Peas were delicious, if you could find them

Page H. Onorato
Tuesday, April 19, 2011

“Peas, peas, peas, peas, eating goober peas; goodness, how delicious, eating goober peas,”sang hungry Confederate mess-mates 150-some years ago.

On April 12, the date of the firing upon Fort Sumter, we celebrated the outbreak of the American Civil War, aka The War Between the States (War of Northern Aggression, the Late Unpleasantness, the Wah-wuh), as we Southern youngsters were instructed to say. Actually, “celebrated” is not quite the word; we don’t exactly shoot off rockets and wave flags about that sad war anymore. “Acknowledged” would be a better choice of terminology.

Time was, the South wouldn’t let go. We had our own Southern Memorial Day on May 10 so as not to honor Union soldiers. We weren’t allowed to sing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” We actually stood up and crossed our hearts when we heard the strains of “Dixie.” Our teachers taught us that slavery was not an issue in the war. “Damn” always preceded Yankee, even from the mouths of Southern womanhood. I personally won the United Daughters of the Confederacy “Draw the Stars and Bars” contest — five smack-a-roos. And on and on.

But it was a miserable war. It lasted four long years, causing devastation to the Southern economy. Brother bore arms against brother; 618,000 Americans lost their lives in this deadliest of wars, over 20,000 of them from North Carolina.

Felix Miller, my great-great-great-grandfather, was one of them. He, along with his son, Levi, served in the 48th Regiment, Company H, mostly encamped near Orange Court House, Va., on the Rapidan River.

He wrote letters home faithfully, directing his wife, Elizabeth, how to run the farm. “Pay the tenth of wheat, if you have to,” he advised. “Plant the taters now, and cover them deep.” “Hall the manure on the oats if you get time.”

Food, was a problem for soldiers during this war, on both sides. Billy Yank was better fed than Johnny Reb; the U.S. Army Commissary was well-established, railroad lines could carry supplies, canned goods and processed meats were available. Rations for a Federal soldier included bacon or salt beef daily, along with over a pound of soft bread, or hardtack or corn meal. An allotment of beans or peas, rice or hominy, coffee, sugar, vinegar, pepper, potatoes, molasses, along with four pounds of soap and a pound, four ounces of star candles, came with every 100 issues of rations.

Confederate rations, or “rashins” as Grandfather Felix said, were similar at first, but mainly cornmeal and pork. Soon, however, because of blockades and weakened supply sources, cuts were made, and the troops often went hungry. No wonder those goober peas (peanuts, probably boiled) tasted so delicious.

The hardtack, a tough cracker-like bread nicknamed “tooth dullers,” fed to Union soldiers was a mess — often mildewed and filled with weevils or maggots. The troops were advised to soak it in coffee after three or four days to soften it and kill off the vermin, which rose to the top.

Johnnie cakes were common Rebel fare, made simply from cornmeal and water. Soldiers on both sides did their own cooking over open fires. They supplemented the scant fares with food foraged from nearby farms, bought from sutlers (peddlers who followed Northern troops with wagon loads of goods) and what their families could send.

In his letters, Felix often requested that “pervisions” be sent by a Mr. Serrat, who traveled from Lexington to the Virginia camp often. “I want some butter and some poark and ennything the you have to eate.” He also asked for “Peach Pies and a Potatoes Pie … and egs and som Irish potatoes and go to Jacob Waitemens and tel him to sen me a quart of Honey … som sosherg (sausage) and pudden and som sour crout.”

Things weren’t much better on the home front. With the devaluation of the Confederate dollar, the food budget went from $6.65 to over $400 for one month. In Felix’s letters, he stated that possums were $5 apiece; chickens, $20.

Folks made do with what they could grow: peas and cabbage, sweet potatoes and the like. They dried acorns and okra seeds and chicory roots and ground them for coffee. They invented substitutes for favorite foods: mock apple pie made with soaked crackers instead of fruit, artificial oysters made with grated corn and eggs. Salt, a necessity for curing meat, was in short supply; folks shoveled ashes from the smokehouses where hams had hung and boiled them dry to retrieve the salt.

One small cookbook was printed in the South during this period, the Confederate Receipt Book. It boasted over a hundred recipes including ones for Apple Pie without Apples, Peas Pudding, soap, ink, fire balls for fuel, Confederate candles and several breads made from rice flour.

After the surrender, people everywhere probably felt just as Scarlet O’Hara did, when, holding a radish in her hand, she proclaimed, “As God is my witness, I’ll never go hungry again.”

Copyright © 2011

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