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Food And Rations In The Civil War

March 1965

by William C. March

©2000 The Cincinnati Civil War Round Table
      Contrary to popular thinking, the average soldier in the Civil War seldom went hungry. True, he did not always have fresh vegetables, fresh eggs, roast beef, baked potatoes, and soft bread, but he did not starve. Late in the war the Conderates often did without many meals, but this was late in the war.

      In 1861-65, as 80 years later, the home folks often did without, that "the boys" could have the best food and the best clothing available. This was particularly true in the South. The industrial North provided the uniforms and transportation which the home looms and the small carriage-makers of the South could not, so the Northern troops and civilians fared much better.

      Both the North and the South had, basically, a farm economy, so until late in the war plenty of food was grown - although there was often no one to harvest it and no way to transport it after it was harvested. Again, the South was in far worse straits than the North. Much of the rich Virginia countryside, the breadbasket, had been ravaged, to say nothing of the fantastic damage done by Sherman on his march through Georgia and hence through the Carolinas.

      The basic rations of both armies consisted of four items. These were hardbread, beef, beans and coffee. Let's take these first.

      Hardbread. Hardtack, shipsbiscuit, pilot bread: call it what you will. It was little other than flour and water. Still it was the second basic food of both the North and the South. Here is a reciepe which appeared in The Encyclopedia of Cooking in 1902.

Dissolve 1 lb. German yeast in 1/2 gallon warm water.
Stir in 7 pounds flour and work well.
Mix teacupful of above into each 1/4 pound of flour.
Work into dough. Break (roll) well.
Cut off pieces of proper size, roll out, dock.
Bake in slow oven.

      Those of you who have eaten it know the taste, but few of you have eaten it when it was several weeks or months old. It was 3 1/8 inches long, 2 7/8 inches wide, and 1/2 inch thick, and hard as a rock. Sometimes it was moldy from being boxed too soon, while still warm. Properly aged before being packed, even mold hesitated to attack it. The weevils, yes; the mold, no. But the weevils could be driven out by heating it over a fire or by soaking it in boiling coffee.

      To make it edible it was usually broken up and soaked in the coffee or in the soup made of dessicated, or dehydrated vegetables. Some men mad "skillygalee," hardtack soaked in water and fried in pork or bacon fat. Some, if a subtler were near, and if they had any money, would toast it over the fire and then put butter on it.

      There were many jokes and stories about the uses and joys of 'tack: the Texan who swore he struck a piece of steel against the stuff to start a fire, or the Kansas sergeant who was eating a piece of 'tack one morning and bit into something soft -- a tenpenny nail.

      Ten to twelve of these usually made one pound and were considered a ration in the field. But, this was often reduced in both the North and the South, and, in many cases, such as Vicksburg, Petersburg, Chattanooga, and at times in the Valley, to less than one biscuit per day.

      Beans. The next basic food. Not the canned Boston baked beans we know today, but dried, white navy beans. Generally they were soaked overnight if at all possible, in fact, they were cooked overnight if at all possible. In half raw form they are something to remind one of the "Georgia Militia" verse of Goober Peas. Fifteen pounds of peas or beans were issued with every hundred rations to troops in garrison. That is one helluva lot of beans. Have you ever seen them swell?

      Beef. The third staple of all troops. Generally, by the time they got it, it had been salted, but with any major troop movement, there was always a herd of cattle driven along with it, by hired drovers or by the soldiers themselves. In this way the beeves could be slaughtered as they were needed. This was done particularly in the West and the Trans-Mississippi where there was the necessary graze.

      Unfortunately, it was not always possible to have fresh beef along, so salt beef or salt pork was used. The hit or miss methods used by many army meat contractors - meat purveyors - did little to enhance their prestige, and did a whole lot to increase the burden of medical orderlies and regimental surgeons. How many men became ill or died from eating bad beef will never be known, but it is an established fact that there were a lot more casualties from illness than from enemy action.

