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Civil War Cooking

May 1, 2009
Sue Eckhoff, Grundy County Heritage Museum

During the Civil War, governments and commanders largely assumed that their responsibilities ended with obtaining the basic daily allowances of food (rations), and distributing them. Unfortunately, choices of what to give the troops were limited, as they did not have the conveniences to preserve food. Also they did not understand proper nutrition, and more often than not there was a lack of foods necessary for good health.

Each side did what they could, but it was sorely lacking. Everything was given out uncooked, so the soldiers were left up to their own ingenuity to prepare their meals. Neither Union nor Confederate forces went into the field with manuals of cooking, or with any idea of proper food sanitation. Fruit, fresh vegetables, and dairy products were entirely absent. It didn't mean that the emissaries didn't believe the soldiers needed such essentials, only that they were unable to obtain them; it was up to the men themselves, or their officers, to find such things in their locality. Often small groups would gather together to cook and share their rations. If a march was imminent, the men would cook everything at once and store it in their haversack. Haversacks had an inner cloth bag that could be removed and washed, although it did not prevent the bag from becoming a greasy, foul smelling container after several weeks of use. The soldiers diet was very simple: meat, coffee, sugar, and a dried biscuit called hardtack.

Hardtack was a biscuit made with flour and other simple ingredients and issued to Union soldiers throughout the war. Hardtack crackers made up a large portion of the daily ration. It was square with small holes baked into it, similar to a large soda cracker. Large factories in the north baked hundreds of hardtack crackers every day, packed them in wooden crates and shipped them out. If the hardtack was received soon after they were left the factory they were tasty and satisfying. Usually the hardtack did not arrive until months later, and by that time they were very hard, so hard the soldiers called them "tooth dullers." Soldiers were allowed 6-8 crackers for a 3 day ration. There were a number of ways to eat them, plain or prepared with other rations. Soldiers would crumble them into coffee, or soften them in water and fry the hardtack with some bacon grease. One favorite soldier dish was salted pork fried with hardtack crumbled into the mixture. Soldiers called this "skillygallee" and it was a common and easily prepared meal.

Coffee was the most important part of a soldiers ration. If Union armies halted on the march, even it if was only for an hour, coffee was brewed. Excess coffee was used as a trade item on the rare occasions when Confederate and Federal soldiers met between the picket lines, the South had tobacco, and the North had coffee.

When any army arrived at its destination, one of the first issues was to search for food in the local areas. At the beginning of the War, Southern troops were often supplied with food by local farmers willingly, due to the abundance available. The average southerner's diet however went quickly from the pre-war adequate foods to near starvation. Before the war, a Southern family's grocery bill was about $6.65 per month. By 1864, it was over $400 per month, due to the Confederate dollars devaluation. Meat would cost at least $20 for one meal, and could consist of Domestic animals, crows, frogs, locusts, snails, snakes and worms. Roasted acorns many times were used to make coffee.

Even though the Civil War was a dark period in our nation's history, a favorite of both the north and south was born during that time, the Hush Puppy. Corn was still at an abundance. It was made into cornmeal, formed into a solid ball, seasoned, and deep fried in a pan. They were also small and portable, and would stay fresh for several days, and are still popular in both the south and the north today.



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