Civil War Cooking (and Drinking): The 2022 Introduction

The week of Thanksgiving approaches, and it’s time to begin the yearly tradition of the Civil War Cooking Series on Emerging Civil War. This year I’m delighted to share that Meg Groeling is joining the effort to entertain and highlight some of the 1860’s culinary history by taking us on a tasteful journey of popular drinks from the Civil War era. Meg and I have had fun talking about our food and drink research and kitchen experiments, and we can’t wait to share the results with you.

(Although only time will tell if Meg will forgive me for cooking rabbit. I told her it was ethically raised and butchered, but the conversation is still a little frosty like those mint juleps.)

Similar to the two previous years, I’ve spent the year collecting food accounts from soldiers’ primary sources or memoirs, and this fall I recreated five meals. From simple dishes to a full course meal that might have made a “groaning table,” it’s been fun to learn more about Civil War cooking (and eating) through research and hands-on experimenting.

Many Civil War memoirs and even some regimental histories have the obligatory section about army food. A mixture of fond reminiscence for the “army beans” and some decades old complaining about the hardtack in most writings. However, I was reading the 1899 regimental history of the 27th Indiana Infantry Regiment last week during my lunch breaks and came across this fabulous remembering about soldiers trying to cook. It’s a wonderful blending of tribute to soldiering and the homefront and seemed like an appropriate way to start the 2022 reflections on Civil War cooking and drinking.

[1861 – the regiment has recently mustered] Most of us had our first experience in cooking at Camp Morten, as well as our first trial at eating Uncle Sam’s delicacies. As a rule we had been brought up to have almost anything we liked best in the way of substantial food, and had had it prepared in a way to tempt the palate of a king. Few people the world over have a more liberal or varied store to draw from, and none know better how to cook than the mothers, wives, and daughters of our bounteous Hoosier State. Blessings on them! Some of us are conscience stricken to the present hour that we had not appreciate them more, without the necessity of such a severe lesson. When we came to stand before the fire, our eyes filled with smoke, if not with genuine tears, overwhelmed with doubt and perplexity as to what to do and how to do it, many a spoiled boy and some spoiled husbands experienced a sudden and violent taking down, whose benefit, it is to be hoped, has been permanent.

There was no such thing as a cook house or mess tent at Camp Morton. Rations of pork beans rice, sugar, coffee, molasses and bread were issued; a sufficient number of sheet-iron kettles and frying pans were provided, together with seasoned cord wood, and the men were expected to do the rest. There was some slight pressure or suggestion in the way of forming men of the same company into small messes of say, six to ten men each, though there was nothing binding about that. If an individual wanted his rations apportioned to himself alone, as was the case with a few, it was done.

There is no instance recorded or remembered where anyone either asked for or received instructions in the culinary art. If war was to break out in these latter days [1890’s] there would be myriads of cook books and recipes on sale immediately, covering the whole ground. The sum total of human knowledge and experience relative to the cooking and compounding of such articles of food as are issued to soldiers, in order to make them palatable and wholesome, could be bought for five cents. Not so then. Not so to the end of the Civil War, as far as the writer is advised. What was more strange, no attention was given to the subject by the medical department of the army. The matter of the proper disposition of slops and refuse was looked after later on, but not here. Possibly it was not considered necessary here, the fact being taken for granted that the men would live principally on slops and refuse anyway. In the messes each member too his turn in preparing meals. When one’s turn came, he simply went to do his task and over an open fire, out of doors, with what native sense or ingenuity he possessed, or guided by what he could remember of seeing his mother or wife do, he prepared the meal.

Meg and I armed ourselves with research from a few recipe books that were printed at the time of the Civil War, and I did use modern appliances instead of a wood fire this year. I don’t think we had any tears from smoke or overwhelming unknowns…although I did ponder whether to laugh or cry when the electricity went out exactly one hour before the big dinner party and the rabbit had just been put into the cooking pot! (I laughed.)

Civil War cooking was a bit haphazard and could even be rather dangerous eating, but re-examining the recorded notes about food and drink, culinary preparations, and moments of good cheer has continued to be a rewarding research adventure year after year. Come join us in the kitchen or ’round the dining table as we share our historical notes and cooking projects!

