Civil War history has fascinated citizens from both the North and South for over a century. Since many homeschool families will eventually be studying the various aspects of the causes of the war from the Northern and Southern perspective, cooking typical foods eaten by Union or Confederate soldiers may capture the imagination of your children as they imagine the trying hardships imposed upon soldiers and families forced to improvise meals out of basic foods while often facing shortages of staple ingredients.
Soldiers, Confederate soldiers in particular, depended on hardtack, a hard cracker, biscuit shaped, made from flour, salt, and water. Hardtack, was a staple food of choice because it was easy to carry, did not readily spoil, had the additional advantage of being lightweight, and was not subject to crumbling . The salt in the crackers protected soldiers from fainting during the brutal, hot, sweaty summer weather. Soldiers gave hardtack nicknames like "iron plate biscuits" and "teeth cullers" because of its tough, hard, almost solid consistency. Sometimes the crackers might contain weevils and maggots which would burrow into the hardtack which was then referred to as "worm castle".
The best way to eat hardtack was to dip it in water, coffee or tea. That practice softened the cracker enough so that it wouldn't break a solder's teeth, and, if the beverage was hot enough, would also kill the bugs. Soldier's were known to break hardtack into small pieces with the ends of their guns instead of their teeth.
As the war progressed, shortages of all kinds of food prevailed particularly among the Southern troops because of railroad service disruptions and other war related factors. Hence, foraging, scavanging, and rummaging for food in fields and forests supplemented meager or non-existent rations. Fresh meat became rare and the men learned to hunt for any available squirrels, rabbits, and other wild game they could find to be added to soups and stews. Sweet potatoes were a treat when no other sweet food was available. They could be baked in campfire coals, or mashed to prepared Sweet Potato Pudding and other tasty desserts. As you can imagine, anything to break the monotony of the hardtack, hoe cake, and spoiled meat diet was welcomed by the men.
Fresh fruits and vegtables were often scarce since women and children had to perform all the household tasks, animal care and many other farm tasks without the help of the men.
The drastic scarcity of salt, sugar, wheat flour, coffee, tea and other staple foods caused the Confederate soldiers and families at home to rely on many substitutes such as cornmeal in place of white flour. The Confederates used cornmeal to make hoe cakes, a corn meal mixture cooked on hoe blades over a fire. Fried cornmeal in the shape of large cakes were known as pones. Confederate cornbread probably was prepared without baking powder, unlike the Confederate Cornbread recipe.
Prior to the war, peanuts were grown primarily for pig food or export to other countries however, with meat sources very scarce soldiers often ate peanuts in place of meat as a protein source. Since peanuts were easy to grow, and stayed fresh a long time, they could easily be carried in small bags during long marches, or roasted over fires before eating them. Southern cooks learned to depend on plentiful peanuts and the nuts were prepared into candies such as the Peanut Brittle Recipe, below, a hard candy which could be shipped to soldiers for a rare treat.
Packages mailed from home to Confederate troops at times offered an array of food items such as sweets, breads, smoked meats, and vegetables. Sweets might include apple or cherry pie, honey and jams. Familes might pack butter, pickles, apples, pears, cheese, and nuts into the boxes sent to soldiers along with other needed items such as candles, blankets, soap, books and clothing. With unreliable mail services, personal messengers often delivered packages to the soldiers to insure that the foods could be enjoyed before it spoiled.
Union soldiers were, in general, better fed than the Confederate Army because they had more money and better supplies. A Union soldier's daily camp rations included upt to12 ounces of pork or bacon, or 20 ounces of salt or fresh beef, and 22 ounces of soft bread or flour, or 16 ounces of hard bread, or 20 ounces of cornmeal. And, for every 100 soldier's rations, they were supplemented with additional rations including beans, peas, rice or hominy, coffee, sugar, candles, soap, salt, vinegar, pepper, potatoe, and molasses.
Most of the cooking was done by the soldier's themselves, divided into small groups called messes, who cooked over open, hot, smokey fires with heavy cast iron cookware. Dried beans such as kidney, navy, pinto or waxed beans might be eaten three times a day. Beans placed in hot coals in a hole in the ground, would cook through the night. Salt pork or other available meats added flavor and any fresh or dried vegetables or greens and potatoes also went into soups such as the Navy Bean Soup.
Like their Confederate counterparts, Union soldiers foraged the countryside for fruits and berries. Fruit cobblers or pies, prepared from berries after a successful foraging trip, would also be baked on a bed of hot coals inside cast iron dutch ovens. Apples could be enjoyed from August through October. Often the men would thinly slice apples, and dry them in the sun, so they could be safely e stored and enjoyed through the winter months. Dried apples, excellent vitamin C sources for soldiers, helped prevent scurvy, a bleeding gum disease. Reconstituted apples could be prepared into Skillet-Fried Apples or made into pies for a sweet dessert.
Despite the hardships and shortages, both Northern and Southern families at home as well as the troops in the field, found ways to incorporate Christmas celebrations with traditional foods and special meals. Southern families lacked the food to make big dinners but did their best to set aside some special food for the Christmas holiday. Slaves celebrated New Year's Day with Hoppin' John, a mixture of black-eyed peas and rice, ingredients that were uksually available even during the food shortages. Northern families saved precious sugar and butter resources during the year in order to prepare special treats for holiday celebrations such as Tea Cake Cookies and Gingerbread.
It has been said that an army travels on it's stomach and you can see how the outcome of military conflicts could hinge on how well-supplied the soldiers are. One thing is sure, some of our traditional foods of today, such as sweet potato pie, cornbread, Hoppin' John, peanut brittle and others trace their origins back to the difficult days of the Civil War food shortages. Families who wish to maximize Civil War Era battlefield reenactments with tradtional recipes will enjoy the most authentic ambience when the foods are prepared in stoneware or wooden bowls, cooked over open fires in cast iron pans , and served on tin plates.