The Civil War was the bloodiest war America has ever known. It tore apart our country, but it also tore apart soldier’s stomachs. One of the more neglected aspects of the war is the cuisine available to soldiers, both Union and Confederate. The men were not used to cooking, and the available ingredients were less than savory, as 16-year-old Union soldier Charles Nottd escribes:
Again we sat down beside (the campfire) for supper. It consisted of hard pilot-bread, raw pork and coffee. The coffee you probably wouldn’t recognize in New York. Boiled in an open kettle, and about the color of a brownstone front, it was nevertheless… the only warm thing we had.
Pilot bread is another name for hard tack, a bread built to last, and it’s hard to imagine it making raw pork any more palatable. Plus, if you think your boss’s coffee breathe is bad, image what it would be like if he’d just eaten raw pork.
Many of the problems of battlefield cuisine was logistical. The Union army simply did not have the infrastructure to adequately supply and feed a two million man force. After the Union’s first big defeat at Bull Run, however, James Sanderson, a member of the United States Sanitary commission, approached the War Office with a plan. He wanted to train men in each company in the art of basic cooking. Sanderson also developed a cookbook to accompany his training, called Camp Fires and Camp Cooking; or Culinary Hints for the Soldier: Including Receipt for Making Bread in the “Portable Field Oven” Furnished by the Subsistence Department. It was a mouthful (terrible pun intended), and contained recipes soldiers could use with their rations. Rather than eating raw pork or beef, they could turn it into a stew.
Stews were probably the easiest and most popular recipe from the book:
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 then 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.
And if you’re really interested you can read the full book here:
The Confederates did not fare much better, and they arguably had it much worse. While the Union army was lucky enough to have coffee, a beverage that really fueled the war, the Confederates did not have such luxuries. If they wanted a warm pick-up, they had to turn to what was available, and that often meant brewing “coffee” from peanuts, chicory, rye, peas, or dried apples.
The Union blockade of Confederate ports made chronic shortages a reality for soldiers. Staples like flour would largely be unavailable to the average Confederate as the war went on, and the malnourishment played a pretty crucial role in helping the Union win. Confederates hardly even had utensils to cook with, and a popular way of cooking cornmeal rations was to roll the dough, wrap it around their musket, and cook it over a fire like it’s the world’s saddest s’more.
Since the Confederacy started the war without a navy, they were cut off from importing much-needed supplies.
And Confederate recipes were far worse than what Sanderson developed. The Confederates had to make due with what they had, so they invented recipes like the Phoebe Pember Chimorazo Planked Rat:
The rat must be skinned, cleaned, his head cut off and his body laid open upon a square board, the legs stretched to their full extent and secured upon it with small tacks, then baste with bacon fat and roast before a good fire quickly like canvas-back ducks.
In addition to rat, there were also recipes for opossum and alligator. Bon appetite.
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