Civil War Cooking: Harvesting a “Mess of Beans” During Battle

By July 2, 1863, Joseph Broadhead just wanted a good meal. In the past week, he had experienced more adventures than he ever wanted to and now had no way to stop or change the battle unfolding in his community. He was especially determined that the Confederates would not steal his provisions and headed out to do some garden harvesting during the Battle of Gettysburg.

Joseph Broadhead. Original photograph at Adams County Historical Society, reprinted in “Firestorm at Gettysburg”

Joseph Broadhead, a British immigrant, worked as an engineer for the railroad company that operated the tracks between the Pennsylvania communities of Gettysburg and Hanover. He served in the local militia – the Gettysburg Zouaves – as a lieutenant. The thirty-two year old was married and lived with his wife, Sarah, and four year old daughter, Mary, on Chambersburg Street, less than a mile from the Lutheran Seminary.[i]

At the end of June 1863 with rumors and news about the Confederate invasion into Pennsylvania, Joseph left home and went to Hanover by train. Likely his work and a sense of curiosity prompted him to make the trip, but he didn’t realize that his journey would leave his wife and child alone when the first Confederates arrived in his hometown on June 26th. Sarah Broadhead, who had already started a day-by-day journal to pass “time filled up with anxiety, apprehension, and danger,”[ii] stayed at the house, interacting with Rebels only from doorstep. She “feared my husband would be taken prisoner before he could return, or whilst trying to reach me.”[iii] After the Confederates burned the railroad bridge at Rock Creek (east of town) and headed out, Sarah went to see Joseph’s employers who informed her “he had been captured and paroled, and that he had gone to Harrisburg.”[iv]

Sarah Broadhead (no known image restrictions)

Happily, Joseph returned home on June 30th at one o’clock in the morning after walking to Gettysburg from Harrisburg. The march home took thirty-six hours, and the exhausted fellow scarcely had time to recover and relax before John Buford’s Union cavalry set up defensive lines west of town and clashed with advancing Confederates on July 1. Joseph decided that he wasn’t going out to see the battle, nor was he going to run all over town looking for safety; he would stay at home and wait out the fight.[v]Toward the end of the day, the Broadhead family headed for their cellar as the Confederates ran through town, leaving a street “strewn over with clothes, blankets, knapsacks, cartridge-boxes, dead horses, and the bodies of a few men…”[vi]

By July 2, both armies settled into their positions on the ridges surrounding Gettysburg and the town was caught in a sharpshooters’ fire fight. It had been a trying week for Joseph. The Rebels had already caused plenty of trouble for him that week and after seeing them cart away food and supplies from his neighbors, he wasn’t feeling charitable. And he was hungry since there hadn’t been time in all the excitement to cook and eat a full, proper meal.

After staying in the cellar for a brief morning cannonade, the Broadhead family re-emerged and “tried to get something to eat.”[vii] Taking a basket or bucket, Joseph headed outside into the backyard garden where ripe green beans hung on the vines. The Rebels were not going to take his crop! Meanwhile, Sarah stood in the doorway or watched fearfully from the window as Joseph “picked a mess of beans, though stray firing was going on all the time, and bullets from sharpshooters or others whizzed about his head in a way I would not have liked. He persevered until he picked all, for he declared the Rebels should not have one.”[viii]

Back inside, the family would have prepared the green beans, probably snapping off the ends, breaking the veggies into bite size pieces, and boiling them. Sarah did not record the details of green bean preparation, but perhaps it’s not wrong to imagine Joseph and his little daughter sitting at the table or on the floor, snapping their “mess of beans” while the skirmishing continued outside. Meanwhile, Sarah “baked a pan of shortcake and boiled a piece of ham, the last we had in the house, and some neighbors coming in, joined us and we had the first quiet meal since the contest began.”[ix]

Fresh garden vegetables and fruits were especially prized by foraging soldiers, and other Gettysburg gardens were stripped bare by soldiers in blue or gray. Joseph Broadhead’s green beans might have survived the foragers longer than tomatoes or cherries since beans are harder to see on the vines, but raw green beans would still have been a forage-cap-worthy prize for a hungry soldier.

Joseph’s determination to go a-harvesting during the battle stands as a unique story about gardens and food from Gettysburg’s historic days in 1863. Motivated, hungry, and looking for a solid meal, Joseph headed into the bullet storm to pick the beans and keep the Rebels from getting any. We can only hope the fresh beans were worth the danger and that Joseph was glad to share with his neighbors who came for dinner.


[i] Jim Slade and John Alexander, Firestorm at Gettysburg: Civilian Voices. (1998). Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing. Page 20

[ii] Sarah Broadhead, The Diary of a Lady of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. First printed in 1864; reprinted by Sabin Americana. Page 3

[iii] Ibid, Page 10

[iv] Ibid, Page 11

[v]  Ibid, Page 13

[vi] Ibid, Page 14

[vii] Ibid, Page 15

[viii] Ibid, Page 15

[ix] Ibid, Page 15

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