Civil War Cookin’: Army Beans

There’s a spot that the soldiers all love,
The mess-tent is that place we mean,
And the dish that we like to see there
Is the old-fashioned, white Army bean.

Tis the bean that we mean,
And we’ll eat as we ne’er ate before,
The Army bean, nice and clean;
We will stick to our beans evermore.[i]

Hardtack wasn’t the only ration item celebrated in military song. During the Civil War, beans were part of a soldier’s rations. Or they were supposed to be. In real life outside the theory books of military logistics, the quartermaster didn’t issue beans to an army on the march. Why? Because they took too long to soak and cook.

In her book The American Frugal Housewife (1833), Mrs. Childs gave hints to on how to cook and serve beans, baked or stewed:

Baked beans are a very simple dish, yet few cook them well. They should be put in cold water, and hung over the fire, the night before they are baked. In the morning, they should be put in a colander, and rinsed two or three times; then again placed in a kettle, with the pork you intend to bake, covered with water, and kept scalding hot, an hour or more. A pound of pork is quite enough for a quart of beans, and that is a large dinner for a common family. The rind of the pork should be slashed. Pieces of pork alternately fat and lean are the most suitable… A little pepper sprinkled among the beans, when they are placed in the bean-pot will render them less unhealthy. They should be just covered with water, when put into the oven; and the pork should be sunk a little below the surfaced of the beans. Bake three or four hours.

Stewed beans are prepared in the same way. The only difference is they are not taken out of the scalding water, but are allowed to stew in more water, with a piece of pork and a little pepper, three hours or more.[ii]

These cooking directives reveal the impracticality of beans for campaigning soldiers’ meals. After a day of marching, cooking for several hours just wasn’t practical. However, in a semi-permanent camp or stationed in a fort, beans were a welcome staple in the rations.

Soldiers made baked beans, soups, and stews. To make an oven “in the field,” the cook might dig a hole slightly larger than the kettle, build a hot bed of coals in the hole, place the kettle on the coals and pile more coals around it, then a board went over the top, followed by heavy canvas which was raise off the heat with short poles. Left alone for the day or overnight, the baked beans made a warm and hearty meal.

According to one soldier, if pork flavored the beans and the cook followed the all-important rule of not scorching the soup, bean soup/stew made one of the best army meals.[iii]

Baked beans isn’t a traditional Thanksgiving food at my house…and neither is hardtack. Still, it’s interesting to investigate some of the favorite meals enjoyed by soldiers far from home and the logistics of cooking in a camp.


[i] William C. Davis, A Taste for War: The Culinary History of the Blue and the Gray, 2003, page 20.

[ii] Childs, The American Frugal Housewife, 1833; reprinted by Applewood Books, page 51.

[iii] William C. Davis, A Taste for War: The Culinary History of the Blue and the Gray, 2003, page 20.

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