There is much curiosity about Civil War food - in particular what the soldiers consumed each day as part of their rations. Both armies struggled to keep their armies fed over the course of the war as supply lines were stretched thin with tens of thousands of men needing nourishment.
The Confederates in particular were hit hard by the Union naval blockade and general lack of resources for a constant supply of food. Considering the amount of marching by both armies, and the daily rigors of living out in the elements, the average Civil War soldier was malnourished and at times close to starvation.
The Civil War quartermaster had a crucial yet difficult task - keep entire armies fed regardless of terrain, weather, transportation options and in the heat of battle. Without food the army would starve and without an army the cause would be lost. Often some of the most promising young officers would be given this responsibility as is evidenced by the role of General Ulysses S. Grant as a quartermaster before he ever commanded an army.
Hardtack and salt pork were the two most common consumables provided to Civil War soldiers in the field. Both could withstand the elements and would not deteriorate in the rough conditions the soldiers faced.
Hardtack or hard tack was a very hard cracker that could be made cheaply and consisted of roughly 4 parts flour, 2 parts water and 4 teaspoons of salt and would be baked to completion. It was square or rectangular in shape with holes in it much like a large soda cracker.
It would often take months before the hardtack reached the soldiers and by that time it was hard as a rock. It was often soaked in coffee to soften it up before ingesting. Soldiers often referred to it as “sheet iron crackers” or “teeth dullers”.
Salt pork was another common Civil War food item as there was no way to preserve meat and salt did the trick in this case. It was basically salt-cured pork and was form one of three cuts. It resembles uncut bacon slabs with more salt added for preservation.
The pork would be placed in barrels filled with salt and water and shipped by wagon to the soldiers. By the time it reached them it would be ready as the salt water mixture and the sloshing movement in the barrel did an excellent job of curing the pork.
Tobacco was readily available in Confederate camps as it was a commonly grown crop in the south. Often during a lull in action, Southern soldiers would trade their tobacco to northerners for coffee beans.
Coffee was hard to come by for both armies and they often used chicory root or burnt wheat as a substitute. When the soldiers did get coffee beans they were green and needed to be roasted over a fire without burning them. Finally they would be crushed under a rifle butt before they could be used for brewing.
Soldiers would forage for food, steal it, purchase food from sutlers or were often fed by the local population. During the Battle of Gettysburg, the Union soldiers were fed by the women of Gettysburg who labored in their kitchens cooking bread and whatever they had available to help feed the hungry soldiers. In fact, the only civilian killed during the battle was Jennie Wade while in her kitchen preparing to make bread for Union soldiers.
Civil War recipes still endure today as keepsakes of the past, and have become commonplace with Civil War reenactors looking for complete authenticity. Civil War food kept the common soldier moving and fighting and without it, the war would have been over in a heartbeat.