      Coffee. There is not record of exactly what type of coffee was issued to the Northern troops. Neither the Library of Congress nor Official Records give any clue, other than the fact that the North bought the very best coffee it could buy. The South bought anything it could buy. Coffee was really more important to the average soldier than anything else he could beg, borrow, or steal. It got him up in the morning and put him to bed at night. Properly made it could float a horseshoe, or dissolve it. Like the Missouri River, it was too thick to swim in and too thin to walk on, and would make a jackrabbit spit in a rattlesnake's eye.

      Some of the Southern substitutes for coffee were corn, rye, chicory, acorns, okra seed, can stalks, parched rice, wheat, cotton see, sorghum, English peas, peanuts, and beans. There was even some coffee made from sweet potatoes. The usual method was to mix several of the above and try to fool one's friends and messmates. The sediment obtained from sweet potato coffee was also said to be one of the best cleaning agents for carpets, drapes, and other household accessories.

      I shall try to divide this into two parts: the Union and the Confederacy. The Confederate will be somewhat longer as the Union foods and rations were pretty routine throughout, but the southern armies had much of a problem both at home and in the field.

      General Orders No. 54, dated 10 Aug. 1861 specified the ration to be 22 ounces of soft bread or flour, or 1 pound of hardbread; fresh beef was to be issued whenever possible, rather than salt; 1 pound. of potatoes three times per week whenever practicable; 12 ounces pork or bacon, or 1 pound 4 ounces salt or fresh beef. To every 100 rations 15 pounds beans or peas AND 10 pounds rice or hominy; 10 pounds green coffee or 8 pounds roasted (or roasted and ground) coffee; 1 pound 8 ounces tea; 15 pounds sugar; 4 quarts vinegar; 3 pounds 12 ounces salt; 4 ounces pepper; and 1 quart molasses. By 7 July 1863 this was reduced or modified to 12 ounces pork or bacon; 1 pound 4 ounces fresh or salt beef; 18 ounces soft bread or flour, or 12 ounces hardbread, or 1 pound 4 ounces of corn meal.

      To these camp rations were added one pound and four ounces of star candles and four pounds of soap.

      The field rations consisted of 1 pound of hardbread and desiccated or compressed potatoes or mixed vegetables, at the rate of 1 1/2 ounce of the former and 1 ounce of the latter for each ration of beans, rice, peas, or hominy.

      The same orders told commanding officers that beans, peas, salt, and fresh potatoes might be purchased, issued, and sold by weight and that a bushel of each should be estimated at 60 pounds. When necessary, fresh fruits and vegetables, dried fruits, molasses, pickles, or any other proper food might be purchased and issued in lieu of any other component.

      I mentioned the dessicated potatoes and mixed vegetables earlier. They were much the same as the dehydrated vegetables that were issued to the troops in WWI and WWII. They were just that, and were compressed into a small compact packet which, when tossed into a can or bucket of water, swelled to many times its normal size. These were never popular, probably due to the fact that they were heavily spiced and seasoned as a preservative measure. They were generally used only as a last resort when the men could get nothing else.

      In addition to the beef there was much pork eaten. This, too was either salted or on the hoof. Again, when large numbers of troops were on the march the authorities tried to provide them with fresh pork.

      To us today this seems very drab, very "same," much like the "K" rations of subsequent wars, however, let us not forget "foraging" the troops, with their usual resourcefulness, came up with the right answer. Nothing was sacred to a forager. He took honey, eggs, poultry, potatoes, onions, sorghum, and all other garden truck. These were considered the property of the troops that got to them first, particularly in enemy country. It goes without saying that this was done by both the North and the South.

      In Virginia, of course, after four years of war, there was little left to take, nor was there much left in Georgia after Sherman's passage. This was the exception, however, rather than the rule.

      While on garrison duty many soldiers made friends with the local civilians. In this way they were able to buy, or were invited to meals in the homes in the area. One such meal reported was:

Warm biscuits, corn bread and honey, fried ham, stewed punkin sass, good coffee, sweet milk, and buttermilk. We could not have had a better meal.

