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

Desert Kid

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Dec 3, 2011
Location
Arizona
It often makes me balk, the amount of fat, salt, and red meat they were eating....and don't think they weren't eating plenty of sugar too. Molasses, syrup, jellies, jams...it seems to have been there in quantity.

The average soldier during the war? My arteries harden just reading their diet.
Well, they were on their feet all day, constant exercise, kept them thin.
 

Jeff in Ohio

Sergeant
Joined
Oct 17, 2015
Not completely on topic, but I once read a historical novel where the characters were "batching it" and cooking for themselves - one of these hard=bitten characters mailed ordered a "Fannie Farmer" cook book from "back east." The others made fun of him, but when he started to cook more than fried meat and fried bread made in a skillet over the open fire, they were converts. It might have been a movie, but I remember it as a book, and I liked that story.
I think it was his success at baking a pie that made them all decide thumbs up.
 
Last edited:

pf6

Cadet
Joined
Jun 24, 2020
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.
A few thoughts on the premise of this question:

"Average diet of the Civil War" - there was no average. The millions of urban industrial workers ate very poorly, often malnourished (though better than, for example, Ireland or Eastern Europe where they had starved to death). It was the worst time in all American history for nutrition, health, and longevity (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4577070/). Rural and agricultural areas ate far better, with very high meats and fat consumption. This diet is not unhealthy as many have pointed out. Slave diet varied widely. But life, in general, was hellish for urban populations.

The concern of a "poor diet" of the time was not today's "poor diet" of too many sugars and cholesterol, but instead was a worry of finding enough calories, fat, and protein. American lifespan dropped like a rock by the mid-1800s, as did average height (a general measure of nutrition). A "healthy lifestyle" in 1860 was not what people today understand it to be.

Instead, a healthy lifestyle was somehow, despite the odds, achieving these goals:
1) Finding enough calories for yourself and your children
2) Not dying in childbirth (mothers and newborns)
3) Not dying as a child from infectious disease epidemics in the crowded cities
4) Trying to keep your child (from 6 years and up) out of the factories working 14 hours a day
5) Not dying from tuberculosis, smallpox, whooping cough, measles (airborne like Covid)
6) Not dying of scurvy from a poor (inadequate) diet, hunger, and commonly adulterated foods

Once you've succeeded at that, one could then start worrying about adult diseases like pneumonia, typhoid, dysentery, and malaria. I'm not sure many people at all worried about over-consumption of fats and calories until quite a bit later in U.S. history, at least late-19th century.
 

Punxsy

Cadet
Joined
Aug 5, 2018
It also was created to regulate addictive drugs which were liberally added to commonly available tonics, powders, etc. and sold in drug stores.
 

Belfoured

Sergeant Major
Joined
Aug 3, 2019
A few thoughts on the premise of this question:

"Average diet of the Civil War" - there was no average. The millions of urban industrial workers ate very poorly, often malnourished (though better than, for example, Ireland or Eastern Europe where they had starved to death). It was the worst time in all American history for nutrition, health, and longevity (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4577070/). Rural and agricultural areas ate far better, with very high meats and fat consumption. This diet is not unhealthy as many have pointed out. Slave diet varied widely. But life, in general, was hellish for urban populations.

The concern of a "poor diet" of the time was not today's "poor diet" of too many sugars and cholesterol, but instead was a worry of finding enough calories, fat, and protein. American lifespan dropped like a rock by the mid-1800s, as did average height (a general measure of nutrition). A "healthy lifestyle" in 1860 was not what people today understand it to be.

Instead, a healthy lifestyle was somehow, despite the odds, achieving these goals:
1) Finding enough calories for yourself and your children
2) Not dying in childbirth (mothers and newborns)
3) Not dying as a child from infectious disease epidemics in the crowded cities
4) Trying to keep your child (from 6 years and up) out of the factories working 14 hours a day
5) Not dying from tuberculosis, smallpox, whooping cough, measles (airborne like Covid)
6) Not dying of scurvy from a poor (inadequate) diet, hunger, and commonly adulterated foods

Once you've succeeded at that, one could then start worrying about adult diseases like pneumonia, typhoid, dysentery, and malaria. I'm not sure many people at all worried about over-consumption of fats and calories until quite a bit later in U.S. history, at least late-19th century.
Let's also not forget that in mid-19th century this country consumed alcohol - often in the "rotgut" category - at rates that would blow people away today.
 

