“An army marches on its stomach” – Napoleon Bonaparte
During the US Civil War, an entire nation went to war and food became a weapon. In fact, Napoleon’s statement could be amended to: “A Nation marches on its stomach.” Food became a major weapon in the war; the growing of it, the processing of it, and the supply and transportation of it became vital to the survival of the solider and citizen alike.
During the Civil War, both the cooking and the buying of food changed drastically. Some foods were in short supply and some foods had to last days or even weeks. Even the methods used to cook the food soldiers needed limited what could be made and used for an army on the march. For some parts of the country, acquiring food became the only activity of the day.
Food during the Civil War played a huge role in the war. What happened in the fields, campfires, and kitchens directly affected what happened on the battlefield.
Changes at Home
Depending on where you lived, the quantity and quality of the food varied greatly. For Southerners, any food acquired had to be local. The blockade of the South by the US Navy cut off any access to spices, grain, and pork. The most in demand and most valued product missing in the South during the war was salt. Salt was needed to preserve and dry meats so it could be eaten weeks. Without salt, much needed protein quickly disappeared from the diet of many southerners and soldiers.
The absence of salt in the middle 1800s put a serious crimp in preserving meat. This affected how food was prepared, how animals were slaughtered and its meat cut up, and what food could be prepared for soldiers. Without salt, jerky, ham, and other dried meats soon dried up. Tinned corned beef became a staple for many. Southerners who lived near the sea often cooked their food in salt water from the ocean and gulf.
Along the east coast, rice was readily available throughout most of the war. However, production of rice waned as the war drug on. On the other hand, black-eyed peas and peanuts were readily available in the Deep South.
An entire agricultural economy that had been built on growing cotton and tobacco could not readily shift to growing food for a war everyone thought would only last a few months. As the war dragged on into 1863 and 1864, the food shortages in the South kept getting growing and growing. Starvation was a common occurrence.
“To one small bowl of crackers that have been soaked until no hard parts remain, add one teaspoonful of tartaric acid, sweeten to your taste, add some butter, and a very little nutmeg.”
In lieu of pancakes, this recipe for rice griddle cakes survived:
“Rice Griddle Cakes: Boil one cup of whole rice quite soft in milk, and while hot stir in a little wheat flour or rice flour. When cold, add two eggs and a little salt, bake in small thin cakes on the griddle.”
Rural southern areas had more food than urban centers. The main reason for the disparity was transportation. The South had few railroads to move large quantities of food. Additionally, foraging for food became the main activity of the day. And most growing of food was subsistence in nature, there was not much extra food left to sell in the South.
By the end of the war in the South (1864-65), meat at a meal was a rarity. Here is a recipe for ways to enhance “warm slaugh” as the main dish in place of meat:
Cut them [cabbages] as for cold slaugh; having put in a skillet enough butter, salt, pepper, and vinegar to season the slaugh very well, put it into the seasonings; stir it fast, that it all may warm equally, and as soon as it gets hot, serve it in a deep china dish; make it smooth, and disseminate over it hard boiled yolks of eggs, that are minced fine.
In the North, it was a different world. Food was plentiful. So much so, that the Union continued to export food throughout the entire length of the war.
Here is a recipe for lamb stew that was popular in the Northeast:
One pound of sausages cut in pieces, with four pounds of potatoes, and a few onions, if they are liked, with about a tablespoonful of flour mixed in a pint of water and added to the dish, will make a sufficient dinner for five or six persons. The potatoes must be cut in slices, and stewed with the sausages till tender. Or you may use a pound and half of meat (mutton is best) instead of the sausages. Season with pepper, salt and sage or thyme.
Food for Soldiers
Just as the food was different at home in the war, so too was food different at war. The Southern soldier ate 1500 calories a day less than their Union counterpart. That is a lot of calories. Cornbread, Johnny Cakes, and Cush (beef fried with cornmeal and bacon grease) were the staple of the Southern soldiers’ diet. Early in the war, salted beef and bacon (made with salt-peter) were in supply as well as an abundance of dried peas and goober peas (peanuts).
Near the end of the war, some Confederate soldiers were more motivated to fight just food more than anything else. One soldier wrote of a battle in Virginia in 1864:
…veterans across their path determined to eat beef or die… When they were all safe, they proceeded to have the greatest beefsteak feast ever known in the army of Northern Virginia. As one of our men described it, we snatched the victuals right out of their mouths….Thus it was that General Grant gave us the great beefsteak feast, and we for a time let out our belts.
The Union soldier, on the other hand, had hardtack (hard crackers) in great supply along with salted pork and beef (again made with salt peter). Approaching 3500-4000 calories a day, the Union soldier also got ate a variety of other foods including hominy, dried beans, dessicated vegetables (small cubes of dried carrots, onions, and celery), and everyone’s favorite – Borden’s condensed milk. Processed foods in the north had been around since the early 1800s, but condensed milk became the favorite daily item from the New York based Borden’s company.
However the mainstay of the Union soldier’s diet was hardtack. It often had a life of its own. One soldier wrote:
While before Petersburg, doing siege work in the summer of 1864, our men had wormy ‘hardtack,’ or ship’s biscuit served out to them for a time. It was a severe trial, and it tested the temper of the men.
