Army rations: what they were.--how they were distributed.--how they were cooked.
“Here's a pretty mess!
“God bless the pudding,
God bless the meat,
God bless us all;
Sit down and eat.
A Harvard Student's Blessing, 1796.
“Fall in for your rations, company a!”
My theme is Army Rations.
And while what I have to say on this subject may be applicable to all of the armies of the Union
in large measure, yet, as they did not fare just alike, I will say, once for all, that my descriptions of army life pertain, when not otherwise specified, especially to that life as it was lived in the Army of the Potomac.
In beginning, I wish to say that false impression has obtained more or less currency both with regard to the quantity and quality of the food furnished the soldiers.
I have been asked a great many times whether I always got enough to eat in the army, and have surprised inquirers by answering in the affirmative.
Now, some old soldier may say who sees my reply, “Well, you were lucky.
But I should at once ask him to tell me for how long a time his regiment was ever without food of some kind.
I am not now referring to our prisoners of war, who starved by the thousands.
And I should be very much surprised if he should say more than twenty-four or thirty hours, at the outside.
I would grant that he himself might, perhaps, have been so situated as to be deprived of food a longer time, possibly when he was on an exposed picket post, or serving as rear-guard to the army, or doing something which separated him temporarily from his company; but his case
would be the exception and not the rule.
Sometimes, when active operations were in progress, the army was compelled to wait a few hours for its trains to come up, but no general hardship to the men ever ensued on this account.
Such a contingency was usually known some time in advance, and the men would husband their last issue of rations, or, perhaps, if the country admitted, would make additions to their bill of fare in the shape of poultry or pork;--usually it was the latter, for the Southerners do not pen up their swine as do the Northerners, but let them go wandering about, getting their living much of the time as best they can. This
led some one to say jocosely, with no disrespect intended to the people however, “that every other person one meets on a Southern street is a hog.”
They certainly were quite abundant, and are to-day, in some form, the chief meat food of that section.
But on the point of scarcity of rations I believe my statement will be generally agreed to by old soldiers.
Now, as to the quality
the case is not quite so clear, but still the picture has been often overdrawn.
There were, it is true, large quantities of stale beef or salt horse — as the men were wont to call it-served out, and also rusty, unwholesome pork; and I presume the word “hardtack” suggests to the uninitiated a piece of petrified bread honeycombed with bugs and maggots, so much has this article of army diet been reviled by soldier and civilian.
Indeed, it is a rare occurrence for a soldier to allude to it, even at this late day, without some reference to its hardness, the date of its manufacture, or its propensity for travel.
But in spite of these unwholesome rations, whose existence no one calls in question, of which I have seen — I must not say eaten — large
quantities, I think the government did well, under the circumstances, to furnish the soldiers with so good a quality of food as they averaged to receive.
Unwholesome rations were not the rule, they were the exception, and it was not the fault of the government that these were furnished, but very often the intent of the rascally, thieving contractors who supplied them, for which they received the price of good rations; or, perhaps, of the inspectors, who were in league with the contractors, and who therefore did not always do their duty.
No language can be too strong to express the contempt every patriotic man, woman, and child must feel for such small-souled creatures, many of whom are to-day rolling in the riches acquired in this way and other ways equally disreputable and dishonorable.
I will now give a complete list of the rations served out to the rank and file, as I remember them.
They were salt pork,
fresh beef, salt beef, rarely ham or bacon, hard bread, soft bread, potatoes, an occasional onion, flour, beans, split pease, rice, dried apples, dried peaches, desiccated vegetables, coffee, tea, sugar, molasses, vinegar, candles, soap, pepper, and salt.
It is scarcely necessary to state that these were not all served out at one time.
There was but one kind of meat served at once, and this, to use a Hibernianism, was usually
When it was hard bread, it wasn't soft
bread or flour, and when it was pease or beans it wasn't rice.
Here is just what a single ration comprised, that is, what a soldier was entitled to have in one day. He should have had twelve ounces of pork or bacon, or
one pound four ounces of salt or fresh beef; one pound six ounces of soft bread or flour, or
one pound of hard bread, or
one pound four ounces of corn meal
With every hundred such rations there should have been distributed one peck of beans or pease; ten pounds of rice or hominy; ten pounds of green coffee, or
eight pounds of roasted and ground, or
one pound eight ounces of tea; fifteen pounds of sugar; one pound four ounces of candles; four pounds of soap; two quarts of salt; four
quarts of vinegar; four ounces of pepper; a half bushel of potatoes when practicable, and one quart of molasses.
Desiccated potatoes or desiccated compressed vegetables might be substituted for the beans, pease, rice, hominy, or fresh potatoes.
