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I thought that with Thanksgiving just getting over for those of us here in the States it would be interesting to think about what the soldiers' meals were like. Most of us have plenty to eat -- at least it sounds like it from the tone of the messages that were on the list this past week. Try to put yourselves in the places of the soldiers who didn't have the best of meals.

Have you ever wondered what the soldiers ate and how they got their food? At the beginning of the war both Yankees and Confederates were issued what seemed to be a sufficient amount of food. U.S. regulations of the 1860s mandated that a Union soldier was entitled to receive a daily ration consisting of meat, soft bread or flour; hard bread also known as hardtack and cornmeal. In addition to the individual ration, for every 100 men, there was a ration of beans or peas, rice or hominy, coffee or tea, sugar, candles, soap, salt, vinegar, pepper, potatoes and molasses. The Confederacy began the war by following the Federal army's rationing system but by 1862, had to cut back the amount given its soldiers.

While on paper the daily rationing seemed ample, there were periods of starvation for both sides. Southern soldiers complained that their beef ration was so tough that the cattle must have been near starvation before being slaughtered. Contrary to what one may believe, the South didn't suffer a food shortage as much as a lack of transportation, inefficiency in distribution and a lack of packing supplies. Southern soldiers suffered immensely when the North cut the Confederacy in half, in 1863, and drastically reduced the flow of meat, sugar, molasses and other necessary items.

Hardtack, a biscuit made of flour, water and salt; coffee and salted meat, whether it was beef or pork, soon became the standard issue for the Union soldier. The Confederates, on the other hand, lived on hoe-cakes, a thin bread made from cornmeal without milk or egg; meat (more pork than beef) and a coffee substitute made from white or sweet potatoes, peas, parched peanuts, corn, rye, bran or wheat germ. Needless to say soldiers soon supplemented their supply by foraging. This was not just living off the land but also included appropriating civilian goods. A Union soldier recalled foraging parties bringing in Confederate cattle and hogs and when finding Confederate stores confiscating pork, meal, flour and sugar. There were times when hunger took over their senses and soldiers risked being killed to take the haversacks of fallen soldiers during a battle. But it was in this way that men kept from starving. Union soldiers would revel in enjoyment when they found hoe-cakes in the haversacks and it was after a long march during the cold and rain that Confederates especially appreciated the coffee.

Put aside the thought of how little food the soldiers had and think about the actual food preparation. Cooking was a major duty and for some soldiers a pleasure. Despite the fact that there was little variety in the selection of food, soldiers found different ways to cook it. Meat was sometimes fried in a tin spider made by cutting a canteen in half, or skewered on their ramrods and cooked over the open campfire. When cooked in the latter manner, the soldiers would hold a hardtack under the piece of meat to catch the drippings. What a difference from having the chests of cooking utensils, dishes, and general camp supplies soldiers carried with them at the start of the war. As the war dragged on regulations changed and the quantity and quality of these supplies diminished leaving the soldiers to devise ways to cook using what they had with them. Campfires not only served as a cooking place but replaced the firesides of home and gave the soldiers a sense of security by allowing them the chance to indulge in conversation or write letters at the end of the day.

Coco, Gregory A. "The Civil War Infantryman: In Camp, on the March, and in Battle" Gettysburg, Pa: THOMAS PUBLICATIONS, 1996

I don't know about you but I find it very hard to put myself in those soldier's places. And I'm just thankful that I am where I am and have what I have.

© 2006 Winifred Ledoux