Rhea Cole

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 2, 2019
Location
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
Rickets, goiters, scurvy, food poisoning & raw milk were endemic in 19th Century America. That was also true of the Quechua speaking Indians I worked with in 1972 as a Peace Corps Volunteer. The life expectancy was about the same as 1860 US farmers. A complete lack of basic hygiene led to chronic dysentery in both populations. As in the 1860’s, I witnessed the multigenerational deaths of entire families from food borne pathologies. I don’t have to imagine what it was like, I have lived it b

When a weather event, i.e., too much or too little rain, ruined crops mothers could not nurse their babies. It was easy to tell when there was a food crisis, the babies quit crying.

Anybody who has stood in front of a dress or uniform on a mannequin in a museum is struck with how petite it is. A lack of protein during childhood is responsible for the narrow chested appearance of CW people.

it is interesting to compare the physical difference between slaves & freeborn African Americans. The freeborn men were almost a foot taller than their peers born into bondage. Modern examples of what a difference childhood diet can make is the generation borne in Fascist Spain. Members of that generation are known as the ‘enanos’ (midgets). In Budapest, the individuals born after WWI, WWII, & Communism tower over their parents.

Apart from the fact that foods rich in Vitamin C cured scurvy, the scientific understanding of diet did not exist in the 1860’s. Foods were preserved by drying, salting or pickling. Food poisoning in all its varieties & horrific symptoms were endemic. I can attest from personal experience that it does not take very long for a robust 6’ 4” man to be reduced to a dottering wraith by food poisoning & amoebic dysentery. Malnutrition makes you stupid.

The life expectancy of even elite individuals was about fifty years in 1860. 2/3rds of CW deaths were from disease. Many of them succumbed to food borne pathogens. Eating an authentic 1860’s diet can be life threatening.

There was, however, an example of what the 1860’s diet could have been. The Shakers at Pleasant Hill Kentucky had running water & regular hot baths in 1850. The diet served in their dining halls were both delicious & nutritious. Anybody at any time would thrive when sharing a communal meal with the Shakers. A child raised by them could easily have been a foot taller than a neighbor child, free or slave.

Obviously, eating processed foods heavy with fats & carbohydrates has ruinous health effects. Unlike the 1860’s, we know better. Pasteurized milk all by itself secures us from a major source of some really nasty diseases. For that reason alone, it is difficult to make a meaningful comparison of 1860 vs 2021 diets.
 

Belfoured

Sergeant Major
Joined
Aug 3, 2019
Rickets, goiters, scurvy, food poisoning & raw milk were endemic in 19th Century America. That was also true of the Quechua speaking Indians I worked with in 1972 as a Peace Corps Volunteer. The life expectancy was about the same as 1860 US farmers. A complete lack of basic hygiene led to chronic dysentery in both populations. As in the 1860’s, I witnessed the multigenerational deaths of entire families from food borne pathologies. I don’t have to imagine what it was like, I have lived it b

When a weather event, i.e., too much or too little rain, ruined crops mothers could not nurse their babies. It was easy to tell when there was a food crisis, the babies quit crying.

Anybody who has stood in front of a dress or uniform on a mannequin in a museum is struck with how petite it is. A lack of protein during childhood is responsible for the narrow chested appearance of CW people.

it is interesting to compare the physical difference between slaves & freeborn African Americans. The freeborn men were almost a foot taller than their peers born into bondage. Modern examples of what a difference childhood diet can make is the generation borne in Fascist Spain. Members of that generation are known as the ‘enanos’ (midgets). In Budapest, the individuals born after WWI, WWII, & Communism tower over their parents.