Vegetables, the dried fruits
, pickles, and pickled cabbage were occasionally issued to prevent scurvy, but in small quantities.
But the ration thus indicated was a camp ration.
Here is the marching
ration: one pound of hard bread; threefourths of a pound of salt pork, or one and one-fourth pounds of fresh meat; sugar, coffee, and salt.
The beans, rice, soap, candles, etc., were not issued to the soldier when on the march, as he could not carry them; but, singularly enough, as it seems to me, unless the troops went into camp before the end of the month, where a regular depot of supplies might be established from which the other parts of the rations could be issued, they were forfeited
, and reverted to the government — an
injustice to the rank and file, who, through no fault of their own, were thus cut off from a part of their allowance at the time when they were giving most liberally of their strength and perhaps of their very heart's blood.
It was possible for company commanders and for no one else
to receive the equivalent of these missing parts of the ration in cash
from the brigade commissary, with the expectation that when thus received it would be distributed among the rank and file to whom it belonged.
Many officers did not care to trouble themselves with it, but many others did, and — forgot to pay it out afterwards.
I have yet to learn of the first company whose members ever received any revenue from such a source, although the name of Company Fund
is a familiar one to every veteran.
The commissioned officers fared better in camp than the enlisted men. Instead of drawing rations after the manner of the latter, they had a certain cash allowance, according to rank, with which to purchase supplies from the Brigade Commissary
, an official whose province was to keep stores
on sale for their convenience.
The monthly allowance of officers in infantry, including servants, was as follows: Colonel
, six rations worth $56, and two servants; Lieutenant-Colonel
, five rations worth $45, and two servants; Major
, four rations worth $36, and two servants; Captain
, four rations worth $36, and one servant; First and Second Lieutenants
, jointly, the same as Captains
In addition to the above, the field officers had an allowance of horses and forage proportioned to their rank.
I will speak of the rations more in detail, beginning with the hard bread, or, to use the name by which it was known in the Army of the Potomac, Hardtack
. What was hardtack?
It was a plain flour-and-water biscuit.
Two which I have in my possession as mementos measure three and one-eighth by two and seven-eighths inches, and are nearly half and inch thick.
Although these biscuits were furnished to organizations by weight, they were dealt out to the men by number, nine constituting a ration in some regiments, and ten in others ; but there were usually enough for those who wanted more, as some men would not draw them.
While hardtack was nutritious, yet a hungry man could eat his ten in a short time and still be hungry.
When they were poor and fit objects for the soldiers' wrath, it was due to one
of three conditions: First, they may have been so hard that they could not be bitten; it then required a very strong blow of the fist to break them.
The cause of this hardness it would be difficult for one not an expert to determine.
A hard-tack — full size.|
This variety certainly well deserved their name.
They could not be soaked
soft, but after a time took on the elasticity of gutta-percha.
The second condition was when they were mouldy or wet, as sometimes happened, and should not have been given to the soldiers.
I think this condition was often due to their having been boxed up too soon after baking.
was frequently due to exposure to the weather.
It was no uncommon sight to see thousands of boxes of hard bread piled up at some railway station or other place used as a base of supplies, where they were only imperfectly sheltered from the weather, and too often not sheltered at all. The failure of inspectors to do their full duty was one reason that so many of this sort reached the rank and file of the service.
The third condition was when from storage they had become infested with maggots and weevils.
These weevils were, in my experience, more abundant than the maggots.
They were a little, slim, brown bug an eighth of an inch in length, and were great bores
on a small scale, having the ability to completely riddle the hardtack.
I believe they never interfered with the hardest variety.
When the bread was mouldy or moist, it was thrown away and made good at the next drawing, so that the men were not the losers; but in the case of its being infested with the weevils, they had to stand it as a rule; for the biscuits had to be pretty thoroughly alive, and well covered with the webs which these creatures left, to insure condemnation.
An exception occurs to me. Two cargoes of hard bread came to City Point
, and on being examined by an inspector were found to be infested with weevils.
This fact was brought to Grant
's attention, who would not allow it landed, greatly to the discomfiture of the contractor, who had been attempting to bulldoze the inspector to pass it.
The quartermasters did not always take as active an interest in righting such matters as they should have done; and when the men growled at them, of course they were virtuously indignant and prompt to shift the responsibility to the next higher power, and so it passed on until the real culprit could not be found.
But hardtack was not so bad an article of food, even when traversed by insects, as may be supposed.
Eaten in the dark, no one could tell the difference between it and hardtack that
It was no uncommon occurrence for a man to find the surface of his pot of coffee swimming with weevils, after breaking up hardtack in it, which had come out of the fragments only to drown; but they were easily skimmed off, and left no distinctive flavor behind.
