“Angry Enough to Give Them Battle”: Hungry Civilians and Soldiers Fight Over Food

“Bummers” (Foragers) sketched by Edwin Forbes

ECW welcomes Katie Brown to share Part 3 of her research. (Find the previous posts here.)

Hunger was an omnipresent force that haunted almost everyone in Civil War America. One of the most troubling aspects of hunger was its impact on behavior and its ability to break down social norms. Hunger among soldiers was particularly troublesome when civilians became involved, even despite orders designed to limit foraging and seizure of private property. “Gen Franklin who was in chief command of the expedition up the Teche had given very strict orders against forageing, pilfering, etc.” wrote William Wiley of the 77th Illinois Infantry in November 1863, before explaining that despite this, his commanding officer had been instructed “to observe these orders but to tell his men that if they caught any chickens or geese or anything like that to be careful and not get bit. So we understood that to mean help yourselves but don’t give the general away.”[1]

Other soldiers outwitted such orders by claiming they were taking the property of only the disloyal (whether human or otherwise): “Our dinner consisted of one hard cracker and a piece of a Secesh sheep which we knocked in the head for entering our lines and then refusing to take oath… Our officers told us to take what we could get to eat and not pay unless the owners proved themselves to be loyal to the Government,” one Federal soldier recorded in July 1862.[2] These descriptions of soldiers’ antics reveal a fundamental difference between leaders’ perceptions of lack of food for soldiers and soldiers’ point of view on their own hunger. Part of this difference came down to how soldiers viewed the civilians they were stealing from. As detailed in the last post, leaders’ discussion of the hunger of civilians, particularly women, was shaped largely by their socially ingrained belief that they were incapable of providing for themselves. Yet, from many soldiers’ points of view, stealing these same residents’ food was perfectly justified. Why?

One of the biggest justifications for this theft was because the soldiers were hungry and, as much as their commanding officers were loath to admit it, soldiers did not appreciate being restricted to half rations or a diet of hardtack and rotten meat. This hunger may have played a part in soldiers’ ability to simply overlook social expectations. Ultimately, though, hunger is just one element in a series of complex social forces that dictated how people were expected to interact in the mid-nineteenth century. Hunger and limited food supplies simply served as a point of contact and, in many cases, a point of tension for soldiers and civilians.

On top of hunger, soldiers felt justified in stealing because, regardless of their gender, these civilians were ultimately enemies. By the end of the war, soldiers’ belief that women were innocent, passive bystanders had faded into a picture of women as active supporters of the opposing army, some of whose support manifested in the form of food.[3] As the war progressed for Union soldiers in Southern territories, women’s “identities as Confederate traitors superseded their identities as elite Southern ladies,” who expected to be treated with respect.[4]

When the roles flipped and Confederate soldiers entered Northern territory, they had a similar response. While women in Northern territory typically were not facing the same shortages of food that made such destruction potentially deadly in the South, Confederate soldiers were hungry and seized food for their own sake. Outside of the basic need to eat, others destroyed property and food as a form of retaliation. It was also fueled for some by a belief that Yankee women did not behave like proper women and therefore needed to be put in their place. Food offered one way to do this, as some soldiers demanded that Northern women make them food, insulted their cooking, or simply made off with food altogether.[5]

“Scenes on the road: roasting corn and foraging” by Alfred Waud

Soldiers weren’t the only ones passing judgment on the other gender’s behavior over food. Women in contested areas also called their invaders’ masculinity into question in response to their actions. Diarist Josie Underwood saw soldiers of both sides pass through her Kentucky home and was, in many cases, not impressed. “Several [soldiers] came to the door to ask for milk—but did not push into the house as the others do and doff their hats as far as they see Ma or me,” she wrote in October 1861. While these new soldiers were more polite than others that had shown up at her door, she did not have much faith in this new group either, remarking, “maybe when they find out where the cows stay, they won’t anymore ask for milk.”[6] The courtesy that she did receive made both Underwood and her mother more tolerant of the soldiers’ appetites, though, as seen in their response to a polite note from the men’s commanding officer a few days later, apologizing for his regiment’s presence on their property. “The courtesy and the regrets won her [Underwood’s mother] tolerance as no assurance of possession and power could have done.”[7]

While most women could not or would not respond physically to keep enemy soldiers out of their homes and pantries, many turned to pointed domestic actions, such as poorly prepared food or rude and unwelcoming actions or words. Despite feeding hungry Confederate soldiers when they appeared, Josie Underwood’s mother had no patience for them, even telling a group of rebels that had gathered on her porch, “I will never refuse a hungry man food—but you must excuse me from asking into my house, men who have helped pull down our country’s flag.”[8] When Yankees invaded her family’s home requesting dinner in April 1862, Confederate diarist Lucy Rebecca Buck recorded that “Nellie and I kept our eyes upon our work, and did not vouchsafe so much as a glance at the intruders. Ma was afraid our manner might exasperate them and quickly directed them to the sitting room…. I was angry enough to have given them battle.”[9] Her diary records a similar “wrath” every time a Yankee appeared near the Buck’s home in Front Royal, Virginia. While her diary does not indicate that she ever acted on this anger, she did become craftier throughout the war, hiding her family’s dwindling food supplies and blatantly arguing with soldiers who attempted to steal it.

Soldier-civilian interaction was just one place where food and hunger sparked behavior that was not in line with social conventions. Women in a few places were driven to the streets in bread riots and some soldiers saw no option but to desert out of hunger, actions which ran counter to society’s image of passive, peaceful women and courageous, honorable men. As these posts have shown, hunger was a real problem for everyone dealing with the war. It impacted the individual civilians who fended off hungry soldiers and those same soldiers who sought food to keep their energy up in the face of long, weary marches. It sent shockwaves up to the halls of government, where leaders faced the issue of keeping their population alive and well-fed. Just as it influenced behavior in even the smallest communities, it also shaped public policy, military strategy, and decisions that ultimately shaped the course of the war.

Katie Brown is an emerging historian and freelance writer who graduated with her Master’s in History in 2018 and has since worked as the Program Coordinator for the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies at Virginia Tech. She believes in the power of history to teach a better understanding of the human experience and strives to write and teach history that is relevant to all.


[1] Terrence J. Winschel, ed. The Civil War Diary of a Common Soldier: William Wiley of the 77th Illinois Infantry (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2001), 81.

[2] William C. Davis, A Taste for War: The Culinary History of the Blue and Gray (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2003), 47. (n9)

[3] Kristen L. Streater, “ ‘She-Rebels’ on the Supply Line: Gender Conventions in Civil War Kentucky,” in Occupied Women: Gender, Military Occupation and the American Civil War (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2009), 89.

[4] Lisa Tendrich Frank, “Bedrooms as Battlefields: The Role of Gender Politics in Sherman’s March,” in Occupied Women, 39.

[5] Margaret Creighton, “Gettysburg Out of Bounds: Women and Soldiers in the Embattled Borough, 1863,” in Occupied Women, 77-80.

[6] Nancy Disher Baird, ed. Josie Underwood’s Civil War Diary (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2009), 110.

[7] Baird, 111-12.

[8] Baird, 100-101.

[9] Elizabeth R. Baer, ed. Shadows on my Heart: The Civil War Diary of Lucy Rebecca Buck of Virginia (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1997), 59.

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