Breaking open the biscuit and finding live worms in them, they would throw the pieces in the trenches where they were doing duty day by day, although the orders were to keep the trenches clean, for sanitary reasons.
A brigade officer of the day, seeing some of the scraps along our front, called out sharply to our men: “Throw that hardtack out of the trenches.” Then, as the men promptly gathered it up as directed, he added, ‘Don’t you know that you’ve no business to throw hardtack in the trenches? Haven’t you been told that often enough?’ Out from the injured soldier heart there came the reasonable explanation: “We’ve thrown it out two or three times, sir, but it crawls back”
Soldiers often boiled it to soften it. Another way to enhance the substance was by combining it with fried pork fat to make a new substance called “skillygalee.”
Also in the north, potatoes, when available, were more common and contained more calories and carbohydrates. One soldier describes a meal with potatoes:
We grab our plates and cups, and wait for no second invitation. We each get a piece of meat and a potato, a chunk of bread and a cup of coffee with a spoonful of brown sugar in it. Milk and butter we buy, or go without. We settle down, generally in groups, and the meal is soon over… We save a piece of bread for the last, with which we wipe up everything, and then eat the dish rag. Dinner and breakfast are alike, only sometimes the meat and potatoes are cut up and cooked together, which makes a really delicious stew. Supper is the same, minus the meat and potatoes.
Here is a list of rations given a soldier on a march:
Meat: 12 ounces of salt pork or bacon, or 1 pound 4 ounces of salt or fresh beef
Bread: 1 pound 6 ounces of soft bread or flour, or 1 pound hard bread (hardtack), or 1 pound 4 ounces of corn meal
Coffee, a substance Southern soldiers could not get, was often a great treat for the north along with any kind of “fresh” vegetable.
There were no big kitchens in the war, each Union soldier was given his rations and it was his responsibility to cook it. As result, different ways of cooking and preparing the rations emerged throughout the war. The soldiers carried their food in a haversack and their pan, plates, and/or coffee pots and cup with them.
For many men, this was their first time cooking their own food. Away from home and not having a wife, mother, or sister to prepare their food for them, it was a steep learning curve. They either learned how to cook quickly or they didn’t eat as well as the other soldiers who did. Most soldiers cooked their food with 4-10 other soldiers.
For officers life was a lot better as food was prepared for them. Here is a recipe for some beef stew:
Cut 2 pounds of beef roast into cubes 2 inches square and 1 inch thick, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and put in frying pan with a little pork fat or lard. Put them over a fire until well browned but not fully cooked, and hen empty the pan into a kettle and add enough water to cover the meat. Add a handful of flour, two quartered onions, and four peeled and quartered potatoes. Cover and simmer slowly over a moderate heat for 3 ½ hours, skimming any fat that rises to the top. Then stir in 1 tablespoon of vinegar and serve. Other vegetables available, such as leeks, turnips, carrots, parsnips, and salsify, will make excellent additions.
Soldiers could use their own money to buy food along the way. Seedy entrepreneurs known as Sutlers often followed the armies on their marches. Only a few soldiers could afford the luxury foods sutlers sold as it would take most of their monthly pay to buy juts a few items.
How some soldiers got by was by receiving packages from home. These could include items like coffee, apples, apple butter, fresh pork, dried fruit, milk, eggs, risen bread, cakes, preserves or jelly, pickles, egg nog, sugar, bicarbonate of soda, salt, fresh butter, roast beef, ham and turkey. These shipable foods not only sustained men, it often became a way to make some extra money by selling the items.
Fresh fruit was the greatest treat of all for a soldier. While foraging, or living off the land, was forbidden. Most officers looked the other way as eating fruit often boosted morale and the health of the soldiers. Depending on the time of year and location, the follow items became must have items:
Pears: August – October
Peaches: July – August
Strawberries: May – June
Raspberries: July – September
Blackberries: July – September
Blueberries: July – September
Watermelon: July – October
In the End…
The lack of fruits and vegetables could cause scurvy, dysentery, diarrhea, and disease could often ravage an army on the march. It is amazing, though, how different the food was on each side. Those 1500 calories a day were a difference maker in long battles away from home for soldiers and armies on the march. A simple potato a day or piece of fruit had a huge effect on the stamina and energy of a soldier. Many times it could mean the difference between life and death.
While battle after battle has become the stuff of legend about the Civil War, the role food played in the conflict affected what happened on those battlefields. All night shelling at Shiloh prevented many Confederate soldiers from eating to be ready for the next day’s events that saw a rested and well fed Union force over run the southern positions in SE Tennessee and chase them all the way to Corinth in Mississippi, some 20 miles away. There, a siege laid upon the town starved out the army and citizens within weeks.
At Vicksburg, Grant laid a ninety day siege upon the town and the citizens were forced to eat rats and boil wood and tree bark to survive. Later in the war, Grant used the siege to starve out Lee in Petersburg before Lee made a run for it and surrendered at Appomattox Court House.
At home though, the North’s ability to supply food for itself, its army, and to sell food overseas was a large factor in sustaining the war effort and ultimately in winning the war. The South’s inability to adjust to the nutritional needs of its army and its populace ultimately had a role in its defeat and demise.