You Are What You Eat…

by Alison Arnold


Morale, as well as the physical stamina of soldiers in the Civil War, was directly dependent on what he ate each day. This was as true in the 1860s as it is today. The quartermasters who oversaw the food supply for the armies were among the most important officers because if they failed, an army could literally collapse from hunger.

Vast amounts of food and other supplies had to be constantly acquired and moved in an organized manner across often-impossible terrain under the most chaotic and harrowing of conditions. Did you know that General Ulysses S. Grant spent part of his earlier military career as a quartermaster?

In an era before refrigeration or modern food processing techniques, the soldiers had to make do with the best fare that could be sent to them. But infestation along with scarcity and unpalatability of rations made it necessary for soldiers to supplement their diets.

All of the quotations below are taken from the Civil War journal of Duxbury Private David Meechan. As we learn, a soldier could often gain a larger variety of foods either by foraging/raiding, by receiving food boxes from their families, buying from the local residents:

“February 6, 1862, …I had a good dinner of fish and potatoes…I bought some hot biscuits from a colored woman who was peddling in the camp.”

A soldier might also purchase items from sutlers—civilian merchants who sold provisions to the army in the field or in camp. They traveled with the army selling their goods out of a tent or the back of a wagon.

“January 20, 1862 Hall’s Hill Virginia, …There has been much complaining about the mean tricks of the sutler (Edward Pearl or Cheney) has been abusing his privilege and cheating our men. Exhorbitant, saucy, impudent. A plan to take him out and give him a coat of tar and feathers. Some of the men recommend tossing him in a blanket. The fun was to commence this evening. Colonel heard of the proposed rumpus and immediately took steps to stop it. Ordered a strong guard around the sutler’s entire premises…”

The most common, and likely the most despised, of all their foods was hardtack and salt pork.

March 7, 1862 –  …We were ordered to boil coffee and eat some hard tack and salt junk out of our haversacks.

January 31, 1862 – Cooks all sick, nothing to eat but raw pork and hardtack. Lot of grumbling.

January 22, 1862 – We had salt junk for breakfast, horribly salty and tough, but glad to get it. Hard tack with rice for dinner. Dry hard tack for supper.

These were the two things that every soldier carried in his rucksack because both were designed to withstand field conditions without going bad. Hardtack was a simple cracker made of flour and water, mixed and rolled to a thickness of about 3/8 of an inch. It was cut into squares and poked with a fork to speed baking time. It was described by the men as, “indestructible, imperishable, practically inedible, too hard to chew, too small for shoeing mules and too big to use as bullets.” Salt pork, as it is referred to sometimes as “salt junk” had a double duty in that the excess salt could be scraped off the meat to supplement the soldier’s salt ration.

“February 1, 1862 –  . . We had soup for dinner. Would not enjoy such in civilized society, but gulped it down with a relish. Ham Wadsworth called it fried water.”

In general, Union soldiers had enough food, even if it sometimes tasted terrible. The exceptions were when inexperienced or incompetent officers were in charge of distributing rations or when supply depots couldn’t keep up with troops in times of quick troop movement and battle.


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