      In another letter an Ohio soldier tells of making a call on one of his "Secesh" friends who had moved from Kentucky to the Cumberland River country of Tennessee. They became "good" friends as she was from Lexington and he imagined himself from Lancaster. He writes:

I called for dinner. She could not refuse a brother Kentuckian, and she prepared an excellent meal, for which she charged the very reasonable sum of fifty cents. I offered her a five. She could not change it so of course I could not pay her. I bid her 'good-day' hoping the next time I would have the change. This is the second time I have visited this good Kentucky sister. There were three of us went out to her farm and drove off a hog about a mile from camp and the same distance from the corn field. We chased the same, shooting at it six times with a revolver, but missing it. Then we ran it down and beat it to death with rocks. Then we skun it and took it to camp. We kept the hams which was as much as we could make use of, and sold the forequarters for $2.40, which paid the butchers very well for their troubles. We did not use it for ourselves, but brought it in for the whole mess - 16 in all. We are not allowed to draw fresh pork, but you see, we soldiers have instituted an underground railway of our own, on which we run a great many little extras into camp. We sill have fresh pork as long as we remain in this part of Tennessee.

      The second method of obtaining the extras was from sutlers. From these licensed traders, the 1860s version of the PX, one could buy pickles, cheese, sardines, cakes, candies, cigars, wine, beer, whiskey, champagne, pens, writing paper, needles and thread and all the other little things that mean so much. What did it matter that the pies were rubbery and tough, or that the whiskey was new, forty-rod, white lightening.

      The sutlers' wagons followed the troops when they were on the move and were assigned special areas in each camp. The prices charged were outrageous at times, particularly after a payday, and the sutlers ran the risk of losing their entire store to an irate regiment for some real or fancied insult. Nevertheless, the sutlers played an important part in the Civil War and were the forerunners of the Ships Stores or Post Exchanges of today.

      The third way of getting extras was by mail from home. In many letters and stories we see mention of butter, cheeses, jams, jellies, cookies, cakes, and many other items. Unfortunately, the postal department was not always too efficient, or the brigade was moving too fast, and these foods were often stale, rancid, or moldy. Still, they all helped to keep up what we now call "morale."

      There were three main problems with which the Confederate soldier had to contend.

1. The blockade.
2. Poor transportation facilities.
3. A crotchety doctor, some of whose acquaintances believed him insane, and who has been described as peevish, obstinate, condescending, and fault finding. This was the Confederate Commissary - General of Subsistence, Lucius B. Northrop.

      Northrop's only previous service, other than being an 1831 graduate of the USMA, was as a lieutenant in the Indian Wars where he was wounded. Still, in 1861, he was appointed Colonel and Commissary General of the CSA. Possibly this man was the most disliked man in the whole South, although he did have one of the most unpleasant jobs. He may have had a bad job, but he did a worse one. He did nothing to inspire the confidence of anyone. Davis stuck by him, however, throughout the war, and he was not discharged until February 1865 when the Confederate house passed a bill DEMANDING his removal.

      He was an "expert bureaucrat." Everything was done by the system and no sword was allowed to cut the red tape. At First Manassas the country around was brimming with wheat, beef, vegetables, and everything else needed by an army in the field, but Northrop insisted that all supplies be shipped to the army from Richmond. Granted that this protected the countryside from the ravages of foragers, but it also left all that food for the Yankees the next time they moved through. Another example of his lack of ability is pointed up in a letter dated 17 November 1862 from R.E. Lee to Governor George Randolph of Virginia and at that time the Secretary of War of the CSA.

