By Jessica Eichlin and Amanda E. Herbert
Food rations during wartime do not have the reputation for being delicious, fresh, or even edible, and this was especially true during the American Civil War. Fought from 1861-1865, the war disrupted supply lines across the United States, making food difficult to acquire for soldiers and citizens alike. When Union (northern) and Confederate (southern) troops were receiving rations, these usually included hardtack, salt pork, flour, and cornmeal; when soldiers were lucky, this rather grim diet was supplemented by small amounts of condiments such as molasses, salt and pepper, and sugar; beverages such as milk, coffee, or tea; and vegetables such as rice or hominy, dried beans or peas, and “fresh” (although frequently desiccated) vegetables. And whenever they were able, soldiers and sailors foraged for food, or traded with locals – both free and enslaved – in order to survive.
Finding and issuing nutritious, reliable rations was made even more difficult by the new military equipment that was developed during the Civil War. Although European countries had begun developing ironclad ships in the late 1850s, American shipbuilders were not prompted to create this innovative type of ship until the American Civil War. The South was the first to construct their ironclad (the CSS Virginia), followed quickly by the North. The Union’s USS Monitor, designed by John Ericsson, was ironclad as well as semi-submersible: it was the first ship with its living quarters and engines entirely below the waterline. The ship was nicknamed “Ericsson’s Folly” and “cheesebox on a raft” as no one thought it could float, let alone sail into battle. Because the sailors lived almost entirely underwater, provisioning them and keeping them healthy proved to be a difficult undertaking.
Primary source documents written by the sailors on board these ships help to reveal important details about the history of Civil War food. George Geer, a First-Class Fireman from Troy, New York who was stationed aboard the Monitor, corresponded with his wife Martha throughout the war, describing skirmishes, interactions with other sailors and officers, and especially the food on board ship. Prior to enlisting, Geer had been unemployed and in debt: as he and his wife had two children, it is perhaps unsurprising that many of his letters focused on food. But if Geer thought that joining the Union navy would keep him well-fed, his hopes were soon dashed. His letters are full of funny, sarcastic comments about sailor’s rations. In regards to the rock-like hardtack crackers, which were a staple of their diet, Geer said that the sailors could “eat as many crackers as [they] may wish which for me is usuly one.” When the men were given pork, Geer was dismayed that “it is of the Lardy kind and no body pretends to eat it…the balance [is] given to the Fishes.” Discussing bean soup, which the sailors consumed three times every week, Geer noted wryly that he was “tempted to strip off my shirt and make a dive and see if there realy is Beens in the Bottom.”
Geer’s colorful discussion of the food on board the USS Monitor did not stop with mere description. In his letters, he sometimes provided his wife with recipes for the foods that made up the sailors’ rations. In order to make navy-style tea, he told his wife to take “abut three times as much of black Tea or Grass as you would take to make a cup of Tea for you and me and about a tea cup full of that muscovada shugar that has such a bad taste.” The most detailed recipe inscribed by Geer was for a dessert called Apple Duff. Duff was a steamed or boiled pudding which was consumed frequently in the nineteenth century. It was simple to make and contained cheap ingredients, usually just flour, water, and a handful of fruit. Geer told his wife that he would “give you the recpt and you can try it.” He told her to “take ½ lb Flour to each person and wet it until it is a thick paste then put in one ounce [o]f Dride Apples to each person.” The apples, he noted, included “cores and dirt” and his wife should add them to the dough “without cutting them up or Washing them.” This mixture was to be put “in a Bag over night and boil then in the morning until it is about half done through then cut it up with a knife so as to make it as heavy as poseable.” The resulting lump of half-cooked dough was hard to digest, but it was filling – for although most puddings “will be apt to work out of your stomac in the course of time,” Geer joked, “this Duff is wanted to stay.”
Interested in the sources used in this post? You can find them here:
- “What Did Civil War Soldiers Eat?” Civil War Preservation Trust, accessed 13 April 2014. http://www.civilwar.org/education/pdfs/civil-war-curriculum-food.pdf
- “Duff,” in The Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson, ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 259.
- “Letter No 2,” George S. Geer Family Papers, 1862-1995, MS010, The Mariners’ Museum Library, Christopher Newport University, Newport News, Virginia.
- A.A. Hoehling, Thunder at Hampton Roads (New York: Prentice Hall, 1976).
Jessica Eichlin is a senior History Major at Christopher Newport University. She found these documents while working as an intern at the Mariner’s Museum and Mariner’s Museum Library, both in Newport News, Virginia. Jessica is on Twitter @jesseich