The Civil War was a devastating time in American history, leading to more American causalities than any other war the United States has ever been engaged in. Conditions were rough for both Union and Confederate soldiers, and ensuring that they had enough food in the field was often a real struggle.
In order to survive, soldiers in the Civil War had to rely on a variety of foods that would keep for long periods of time and store easily. Some of the food that they ate in the field can still be used today as survival food. Below, we’ll take a look at various types of foods that Civil War soldiers relied on for survival.
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Like rice, beans were just as much a staple for survival in the Civil War era as they are today. Baked beans (usually made from navy beans) was an especially favored dish among Union soldiers when the time and supplies to prepare them were available.
Coffee was one of the most prized food items among Civil War soldiers. It wasn’t always available, and it was considered to be a valuable luxury. Typically, Civil War soldiers would be given green coffee beans and would have to dry and roast the beans themselves.
Another interesting note about coffee during the Civil War is the fact that coffee beans were only available to Union soldiers. Confederate soldiers, meanwhile, were the only ones who had access to tobacco. Therefore, when they weren’t fighting, Union and Confederate soldiers would often trade tobacco for coffee beans and vise versa.
3. Corn Meal
Corn meal is another food item that was a staple for Confederate soldiers. Cornbread was a popular dish in the South, but soldiers often lacked the ingredients to make actual cornbread out of their cornmeal.
However, cornmeal was still used to make other foods and was sometimes cooked without ingredients such as milk and eggs to make a simplistic form of cornbread.
4. Dried Fruit
Fruit contains a number of essential nutrients that you can’t get in many other foods. Since fresh fruit has an incredibly short shelf life, though, Civil War soldiers relied on fruit that had been dried in the sun.
Dried fruit was also considered something of a treat compared to the other foods soldiers eaten which were, at best, savory rather than sweet and, at worst, entirely bland. Here’s how to dehydrate food without electricity.
5. Foraged Food
While there are a variety of foods that Civil War soldiers carried with them, the reality is that much of their food was foraged from the land they were occupying at the time. If there was a farm nearby, soldiers would often gather food from it – either peacefully if the farm owner was generous or, many times, by force if they were not.
Soldiers would sometimes hunt for wild game as well if they had time. Neither hunting nor foraging food from local farms, though, made for a very reliable way to feed an army. Rather than counting on these methods for the bulk of their food, most soldiers simply used hunting and foraging as an opportunity to gather extra rations or to access foods they wouldn’t otherwise be able to acquire.
Hardtack is the most well-known Civil War cuisine, thanks largely in part to its infamy as a rather unpleasant food. Civil War soldiers who were forced to survive on hardtack created several nicknames for the hard, flour biscuits including “sheet iron crackers”, “tooth-dullers”, and “worm castles”.
Despite not having the best flavor or texture, though, hardtack didn’t spoil and was easy to store, making it an important food for soldiers in the field. Here is how to make hardtack.
Molasses was a more common and available food for Confederate soldiers than it was for soldiers in the Union. It didn’t make for a very filling or nutritious food in and of itself, but it was often used to sweeten dishes such as rice and beans and was also placed on hardtack to make bland biscuits a little more flavorful.
Peas were a staple vegetable in the South and were eaten primarily by soldiers fighting for the Confederacy. Peas could be dried out to help extend their shelf life and then boiled to make for a filling dish.
In the same way that rice is a staple survival food in modern times, it was an important food for Civil War soldiers as well. White rice made for a filling food with a long shelf life that was easy to store, transport, and prepare.
Like sugar, salt was an essential item for improving the flavor of the food that Civil War soldiers ate. It also made for an important preservative, helping soldiers extend the shelf life of any meat they were able to acquire.
11. Salted Pork
Protein was an absolute necessity for soldiers in the field, but it was also difficult to come by. Wild game or farm animals could be butchered if they were available, but the meat would need to be cooked the same day and could not be transported.
In order to extend the shelf life of the meat so it could be transported and eaten in the field, Civil War soldiers would boil and salt pork. In addition to pork, beef was often prepared in the same manner.
Sugar was an important seasoning for Civil War soldiers, whose food choices were often quite bland. It was added to a wide range of dishes that the soldiers prepared, and it was also an important addition to their coffee, when coffee was available.