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.
 

Belfoured

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Aug 3, 2019
View attachment 400121

View attachment 400123

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.

View attachment 400125

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.

View attachment 400126View attachment 400127

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
Excellent information. One thing it can't show is such nuances as the fact that some of the original US issuance of hardtack was from Mexican War surplus.
 

Rhea Cole

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 2, 2019
Location
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
Excellent information. One thing it can't show is such nuances as the fact that some of the original US issuance of hardtack was from Mexican War surplus.
In the back of my living history closet I found a metal Christmas cookie box in one of my duffle bags that I hadn’t used in five years. I know that because the piece of paper inside the lid dated the homemade hardtack back that far. The hardtack was in perfect condition & would still have cracked a tooth. It probably took another year to finish it off. That is the longest I have kept hardtack.
 

Belfoured

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Aug 3, 2019
In the back of my living history closet I found a metal Christmas cookie box in one of my duffle bags that I hadn’t used in five years. I know that because the piece of paper inside the lid dated the homemade hardtack back that far. The hardtack was in perfect condition & would still have cracked a tooth. It probably took another year to finish it off. That is the longest I have kept hardtack.
From what I've heard, the stuff might last for a geologic eon. The Mexican War surplus apparently could be identified by its weevil population.
 

Lincoln56

Corporal
Joined
Jul 24, 2016
Location
Texas
When I was re-enacting several of the men made their own hardtack. I tried to manufacture a batch at home and it was inedible though as a positive it could properly be used as a cornerstone for a home foundation or as a self defense weapon. :D

After this failed attempt I chose to purchase my hardtack from the G.H. Bent company. They've been making 'cold water crackers' since 1801 and are still in business. They were a provider of hardtack to the union army. Many re-enactors buy from them. I found them palatable though after strenuous days activity not very filling. I assume the hardtack recipe is the same as the original though perhaps not. Definitely need a canteen of water or other refreshment around when eating.

There were no weevils in my purchased hardtack nor were they moldy so I guess they are not period correct.

When reenacting I 'survived' on apples. Even though the ones I brought to events were not 'period correct' 😱
(Meaning the apple variety I'd brought was developed post ACW)

As referenced by others above, this is a variant recipe for hardtack used by our reenacting group:

Union Skillygalee:

  • Hardtack, broken into small chunks
  • Water
  • Salt Pork
  • Bacon grease

Break up hardtack into small chunks in the bottom of a tin cup.
Soak hardtack for 10-15 minutes or until soft. (Don’t forget to drain off the floaties!!)
While hardtack is soaking, fry up some salt pork. After frying chop into small pieces.
Dump soaked hardtack pieces into grease remaining in skillet, canteen half, tin-can,or tin-cup. Return the chopped salt pork to the skillet also.
Fry this until heated through.
Remove from heat and eat.
 
Last edited:

Lincoln56

Corporal
Joined
Jul 24, 2016
Location
Texas
I'm paraphrasing here; I believe from either 'Hardtack and Coffee' by John Billings or Carlton McCarthy's 'Detailed Minutiae of a Soldiers Life'.

A sergeant informs his pards that he'd bit into a piece of hardtack and found something soft - when asked what it was, he announces, "a tenpenny nail".
 

Rhea Cole

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 2, 2019
Location
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
When I was re-enacting several of the men made their own hardtack. I tried to manufacture a batch at home and it was inedible though as a positive it could properly be used as a cornerstone for a home foundation or as a self defense weapon. :D

After this failed attempt I chose to purchase my hardtack from the G.H. Bent company. They've been making 'cold water crackers' since 1801 and are still in business. They were a provider of hardtack to the union army. Many re-enactors buy from them. I found them palatable though after strenuous days activity not very filling. I assume the hardtack recipe is the same as the original though perhaps not. Definitely need a canteen of water or other refreshment around when eating.

There were no weevils in my purchased hardtack nor were they moldy so I guess they are not period correct.

When reenacting I 'survived' on apples. Even though the ones I brought to events were not 'period correct' 😱

As referenced by others above, this is a variant recipe for hardtack used by our reenacting group:

Union Skillygalee:

  • Hardtack, broken into small chunks
  • Water
  • Salt Pork
  • Bacon grease

Break up hardtack into small chunks in the bottom of a tin cup.
Soak hardtack for 10-15 minutes or until soft. (Don’t forget to drain off the floaties!!)
While hardtack is soaking, fry up some salt pork. After frying chop into small pieces.
Dump soaked hardtack pieces into grease remaining in skillet, canteen half, tin-can,or tin-cup. Return the chopped salt pork to the skillet also.
Fry this until heated through.
Remove from heat and eat.
That’s good eating.
 