Apart from the fact that foods rich in Vitamin C cured scurvy, the scientific understanding of diet did not exist in the 1860’s. Foods were preserved by drying, salting or pickling. Food poisoning in all its varieties & horrific symptoms were endemic. I can attest from personal experience that it does not take very long for a robust 6’ 4” man to be reduced to a dottering wraith by food poisoning & amoebic dysentery. Malnutrition makes you stupid.

The life expectancy of even elite individuals was about fifty years in 1860. 2/3rds of CW deaths were from disease. Many of them succumbed to food borne pathogens. Eating an authentic 1860’s diet can be life threatening.

There was, however, an example of what the 1860’s diet could have been. The Shakers at Pleasant Hill Kentucky had running water & regular hot baths in 1850. The diet served in their dining halls were both delicious & nutritious. Anybody at any time would thrive when sharing a communal meal with the Shakers. A child raised by them could easily have been a foot taller than a neighbor child, free or slave.

Obviously, eating processed foods heavy with fats & carbohydrates has ruinous health effects. Unlike the 1860’s, we know better. Pasteurized milk all by itself secures us from a major source of some really nasty diseases. For that reason alone, it is difficult to make a meaningful comparison of 1860 vs 2021 diets.
An excellent point just about pasteurization - not to mention all the remaining points. There also was a study some years ago (forget who did it) about the contribution of a typical 19th century diet to poor immune systems as just one factor in the widespread susceptibility to certain diseases.
 

Rhea Cole

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 2, 2019
Location
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
An excellent point just about pasteurization - not to mention all the remaining points. There also was a study some years ago (forget who did it) about the contribution of a typical 19th century diet to poor immune systems as just one factor in the widespread susceptibility to certain diseases.
The debilitating effect of chronic intestinal worms cannot be exaggerated. Ascaris worms are ( I can testify ) the size of pencils. It doesn’t take a lab test to diagnose most worm infestations. Extreme shock & horror when you see them in your stool will send you dashing to the doctor.

Like most things, washing hands with soap prevents infestation. It was the aggressive application of lye soap by Mother Bickerdyke & other female nurses that opened the eye of the medical world. Death rates in hospitals with female nurses were 10% less than those with male nurses. 1860 really was the end of the medical Middle Ages.
 

Jeff in Ohio

Sergeant
Joined
Oct 17, 2015
There was, however, an example of what the 1860’s diet could have been. The Shakers at Pleasant Hill Kentucky had running water & regular hot baths in 1850. The diet served in their dining halls were both delicious & nutritious. Anybody at any time would thrive when sharing a communal meal with the Shakers. A child raised by them could easily have been a foot taller than a neighbor child, free or slave.

Me (in Homer Simpson mode): Mmmmm.... Shaker Lemon Pie!
 

Claude Bauer

Sergeant
Forum Host
Joined
Jan 8, 2012
Rickets, goiters, scurvy, food poisoning & raw milk were endemic in 19th Century America. That was also true of the Quechua speaking Indians I worked with in 1972 as a Peace Corps Volunteer. The life expectancy was about the same as 1860 US farmers. A complete lack of basic hygiene led to chronic dysentery in both populations. As in the 1860’s, I witnessed the multigenerational deaths of entire families from food borne pathologies. I don’t have to imagine what it was like, I have lived it b

When a weather event, i.e., too much or too little rain, ruined crops mothers could not nurse their babies. It was easy to tell when there was a food crisis, the babies quit crying.

Anybody who has stood in front of a dress or uniform on a mannequin in a museum is struck with how petite it is. A lack of protein during childhood is responsible for the narrow chested appearance of CW people.

it is interesting to compare the physical difference between slaves & freeborn African Americans. The freeborn men were almost a foot taller than their peers born into bondage. Modern examples of what a difference childhood diet can make is the generation borne in Fascist Spain. Members of that generation are known as the ‘enanos’ (midgets). In Budapest, the individuals born after WWI, WWII, & Communism tower over their parents.