If a soldier cared to do
A box of hardtack.|
so, he could expel the weevils by heating the bread at the fire.
The maggots did not budge in that way. The most of the hard bread was made in Baltimore
, and put up in boxes of sixty pounds gross, fifty pounds net; and it is said that some of the storehouses in which it was kept would swarm with weevils in an incredibly short time after the first box was infested with them, so rapidly did these pests multiply.
Having gone so far, I know the reader will be interested to learn of the styles in which this particular article was served up by the soldiers.
I say styles
because I think there must have been at least a score of ways adopted to make this simple flour tile
Of course, many of them were eaten just as they were received — hardtack plain;
then I have already spoken of their being crumbed in coffee, giving the “hardtack and coffee.”
Probably more were eaten in this way than in any other, for they thus frequently furnished the soldier his breakfast and supper.
But there were
other and more appetizing ways of preparing them.
Many of the soldiers, partly through a slight taste for the business but more from force of circumstances, became in their way and opinion experts in the art of cooking the greatest variety of dishes with the smallest amount of capital.
Some of these crumbed them in soups for want of other thickening.
For this purpose they served very well.
crumbed them in cold water, then fried the crumbs in the juice and fat of meat.
A dish akin to this one, which was said to “make the hair curl,” and certainly was indigestible enough to satisfy the cravings of the most ambitious dyspeptic, was prepared by soaking hardtack in cold water, then frying them brown in pork fat, salting to taste.
Another name for this dish was “skillygalee.”
Some liked them toasted, either to crumb in coffee, or, if a sutler was at hand whom they could patronize, to butter.
The toasting generally took place from the end of a split stick, and if perchance they dropped out of it into the camp-fire, and were not recovered quickly enough to prevent them from getting pretty well charred, they were not thrown away on that account, being then thought good for weak bowels.
Then they worked into milk-toast made of condensed milk at seventy-five cents a can; but only a recruit with a big bounty, or an old vet the child of wealthy parents, or a re-enlisted man did much in that way. A few who succeeded by hook or by crook in saving up a portion of their sugar ration spread it
The hodge-podge of lobscouse also contained this edible among its divers other ingredients; and so in various ways the ingenuity of the men was taxed to make this plainest and commonest yet most serviceable of army food to do duty in every conceivable combination.
There is an old song, entitled Hard times,
which some one in the army parodied.
I do not remember the verses, but the men used to sing the following chorus:--
'Tis the song of the soldier, weary, hungry, and faint,
Hardtack, hardtack, come again no more;
Many days have I chewed you and uttered no complaint,
O Greenbacks, come again once more!
It is possible at least that this song, sung by the soldiers of the Army of the Potomac, was an outgrowth of the following circumstance and song.
I am quite sure, however, that the verses were different.
For some weeks before the battle of Wilson's Creek, Mo.
, where the lamented Lyon
fell, the First Iowa Regiment had been supplied with a very poor quality of hard bread (they were not then (1861) called hardtack
). During this period of hardship to the regiment, so the story goes, one of its members was inspired to produce the following touching lamentation:--
Let us close our game of poker,
Take our tin cups in our hand,
While we gather round the cook's tent door,
Where dry mummies of hard crackers
Are given to each man;
O hard crackers, come again no more!
chorus:--'Tis the song and sigh of the hungry,
”Hard crackers, hard crackers, come again no more!
Many days have you lingered upon our stomachs sore.
O hard crackers, come again no more!“
There's a hungry, thirsty soldier
Who wears his life away,
With torn clothes, whose better days are o'er;
He is sighing now for whiskey,
And, with throat as dry as hay,
Sings, “Hard crackers, come again no more!” --chorus.
'Tis the song that is uttered
In camp by night and day,
'Tis the wail that is mingled with each snore,
'Tis the sighing of the soul
For spring chickens far away,
“O hard crackers, come again no more!” --chorus.
When General Lyon
heard the men singing these stanzas in their tents, he is said to have been moved by them to the extent of ordering the cook to serve up corn-meal
mush, for a change, when the song received the following alteration:--
But to groans and to murmurs
There has come a sudden hush,
Our frail forms are fainting at the door;
We are starving now on horse-feed
That the cooks call mush,
O hard crackers, come again once more!
chorus:--It is the dying wail of the starving,
Hard crackers, lard crackers, come again once more;
You were old and very wormy, but we pass your failings o'er.
O hard crackers, come again once more!
