Emerging Civil War welcomes back Michael Aubrecht
Despite being necessary for survival, food for the typical Civil War soldier was unreliable fare. Whether marching on campaign or hunkered down in winter quarters, a soldier’s dining habits were often dictated by what he could forage or steal from the surrounding area. The Southern army had a commissary department that issued rations, but they were also dependent on the army’s ability to maintain the supply lines and keep food from spoiling. The Union army was better supplied but also periodically suffered hunger on campaign.
Each Union soldier was typically issued a sparse menu of staples, including a hard biscuit called “Hardtack.” Confederate soldiers made something called “Johnnie Cake” in the field from cornmeal, milk and a few other ingredients. Their meat would likely be salted or dried into jerky to preserve it. Fruits and vegetables were rarities, even in the agricultural South, as the crops in fields and farms were often destroyed or picked clean. Food was more sufficient early in the war, but like many supplies, it dwindled as time went on.
Robert Wallace Shand, Company C, 2nd South Carolina Volunteer Infantry recollected:
The first year we had plenty of rations, including fine beef. The next year we did not fare so well, and sickened on beef until a change was made to bacon, and then got tired of bacon. Vegetables were as scarce as hen’s teeth. The men craved green food, especially after weeks of salt bacon, and would gather and eat rabbit grass and even Irish potato tops. A turnip patch was sure to be cooked whenever seen. We had no coffee after 1861, and sugar was very scarce.
Union troops had an advantage in the beginning. The United States Sanitary Commission strived to maintain and improve the health and welfare of the men. Nutrition was of significance. Before the first battles, volunteers distributed food to soldiers in training. As war progressed, they too felt a sharp decline in quality.
Charles Nott, a 16 year-old Union Soldier shared these experiences:
Again we sat down beside the campfire for supper. It consisted on hard pilot-bread, raw pork and coffee. The coffee you probably would not recognize in New York. Boiled in an open kettle, and about the color of a brownstone front, it was nevertheless the only warm thing we had.
The two sides ate a different mix when rations were plentiful. A Union soldier’s haversack would have contained salt pork, fresh or salted beef, coffee, sugar, salt, vinegar, dried fruit, and vegetables. And if in season, they might have fresh carrots, onions, turnips and potatoes. The Confederate soldier typically had bacon, cornmeal, tea, sugar, molasses and, infrequently, fresh vegetables. Southern soldiers traded tobacco, a highly prized commodity, for Northern delicacies. Both would commandeer food stores and cooking materials whenever possible from civilian supporters and reluctant dissidents. Sometimes payment would be offered.
In a letter to his wife, Spencer Glasgow Welch, a surgeon in the 13th South Carolina Volunteer Infantry wrote:
We had fried tripe, chicken and dumplings, shortened biscuits, tea, which was sweetened and peach pie. Ed slept with me and took breakfast with me this morning. He thought my quarters very good for camp. I have a pocketful of money now and while there is a dollar of it left you can have all you wish.
Provisions were usually issued uncooked, so soldiers prepared them according to tastes and ingenuity. Small groups combined rations for larger and more complex meals. Sharing in the cost and preparation, these bands formed a “mess” and participating members were called “messmates.” Some of the more affluent Confederates brought personal servants into the field as cooks, usually paying out of their own pockets for their slave’s portion of the food.
As the war dragged on, the quantity and quality of the food for Southern forces became dismal. Much like the Continental Army during the American Revolution, state governments in the South were supposed to supply their soldiers, rather than the central government. This led to vast inconsistency and lack of organization throughout the army. By 1863, Confederate commanders often spent as much time and effort searching for food as they did in planning strategy and tactics.
Southern civilians also experienced tremendous decline in diet. The majority of fighting took place in the Southern states, where natural resources would be gobbled up by both armies. Due to scarcity, the price of provisions soared. Before secession, a typical Southern family’s grocery bill was $6.65 per month. By 1864, it was $400 per month.
Confederate dollars became so devalued that many residents could not afford food staples. And as produce became scarce, people found substitutes out of desperation, including domestic animals, crows, frogs, locusts, snails, and snakes.
During the Civil War, sustenance was a luxury. It is said that an “army marches on its stomach” and it is quite impressive that soldiers on both sides performed as well as they did. Exhaustion and hunger became common, yet they rose above it and fulfilled their duty. Their courage and sacrifices are all the more evident and show what motivated men can do despite circumstances.
Michael Aubrecht is an author, as well as a Civil War historian. He has written several books including The Civil War in Spotsylvania and Historic Churches of Fredericksburg. Michael lives in historic Fredericksburg.
Aubrecht, Michael, The Civil War in Spotsylvania: Confederate Campfires at the Crossroads (The History Press, 2009).
Avery, Tori, Civil War Cooking: What the Soldiers Ate (PBS, 2012).
Davis, William C., A Taste for War: The Culinary History of the Blue and Gray (University of Nebraska Press, 2003).
Excerpts from bound volumes from the Fredericksburg/Spotsylvania Military Park Service: (BV# 162-04–162-05): Incidents in the life of a Private Soldier in the War Waged by the United States against the Confederate States 1861–1865. Robert Wallace Shand, Co. C., 2nd SCV (South Carolina Library).
Robertson, James I., Jr. Tenting Tonight (New York: Time-Life Books, 1984).
Civil War Society. The Civil War Society’s Encyclopedia of the Civil War—The Complete and Comprehensive Guide to the American Civil War (Portland House, 1997).
Welch, Spencer Glasgow, A Confederate Surgeon’s Letters to His Wife (Neale Publishing Company, 1911).