Apart from the fact that foods rich in Vitamin C cured scurvy, the scientific understanding of diet did not exist in the 1860’s. Foods were preserved by drying, salting or pickling. Food poisoning in all its varieties & horrific symptoms were endemic. I can attest from personal experience that it does not take very long for a robust 6’ 4” man to be reduced to a dottering wraith by food poisoning & amoebic dysentery. Malnutrition makes you stupid.

The life expectancy of even elite individuals was about fifty years in 1860. 2/3rds of CW deaths were from disease. Many of them succumbed to food borne pathogens. Eating an authentic 1860’s diet can be life threatening.

There was, however, an example of what the 1860’s diet could have been. The Shakers at Pleasant Hill Kentucky had running water & regular hot baths in 1850. The diet served in their dining halls were both delicious & nutritious. Anybody at any time would thrive when sharing a communal meal with the Shakers. A child raised by them could easily have been a foot taller than a neighbor child, free or slave.

Obviously, eating processed foods heavy with fats & carbohydrates has ruinous health effects. Unlike the 1860’s, we know better. Pasteurized milk all by itself secures us from a major source of some really nasty diseases. For that reason alone, it is difficult to make a meaningful comparison of 1860 vs 2021 diets.
Thanks for an excellent summary of the situation. As bad as it sounds, it was even worse for the slaves. The accounts detailed on this website, taken from period sources, describe the heartbreaking conditions they had to live under and the meager rations of food and clothing provided to them:

https://spartacus-educational.com/USASfood.htm
 

Rhea Cole

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 2, 2019
Location
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
Thanks for an excellent summary of the situation. As bad as it sounds, it was even worse for the slaves. The accounts detailed on this website, taken from period sources, describe the heartbreaking conditions they had to live under and the meager rations of food and clothing provided to them:

https://spartacus-educational.com/USASfood.htm
The Camp Chase slaves that were officer’s servants is what first got my attention. About 100 body servants accompanied their masters after the surrender of FT Donelson. Nobody knew quite what to do with them. They were given physicals. The men who were freedmen were substantially larger than the slaves. It is, of course, a small sample but it is a selection of relatively privileged individuals all doing the same job.
 

Grant's Tomb

Private
Joined
Apr 4, 2020
Sounds like you're excluding a delicious diet!

(I'm not saying you should stop eating salads and eat potato chips, but beef every two weeks? I couldn't stand it!)
The men in the Lewis and Clark expedition reportedly consumed at least 9 pounds of meat per day from hunting buffalo, elk, deer, antelope, black bear, bighorn sheep and beaver. But they nearly went hungry crossing the Bitterroot mountains because there wasn't an abundance of game for them to hunt. When they reached the camp of the Nez Perce on the other side, they were so famished with hunger, they gorged themselves on dried salmon and camas roots and became awfully sick because they had been eating meat for many months and their digestive systems couldn't handle the fish or the roots. The entire time they paddled down the Columbia River which then had the largest salmon fisheries in the world, they only wanted to eat meat. And there wasn't any game to hunt on the Columbia River so they ate dogs they bought from the tribes of the Native Americans living along the river. With the calories they were consuming from eating meat as well as bushels of corn they received from the Mandans in the winter of 1804-05 in exchange for repairing knives, kettles, and hoes on a portable forge, the amount of work they did certainly gave them tremendous appetites.
 

Yankee Brooke

First Sergeant
Forum Host
Joined
Jun 8, 2018
Location
PA
Well, they were on their feet all day, constant exercise, kept them thin.
Skinny or thin does not always mean healthy. I've even had personal trainers tell me "you can't fully work off a bad diet." You'll burn the calories, but years of red meat, greasy pork, etc, and little in the way of vegetables will still damage your heart and body.
 

Yankee Brooke

First Sergeant
Forum Host
Joined
Jun 8, 2018
Location
PA
Also, sort of related, the consumption of tobacco, both smoked and chewed, was off the charts. Especially in the South, everyone was doing it. Not as processed as a modern cigarette, so slightly healthier without additives and chemicals, but the tar would still get you if you smoked a pipe or cigars. And yes, there was tar, as that's a natural byproduct of combusting plant matter.

