rhea Cole

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 2, 2019
Location
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
box cars loaded with rations.jpeg


marching rations boxcar.jpeg


I thought these two sets of graphs would distill some of what appears to be a misconception. There were regular rations & marching rations. In the marching ration, there was no beans, rice or vinegar. When discussing the culinary nature of army rations, there is an obvious difference depending on what duty the soldier was performing.

Camp & Garrison ration.jpeg


This monthly camp & garrison ration fills out the shopping basket. As you can see, the diet of the soldier was more varied than the simple marching ration would indicate. Also notable is that RR cars were loaded at the depot in a very particular, well ordered manner. In 1863, the dilapidated Nashville & Chattanooga RR rails could only handle trains pulling ten cars. As can be seen above, a single drag of ten cars could carry a day's rations for Rosecrans' army from either the Nashville or Murfreesboro depot to Chattanooga.

Army Wagon Pork.jpeg
Army wagon marching rations.jpeg


When the rations were transshipped at the Bridgeport railhead, the wagons were loaded by the charts shown above. The quartermasters had very specific charts showing how the rations would be packed.

Source: How to Feed an Army by Bvt. Maj. W.P. Martin, 1901
 
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Yankee Brooke

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Jun 8, 2018
Location
PA
Assuming of course you like the taste of pork and beans. They're popular items, but some of us detest the taste (and others among us are of religious persuasions that abstain).
I'm one of those.....very very crisp(as in burnt) bacon is the only way I'll eat pork. I don't like it at all.

Which brings up a question, though. It's well documented that both sides had a minority number of Jewish soldiers. I often wonder how they handled the rations, with pork being the meat ration of choice?(I suspect they had to buck it up, eat what was issued, and pray very very hard about it, but thought I'd ask)
 
Joined
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Location
Mid Hudson Valley, New York
I'm one of those.....very very crisp(as in burnt) bacon is the only way I'll eat pork. I don't like it at all.

Which brings up a question, though. It's well documented that both sides had a minority number of Jewish soldiers. I often wonder how they handled the rations, with pork being the meat ration of choice?(I suspect they had to buck it up, eat what was issued, and pray very very hard about it, but thought I'd ask)
Yankee Brooke,

That's the way my Dad liked to cook bacon (like volcanic ash) and to each their own. I like it a bit crisp but still kind of chewy. I'm no expert but I think that the bacon most of us have available today is very different from the mid 19th century ACW ration. We've made several trips from Virginia up through the DelMarVa peninsula and you pass the places with the fireworks, cigarettes, souvenirs and genuine Virginia bacon and hams. Once, I decided to try the authentic bacon and when I got it home I'd have to say that you'd need a bandsaw to slice it. Authentic, well I guess so but I suppose that kind of curing was necessary then, and the same with the hams. They are cured with A LOT of salt and smoked for months so no refrigeration is needed. You can just hang 'em on your horse and go on your way. I can't speak for the Jewish soldiers but I'll bet that almost all of the troops made do with what they could get and hoped or prayed for some kind of special dispensation due to the circumstances.

Bill
 

7thWisconsin

Sergeant Major
Joined
Nov 21, 2014
I don´t think there were any special dietary accommodations made for Jewish soldiers. I´ve never read of any, although I will add that the Jewish perspective on the Civil War is not a heavily studied subject in the overall field. (My great great uncle who was a WW1 artilleryman, taught me a verse in ¨Hinky Dinky Parlez Vous¨ that concludes with ¨Many a son of Abraham has eaten ham for Uncle Sam¨ which I think pretty much sums up the attitudes of 60 years earlier too.)
 

Belfoured

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Aug 3, 2019
I don't know if it would have been more healthful, but Sherman's or Grant's soldiers might have immensely enjoyed being able to stop every once and awhile at a Burger King or a Chick-Fila while marching through Georgia or Virginia.
If you watch the movie Gettysburg, it looks like the ANV may have found a nearby franchise or two.
 
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