Civil War Food – What Union and Confederate Soldiers Ate

The modern U.S. army has a wide array of food products available to them in base camps and in the field. There are a large number of MREs (which are actually quite tasty) and other portable foods available to them when on missions and when stationed in hostile terrain. And when posted at an established base camp, the food that is prepared is also quite good. A large part of this is of course the ready availability of large quantities of any sort of food imaginable in today’s modern environment. In fact, today’s soldiers have the best food ever made available to a fighting force.

But it wasn’t always that way.

Take the Civil War. Civil War food kept the soldiers fed and not much else. Lets take a look at the diet that comprised the typical Civil War food ration. There were several issues that affected the food that was supplied to the Civil War soldiers. These include the organization of the Commissary Department – which was tasked with the acquisition and distribution of food to the soldiers in the field, the season which determined if fresh food was available or if it was preserved in some way and the ability of the food to stay good for long term storage and transportation.

Prior to the war, the concentration of Commissaries was in the North so when the Civil War began, the North had a great advantage as they already had an existing Commissary Department that was already trained in how to acquire and transport food to soldiers in the field. Their job was to work with the troop numbers and schedules and keep a constant supply of foods going to each area where troops were stationed so that the soldiers could keep on fighting without worrying about where their next meal would be coming from. It took the Confederacy several years to develop a working Commissary so being a soldier of the South was more difficult. It required real dedication to be fighting when you didn’t know where your next meal was coming from. Because of this lack of infrastructure, the South had to do a lot of foraging for food between battles until the supply lines were up and operational.

Civil War soldier food was typically very simple fare – often consisting of meat, coffee, sugar and hardtack – a type of dried biscuit. The meat was often salted or dried so it would last a bit longer and fruits and vegetables were rarities on the battlefield. Because the soldiers were often in the field, they needed to carry rations with them. They had a special bag – called a haversack – which was made of canvas with an inner cloth bag that could be washed to get food debris cleaned out once in a while. But even with this design, the bags were often quite contaminated and foul smelling. Cleanliness was typically not high on the Civil War soldiers priority list.

Union soldiers and Confederate soldiers typically had a different mix of rations. A Union soldier might have salt pork, fresh or salted beef, coffee, sugar, salt, vinegar, dried fruit and vegetables. And if it was in season, they might have fresh carrots, onions, turnips and potatoes. A Confederate soldier typically had bacon, corn meal, tea, sugar, molasses and the very occasional fresh vegetable.

The other difference in Civil War food between the Union and Confederate armies was the type of bread product they had available to them. Confederate soldiers had something called “Johnnie Cake” that they made in the field from cornmeal, milk and a few other ingredients. The Union soldiers had hardtack, also referred to as “tooth dullers” or “sheet iron crackers”. Hardtack was manufactured in large factories in the North and was a staple food for the Union soldiers. Hardtack got its name because it was often not used until months after it was made and during that time, it hardened rock solid which is how it got its nicknames.

As you can see, food has come a long way due to the advent of technologies that allow for better preservation of a wide variety of foods. Gone are the days of weevil infested hardtack. They have been replaced with modern vacuum seal technologies that allow foods to stay fresh and tasty years after they have been packages. And since they say an army is run by its stomach, it is no surprise that the modern soldier is the best the world has ever seen.