The American Civil War, which lasted from 1861 to 1865, marked the most violent era in American history and resulted in the loss of more than 600,000 soldiers. The brave men marched under challenging and grueling conditions, often with limited supplies. The soldiers were issued uncooked rations that they had to cook without assistance. They gathered in small groups, known as messes, to prepare their evening meals.
The group’s members, known as messmates, took turns watching over the food as it cooked over open campfires. Kettles and cast iron skillets were the most common methods of preparing the food. During a march, the soldiers prepared all their rations and carried them in a haversack, a canvas sack they could sling over their shoulder. After several weeks of use, the bag often became greasy and took on an unpleasant smell. Occasionally, the men would hunt some wild game to roast on a spit. Wild meat and berries were a delicacy and helped to spice up the bland rations.
These unsavory biscuits were the main sustenance for Union soldiers. Because the food had to be transported for long distances over poor roads, longevity was the top priority. Hardtack was typically made up of slices of hard bread measuring half of an inch thick and three inches long. Flour, water, and salt were the main ingredients in the crackers, making them a cheap and sustainable form of food that was easy to transport from the northern factories. As the name suggests, they were hard, which means they had to be soaked in water or coffee before eating. In fact, the crackers were so hard that soldiers often broke their teeth on them. At times, they had so many worms and holes in them that they were called worm castles.
Salted beef and pork were some of the principal sources of protein during the Civil War. Unfortunately, soldiers on both sides were often given the worst bits of meat for their meals. Salt pork was a mass of unappealing, over-salted meat with skin, hair, dirt and other unpleasantries. Occasionally, the soldiers had salted beef, which was made up of undesirable parts like the offal, shank, and neck.
Hoecakes were essentially a mixture of water, cornmeal, salt and bacon grease cooked on the back of a hoe garden tool or a cast iron skillet. Skillets were in short supply, but garden hoes were a readily available option.
Skilligalee and coosh
The northern Union soldiers had skilligalee to warm themselves up after the end of a long march. It was one of the rare hot meals they were given. This was a simple meal made quickly over an open fire by frying salt pork and adding crumbled hardtack crackers. Alternatively, the soldiers first soaked the hardtacks in water before frying them in the fat from cooking the salt bacon. The southern Confederate soldiers had a coosh equivalent made of cornmeal instead of wheat. Coosh is similar to oat porridge and is prepared by frying bacon in a pan, then adding cornmeal and water. Very thick coosh could be cut into squares and fried again.
Spoils of war
In addition to hunting and gathering berries, the soldiers sometimes took cattle, sheep, and pigs during their campaigns. When they raided the homes and farms of enemy territories, they often got away with food items. The spoils of war include vegetables, chicken, cattle, horses, and mules. Sometimes they employed a scorched earth policy, burning whatever they could not carry. Although Army regulations do not condone such actions, there was no stopping the hungry men. Mules and horses often became part of the soldiers’ menu, and in desperate times, they ate dogs, cats, and even rats.
Coffee was a treasured drink during the war thanks to its ability to keep soldiers awake. Union soldiers received their ration of green raw coffee. They then roasted the beans over an open fire before crushing them with their rifle butts. Confederate soldiers had poor provisions and often had to make do with coffee substitutes such as chicory, acorns or rye.
The poor diets during the Civil War combined with unsanitary conditions to cause high rates of disease among soldiers, increasing the number of war casualties.