The future supply of subsistence for the army is to me a source of great anxiety. I have endeavored all in my power to economize that which now exists, and to provide for future wants. While in the valley, the complaints of the officers of an insufficient supply of food for the troops became so general that after consultation with the Chief of Commissary of the army I increased the ration of flour to 1 1/8 pounds and of beef to 1 1/4 pounds. At that time we were using four ground in the valley and collecting a quantity of beef on the hoof. No other part of the ration could be furnished to the men except salt, nor could the men increase their fare by the purchase of bread, vegetables, etc. Their whole ration consisted of meat and bread. It was stated that one great cause of straggling was the insufficiency of the ration to appease the hunger of the men.

Thus, in the midst of the rich and so far unravaged Shenandoah Valley the men were still not permitted to live off the country, except for those VERY few things they were permitted to buy.

      During Northrop's tenure speculation was rife. Everyone who was selfish enough to do so was hoarding (and there were many) and profteeing became a fine art. Many wartime fortunes were made. For example, on 26 June 1862 a contract was let to George W. White to furnish all beef on the hoof to all troops in the field south of Springfield, Missouri at 6 1/2 cents per pound. There is a subsequent letter in file and published in the Official Records from General Pike, commanding the area, stating that White was a speculator and a thief, and that he, Pike, could buy all the beef he needed at 3 1/2 cents per pound. Pike also says that White was a former business partner of Senator Oldham of Texas.

      Everything one reads, everything one sees, regarding the subsistence of the Confederate troops points to one fact: Northrop was incompetent, bureaucratic, and the worst thing that could have happened to the South.

      On 19 January 1863 John Beauchamp Jones, the Confederate war clerk who had the president's ear wrote him, with proper endorsements, that many soldiers stationed in the city (Richmond) had offered to bring cattle, pigs, vegetables, and other provisions tot he city if they were provided with the wagons and the men with which to move them. Northrop refused to endorse it, but did refer it to Seddon, who vetoed it, and returned it to Jones with a letter congratulating the troops on their loyalty and patriotism, but saying that the country people needed it worse than the city folks did and that the city did not really need it. This, at a time when flour was $200.00 a barrel and butter was $8.00 a pound!

      Still later, the commissionersof the Confederate States, meeting in Augusta, suggested that to supplement meat, 10,000 invalids and exempts be detailed to fish. The Commissioners felt, that by fishing the available waters, the meat ration could be augmented for both the troops and the civilians, in spite of the blockade. Again Northrop said NO because he did not feel the sea would provide, even though the Bible said would. Besides, it had been tried before and hadn't worked, and now there was no twine for nets and seines.

      In March of 1863, he wrote a letter to Seddon with the complaint that commanding officers were interfering with the rations, saying that "... it was unauthorized and inadvisable for many reasons, but under the existing circumstances it is mischievous. It is not to be expected and it is not the fact that commanding officers are the best judges of the subsistence of a country and they are not to be permitted to issue any orders respecting ratios whatever. If they think the best is not done let them say so to the Secretary of War who can inform himself and act. Any further action by the commanding officers only tends to render the army dissatisfied and to cause too rapid consumption of supplies.

      He did say in the same letter, however, that the subsistence of the different divisions of the army should, if possible, be from the productions of the district wherein they respectively operate. It was obvious here, though, that he was forced to make that concession due to the condition of the southern railroads.

      Before supplies got too short and before prices went to the sky, there is a record of an estimate of funds required for the subsistence of 475,000 men from 1 January 1863 to 30 June 1863 (181 days). This would require 86,575,000 rations at $1.12 each; 1,000,000 gallons of molasses at $1.00 per gallon; and 1,000,000 gallons of whiskey at $2.50 per gallon. The foregoing is supplemental to the one submitted 12 December 1862 and was necessitated by the greatly increased cost of all the articles constituting the ration. Imagine, a revision of costs upwards only 18 days after the original estimate. How is that for inflation!

      Those of you who are so inclined may figure out how much whiskey went with each ration.

