The regimental history of the 15th Connecticut Infantry included short accounts from its veteran members, and Charles D. Barnes of Company B submitted a story about “The Blackberry Raid.” His writing reveals several different foods cooked or prepared by the soldiers during their march, including a gourmet version of hard tack and fried catfish.
The “Blackberry Raid” started at the end of June 1863 when Union General John A. Dix launched a march up the Virginia Peninsula. He planned to threaten Richmond enough to prevent reinforcements from going to support Lee’s invasion of Pennsylvania. The 15th Connecticut joined the assigned units and marched up the Peninsula to Yorktown, encamping “on the historic ground of Cornwallis’s surrender.” On July 1, 1863, they crossed Pamunkey river on the remains of a burned railroad bridge.
Somewhere near the river, some of the soldiers met an older African American man who was carrying a “string of big ‘cats’ which he said he caught off the railroad bridge.” To add to their rationed foods, some of the Connecticut men decided to go fishing for catfish.
“We rigged up a fishing tackle, dug worms for bait, and then sat for hours on the bridge without a nibble. Hunting up the old contraband we made some remarks about his veracity; in fact, we told him he lied, and that there wasn’t a catfish in the river. He insisted there was, and asked to see our hooks.”
Seeing the hooks and worms, the Black man laughed good naturedly at the soldiers. He told them the hooks were fine, but that they needed different bait. Taking them to the sutler’s shanty, he asked for catfish bait and then handed the soldiers “a half pound of soft green cheese. We smiled very incredulously, but after putting on a bit as large as a small chestnut, the “tide turned”…and catfish weighing from two to four pounds were caught till we could not carry them all to camp….”[i]
As the march continued up the Virginia Peninsula, other welcome food additions made their way to the soldiers’ plates and canteens:
Early fruits were in their prime, and the troops fare sumptuously. The men from the hills of New England had never before seen such a wealth of blackberries as grew along the line of march. One could without changing position, pick more than he could eat. An officer recalling this time says, “I gathered a water pail three-quarters full from the vines within my tent. This fruit kept us in health. Frequently the men would take a quart cup of berries, crush them with an iron spoon and breaking in their hard tack, let it soak a few minutes; it was no mean dish then. Others would crush the berries, then pour them into their canteens, adding a little water; this made a far more palatable drink than that drawn from some puddle after the passage of a six-mule team. It was a profusion of this wild fruit that gave the expedition the name of the “Blackberry Raid.”[ii]
In culinary memory of this lesser-known march from the summer of 1863, I decided to recreate the fried catfish, hardtack ‘n blackberries, and blackberry water for dinner.
Fishing is not a strong skill of mine, so I opted to purchase catfish fillets and just avoid the rotten cheese altogether. Barnes did not specify how the soldiers cooked the catfish, but I opted for a simple, unseasoned cornmeal coating and panfrying it.
I baked some fresh hardtack and let it dry for a while, then crunched it up into small pieces. Taking some blackberries, I smashed them up (a regular spoon worked just fine, since I didn’t have an “iron spoon”) and mixed in the hardtack pieces. I set the mixture aside to see if it softened and became edible. The color was really pretty!
The blackberries squished into water looked weird in a glass, but it tasted fine. I probably should have put it in a canteen or metal mug, but…oh well.
The fish was great, though when I cook catfish again, I’ll plan to use more seasonings. The blackberry hardtack is definitely one of the best ways to eat it; flavorful and softened to a palatable crunch, that is one version of hardtack I’d make again and actually recommend for careful dining.
[i] Sheldon B. Thorpe, The History of the Fifteenth Connecticut Volunteers in the War in the Defense of the Union, 1861-1865. Published in 1893, Accessed through archive.org. Page 216-217.
[ii] Ibid, Page 218.