Civil War Cooking: Plucked and Plundered in Fredericksburg

The scenes in the city of Fredericksburg during the night of December 11, 1862, were disruptive at the least and outright vandalism at the worst. But for one Union officer, the night resulted in a good dinner, plundered from a pantry in the home of a local music teacher. Twenty-one-year-old Second Lieutenant John G.B. Adams from the 19th Massachusetts Infantry had fought his way across the Rappahannock River as his regiment joined the 7th Michigan Infantry to secure a bridgehead for the pontoon bridges and force Barksdale’s Confederate skirmish line back into the town. After street fighting, the regiment secured an area around Caroline Street while brigades of reinforcements crossed the river behind them.

John G. B. Adams

Lieutenant John G.B. Adams and Company A had fought in the streets on December 11 and burst into a civilian home, holding “the house until dark, firing at a head whenever we saw one on the other side [of the street].”[1] It had been a tense day, and the company had lost comrades. In his memoirs, Adams described the evening:

As night came on we advanced across the street and the rebels retired. We posted our pickets and went into the houses for rest and observation. The house my company now owned was formerly occupied by a namesake of mine, a music teacher. I left the men down stairs while I retired. The room I selected was the chamber belonging to a young lady. Her garments were in the press and the little finery she possessed was scattered about the room. Fearing she might return I did not undress, but went to bed with my boots on. I was soon lost in peaceful slumber, when a sergeant came and said I was wanted below. Going to the kitchen I found the boys had a banquet spread for me. There was roast duck, biscuit, all kinds of preserves, spread upon a table set with the best china. We were company, and the best was none too good for us. After supper we went up stairs, and the men were assigned, or assigned themselves, too rooms.

In our investigation we had found a barrel filled with molasses. Every one must fill his canteen, and as he filled it from the faucet it ran over, and the house was molasses from cellar to attic. I opened a trunk in my room and found packages of paper. Thinking they might be bonds or stock I put them in my haversack. The next day I found they were unpaid bills of the music teacher. Going out on the street we found it quite lively. One of the boys would come along with a lady on his arm, but upon inspection it proved to be another soldier with borrowed clothes.

Since we left Rockville [Maryland] I have not mentioned Ben Falls. He had been on every march and in every battle, and had his musket shot from his shoulder at Glendale, but picked up another and went in again. While at Falmouth Captain Boyd, who was now in command of Company A., made Ben a cook, because, as he informed me, he wanted him to live to go home. While we were in Fredericksburg Ben and another man came over bringing two kettles of coffee on poles. Halting before Captain Boyd he said, “Captain, if you have no use for Ben Falls, send me home. How nice it will look when I write to my wife in Lynn that the regiment fought nobly, and I carried the kettle. I either want a musket or a discharge, – and prefer the musket.” Captain Boyd granted his request; and it was the last of Ben as a pot-slewer.[2]

On December 12, the 19th Massachusetts buried their dead, looked after their wounded, and waited for their next orders. On December 13, they attacked toward Marye’s Heights, losing officers, men, and colorbearers. Lieutenant Adams caught both the national and regiment flags from the bloodied hands of their guards and led the regiment. In 1896, Adams received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions at Fredericksburg; his citation reads: “Seized the two colors from the hands of a corporal and a lieutenant as they fell mortally wounded, and with a color in each hand advanced across the field to a point where the regiment was reformed on those colors.”[3]

Battle-shredded flags of the 19th Massachusetts (Library of Congress)

Adams survived the war, despite a severe wounding at Gettysburg and a later nine months imprisonment through some of the worst Confederate prisons. In the postwar years, he was active in the Grand Army of the Republic, rising to the position of Commander in Chief in 1893, and he also served as president of the Association of the Survivors of Rebel Prisons. Adams published his memoirs in 1899, a year before his death.

I first came across the plundered menu and description of Adams’s dinner in Fredericksburg in the regimental history of the 19th Massachusetts. A little further research led me to the better story in his memoirs. It seemed like the perfect account to inspire the more “formal dinner” for this year’s Civil War cooking experiments. I’d been wanting to learn how to cook a duck for a while! I sent an invitation to some friends to come for a historic dinner and then did some kitchen research.

Following the list in Adams’s memoir, the menu would be Roasted Duck, Biscuits, Preserves/Jams, and Molasses. I added an Autumn Vegetable Medley for some extra color and flavors and an Apple Pie for dessert. For the biscuits and pie, I used my family’s recipes which compare favorably to 19th Century recipes I’ve made on other days. I raided my own pantry for some cherry preserves and plum jam—not homemade, but flavors that might have been found in a Fredericksburg home in 1862.

As for the duck…I decided to follow a modern recipe and did work with a few ingredients that might not have been available to the soldiers in Fredericksburg, but if I was going to spend the money and the effort to roast a duck, I wanted the best chances of having a good tasting meal for my guests!

Most likely, the soldiers found a live duck and started there. Lucky for me, I found a 5 pound duck at a local store, already “dispatched” and plucked. I cleaned the bird and started preparing it according to the recipe. The duck skin is very thick and tough, but piercing it and then scoring it allows the fat to escape while roasting. I might have accidentally cooked it “upside down,” but I looked at a lot of photos and my duck and finally just made a best guess for which side I was supposed to score. I salted the inside and outside, then stuffed some lightly chopped garlic and a quartered lemon inside the duck. Onto the roasting rack and into the oven!

The recipe told me to turn the duck several times during the roasting process, and honestly, that was the most difficult part of the whole experience. For about the last hour of roasting, the duck is removed from the oven every ten minutes and brushed with a glaze made from Balsamic vinegar, honey, and lemon juice to make a crispy exterior. It smelled really good, and I couldn’t wait to taste it. (A modern meat thermometer was super helpful for figuring out when the duck was fully cooked).

With a feeling of culinary accomplishment, I carried the 19th Century china platter with the roasted duck to the table. As we gathered at the table and talked about Lieutenant Adams, the 19th Massachusetts, and the battle of Fredericksburg, the smells and sights (minus the veggies) must have been something similar to the spread that was plundered, plucked, and prepared in a house (probably) along Caroline Street on December 11, 1862. It was food with a comforting, home-like taste.

Duck is more oily than chicken, but the texture is similar to other poultry; it was not the easiest to carve, but we still managed to get nice pieces of the meat for several hearty portions. (I made a rich broth from the bones on the following day and got several more meals of duck soup, too!) 10 out of 10: I would roast duck again! I think it would be my preference over turkey if I was cooking Thanksgiving dinner for just a couple of guests. The one thing I would do differently would be tying the meat with some cooking string; I think it would hold shape better and also be much easier to turn during the roasting.

As for the biscuits and preserves, they proved to be guest-favorites, too. I wonder if the soldiers made the biscuits or if they found them already prepared in a pantry. Either way is possible, and they might have also found the duck already cooked, though I suspect they prepared that themselves.

I can happily report the success of this historic menu and that we did not get molasses from floor to ceiling in my apartment! From this table in Central Virginia to yours…Happy Thanksgiving.


Ernest L. Waitt, History of the Nineteenth Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, 1861-1865 (1906). Accessed through Google Books.

[1] John Gregory Bishop Adams, Reminiscences of the Nineteenth Massachusetts Regiment, (1899) Page 51. Accessed through Google Books.

[2] Ibid., Pages 51-52.

[3] “John G. B. Adams”, Congressional Medal of Honor Society:

2 Responses to Civil War Cooking: Plucked and Plundered in Fredericksburg

  1. A pleasant story (for the stuffed Union soldiers at least). Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.

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