The Food of the Civil War

By Adria Alexander

Drinking Soldiers

Alcohol was a big part of the civil war. Many say it’s what won or lost the battles for either side. The civil war was a stressful time in our country’s history; many chose to seek comfort in drink when they were not drilling or fighting. Though banned drinking was stressed, and those who were caught with it were punished, alcohol was as much a part of war life as anything else. It is the overlooked fact of the war.

Drinking in the camp grounds was a major problem for both the Confederate and the Union armies. The war “bred as much drunkenness as lice.” Though the United States armies forbade men to buy and consume alcohol they still did. Though there was some punishment for those who were caught, it was never enough to eradicate the problem amongst all soldiers. However, this meant the men who snuck in alcohol had to be creative about it. Some made their own; moonshine whiskey was popular, however there was other even more crude methods to get the job done. One recipe called for using turpentine and lamp oil flavored with brown sugar. Others chose to buy and take the risk of sneaking it into camp; one Mississippi company snuck in drink by putting it in a watermelon rind, and the burying it in their tent. They then put a long straw through it, and consumed it as needed. Overall, alcohol among soldiers was common on both sides of the battle.


Drinking Generals

Though the generals of the war forbade their soldiers from drinking, often was the case of the commanding officer who enjoyed a drink or two. One of the most famous generals known for drinking was General Ulysses S. Grant. Some report his intoxication while on duty; some say his losses at Shiloh were due to his inebriation whilst commanding. Another general known for alcoholism was Joseph Hooker. Many mocked him for his last name, as it was fitting; he overindulged in both woman and drinking. Confederate commander James Longstreet was known for drinking and gambling in his headquarters. Confederate John Bell Hood often blamed his loses on his addiction to Laudanum, for pain injuries after Gettysburg. Though the officers and officials banned drinks in their camps, there was so much of it among themselves that sobriety on either side of camp was an uncommon event.



Water is one of the most important keys to survival. Dehydration can lead to a compromised immune system, heat stroke (in the right conditions), weakness, and susceptibiliy
to disease, fever, and death. Without the compromised conditions of war time, an average person can go almost two weeks without food; however, that same person can go only three days without water. Water is as essential to the survival of mass armies as food. Both Union and Confederate soldiers were to be issued one gallon of water per
day; however, war recounts say lucky was the man who got a quarter gallon. Professor James Roberton said “The quality and quantity of water remain essential to the human needs. Napoleon put it succinctly when he said ‘the greatest necessity of a soldier is water.
As water was scares and limited in supply, soldiers often collected their own water from nearby streams and other fresh water sources. However, as some men used this water for drinking, other fouled it. Contaminated water was the third biggest killer of the civil war. What is known today as Salmonella Typhus was then known as camp fever. Men would drink the contaminated water, then get sick and usually die from this ailment. The waters were so contaminated and infested with bacteria that most every man who drank it would catch camp fever.
150 years ago, water was a blessing second to only life itself. Today, we do not even pause to think about the source of this sacred liquid. Back in the time of the civil war, having clean or contaminated water separated who would live and who would perish.



Distribution of food and rationing supplies was a job given to a determined group of individuals called quartermasters. These men oversaw the food supply for the Union and Confederate armies, and were seen as some of the most important men of anyone in the war. Without these men, armies would literally collapse from hunger. No food, no
General Ulysses S. Grant

army. These quartermasters had some of the most complicated jobs of the war. Vast amounts of food had to constantly be acquired and moved across terrain that was often unfit for travel. They worked with troop numbers and schedules to keep a supply of food constantly flowing. This required individuals with a unique set of assets. Ulysses S. Grant spent a lot of his earlier career as an overseer for food rations. It was an era before modern food preservation techniques, so transportation was and distribution had many problems.
Soldiers never had the option of standing in line for food. For both Union and Confederacy soldiers, uncooked food was handed out. The soldiers themselves had to prepare it. However, though both systems were the same for both Union and Confederate soldiers, the amount of supplies given out was much different. The North had an advantage to begin with; a concentration of the commissaries was concentrated on their home territory. They had them from the get-go. The Confederacy took several years to develop a working Commissary, so being a soldier for the South was more difficult supply wise. To make up for their lack of infrastructure, the South did lots of food raids to ensure they had food before and between each battle.
For both North and South, soldiers depended on their food rations to fight and stay healthy. Their lives were dependent on the quartermasters, the men who provided them with this. Sometimes, soldiers wouldn’t know where their next meal was coming from, or how much food they were getting. The success of each army was determined by how nourished its soldiers were.

