- Education and Science»
- History & Archaeology»
- History of the Americas»
- American History
American Civil War Life: Union Infantryman – Life In Camp VI
An Army Moves On Its Stomach: The Rations
“Our cooking is done in the open air by swinging our camp kettles on poles over the fire. We live on salt beef, bacon, hard bread, and beans.”
- Oliver Wilcox Norton, 83rd Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861
Rations were the foodstuffs issued to the troops. As with any military, the armies of the American Civil War marched on their stomachs.
For the Union Army, the daily allowance of rations in Camp was:
12 oz (340 g) Pork or Bacon
20 oz (567 g) Fresh or Salt Beef
22 oz (623.7 g) Soft Bread or Flour
16 oz (453.6 g) Hard Bread
20 oz (567 g) Cornmeal
After these rations were divided up evenly among the Company, the following were issued for equal distribution:
10 lbs (4.5 kg) Green Coffee Beans
8 lbs (3.6 kg) Roasted and Ground Coffee
24 oz (680.4 g) Tea
8 qts (7.6 liters, or 1 Peck) of Beans or Peas
10 lbs (4.5 kg) Rice or Hominy
32 qts (30.4 liters, or a Half Bushel) of Potatoes when practicable; this meant weather played a big factor in its availability.
15 lbs (6.75 kg) Sugar
2 qts (1.9 liters) Salt
4 oz (113.4 g) Pepper
4 qts (3.8 liters) Vinegar
1 qt (0.95 liters) Molasses
20 oz (567 g) Candles
4 lbs (1.8 kg) Soap
Dependent on scarcity or abundance, food stuffs like Ham or Bacon, Onions, and Tea could have been issued as alternatives, not as additions. For example, Ham or Bacon or Beef were issued if Salt Pork was not available.
During the War, an interesting, if not appetizing, innovation called “dessicated vegetables” was issued. An issuance of dessicated vegetables was a pressed “sheet” of dried vegetables, which included turnips, onions, cabbage, and carrots (among others) that was prepared for consumption by boiling. This was a pragmatic attempt to make certain the troops gained the needed nutrients from vegetables in order to prevent scurvy. However, the quality of this foodstuff was poor enough that it was often discarded and, thus, did little good. For example, the “sheets” often contained the heads of the carrots and turnips, which were normally thrown out. It took little imagination in wordplay for the men to refer to this culinary item as “desecrated” vegetables.
The food staples of the enlisted men, and many officers as well, were Hard Bread (often referred to as Hardtack), Soft Bread, Salt Pork or Bacon, and Coffee.
Hardtack was an extremely rigid cracker, roughly 3 in. long by 3 in. wide by ½ in. thick (7.62 cm by 7.62 cm by 1.27 cm), made from flour and water. About nine of these crackers were issued daily, which made up the 16 oz (453.6 g) Daily Allowance of Hard Bread, though not everyone drew these crackers. Along with their famous rigidity, they were also often infested with weevils and/or mold. Troops that decided to eat them did so in many ways in attempts to make the crackers softer and/or more palatable. Troops fried them in pork fat or crumbled them into coffee or soup. Many others gave up hope of improving them and ate them as they were. These crackers were resilient, so they traveled well all things considered.
Soft Bread, on the other hand, did not travel or keep well. It became stale and moldy in a short span of time. In order to get Soft Bread to the troops, ovens needed to be nearby, and that was an impractical arrangement for armies on the move. As a result, Soft Bread was normally only issued in long-standing camps or to armies in static positions (such as in sieges opon enemy strongholds). Ovens either already existed there or could have been constructed. Enterprising troops, on occasion, constructed their own crude ovens, if no others were available, in which to make bread from their issued rations of flour. These ovens, built out of foraged bricks or standing chimneys (from burned-out buildings), or built out of fire-hardened mud and clay, showed how innovative were the men when left to their own devices.
Salt Pork or Bacon was the primary meat issuance, though beef, salt or fresh, was known to be issued as well. Stored in barrels filled with brine, the salt pork was thus often in varied degrees of palatability! The pork was generally cooked by the men soon after they received it, in order to prolong its edibility, and then stored it in the haversacks until ready for meal times. It was mostly cooked via pan-broiling (held in a frying pan over the fire) or flame-broiling (stuck on a rammer and held over the fire). When ready to dine, in many cases, without energy or desire to reheat it, the men sliced off chunks of cold pork and made sandwiches out of them with Hardtack. Similar gastronomic procedures were done with the beef, ham, and bacon if pork was not issued.
There was no more important a ration for the troops than was coffee, an elixir to this very day. Coffee was drunk at all times, even during brief pauses on the march, and if not of good quality, it at least refreshed the troops. It also proved to be somewhat healthier than water due to the need for boiling. Water, drawn straight from wells, ponds, streams, rivers, even puddles, often contained harmful bacteria. When the water was boiled for coffee, these hazards were killed-off.
The issuance of all these rations was done via the Regimental Commissary Sergeant, who received his apportionment from the Brigade Commissary (etcetera, up the chain of command). He distributed the rations as fairly as possible to the Companies in the Regiment. The First Sergeants, perhaps supervised by a Lieutenant or the Captain, then apportioned the rations, more or less evenly, for the troops in their Companies. In the meantime, the troops were assembled and marched to the designated distribution areas to receive their rations one at a time, often in three-day allowances. The Company’s First Sergeant pointed to a pile of rations (coffee for example) and asked of the Company commander "Who shall have this?" The commander replied with a name (probably via a written roster) of a man in the Company. The soldier that answered to this name then came forward to claim that pile, and so forth. The rations were usually wrapped in brown paper and tied with twine. In the case of powders like coffee and sugar, experienced troops scooped them into homemade cloth bags. The less experienced used whatever receptacles they owned, which were often deficient in some way and, thus, helped to ruin these rations.
All of these food items were stuffed into one haversack, which already held items like the tin plate, utensils, and possibly a pan and cup. The attempt to keep some rations separate from others simply became unrealistic, and it often led to the ruin of many desired foodstuffs. As a result, each soldier usually combined together his coffee and sugar rations and his salt and pepper rations. In this way, the soldier saved a tiny bit of space in the haversack as well as ensured that the usefulness of each ration was optimized for his purposes.
Canned goods were abundant during the American Civil War, especially for officers and hospitals, and they held things like milk and fruits. The can itself, after it was emptied, often served a useful purpose as an ersatz cup. He could also have attached bailing wire to the can to hang it over the campfire and boil water for coffee.
Troops, four or more, often banded together into Messes. These men pooled their money to purchase implements like frying pans or pots. They then took turns to carry this extra equipment during marches to other camps or on campaign. At meal times, they took turns to cook, for each other, the rations they all received.
The alternatives to specialized cooking implements included tin plates or halves of canteens that served as frying pans, with unattached split sticks for handles. Also rammers or bayonets for the muskets were used as hand-held meat spits for open-fire broiling of meat.
It should be noted that a soldier, who did NOT require clothing, equipment, or rations when they were issued, was to be credited in cash for what he did not draw. If he required more than the allowed issuances – in amount or in frequency - the cost of the extra issuances was deducted from his pay.
The soldiers that were owed cash often did not directly receive these refunds. The money, if ever issued, often was retained for what was called a Company Fund (perhaps over the occasional protests of the soldiers owed that money). The money collected, if not embezzled by unscrupulous officers that managed the fund, went towards purchases of things for the entire Company. Payment penalties for extra issuances, however, usually found their way to the wages of the soldiers that suffered them.
The next article on this topic is called American Civil War Life: Union Infantryman - Life In Camp VII; For Services Rendered: Soldier Wages.