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American Civil War - Making Hardtack
Hardtack was one of the most important staples of the Union soldier’s diet during the Civil War. These biscuits, which resembled large soda crackers, were rectangular or square in shape and pierced with rows of holes. Large baking companies manufactured them, and the United States Commissary Department stored them until they were needed and then issued them to the soldiers as part of their daily rations.
Also called tooth dullers, ammo reserves or worm castles, hardtack biscuits weren’t too bad if the soldiers received them shortly after they left the factory. The troops didn’t usually get them until several months after they’d been baked, though, and by that time the biscuits were as hard as rocks. Sometimes the soldiers couldn’t even break the squares with their hands and had to use the butts of their rifles to crumble them. In his website “Historical Natural History: Insects and the Civil War,” Dr. Gary Miller recounts a story once told by a sergeant to his men. The sergeant commented, “I was eating a piece of hardtack this morning, and I bit on something soft. What do you think it was?” The private answered, “A worm?” The sergeant answers him by saying, “No, by G-d, it was a ten penny nail!” (Wiley 1992)
Civil War Rations
The soldiers usually got between six and eight crackers every three days or so. They ate their hardtack by itself if necessary, but sometimes they cooked it with salt pork or fried it in bacon grease, or even crumbled bits of it into their daily ration of coffee. In itself, hardtack had little if any nutritional value. It quickly became infested with weevils, moth larvae and maggots, however, and the worms and insects that infested the crackers provided the soldiers with at least a little protein!
The advantages of hardtack were that it was easy to transport and if not tasty, was at least filling, and it lasted indefinitely if it was kept away from bugs and dampness. One rumor indicates that some of the hardtack that wasn’t used during the Civil War was stored and issued to soldiers around 35 years later during the Spanish American War.
2 cups flour
Approximately 2/3 cup water
Pinch of salt
Mix the flour, water and salt into a stiff batter. Add more water if the mixture is too dry. Spread it out on an ungreased cookie sheet until the mixture is about half an inch thick. Bake it at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. Remove it from the oven and cut the sheet into 3” squares. Poke about 15 or 20 holes in each square with a fork. Turn the squares over, return them to the oven, and continue baking for about half an hour longer. Let it cool completely before you eat it. It will be very hard once cooled, so watch your teeth!