General Ulysses S. Grant

Everyday Foods

Civil war food was “far from a balanced diet.” It was given out in three day allotments. Every day, the soldier of the civil war gathered in small groups to prepare foods, called “messes”. They occasionally cooked over a spit, cast iron skillet, kettle, or open fire. The food was made with the limited supplies available to the soldiers; in a time before modern preservation techniques, all the food of the war had to be either non-perishable or packed in salt. Each soldier carried his food in something called a haversack, made of canvas with an inner cloth bag that could be washed. Soldiers on the field used these sacks to carry their food. These sacks could be washed; however they often still foul smelled.
Food often caused fights between men in both Union and Confederate camps. Some reports indicate that some men on the same side beat and shot each other over food. In a time when rations were shot, desperation took over. The foods mostly fought over were apples, meat,
, and pickles. These foods were considered specialties in the time of warfare.

Food was made with the limited supplies available. Something popular given out to soldiers was called “salt pork.” It was pork that was salted, blue, and sometimes with the hair and the skin still left from the animal on it. Beef jerky was another meat that was popular. Most of the time there wasn’t fresh meat; when there was, it included cattle, pigs, and sheep. When food was scares, horses and mules were eaten. It times of desperation, it was rats. When in enemy territory, soldiers often raided towns for chicken, fruits, vegetables, and other items from local places. The usual daily meal included rice, potatoes, onions, molasses, and other non-perishables. Union soldiers often consumed: fresh beef, coffee, sugar, salt, vinegar, dried fruit, vegetables, carrots, onions, turnips, and potatoes. Confederate soldiers often ate: bacon, cornmeal, tea, sugar, molasses, and vegetables. Fruit was especially important on both sides, as lack of it could cause Scurvy, which is a disease that resulted to tooth loss, receding gums, and internal bleeding. This was one of the many reasons that having a balanced diet was so important; lack of it caused disease and compromised immune systems. Without good food, soldiers were compromised in battle.


Comfort Foods

Whenever possible, the women nurses of the civil war gave out comfort foods to the sick and dying. It was almost like a last reminder of home and good food to nurse these men back to health, or as a farewell gift to the dying. Gingerbread was a common food given to these men, along with other baked goods. The women of the surrounding towns would often become the “chefs of their sides.” They would provide baked goods such as: Johnnie’s cake corn meal, idiot’s cake, and more. Idiot’s cake got its title because it was “so easy an idiot could make it.” Comfort foods could also be obtained in Union camps from sellers called Sulters. They would go around selling canned fruit and sugar. These people made it easier for the nurses to obtain the ingredients for their comfort foods.
Hard Tack



Hard Tack

Hard tack was considered the “spam of the civil war.” It was used on both Northern and Southern sides of the battlefield. Hard tack was a long square or rectangular cracker. It was obscenely hard, tasteless, and made out of baked flour and water. The soldiers loved and hated it: they loved it because it never went bad, but they hated it because it was practically inedible. It was indestructible, non-perishable, hard, tasteless, and often infested with worms and other critters. It was known as hard bread, ship’s biscuit, tooth dullers, sheet iron crackers, and worm castles. Soldiers often referred to it as “too hard to eat, and too big to make bullets out of.” It was a big part of the war because it was cheap to manufacture and easy to make and maintain. It lasted pretty much forever. In the Spanish American war 35 years later, the same hard tack left over from the Civil War was reused!
Some hard tack was so durable, it lasted through the war! This is a video showing hard tack 150 years after the war. Hard Tack

This is a video of me making hard tack.

The men of the Civil war often didn’t know where their next meal was coming from, or how much they would be given to eat or drink on any given day. It was a hard battle out there, and even harder if the soldiers didn’t have enough to eat or drink. Many of the brave men who fought endured bad food, contaminated water, and hard tack on a daily basis. Water was a gift of God, and alcohol was always there at the end of the day to take the edge off. In essence, fighting in the Civil war was no easy feat, especially when there was limited fuel provided for those who were in combat. Overall, the success of the armies was dependent on how well nourished its combatants were. An army is run off its stomach. Without food, armies by the thousands would perish.



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