Booklady

Sergeant
Joined
Mar 19, 2017
Location
New England
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.
Golly gee, I'm glad you posted this (I missed noticing it earlier). I just posted a similar question about sugar consumption during the Civil War on an old thread called "Muscovado Sugar." Going back now to read the four pages of posts here.
 

Yankee Brooke

First Sergeant
Forum Host
Joined
Jun 8, 2018
Location
PA
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
I believe that "bacon" was simply the word the men used to refer to all salt pork they were issued. Whatever cut they were (un)lucky enough to receive. I do believe they used literally everything that even approached being considered meat to make rations.
 

Yankee Brooke

First Sergeant
Forum Host
Joined
Jun 8, 2018
Location
PA
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.)
I didn't figure that there was. You ate what was issued or you starved was the order of the day, most likely. And Uncle Sam wasn't too concerned with making rations that were kosher at the time, so good luck.

I feel like that's an overlooked area that needs more attention, the Jewish perspective on the war, both on the line as well as the home front....although I believe that they would have been even more a minority then than they are today.(I believe certain events in Europe during 20th century brought a large number of the current Jewish population to America...)
 

Rhea Cole

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 2, 2019
Location
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
I believe that "bacon" was simply the word the men used to refer to all salt pork they were issued. Whatever cut they were (un)lucky enough to receive. I do believe they used literally everything that even approached being considered meat to make rations.
Bacon really was bacon. The belly meat that we call bacon was literally what was issued. Salt pork, which was preserved in brine (salty water) could be any cut of meat. Bacon was shipped in slabs, salt pork was shipped in brine filled barrels. As a result, (see chart in my post above) a RR car loaded with bacon had 1,000 more daily rations than salted meat in barrels.
 

7thWisconsin

Sergeant Major
Joined
Nov 21, 2014
I didn't figure that there was. You ate what was issued or you starved was the order of the day, most likely. And Uncle Sam wasn't too concerned with making rations that were kosher at the time, so good luck.

I feel like that's an overlooked area that needs more attention, the Jewish perspective on the war, both on the line as well as the home front....although I believe that they would have been even more a minority then than they are today.(I believe certain events in Europe during 20th century brought a large number of the current Jewish population to America...)
I think ¨American Jewry and the Civil War¨ by Bertram Korn is still the definitive text, and it´s a fifty year old book. This is really such an underappreciated area of study that it verges on neglected.
 

lurid

First Sergeant
Joined
Jan 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.

More like a Waffle House, but whatever. I think you are onto something that is a leading indicator that the diets today are worse than back in the 1800s. This thread is dubious at best: America is the most unhealthiest country in the world today or one of them. Creeping on a 50% obesity rate(95 million). All the processed high-fructose corn syrup and fast foods are showing in people’s waistlines and in mortality rates as obesity is of the leading causes of preventable deaths. Over 100 million Americans have pre-diabetes or they are a diabetic, and that's 1/3 of the entire population. What is behind prediabetes and diabetes? Insulin resistance. I would imagine 65-70% of the population has that as well. America has the 4th highest rate of heart disease and pulmonary disease the world. America is #1 and the quantity of people who get cancer: 542 out of 100,000.

Here is the conflicting date: the United States spends $3 trillion on health care and still has high incidence for disease. Spend the most money in the world on health care but still is the top or one of the top unhealthiest countries in the world.

I severely doubt that the diets back in the 1800s were any worse than they are today.
 

Belfoured

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Aug 3, 2019
More like a Waffle House, but whatever. I think you are onto something that is a leading indicator that the diets today are worse than back in the 1800s. This thread is dubious at best: America is the most unhealthiest country in the world today or one of them. Creeping on a 50% obesity rate(95 million). All the processed high-fructose corn syrup and fast foods are showing in people’s waistlines and in mortality rates as obesity is of the leading causes of preventable deaths. Over 100 million Americans have pre-diabetes or they are a diabetic, and that's 1/3 of the entire population. What is behind prediabetes and diabetes? Insulin resistance. I would imagine 65-70% of the population has that as well. America has the 4th highest rate of heart disease and pulmonary disease the world. America is #1 and the quantity of people who get cancer: 542 out of 100,000.

