In just about any firsthand account of the Civil War, it’s striking how heavily coffee features in the day to day lives of soldiers. Like many of us today, both Union and Confederate troops found coffee to be absolutely essential as a stimulant, a source of warmth and comfort, and a ritual to congregate around.
In his aptly titled account of a Civil War soldier’s day to day life, Hardtack and Coffee, John Billings of Massachusetts noted that “It was coffee at meals and between meals; and men going on guard or coming off guard drank it at all hours of the night.”1
Confederate Private Carlton McCarthy of the Richmond Howitzers waxed somewhat more poetic in describing the allure of coffee: “What is that faint aroma which steals about on the night air? Is it a celestial breeze? No! it is the mist of the coffee boiler.”2
The soldier’s profound dedication to coffee was hardly limited to the rank and file. After losing the battle of Valverde in 1862, Union Colonel R.S. Canby was in the difficult position of having the Confederate Army of New Mexico in a central position between himself at Fort Craig, and the remainder of his department’s troops and his lines of supply and communication via Fort Union and up into Colorado.
Trying to coordinate his efforts with subordinates at Fort Union, Canby wrote to Col. John Slough of the 1st Colorado, urging him to move quickly and with minimal baggage across the hostile terrain of northern New Mexico. What bare essentials did Canby consider to be necessary rations in such an emergency? Only “bread and meat, coffee and sugar.” Moreover, he took the time to instruct Slough to, “Increase the coffee and sugar for guards and pickets.”3
As the Confederacy would soon learn, considering something essential doesn’t mean that it will be available.
At the outset of the war, the states of the Confederacy were largely dependent on outside commerce for weapons, manufactured goods, and certain commodities…including coffee. At the heart of the Union war strategy was an effort to blockade the seceded states, cutting them off from the outside trade they would need to keep the war effort going.
The Union blockade quickly took its toll on Southern coffee drinkers. In late May, the USS Brooklyn sent a message to Fort Jackson, guarding the approach to New Orleans, announcing that they had arrived at the mouth of the Mississippi River to enforce the blockade. On May 30, the first ship seized on its way to the Confederacy’s largest city was the H.E. Spearing, carrying $120,000 of Brazilian coffee.4
As the war progressed, the blockade grew steadily more effective as the Union deployed more ships and captured vital Confederate ports. The Confederate economy began to collapse, and it became harder and harder to acquire any number of items: ammunition and weapons for the army, medicine, even food. While their cargo manifests frequently include smuggled coffee, blockade runners could only make a dent in the shortages.5
So what do you do when you’re expected to live outside and fight a war – or you’re struggling on the homefront – and you can’t get your coffee fix? Necessity is the mother of invention, and across the Confederacy, civilians and soldiers alike came up with a fascinating range of substitutes: roasting any number of grains or plants that could be grown domestically, including okra, rye and sweet potatoes; using other ingredients to stretch what coffee was left; even a ubiquitous weed called “wild coffee” that was conveniently found in New Orleans.6
Inspired by these descriptions of New Orleans substitutes, and Ashley Webb’s and Sarah Kay Bierle’s past articles on the topic, I decided to try some of these for myself. A survey of coffee alternatives in Confederate newspapers turns up a staggering number of options, but sweet potato, rye and chicory stood out as some of the most commonly mentioned substitutes that would still be reasonably available today.7
First up was the rye. On the one hand, it’s safe to assume that your average Civil War soldier had considerably more experience than I do when it comes to cooking over a campfire. I’m not confident that I got the rye as roasted as you would want for a full coffee flavor, so this might be worth trying again. But on the other hand, in the words of my (extremely tolerant) wife, this just tasted like “warm grainy water.”
The sweet potato substitute was actually pretty good. As long as we’re grading on a curve, it had a surprisingly full body and rich flavor, and was reasonably easy to prepare. Sweet potatoes would also have been readily available as a substitute in the South. As of the 1860 census, states that seceded grew 90% of the country’s crop.8
I’m not going to give up my morning pot of coffee in favor of sweet potatoes any time soon, but I could actually imagine this filling some of the void left by blockaded coffee if you found yourself out on a picket line on a winter night. That said, the preparation didn’t look particularly appetizing, unless you want a bright, chunky, orange drink for breakfast. You’ll want to pour this one pretty carefully to avoid getting too much of the “grounds,” and maybe don’t look too closely at it.
Finally, we tried the chicory, split 50/50 with real coffee. Given that there was some real coffee involved, it’s not surprising that this was the most appetizing – and of course, that only works as a way to stretch existing coffee, rather than being a true substitute. This drink is still popular in some places, and it’s easy to understand why it would have been appealing at the time.
In closing, I have to confess that I wasn’t brave enough to try this alternative involving boiled cigar stumps, which I can only hope was tongue-in-cheek. If anyone tries this, be sure to tell me how it was!
1. Billings, John D. Hardtack and Coffee. Enhanced Media Publishing, 2017, 67.
2. McCarthy, Carlton. Detailed Minutiae of Soldier Life in the Army of Northern Virginia, 1861-1865. Nebraska Press. 1997, 75.
3. United States. War Records Office, et al.. The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union And Confederate Armies, Series I, Volume IX, Chapter XXI. 1880, 649.
4. Dufour, Charles. The Night the War Was Lost. Bison, 1994, 42.
5. Cargo Manifests of Confederate Blockade Runners. NCPedia. Accessed August 23, 2022.
6. Dufour, 62.
7. Betts, Vicki, “Coffee and Coffee Substitutes in the Confederacy” (2016). Special Topics. Paper
8. “Agriculture of the United States in 1860”, Washington Government Printing Office, 1864, xxxi.