      Eggleston tells how he was stationed at one time on the South Carolina coast in an area where there was an abundance of rice, pork, and mutton. At the time, however, the officials in the commissary department saw fit to feed the entire army on flour and bacon, which, if issued to troops in that part of the country at all, had to be brought several hundred miles by rail. The post commissaries tried without success to make use of the provisions in the surrounding countryside which could be bought for one third less than the cost of the flour and bacon. Finally a captain discovered that the men were entitled by law to commutation in money for their rations, and acting upon that, the men were able to buy, with the commutation money, an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables, and most companies even saved money for future use out of the surplus.

      One of the most pressing problems was the lack of grain for bread. There was much squabbling and name-calling between the government authorities in Richmond and the various state governments. Each, of course, was looking out for its own interests. The states each wanted the whe3at for flour and for whiskey. The government also wanted it for flour and for whiskey. Both eventually hired impressment officers to impress not only grain, but everything else that could be used in the war effort. Some even tried a method of taking part of each crop as a tax measure. This served only to arouse the competitive instincts of the populace and many farmers refused to harvest their crops, or to bring that which was harvested to town for fear of impressment. Much of their wrath was directed at Northrop, who deserved it. Unfortunately, however, the whole South had to suffer for the stupidity of one man. Throughout the war, after that, in some parts of the South, entire crops were allowed to rot on the ground, were fed to animals, or were made into a farmer's own brand of rot-gut whiskey in his own still. It is recorded that right up to the surrender, and within 50 miles of Appomattox, there was enough fresh fruit and fresh vegetables to last the remaining Confederate army at least thirty days.

      As the war dragged on, and as the country became more "foughtover," there came to be less food with every day. The daily ration was reduced and reduced, and reduced again, and it could not be supplemented by foragers. The area had been so scourged by prior parties that there was nothing left to take.

      As early as the spring of '64 hunger became universal in the Army of Northern Virginia. Lee's men were reduced to digging dandelions, sorrel, wild onions, and it as all they could get. Elsewhere in the South, at this time, the troops themselves were eating quite well. Prices had gone sky-high, but in the country where there had been fighting, the foraging was very good. There is no record at all of the troops in the West going hungry. Possibly they had no time to do any cooking, but they always had 'tack, bacon, or salt beef or pork. In the East, however, meal was $50.00 a bushel; bacon was $8.00 a pound, by the hundred; a large wild turkey was $100.00; a demijohn of wine was $500.00; potatoes were $1.00 a quart; chickens were $35.00 a pair; and turnip greens were $4.00 a peck. In April corn was selling at $1.25 a bushel in Georgia and Alabama, while in Richmond it was $40.00 a bushel! All of these figures, of course, were in Confederate money.

      To summarize: While troops in the field, both North and South, had little variety, they were seldom more than twelve hours away froma meal of some sort. They might not have had time to cook it, or they might have had to eat their salt beef raw, BUT the food was there. At the war's end Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia were cut off and could receive no supplies from the West which was literally a land of plenty. They had to endure the privations of any defeated army. The blockade did not cut off food supplies other than luxuries, as the South was LARGELY self-producing, but a complete breakdown of transportation made it impossible to move the vast stores available to where they were needed the most.

      The North on the other hand, with an intact, efficient railway system, and control of the sea and major waterways, was able to build up vast supply depots at such places as City Point, Savannah, and New Orleans. It was able to feed many of these men better than they had ever eaten in their lives,while at the same time the Confederates were starving, unable to reach the cornucopia just over the mountains.


Boatner, Mark M. III, The Civil War Dictionary, New York, 1959

Eggleston, George C., A Rebel's Recollections, Bloomington, 1959

Garrett, An Encyclopedia of Cooking, New York, 1902

Jones, John B., A Rebel War Clerk's Diary, New York, 1958

Massey, Mary E., Ersatz in the Confederacy, Columbia, South Carolina, 1952

Murray, M.P., The Civil Letters of Mungo P. Murray, Private, Co. H., 31st OVI, Unpublished.

The Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies

Strong, R.H., A Yankee Private's Civil War, Chicago, 1961

Wiley, Bell I., The Common Soldier in the Civil War, New York, 1943-1951

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