Here is the conflicting date: the United States spends $3 trillion on health care and still has high incidence for disease. Spend the most money in the world on health care but still is the top or one of the top unhealthiest countries in the world.

I severely doubt that the diets back in the 1800s were any worse than they are today.
I think this misunderstands the effects of the much better medical knowledge and diagnosis we have today than we had in 1860. Just for example, if you read up on the causes of death for Union generals, you'll find a lot of significant cardiac issues and cases of diabetes.
 

lurid

First Sergeant
Joined
Jan 3, 2019
I think this misunderstands the effects of the much better medical knowledge and diagnosis we have today than we had in 1860. Just for example, if you read up on the causes of death for Union generals, you'll find a lot of significant cardiac issues and cases of diabetes.

Okay, but considering the US spends $3 trillion on health care today and still is the top or one of top unhealthiest countries in world negates your post, IMO. All your saying is that today they know how to treat symptoms of a disease, not prevent it. Therefore, the diets of today are worse, or just as bad. They are just better today at diagnosis diseases and treating symptoms, not preventing anything. How does your post prove that diets are better today than back in the 1800s?
 

Belfoured

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Aug 3, 2019
Okay, but considering the US spends $3 trillion on health care today and still is the top or one of top unhealthiest countries in world negates your post, IMO. All your saying is that today they know how to treat symptoms of a disease, not prevent it. Therefore, the diets of today are worse, or just as bad. They are just better today at diagnosis diseases and treating symptoms, not preventing anything. How does your post prove that diets are better today than back in the 1800s?
It doesn't "prove" that diets today are "better", any more than yours "proves" that diets today are "worse". What I pointed out is that there was a significant amount of cardiac disease and diabetes, much of which was only "diagnosed" at death. As for "preventing" disease, do you seriously contend that health authorities today aren't communicating all sorts of information about good and bad diets? It's all over the internet and has been for years. The fact that there are people who disregard it says nothing about what the professionals are doing to try to prevent it or the fact that there is plenty of healthful food to eat.
 

lurid

First Sergeant
Joined
Jan 3, 2019
It doesn't "prove" that diets today are "better", any more than yours "proves" that diets today are "worse". What I pointed out is that there was a significant amount of cardiac disease and diabetes, much of which was only "diagnosed" at death. As for "preventing" disease, do you seriously contend that health authorities today aren't communicating all sorts of information about good and bad diets? It's all over the internet and has been for years. The fact that there are people who disregard it says nothing about what the professionals are doing to try to prevent it or the fact that there is plenty of healthful food to eat.
No, but you didn't prove your assertions to remotely true either. No, doctors know what they have been taught, period. I have had the conversations with them about nutrition and they don't know much. Nutrition is an elective and the majority choose to elect different courses, and that's the truth. Consequently, that's why they don't know much about nutrition and treat symptoms and never treat the causation.

What is all over the internet? 10,000 different diets that are all contrary that just confuse people? The OP made my assertions to be true with what he or she thought was healthy and unhealthy. See post #11. I'm sure the OP got his his or her information off the internet. The only thing I'll give you is that the there is the "potential" to eat healthy, but the stats I posted in post # 73 show it is only potentially. I have no idea what you are trying to prove except that you are a trustee of the modern medical community and the internet?
 

Belfoured

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Aug 3, 2019
No, but you didn't prove your assertions to remotely true either. No, doctors know what they have been taught, period. I have had the conversations with them about nutrition and they don't know much. Nutrition is an elective and the majority choose to elect different courses, and that's the truth. Consequently, that's why they don't know much about nutrition and treat symptoms and never treat the causation.

What is all over the internet? 10,000 different diets that are all contrary that just confuse people? The OP made my assertions to be true with what he or she thought was healthy and unhealthy. See post #11. I'm sure the OP got his his or her information off the internet. The only thing I'll give you is that the there is the "potential" to eat healthy, but the stats I posted in post # 73 show it is only potentially. I have no idea what you are trying to prove except that you are a trustee of the modern medical community and the internet?
Resort to name-calling and labels ends this exchange. Don't make the erroneous assumption that it means your statements are accurate.
 
Top