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American Civil War Life: Union Infantryman – Life In Camp VI

Updated on March 11, 2018
garytameling profile image

I'm a Sr. Financial Analyst from Long Island, NY and am an American Civil War buff and Living Historian (Company H, 119th NY Volunteers).

An officer tastes the fare at a Company Mess
An officer tastes the fare at a Company Mess
Modern day representation of Civil War rations
Modern day representation of Civil War rations
Salt Pork - though it may look similar to bacon, there is a difference between the two!
Salt Pork - though it may look similar to bacon, there is a difference between the two!
A barrel of salt beef
A barrel of salt beef
A box of army bread
A box of army bread
Loaves of army bread
Loaves of army bread
Hard Bread (aka Cracker, Hardtack, and numerous other derogatory nicknames)
Hard Bread (aka Cracker, Hardtack, and numerous other derogatory nicknames)
A glass jar of coffee beans
A glass jar of coffee beans
Canned ground coffee
Canned ground coffee
A kettle of army beans
A kettle of army beans
Dessicated vegetables from the 1850s - it is doubtful they were any better in the next decade
Dessicated vegetables from the 1850s - it is doubtful they were any better in the next decade
A cake of soap issued to an ohio unit
A cake of soap issued to an ohio unit
A Camp Mess
A Camp Mess
Commissary tent
Commissary tent
Commissary men weighing the ration allotments
Commissary men weighing the ration allotments
Commissary storehouse and barrels of foodstuffs
Commissary storehouse and barrels of foodstuffs
Brigade Commissary
Brigade Commissary

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 per man in Camp was:

Meats:

12 oz (340 g) Pork or Bacon

OR

20 oz (567 g) Fresh or Salt Beef

Bread:

22 oz (623.7 g) Soft Bread or Flour

OR

16 oz (453.6 g) Hard Bread

OR

20 oz (567 g) Cornmeal

With every 100 of the afore-mentioned rations, divided up evenly among the Company, the following were issued for equal distribution:

Beverages:

10 lbs (4.5 kg) Green Coffee Beans

OR

8 lbs (3.6 kg) Roasted and Ground Coffee

OR

24 oz (680.4 g) Tea

Vegetables:

8 qts (7.6 liters, or 1 Peck) of Beans or Peas

Starch:

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.

Condiments:

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

Miscellaneous:

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.

It is assumed that these given “bulk items” is with the size of the Company in mind. Since a Company’s regulation size was about 100 men, it makes sense for these bulk items to be drawn as such after every 100 Daily Rations.

It is also assumed that, for Companies with less than 100 men, the rations of bulk items will be proportionately less. For example, if a Company fields only 50 men (half its regulation complement), it will receive half the normal allotment of bulk items (1/2 peck beans or peas rather than 1 peck, 5 lbs Green Coffee Beans rather than 10 lbs, etc).

The food staples of the enlisted men, and many officers as well, were Hard Bread (often referred-to as "Hardtack", "Crackers", and much worse), 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. They were baked by government-contracted bakeries across the country and shipped in crates and barrels to military warehouses and quartermaster depots. 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. These crackers were resilient, so they traveled well all things considered.

Troops that decided to eat them would prepare them and do so in many ways, including:

- Keeping and eating them as they were (perhaps in the dark to avoid the sight of mold and weevils)

- Dunking or soaking them in water or coffee (to soften them) and eating them as cookies

- Toasting them in the pan over the camp fire, perhaps spreading butter, honey, or cheese over them, and eating them as toast.

- Pan-frying them in pork fat over the camp fire, sometimes in addition to pork or bacon or potatoes already in the pan, and eating them as a stew called “Skilly Gallee”.

- Crumbling them into hot coffee or hot soup and eating them as croutons or soup crackers.

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 upon enemy strongholds). Ovens either already existed in quartermaster depots 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.

The preparation of Soft Bread required something very akin to these ingredients here:

2 Tablespoons Salt

9 Cups Lukewarm Water

11-13 Cups Flour, Un-sifted

Lard (perhaps Pork Fat)

2 Tablespoons Powdered Yeast

It is unknown how troops could have foraged or cultivated the necessary yeast – thieved it from homes or bakeries in the area or, if bakers existed in the ranks, made from scratch – and the palatability of the resultant bread might have been poor at best. However, few would have preferred the hard bread over even the poorest loaf of soft bread.

When the bread was ready, troops ate it perhaps according to this soldier’s account of meals in his unit:

“We grab our plates and cups... We each get a piece of meat and a potato, a chunk of bread and a cup of coffee with a spoonful of brown sugar in it. Milk and butter we buy, or go without. We settle down, generally in groups, and the meal is soon over… We save a piece of bread for the last, with which we wipe up everything, and then eat the dish rag.“

Lawrence VanAlstyne, 128th Regiment, New York Volunteers

Salt Pork or Bacon was the primary meat issuance, though beef, salt or fresh, was known to be issued as a substitute. Stored in barrels filled with brine from the meat-packing companies, the salt pork was thus often in varied degrees of palatability! If possible, the men rinsed the meat of the brine to make it somewhat more palatable. 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 would slice off chunks of cold meat - which might have been cooked previously or, worse yet, remained raw - and made sandwiches out of them with Hardtack or Soft Bread. Similar gastronomic procedures were done with the beef, ham, and bacon if pork was not issued.

The following link is to an excellent article about efforts within the Union Army to have the troops make decent meals:

http://www.pbs.org/food/the-history-kitchen/civil-war-cooking-what-the-union-soldiers-ate/

There was no more important a ration for the troops than was coffee, an elixir to this very day. Coffee was made and drunk at all times, even during brief pauses on the march, and if not of good quality, it at least refreshed the troops.

Coffee was prepared in the following manner: a cup or a pot was filled with water and was set on the camp fire to boil. In the meantime, if green coffee beans were issued, they would be pan-roasted over the fire if at all possible. Afterward, the roasted coffee beans would be crushed, usually by rifle butts. The resultant coffee grinds would be added to the water, usually along with the desired amount of sugar, as it boiled. In a few minutes, the coffee would be ready. If any milk was available, it could be added to taste.

Coffee 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.

Honorable mentions for ration staples include beans (commonly called “army beans”) and potatoes.

Beans could be prepared via boiling in a pot over the camp fire An alternative method was to bake them in a covered pot, set underground, with hot coals shoveled over the top.

Potatoes could also be prepared via skinning and boiling in a pot, or often they were sliced and pan-roasted.

Both of these food items served to fortify soups or stews or were perfectly fine as they were. Most importantly, they kept the men’s stomachs full for a while.

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). Often, the rations would be received in three-day allowances. The Commissary 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.

When all was ready for issuance, the troops in the Company would be commanded to assemble and would be marched to the designated distribution areas. They received their rations one at a time. 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.

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    • RonElFran profile image

      Ronald E Franklin 4 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      Interesting hub with a lot of well researched info. I especially liked the photos of the foodstuffs. Somehow, I wouldn't be surprised if a large part of soldiers' conversation was complaints about the food.

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