Civil War Cooking: Colonel Bartlett’s Dinner with the 49th Massachusetts

“I invited George Wheatland (of Salem), Major of the Forty-eighth, to dine with me this evening. We dine at six. I gave him a very good dinner. We used the new mess pail; just right for three. I had a pork steak off a young pig, French bread, which Jacques gets in Baton Rouge, and chocolate, which the latter makes very well, fried sweet potatoes, guava jelly, boiled rice, butter, and for dessert, figs, coffee, and cigars, and a thimbleful of whiskey. He said it was the first decent dinner he had had since he left Boston.”

William Francis Bartlett (1840-1876)

The menu and hospitable evening went into Colonel William Francis Bartlett’s letter diary on Saturday, March 21, 1863, in Louisiana. He had taken command of the 49th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment in September 1862, winning the confidence of the recruits through their military drill sessions. Despite his previous battle experiences which had resulted in the loss of his left leg, Bartlett determined to go actively campaigning again and accompanied his new regiment when they left Massachusetts on November 29.

On January 23, 1863, embarkation began for General Banks’s campaign to capture Port Hudson in Louisiana. By February 16th, the regiment had encamped near Baton Rouge. A reconnaissance march on March 13th broke up the monotony of waiting for the regiments first test under fire on the battlefield.

Meanwhile, the regimental colonel adjusted to his life back in the military field, making minor adjustments and improvements to his saddles and other gear to ease the discomfort with his prosthetic leg. He detailed various pieces of equipment that he ordered or received from his family, including a “new mess pail” which he thought was “perfectly splendid.”

So…what is a mess pail? Poking around on living history and historical auction websites suggests it was a large pail with a lid that might have been used to keep food warm and could have stored a set of tin dishes and utensils when not used for cooking. It looks like it might have been something used aboard ships and since Bartlett hailed from Boston that might fit the scenario.

I don’t have a mess pail, but I pulled out my tin plates and started to cook. This menu made the late night shopping trip quite adventurous. Figs—finally found them on the very bottom shelf. Guava Jelly—not with the regular jams, but I got lucky and found it on the Hispanic food aisle.

Even though Jacques got his French bread in Baton Rouge, I decided to make my own and learned how to create a thick, artisan style crust on my plain bread. It was a twelve hour baking experiment, and one of my cousins who is an expert bread baker chatted with me via Zoom for part of the process.

The chocolate seemed a little confusing. At first, I thought it might have been hot chocolate, but the placement in the list and the idea that someone in Baton Rouge made good chocolate eventually persuaded my thinking that it was pieces of chocolate. Doing a little reading about chocolate in the mid-19th Century suggested that it wasn’t usually a sweet treat, but tended to have the strong cocoa flavor. I bought the 92% Cocoa pieces. (Yikes.)

I should stop being skeptical of these menus, but to be honest I still was at this point. The foods just seemed like throwing together a bunch of randomly collected items and inviting a friend over. It also seemed really heavy on the carbs…but I figured that probably wasn’t a concern for young guys leading very active lifestyles. Still, I was willing to give it all a try, well, except the cigar and whiskey. Forgive me for not being completely true to the menu in every aspect.

To my surprise, the meal’s flavors complemented each other nicely. A bit “exotic” compared to other menus I had tried so far, but I think Bartlett was enjoying the different cuisine in the deep South. The guava jelly was a nice side with the pork. My hot tin plate melted the chocolate so I tried dipping the sweet potatoes in it; pretty bitter and not my favorite, but still unique.

The French bread was definitely my favorite take-away from this meal and I’ll be keeping that recipe. I’m not a huge fan of guava jelly, but I like the idea of using a different side than applesauce with the pork.

Though an authentic mess pail did not grace my table, I enjoyed the culinary excitement and agree with Bartlett that the idea of trying new foods or planning a dinner can quite “set me up” and “I have felt better ever since” I started experimenting with his campaign weekend dinner menu from Louisiana.

1 Response to Civil War Cooking: Colonel Bartlett’s Dinner with the 49th Massachusetts

  1. French bread! Yum!! The jelly looks interesting. Have been enjoying all of your posts and the photos are great! Time for a cigar. The smoking lamp is lit!!

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