Estimated reading time: 10 minutes
There was a saying among Civil War soldiers that if the fighting didn’t kill you, the food would. Food rations issued for both the Union and Confederate armies were basic and bland and, as the war dragged on, often in short supply.
In a January 1863 letter to his wife, Mary, Union officer John Cheney wrote:
“It is reported that we have scarcely made out to get food enough to sustain life. Now I don’t know who the grumbler is, but I do know that we have been compelled to take half rations from the commissary and have for a day or two had but one cracker a day, but we never were out of meat, and have almost always had cornmeal and good bake kettles to cook it in.”
Want to save this post for later? Click Here to Pin It On Pinterest!
Union troops ate salted or boiled pork or beef, dried fruits, and, if they were lucky, fresh fruits and vegetables. To take the edge off their hunger, the men also were given “hardtack,” a type of biscuit made from unleavened flour and water and then dried.
The soldiers called hardtack “tooth dullers” or “sheet iron crackers” because of their rock-hard consistency. They had to dunk hardtack in their coffee or water or fry it in grease in order to be able to bite into it.
In the early part of the war, Confederate soldiers’ rations included bacon, cornmeal, tea, sugar, molasses, and the very occasional fresh fruit or vegetable. Instead of hard tack, Southern troops ate “Johnny Cakes.” These hard, dried biscuits were a kind of hardtack made out of cornmeal and milk.
However, as the war wore on, Southern food supplies ran dangerously low. Since peanuts were abundant in the South, boiled peanuts (nicknamed “goober peas”) became a staple of the Rebel diet.
Both armies ate pickles, pickled cabbage, and baked beans, and both had to forage for their food sometimes. During the 47-day siege that defined the Battle of Vicksburg, some soldiers even resorted to eating rats.
1. Dried Meats
Jerky was a staple of a Civil War soldier’s diet. Also called jerked beef, a piece of jerky was a strip of meat that had been salted and dried. These strips were easy to carry and long-lasting, and they provided much-needed protein.
A mixture of wheat flour (or corn meal), salt, and water, hardtack is a dense cracker that has been cooked or baked over a flame and then dried.
Rumors abounded that the Union’s hardtack supplies were left over from the Mexican American War, which ended 12 years before the Civil War began. Indeed, many soldiers’ letters home told tales of soldiers breaking their teeth by trying to bite into the tough biscuits without softening them enough first by dipping them in water or coffee.
And the dunking fulfilled the dual purpose of allowing any worms or weevils that were nesting within the biscuit to float to the top, where they could be scraped off.
Hardtack has an incredibly long shelf life – think decades, not years. Here’s how to make hardtack.
3. Meat Tea
We might call it broth or bone broth today, but Civil War soldiers knew it as meat or chicken tea. The “tea” was a stock made from boiling the organs, bones, meat, and connective tissue of animal parts in water. The hot liquid provided protein, energy, and perhaps a bit of comfort to weary soldiers.
Soldiers usually baked their cornbread over an open fire. Historians report that Confederate troops often wrapped cornmeal dough around the ramrods of their guns in order to grill it over a fire. Historian Shelby Foote writes about “sloosh,” a mixture of cornmeal and bacon grease that was prepared in this unusual way. You can learn more about sloosh here.
As mentioned earlier, cornmeal also was used to make long-lasting hard crackers called Johnny Cakes.
5. Dried Fruit
Although troops on both sides may have had some fresh fruit in their kits at the beginning of the conflict, even dried fruit became a luxury as the war dragged on. Dried apple slices were more common for Union soldiers, while dried peaches were more common for Confederates. Raisins were also a sought-after snack for energy and nutrition.
Although you can dry fresh fruit in the oven or a dehydrator, Civil War soldiers used the sun to accomplish the task. Here’s how you can dry fruit in the sun for your food pantry.
6. Dried Vegetables
In an effort to protect troops from scurvy, the U.S. government provided Union troops with string beans, turnips, carrots, beets, and onions that had been dried and compressed into rectangular bricks. The bricks then needed to be cooked or soaked in water before eating.
However, the long time needed to prepare the dried vegetables reduced their nutritional value and made them inconvenient for troops on the move. Additionally, historians report that soldiers often refused to eat the desiccated veggies because of their awful taste and even nicknamed them “desecrated” vegetables.
As an example, here is what Sgt. Cyrus Boyd of the 15th Iowa had to say: “I ate a lot of desiccated vegetables yesterday, and they made me the sickest of my life. I shall never want any more such fodder.”
Fortunately, we have better methods for dehydrating vegetables for long-term storage today.
7. Salt Pork
In the 1860s, “salt pork” was the term used for hog meat that had been dried and salted.
It usually included undesirable cuts of meat, such as organ meat and connective tissue. By contrast, what we think of today as bacon typically is pork meat that has been smoked and cured.
Today, we think of beans as a mainstay of a survival pantry, and they were a staple of the Civil War soldier’s rations as well. Consider the lyrics of this Civil War-era song as proof:
Here’s a spot that the soldiers all love,
The mess-tent is that place we mean,
And the dish that we like to see there
Is the old-fashioned, white Army bean.
Tis the bean that we mean,
And we’ll eat as we ne’er ate before,
The Army bean, nice and clean;
We will stick to our beans evermore
Soldiers made baked beans over campfires and added beans to their soups and stews “in the field.”
According to one Union soldier’s letter home, “if pork flavored the beans,” and the cook followed the essential rule of not burning the soup, “bean soup/stew made one of the best army meals.” Here is a recipe that this soldier would deem worthy.
Although an appreciation of its strong flavor may be an acquired taste, molasses became a popular sugar substitute during the Civil War years.
Both Union and Confederate soldiers were issued a supply of molasses. However, supplies of the syrup soon ran out for the Confederates.
Soldiers added the sticky stuff to rice and beans and placed it on hardtack to add flavor. They also mixed molasses with water to drink as a flavored beverage.
10. Foraged Food
Although food shortages were more common for the Confederates, troops on both sides resorted to foraging during the Civil War. In addition to gathering nuts and herbs and picking berries, they hunted for wild game, trapped small animals, and fished in lakes, rivers, and streams along the way.
On his march through the South, Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman took foraging to a new level with his orders to “forage liberally on the country.” In addition to foraging from the land, he encouraged his troops to take – by force, if necessary — the harvests, livestock, and other food supplies of Southern residents.
Today, legal foraging is a valuable skill that can help provide peace of mind during a food storage. Here is a beginner’s guide to foraging.
Here are some resources to check out if you’d like to learn more about how Civil War soldiers ate.
- Civil War recipes for soldiers
- Authentic Civil War recipes
- Classic Civil War recipes
- Civil War camp cooking
Like this post? Don’t Forget to Pin It On Pinterest!