Civil War Cookin’: “Hard Tack Come Again No More”

Let us close our game of poker, take our tin cups in our hand
As we all stand by the cook’s tent door
As dried monies of hard crackers are handed to each man.
O, hard tack, come again no more!

CHORUS: ‘Tis the song, the sigh of the hungry:
“Hard tack, hard tack, come again no more.”
Many days you have lingered upon our stomachs sore.
O, hard tack, come again no more!

‘Tis a hungry, thirsty soldier who wears his life away
In torn clothes–his better days are o’er.
And he’s sighing now for whiskey in a voice as dry as hay,
“O, hard tack, come again no more!”–CHORUS

‘Tis the wail that is heard in camp both night and day,
‘Tis the murmur that’s mingled with each snore.
‘Tis the sighing of the soul for spring chickens far away,
“O, hard tack, come again no more!”–CHORUS

Hardtack (Baked and photographed by the author)

But to all these cries and murmurs, there comes a sudden hush
As frail forms are fainting by the door,
For they feed us now on horse feed that the cooks call mush!
O, hard tack, come again once more!

FINAL CHORUS: ‘Tis the dying wail of the starving:
“O, hard tack, hard tack, come again once more!”
You were old and very wormy, but we pass your failings o’er.
O, hard tack, come again once more![i]

That wonderfully sobering song honors, commemorates, and complains about a staple food in a Civil War soldier’s diet. Called a variety of names – hard crackers, hardtack, hard bread, army crackers, worm castles, sheet-iron crackers, tooth dullers, and other colorful sobriquets – this “food” won itself a legendary place in the minds of the soldiers and in the history of the conflict.

What is hardtack? Flour, water, and sometimes salt. Seriously, that’s it. It’s about a six to one ratio of flour to water mixed and kneaded together, rolled flat, cut into approximately three inch squares, pricked with a fork, stick, or nail, and baked. And then packaged into wooden crates or barrels and sent off to the army. Or sent to a dock or storage facility to sit out in the hot sun or pounding rain to dry-rock hard or a wet, moldy mess of rations. And don’t forget the worms! Some soldiers claimed their tossed their rations into the outer trenches and the hardtack came crawling back.

In his book A Taste For War, William C. Davis wrote: “…as many as three or four million hardtack [was] being consumed every day [by 1864], clearly too big a demand for any one baker to supply, and thus companies all across the North received contracts that kept their ovens at baking heat around the clock.”[ii]

So how did they eat this stuff? A variety of cooking methods were recorded, involving this infamous ration. Union soldiers soaked it in coffee – some claiming that six hours was the minimum soaking time to make it palatable. Others soaked the hardtack in water, then fried in it bacon great or lard to make a military gourmet dish called “skillygalee.”[iii] Other soldiers beat the hardtack with a mallet or rifle butt to make a sort of flour that they added to soup, grease, or whatever else they had to cook. And there are a host of “recipes” and other hardtack cooking details which vary from unit to unit or individual to individual.

I’ve made hardtack. (No, not for dinner!) I’ve made it for living history events because it’s a great teaching tool and conversation starter with elementary school age kids. It’s real simple to make, but the challenging part is when it’s fresh out of the oven. This is going to sound a little weird, but fresh, hot hardtack is delicious. A friend – who also liked fresh, hot hardtack – and I were joking that if it was served with tomato sauce it would taste like really good pasta. (Maybe? Or maybe we were being a little silly?) Still, when I make hardtack, I make a small piece that I can enjoy when I pull the pan out of the oven.

Over the years of making hardtack for school living history days, I’ve discovered that adding salt makes it get moldy much quicker. Now, I leave the salt out because I only make hardtack about once every eighteen months for display purposes. My hardtack is “healthy” and definitely low sodium! I have yet to find a worm in my hardtack, but maybe someday I’ll find some authentic creepy-crawlies inhabiting a “worm castle.”

Hardtack isn’t on our menu for Thursday’s feast, but plenty of Civil War soldiers had the misery of eating their wormy, moldy, or just dry hard crackers for their Thanksgiving dinner. And – despite the weary monotony of the rations and the unpleasant surprises – it was better than starving. Perhaps they were thankful.

 

[i] A traditional Civil War song. Lyrics accessed at http://www.civilwarpoetry.org/union/songs/hardtack.html

[ii] William C. Davis, A Taste for War: The Culinary History of the Blue and the Gray, 2003, Page 42.

[iii] Ibid., Page 43-44.

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, living history enthusiast, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
This entry was posted in Common Soldier, Holidays and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Civil War Cookin’: “Hard Tack Come Again No More”

  1. Thomas R Place says:

    LEAVE US THE FULL COOKING DIRECTIONS ID LIKE TO TRY IT .GOOD ARTICLE

    • It’s late this evening, but I’ll type out the recipe in a comment tomorrow. Glad you found it interesting.

      • Here’s the recipe I usually use:
        3 cups flour (I use all-purpose, but whole wheat would be more authentic)
        1 cup water
        Add water to flour and mix thoroughly to make a soft (not sticky dough). Turn the dough onto a lightly flour cutting board or bread bread and knead for about 8 minutes to make the dough elastic (kind of stretchy like chewing gum). Press the dough flat – about a 1/2 inch thick. Cut into squares or use a glass to cut circles. Prick the dough with a fork to reduce the air bubbles during baking. Bake at 450 degrees for 7 minutes. Reduce the oven heat to 350 and bake 7-10 additional minutes. It will be hard even when fresh from the oven and will get harder as it cools and dries.

        ***If you decide to sample it, use caution. ECW and the author take no responsibility for dental or health injuries caused by hardtack. 🙂

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