What did Civil War soldiers eat?
September 11, 2012
By CHRIS COPLEY
Everyone comes for Civil War battle re-enactments — the smoke, the noise, the advancing lines of men and horses.
But who stays for dinner after the battle?
As spectators dribbled out of the grounds after Saturday’s "Maryland, My Maryland" re-enactment of the Battle of South Mountain, Sharon Jackson poked the fire at the 27th Virginia Company C encampment. Jackson is from Pennsylvania, but she’s with the 4th Texas Company B. But on Saturday, her unit was on campaign, so she was adopted as a cook by the 27th Virginia.
As Jackson prepared to cook dinner, a dozen men in gray and butternut uniforms loitered around half-dozen tents surrounding the fire, cleaning guns, chatting, hanging their shirts to dry, trying to stay out of the afternoon’s on-again-off-again drizzle.
Over the fire stood a foldable grill, its legs driven deep in the dirt. A large tin coffee pot sat on the grill.
Jackson, in an olive green dress, said September was a perfect time for Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee to lead his troops across the Potomac River toward the North.
"In September, you would have had a lot of your root vegetables coming ready — carrots and beets and things," she said. "You would have late-summer vegetables. This is the best time to be feeding an army, because there was so much produce available. And there was so much to forage."
Foraging for foods
Ah, yes, foraging. What "self-serve buffet" is to modern Americans, "foraging" was to Civil War soldiers.
Hagerstown resident Rebecca Rush co-organized a living history event on Sept. 8 and 9 called Our Taste of History: The Civil War in Buckeystown, Md. The event featured living historians preparing foods as Civil War soldiers and nearby civilians would have. She talked about foraging.
Rush said the were upwards of 80,000 Union and Confederate soldiers in Frederick County, Md., in September 1862. Which leads to an obvious question, she said.
"So think about how do you feed an army?" Rush said. "And not just what did they eat, but what were the civilians eating that the Confederates or the Union army stole?"
Rush said both sides in the conflict took food from the surrounding countryside — forests, fiields and farms.
"Part of the reason they came here was their own provisions were so scarce," she said. "Frederick County has been known for several hundred years as a kind of a breadbasket with great farms and great food. And they felt they could just stock up."
Lee directed his troops to pay for what they wanted, but there was a problem.
"The soldiers were trying to pay for things with Confederate currency," Rush said, "They were trying to be gentlemanly, but Northern supporters were like, ‘I don’t want that crap. What am I going to do with it?’"
She said in September 1862, troops scoured the countryside for supplies. Confederate troops took 1,000 barrels of flour from a mill. Union troops also foraged for food, taking fruit and peaches from surrounding orchards.
"Farms, families and business in this region were from time to time devastated by the damage caused to crops due to encampments or battles or by directly supplying thousands of hungry soldiers," she said.
It wasn’t like armies didn’t provide daily food. But it might not be much.
Each army supplied soldiers with daily allotments of food, called rations. George Wunderlich, director of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, said men were organized in dining groups called "messes." The mess would cooperate to make meals from the rations issued to soldiers.
"They would try whenever possible to get fresh potatoes and fresh onions to the troops," he said. "They issued a lot of dried salted beef, which the soldiers referred to as ‘salt horse,’ and hunks of salt pork, and white beans, which had to be soaked, and coffee and sugar. And there was hardtack — the staple starch of both armies."
So what can you do with that?
At the Battle of South Mountain encampment, Jackson said re-enactors try to eat as Civil War soldiers would have. Farmers from the South would have foraged for food from fields and forests.
"They were very good at identifying and knowing what they could eat because they did it at home," she said. "I think the Southern guys, the farm boys, had it a bit easier. If there were farms nearby, they might ask to be supplied. Or they might take it."
Soldiers ate whatever was in season where they were. In spring, soldiers would eat dandelion greens. In fall, root crops ripened and could be harvested. Any wild game that could be shot was added to the pot.
But some supplies were hard to come by, like coffee or sugar. The Union blockaded supplies headed for the South, which reduced certain imports.
"Confederates would use (coffee substitutes) as the years went by," Jackson said. "Chicory root. Dried peas that were roasted. And I believe they would use peanuts. Once it’s roasted, it really just gives a drink a dark color and flavor."
They learned to make food
In the mid-19th century, young men generally didn’t cook for themselves. Mothers or wives cooked for them. But men learned to make palatable foods from their rations.
Eliot Fielding, of the Fredericksburg, Va., area, is a member of the 27th Virginia Company C. He cooked chicken pieces over the fire after Saturday’s re-enactment.
His cooking resume was similar to most Civil War soldiers’.
"My brother-in-law is a hunting guide out in Colorado," Fielding said. "He stayed with my wife and I for two months, and I picked up everything from him. I never cooked before that. Now, I mainly just do the chicken. But, if I have vegetables with me, I’ll cook them."
Robbie Benbenek, a 27th Virginia member from Yardley, Pa., said he carries radishes or carrots with him.
"Sometimes a soldier would carry vegetables — radishes or carrots — in the haversack," he said. "Eating radish keeps you cool."
Meat was not scarce, but sometimes soldiers had to find it themselves — foraging a hog from a farm or shooting game in the woods.
"When I cook, I really do try to prepare recipes that would be as close as possible," Jackson said. "I do cook game. I’ve made squirrel. I’ve made groundhog. A lot of venison."
"You want to get them at the right time of the year, which is now," Jackson said. "But if you get them in the spring, they’ve been hibernating and eating dirt, so they taste like dirt. So the late summer or early fall is a great time to get them. They’ve been putting some fat on. Cook them slowly. They’re tough. The best way to do it is to stew it or put it in some sort of barbecue type of sauce."
Victims of war
Leland Summers is a cook for the 12th South Carolina. He took a moment Saturday afternoon before preparing dinner to talk about Civil War cookery.
"On the campaign, which was happening most of the time, most of the men, they’d be issued four days of rations, which was usually some bacon or salt pork, a little bit of flour, a little beans and stuff," Summers said. "And traditionally, what they would do was each one of them would get their rations, and they’d get together and they would cook about everything they had as soon as they got it. because they didn’t know when they would eat next."
Hardtack was another staple of the Civil War diet.
"Hardtack was water and flour mixed together, formed into a little biscuit and baked real hard," he said. "It would last. It wouldn’t spoil."
Hardtack was virtually inedible on its own, but creative cooks could adapt.
"If they (were) near a local farm, they would get a little bit of milk, a little egg, and so forth," Summers said. "They would actually take the hardtack, and take their bayonets, and beat it into a fine powder, and use it to make pancakes or stuff like that."
Armies were typically on the move, but in winter, there was less fighting. Armies set up a more permanent encampment. Food supplies became more dependable.
"In winter quarters, they would stay three or four months at a time,"Summers said. "You know they cooked in a big cast iron pot. They cooked a lot of soups and stews. And if they were passing through a farm, the farmer might give em a big slab of beef or a bunch of vegetables, and they’d cook a big stew."
Sometimes farmers and townspeople helped the army passing through. But sometimes an army swept through and took everything, leaving devastated families. These are the stories that catch Rush’s attention.
"I really don’t care which direction the general was facing when he rode his horse up the street, but I do care about how on Earth did a civilian survive if some raiding army took all his food," she said. "Sometimes you just can’t recover from this — it’s not the soldier, it’s the host (who suffers)."
Copyright 2012 The Herald-Mail