Civil War Cooking: “What do you call this stuff, anyhow?”

It’s that time of year again with the holidays on the horizon! Tradition is tradition…so it’s time to share a week of Civil War Cooking blog posts on Emerging Civil War. (Previous cooking and drinking adventures here in the blog archives.) Gather ’round the table via the blog because it’s been a year of gathering some odd dishes and some delicious menus to try. We’ll head to Arkansas for something slimy and raid the pantries of Caroline Street in Fredericksburg (not literally!) and scurry across the slopes of Fisher’s Hill battlefield on the quest for discovering what Civil War soldiers ate. Hint: it was more than hardtack and coffee.

To start the culinary adventures and to serve as a reminder of the challenges many Civil War soldiers faced when cooking, here are a few anecdotes from post-war memoirs.

Confederate General John B. Gordon wrote the following account in his memoir about Georgia soldiers’ “messing” on the Peninsula during 1862. While some of his claims must be taken with a grain of salt (or a heaping tablespoon depending the battle and story), this is a delightful glimpse into the campfire challenges of Civil War cooking:

A characteristic story is told of a mess that was formed, with the most remarkable regulations or by-laws. The men were to draw straws to ascertain who should be the cook. The by-laws further provided that the party thus designated should continue to cook for the mess until some one complained of his cooking, whereupon the man who made the first complaint should at once be initiated into the office and the former incumbent relieved. Of course, with this chance of escape before him, a cook had no great incentive to perfect himself in the culinary art. The first cook was not long in forcing a complaint. Calling his mess to supper spread on an oil-cloth in the little tent, he confidently awaited the result. One after another tasted and quickly withdrew from the repast. One member, who was very hungry and outraged at the character of the food, asked: “Joe, what do you call this stuff, anyhow?”

“That? Why, that’s pie,” said Joe. 

“Well,” replied the hungry member, “if you call that pie, all I’ve got to say is, it’s the —–est pie I ever tasted.” [exclusion original]

Then, suddenly remembering that the penalty for complaining was to take Joe’s place, he quickly added, “But it’s all right, Joe; I like, but I am not hungry tonight.”This after-thought came too late, however. The by-laws were inflexible, and Joe’s supper had won his freedom. The complainant whose indignant stomach had slaughtered his prudence was quietly but promptly inducted into the position of chef for the mess.[1]

(Perhaps a reminder to not complain about Thanksgiving dinner…unless you want to be the one to host and cook?)

From the Union side during the Peninsula Campaign, John G. B. Adams of the 19th Massachusetts noted:

Our rations were served to us uncooked, and company cooks ordered to the ranks. A company cook is a peculiar being; he generally knows less about cooking than say any man in the company. Not being able to learn the drill, and too dirty to appear on inspection, he is sent to the cook house to get him out of the ranks. We were not sorry when the cook house was abolished.[2]

As for “supplementing” the ration menu, Adams – like many officers – sometimes turned a blind eye. During the Loudoun Valley Campaign in the autumn of 1862, two soldiers had a noted foraging expedition:

One night Corporal Phelan and Jack Robinson discovered hens at a neighboring farm-house, and finding the house not guarded took their muskets and went on duty. The people were pleased to be so well protected. While Phelan entertained the family, Jack went on duty outside to protect the hens. Soon a squawking was heard, and Corporal Phelan grasped his musket and rushed to reinforce Jack. They secured three good hens, and forgot to go back to the house, but reported to camp. When they arrived I discovered that they had plunder, and called them before me. With downcast eyes they told the story of their shame and begged for mercy. As an officer I must do my duty, and they must be punished. I ordered them to cook one of the three hens and deliver it to me. With sad hearts they obeyed the order.[3]

As will be seen in an upcoming blog post, Lieutenant Adams’s men knew he was particularly fond of pilfered poultry!

Civil War camp cooking was messy and sometimes dangerous to health. Hardtack and coffee might have been some of the safest food a Civil War soldier encountered (as long as he didn’t break a tooth), but the quest for flavor, culinary reminders of home, and even the interest of inventing a recipe to relieve boredom fills primary sources with a collection of “not boring” food to explore and recreate for the purposes of research…and entertaining guests.

Many thanks to the few brave souls who knowingly and willingly gathered around my kitchen and table this year to help review and experience Civil War cooking! I can’t wait to share the results on the blog.


[1] John B. Gordon, Reminiscences of the Civil War (1903). Page 55. Accessed through Google Books.

[2] John G. B. Adams, Reminiscences of the Nineteenth Massachusetts (1899). Page 27. Accessed through Google Books.

[3] Ibid., Page 48.

1 Response to Civil War Cooking: “What do you call this stuff, anyhow?”

  1. Goodness, Gen. Gordon’s anecdote reminds me of a very similar joke I heard decades ago about Moose Turd Pie. (The central figure of the joke said that in prior times he had worked to bring electricity to outhouses for native Americans. Thus he was the first to “wire a head for a reservation.”)

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