Hey there readers, and welcome back to the good ol’ blog! Today’s tidbit about me is: when I was a little kid, I watched “Angels in the Outfield” a lot. I tried to do the things I saw in the movie in my t-ball games: things like sliding into base, tagging people out, and leaping in the air to catch a fly ball. It may have cost us a few games.
Now, if I may be so bold, I would ask you – what did you have for dinner last night? Was it delicious? Well, even if it was rather bland and paltry, consider yourself lucky: 150 years ago, Civil War soldiers had a diet that was nowhere near as good as ours is today.
Soldiers in the Civil War received two types of rations: marching rations and camp rations. Marching rations were issued when the troops were marching from place to place. They consisted of roughly three items: salted meat, hardtack, and coffee. The salted meat would be similar to beef jerky, but without all the “taste” and far too much salt. Hardtack was a dry, tasteless thick cracker that was so hard and tough that it was difficult to even break pieces off of, much less chew. Coffee, on the other hand, was like our coffee now – except what was issued was coffee BEANS, not coffee liquid, so each man had to grind the beans and make his own coffee from scratch.
Camp rations, on the other hand, were issued when troops were settled in camp, or simply in range of resupply. They consisted of the marching rations, but with more food added and (slightly)more palatable options substituted for the grim marching ones. Hardtack may be replaced by cornmeal or flour, and salted meat might be replaced by fresh or canned meat. In addition, peas and rice or beans would be available. Several cooking condiments would also be issued to augment the soldiers’ diet, like molasses and vinegar. Molasses could be used to sweeten coffee or flour cakes, and vinegar was often used to mask any rancid tastes in the salted meat, which was sometimes spoiled. Fresh fruit and vegetables were given if possible, but often the only types available were dried or canned.
Sadly, the above food items were not issued in very large portions – they would feed the hungry, but soldiers rarely had as much to eat as they needed. The daily rations were not enough to keep the men healthy and energetic, which lead to fatigue and disease. In addition, the above ration listing was for the Union troops, who almost always had consistent supplies. The Confederates were not so lucky – they often had periods of reduced food supplies because the poor logistical infrastructure of the South made it difficult to get food to the troops regularly. They would not have had much hardtack either, and would have been issued cornmeal in its place for the marching AND camp rations.
Last of all, I would like to tell you about two preservation experiments from the Civil War: condensed milk and essence of coffee. Condensed milk was milk that had been dried out into a liquid paste. One could add water to it and reconstitute it, then add it to coffee. Since the milk was pasteurized in the thickening process, this worked out rather well. Then, there was essence of coffee… they tried to do the same thing, by drying out huge vats of coffee into a thick brown sludge for canning. This was not quite as successful. In theory, one would take a bit of the essence-goo, mix it with water, and have instant coffee. In practice, the “essence” was so foul that most soldiers refused to drink it.
Other, more pleasant efforts at preservation include the bricking of tea – the US got most of its tea from Great Britain, who grew their tea in India. By compacting tea into bricks, it was preserved for the voyage, and any tea you needed could be shaved off the brick.
Well, all this talk of rations has made me hungry – but not for Civil War era food. I’ll count my blessings that I live in the present, thanks – a sandwich sounds much better than tasteless hardtack and salty, rancid beef anyway. See y’all next time!