US Civil War Food

Northern rations

According to an U.S. Army officer from the South before the war, the rations for a soldier during this time usually included:

20 oz. pork or beef – Beef was either fresh or salted, and pork was always salted.

12 oz. hard bread in camp or garrison or 16 oz. of hard bread at sea, on campaign, or on the march

1 oz. compressed cube of desiccated mixed vegetables or a 1.5 oz. compressed cube of desiccated potatoes if supplemental foods were unavailable

This would be supplemented by: (per 100 people)

8 qts. of beans or peas, 10 lbs. of rice or hominy, 10 lbs. of green coffee beans or 8 lbs. of roasted coffee beans, 10 lbs. of sugar, 2 qts. of salt, 1 quart of vinegar

The most common field rations issued to individual soldiers were salt pork and hardtack, both of which were designed to withstand field conditions without deteriorating. Excess salt could be scraped off the meat to supplement the salt ration. However, these rations required cooking to make them palatable. Less experienced soldiers were unlikely to have their own cooking equipment, and the large company-level kettles were sometimes left behind during rapid advances.

Food often became infested with insects, especially rice or grain weevils. This, along with scarcity and inedible rations, made it necessary for soldiers to supplement their diets on their own. Soldiers could obtain a greater variety of foods by foraging and/or raiding; receiving food boxes from their families; or purchasing/trading items with other soldiers. Soldiers could not count on obtaining food from the inhabitants of areas where they encamped since most citizens were also affected by the war and had little to give. If inhabitants supported the soldiers’ side in the war, sometimes they might manage to provide food, but it was usually acquired by theft.

Gail Borden’s invention of condensed milk was very helpful in for the Union army. Soldiers would also regularly drink coffee, however it was not always entirely coffee beans. Dandelion root served as a supplement or Ersatz good when coffee beans were scarce. Dandelion root was widely available and caffeine-free, tasting about the same as coffee.

Hardtack Biscuits

Southern rations

The rations for soldiers in the Confederate States of America army found itself lacking most of the items listed. The Confederate government attempted to provide adequate rations for their troops but were hampered by blockades, monoculture farming, and lack of transportation. They were served cornbread.

Confederate soldiers, on the other hand, had more access to tobacco than their Union counterparts. Southern soldiers could also use roasted chicory root as a coffee substitute. The peanut, due to its wide availability throughout southern North America, was also an important source of food for Confederate soldiers.

It is often said that the US Civil War was the first ‘Total War’, whereby everyone is involved from the soldiers to those at home. Whilst fighting the war, armies would travel around from state to state, well if they came across a farm or homesteads men would fleece them of any foods available if they couldn’t get it donated.

Both armies had their own commissary departments designed to organize the feeding of soldiers during the war. They oversaw the procurement, logistics, and the distribution of millions of pounds of food supplies, often shipped and stored in wooden barrels. Salted meats, coffee beans, dried peas or dried beans, sugar and hardtack, a stale biscuit (that would have to be softened in a liquid such as coffee), were all commonly distributed by these departments.

Often, while on field campaigns, soldiers found themselves saving some portions of food in their haversacks, washable canvas bags that provided storage but did little for food preservation. The soldiers’ diets often sometimes included salted pork, salted beef, salt, vinegar, and dried fruits and vegetables. Rarely, the soldiers could obtain fresh items such as carrots, onions, turnips, potatoes, and fresh fruit. The Union army soldiers were often given food items such as bacon, cornmeal, tea, sugar, molasses, and fresh vegetables.

Ben Davidson

Hello, I have been studying all aspects of history for about 25 years. I have a BA History from the University of Bedfordshire. My historical areas of interest are anything really, but I specialise in 19th - 20th century Britain, America and Ireland. I am also strongly aligned with most military history, really enjoying WW2 and the US Civil War. Chuck in the king or queen and Bob's your uncle.

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