(This essay was originally published by the Newport Daily News as, “War Meals Were for Survival, not Great Taste,” September 6, 2013.)
The Union soldier’s diet during the Civil War was sufficient to keep him alive and fighting, and distinctly monotonous. His staples were meat, bread, and coffee. His official daily allowance for most of the war included 12 ounces of pork or bacon, or one pound and four ounces of salt or fresh beef; one pound and six ounces of soft bread or flour, or one pound of hard bread, or one pound and four ounces of corn meal. These were to be supplemented with beans or peas, rice or hominy, coffee or tea, sugar, vinegar, salt and pepper, potatoes, and molasses.
Bread might be in loaves, but more likely it was a flour-and-water cracker or biscuit, commonly known as “hardtack.” Each measured about three inches by three inches by one-half inch, ten to twelve making up the daily bread ration. Sometimes called “Lincoln pies” or McClellan pies,” these crackers were so hard they were labeled “tooth dullers” and ‘sheet iron crackers.” One soldier indicated that they “would make good brest works” since they would surely stop a musket ball. Soldiers stated that they had to beat them with the butts of their muskets to make them edible. One soldier offered this Grace before eating them:
Oh! Lord of Love, look from above, upon we hungry sinners.
Of what we ask ‘tis not in vain for what has been done can be done again.
Please turn our water into wine, and bless and break these crackers.
Soldiers softened them by crumbling them in their coffee, soup, or milk. They also toasted them over coals, fried them in bacon grease, or beat them into a powder, mixed it with cooked rice, and ate the mix as griddle cakes. When time precluded creative cooking, the Union soldier just ate the hardtack from the box with a slice of meat.
Unfortunately, hardtack was often infested with worms and weevils, leading to the name “worm castles.” One soldier stated: “We found 32 worms, maggots, &c in one cracker….” Another indicated: “It was no uncommon occurrence for a man to find the surface of his pot of coffee swimming with weevils after breaking up hardtack in it … but they were easily skimmed off and left no distinctive flavor behind.”
The meat portion of the ration was normally pork or beef, though occasionally fish. The pork might be cured bacon or ham; however, it was normally salt pork which soldiers called “sowbelly.” The soldier would fry it, roast it on a stick, bake it with beans, or add it to a soup or stew. Soup seasoned with pork and thickened with hardtack made a dish called lobscouse.
Beef was issued fresh or pickled. Pickled beef, called “salt horse” or “old bull,” had to be soaked in water to make it edible. A Massachusetts soldier indicated that it was “ten times saltier than salt itself & almost blistered the tongue.” An Ohio soldier stated: “Yesterday morning was the first time we had to carry our meat for the maggots always carried it till then.”
Among all food items, coffee was the most cherished. Soldiers generally carried a coffee-sugar mix in a bag to which they simply added boiling water.
The army did try a number of processed foods, including something it called “essence of coffee” (not well-liked), desiccated potatoes, and desiccated vegetables. The latter was named “desecrated vegetables,” came in hard, dry cakes, and included turnips, carrots, beets, onions, and string beans. Beans were also part of the diet and were especially liked by New England soldiers, who had a relatively sophisticated method of preparing them which called for slowly cooking them overnight in a hole in the ground. Other miscellaneous treats included Indian pudding, doughnuts, pies, honey from Southern apiaries and fruit from Southern orchards.
There were a number of other sources of food which supplemented the Army diet. The Union soldier might receive a package from home as did a New York soldier near Fredericksburg who wrote home: “We have been living on the contence of those boxes you and George sent us….” Voluntary organizations, such as the Sanitary Commission also distributed food. Sutlers, merchant camp followers, also relieved the monotony of the Army diet with such things as cakes, pies, butter, cheese, and apples. Enterprising blacks might sell food or set up a makeshift food stand.
The most common method of supplementing the diet was through foraging, which normally meant taking food supplies from Southern civilians without compensation. Much of it was done by official parties; however, the individual soldier also foraged on his own.
Soldiers of the Army of the Potomac (pbs.org)
A typical camp scene might be a small group of soldiers lounging around a fire, each making his own coffee in his dipper, broiling his sowbelly on a stick, and munching on his hardtack. The smoke from the fire would make even darker their weathered faces, making them “smoked Yanks.”
Commenting on the diet, one soldier sent this poem to a Nashville editor:
The soldiers’ fare is very rough,
The bread is hard, the beef is tough;
If they can stand it, it will be,
Through love of God, a mystery.
(For further reading, see: Bell Irvin Wiley, The Life of Billy Yank, 1971.)