As others have said, it also depends where and when. A northern planter in Ohio and his family were certainly eating a ton better than most people in war torn Virginia probably were after having their crops mowed down by a battle. Many in Richmond and other Southern cities were in 184/65 weren't eating very well, trying to figure how to make a loaf of bread and a can of vegetables last all month while trying to feed a family. The Union soldiers were at least getting their normal rations, while the Confederates were at that point were marching on empty stomachs, eating a piece of hardtack and a cup of coffee every three days if they were lucky.
 

Belfoured

Sergeant Major
Joined
Aug 3, 2019
The men in the Lewis and Clark expedition reportedly consumed at least 9 pounds of meat per day from hunting buffalo, elk, deer, antelope, black bear, bighorn sheep and beaver. But they nearly went hungry crossing the Bitterroot mountains because there wasn't an abundance of game for them to hunt. When they reached the camp of the Nez Perce on the other side, they were so famished with hunger, they gorged themselves on dried salmon and camas roots and became awfully sick because they had been eating meat for many months and their digestive systems couldn't handle the fish or the roots. The entire time they paddled down the Columbia River which then had the largest salmon fisheries in the world, they only wanted to eat meat. And there wasn't any game to hunt on the Columbia River so they ate dogs they bought from the tribes of the Native Americans living along the river. With the calories they were consuming from eating meat as well as bushels of corn they received from the Mandans in the winter of 1804-05 in exchange for repairing knives, kettles, and hoes on a portable forge, the amount of work they did certainly gave them tremendous appetites.
Good points. The problem when they reached the Nez Perce was Camas root. Who knows when they had last eaten fiber, and camas root contains a ton of fiber. As for John Colter's next life after he left the Corps, the diet of those in the fur trade was sketchy at best - especially over the winter (which in the Rockies at that time was October-April or so).
 

Rhea Cole

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 2, 2019
Location
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
Good points. The problem when they reached the Nez Perce was Camas root. Who knows when they had last eaten fiber, and camas root contains a ton of fiber. As for John Colter's next life after he left the Corps, the diet of those in the fur trade was sketchy at best - especially over the winter (which in the Rockies at that time was October-April or so).
I can guess what a dose of high fiber did to the expedition’s collective digestive tract, but what did occur?
 

Rhea Cole

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 2, 2019
Location
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
Also, sort of related, the consumption of tobacco, both smoked and chewed, was off the charts. Especially in the South, everyone was doing it. Not as processed as a modern cigarette, so slightly healthier without additives and chemicals, but the tar would still get you if you smoked a pipe or cigars. And yes, there was tar, as that's a natural byproduct of combusting plant matter.

As others have said, it also depends where and when. A northern planter in Ohio and his family were certainly eating a ton better than most people in war torn Virginia probably were after having their crops mowed down by a battle. Many in Richmond and other Southern cities were in 184/65 weren't eating very well, trying to figure how to make a loaf of bread and a can of vegetables last all month while trying to feed a family. The Union soldiers were at least getting their normal rations, while the Confederates were at that point were marching on empty stomachs, eating a piece of hardtack and a cup of coffee every three days if they were lucky.
Let’s not forget that Southern women of all classes constantly dipped snuff. They used the chewed end of a twig to pick up the powder & smear it on their gums. Spitting ‘baccy” juice beyond the circumference is a hoop skirt was an acquired skill.

There are innumerable citations of officers riding out in carriages with Southern Belles, him spitting out one side, her the other.

Yellow teeth, gum disease, tooth loss & all the common effects of habitual snuff dipping was lamented by 20 something Southern women in their journals.

In rural TN my Dad told about as a young child visiting his great aunts who had lived through the CW. They would sit in an arc rocking before the fire. In turn, they would dip, use their chewed twig to smear it around & spit a fine stream of brown juice between two fingers where it hissed on the coals. Dad said that on rainy afternoons the old aunts would all but put the fire out
 

Belfoured

Sergeant Major
Joined
Aug 3, 2019
I can guess what a dose of high fiber did to the expedition’s collective digestive tract, but what did occur?
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.
 
Top