And if you want to see some of the experiments/research from previous years…

2021 Civil War Cooking

2020 Civil War Cooking

2 Responses to Civil War Cooking (and Drinking): The 2022 Introduction

  1. Mealtime in Libby Prison

    Thinking of Civil War meal time, I recently published “The Greatest Escape” about Libby Prison, and was able to include this amazing eyewitness description by Lt. Col. Frederick Cavada, from his 1864 book “Libby Life”. Cavada was a fine writer who also filled his book with his own drawings. An artist who went up in balloons to sketch enemy positions, he was captured at Gettysburg. After the war, he would become a leader of Cuba’s first revolt against Spain:

    In the early years of the war, cooking for all Union POWs took place at a central kitchen in Richmond. Pails would then be hauled across the city to the various prisons. But this became impractical as the POWs’ numbers increased, so a new system was instituted in Libby whereby the men would do their own cooking.

    “With the Yankee tendency to organization, we were divided into messes of about 20 each. Each man in turn does the cooking for the entire day. In a close, suffocating corner of the main kitchen, we were compelled to burn corn-meal for coffee, and to make rice soup and hash over smoking, broken stoves, it was anything but agreeable labor.”

    At mealtimes, fifty to one hundred men and more would fill the kitchen, all competing for the same tiny patches of real-estate atop the stoves. The moment any cook removed his pot, it was instantly replaced by another. Sometimes arguments would break out and precious food spilled in the hot, smoky chaos. Lt. Cavada, the Cuban Yankee who spent a year in Libby, witnessed this daily human surge; his lively description would be hard to improve upon.

    “You find the cook room crowded to suffocation; the stoves are completely covered with all sorts of ingenious contrivances in the shape of pots, skillets, pans, mugs, and cans, and to back this is an army of ferocious cooks, all struggling to look into their ‘stews’ at the same time—an operation which is utterly impracticable where only three small stoves are to render edible so large a quantity of the most uncookable and undigestible materials.

    “So, you advance a few steps and make a frantic effort to wedge yourself in between those fratricidal cooks. In all probability some crabbed fellow lets fall upon your legs a little shower of scalding water; or, an accidental back-hander from some gigantic Hoosier jostles coffee into your eyes. But you must push on bravely, until you have had your toes trodden on for the hundredth time – until you have smutted your nose, and burnt your fingers – until you are half stifled and completely disgusted.

    “The meat and soup would be in so rotten a condition that only starving men could eat it. That awful gnawing at the stomach for food can’t be expressed in words. It makes an animal of a man. Yes, as you look into the eyes of a starving man, it makes one think of a fierce, hungry dog. I have seen men—friends—on our floor fight over a small amount of meat. No one can get used to hunger. It is endured because it has to be.”

    The prisoners had too little food and too much time on their hands, so many took to discussing banquets, feasts, and the greatest meals they’d ever enjoyed. Debates could go on for days about different cuisines, styles, and spices. A New Yorker might minutely describe the fancy dinner he’d enjoyed at Delmonico’s. Lt. Roach was surprised to see so many high-ranking officers become obsessed with cooking – “the avidity with which they would pore over the household department of old magazines and newspapers in search of receipts for preparing various dishes, was no less astonishing than the rapidity with which they became adept in this branch of house keeping.”

    Cookbooks were passed around until they fell apart. Men loved imagining every course of the grand table they would set upon their release. While some POWs felt these fantasies made their starvation worse, others found comfort in memories of home and plenty. “Our mothers were our ideal cooks. Each man would brag about his mother, and would describe in detail how she could cook this and that, and what a feast she would make for him when he got home. Then another would take it up, and so it would go around and round. Often some of the weaker ones would give way and cry like babies.”

    1. Thanks for sharing this. The last part reminds me about a section in Louis Zamperini’s account (WWII); he and two comrades were stranded on a raft in the Pacific Ocean and one of the things they talked about to keep their minds sharp was cooking. Zamperini repeated all his mother’s Italian recipes and described how she cooked everything.

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