The name hardtack seems not to have been in general use among the men in the Western
But I now pass to consider the other bread ration — the loaf
or soft bread
. Early in the war the ration of flour was served out to the men uncooked; but as the eighteen ounces
allowed by the government more than met the needs of the troops, who at that time obtained much of their living from outside sources (to be spoken of hereafter), it was allowed, as they innocently supposed, to be sold for the benefit of the Company Fund
, already referred to. Some organizations drew, on requisition, ovens, semi-cylindrical in form, which were properly set in stone, and in these regimental cooks or bakers baked bread for the regiment.
But all of this was in the tentative period of the war.
An Army oven.|
As rapidly as the needs of the troops pressed home to the government, they were met with such despatch and efficiency as circumstances would permit.
For a time, in 1861, the vaults under the broad terrace on the western front of the Capitol
were converted into bakeries, where sixteen thousand loaves of bread were baked daily.
The chimneys from the ovens pierced the terrace where now the freestone pavement joins the grassy slope, and for months smoke poured out of these in dense black volumes.
The greater part of the loaves supplied to the Army of the Potomac up to the summer of 1864 were baked in Washington
, and at Fort Monroe, Virginia
The ovens at the latter place had a capacity of thirty thousand loaves a day. But even with all these sources worked to their uttermost, brigade commissaries were obliged to set up ovens near their respective depots, to eke out enough bread to fill orders.
These were erected on the sheltered side of a hill or woods, then enclosed in a stockade, and the whole covered with old canvas.
When the army reached the vicinity of Petersburg
, the supply of fresh loaves became a matter of greater difficulty
and delay, which Grant
immediately obviated by ordering ovens built at City Point
A large number of citizen bakers were employed to run them night and day, and as a result one hundred and twenty-three thousand fresh loaves
were furnished the army daily from this single source; and so closely did the delivery of these follow upon the manipulations of the bakers that the soldiers quite frequently
received them while yet warm from the oven.
Soft bread was always a very welcome change from hard bread; yet, on the other hand, I think the soldiers tired sooner of the former than of the latter.
Men who had followed the sea preferred the hard bread.
, in Southern Indiana
, was the headquarters from which bread was largely supplied to the Western
I began my description of the rations with the bread as being the most important one to the soldier.
Some old veterans may be disposed to question the judgment which gives it this rank, and claim that coffee
, of which I shall speak next, should take first; place in importance; in reply
to which I will simply say that he is wrong, because coffee, being a stimulant, serves only a temporary purpose, while the bread has nearly or quite all the elements of nutrition necessary to build up the wasted tissues of the body, thus conferring a permanent benefit.
Whatever words of condemnation or criticism may have been bestowed on other government rations, there was but one opinion of the coffee which was served out, and that was of unqualified approval.
The rations may have been small, the commissary or quartermaster may have given us a short allowance, but what we
Apportioning coffee and sugar.|
got was good.
And what a perfect Godsend it seemed to us at times!
How often, after being completely jaded by a night march,--and this is an experience common to thousands,--have I had a wash, if there was water to be had, made and drunk my pint or so of coffee, and felt as fresh and invigorated as if just arisen from a night's sound sleep!
At such times it could seem to have had no substitute.
It would have interested a civilian to observe the manner in which this ration was served out when the army was in active service.
It was usually brought to camp in an oat. sack, a regimental quartermaster receiving and apportioning
his among the ten companies, and the quartermaster-sergeant of a battery apportioning his to the four or six detachments.
Then the orderly-sergeant of a company or the sergeant of a detachment must devote himself to dividing it. One method of accomplishing this purpose was to spread a rubber blanket on the ground,--more than one if the company was large,--and upon it were put as many piles of the coffee as there were men to receive rations; and the care taken to make the piles of the same size to the eye, to keep the men from growling, would remind one of a country physician making his powders, taking a little from one pile and adding to another.
The sugar which always accompanied the coffee was spooned out at the same time on another blanket.
When both were ready, they were given out, each man taking a pile, or, in some companies, to prevent any charge of unfairness or injustice, the sergeant would turn his back on the rations, and take out his roll of the company.
Then, by request, some one else would point to a pile and ask, “Who shall have this?”
and the sergeant, without turning, would call a name from his list of the company or detachment, and the person thus called would appropriate the pile specified.
This process would be continued until the last pile was disposed of. There were other plans for distributing the rations; but I have described this one because of its being quite common.
The manner in which each man disposed of his coffee and sugar ration after receiving it is worth noting.
Every soldier of a month's experience in campaigning was provided with some sort of bag into which he spooned his coffee; but the kind
of bag he used indicated pretty accurately, in a general way, the length of time he had been in the service.
For example, a raw recruit just arrived would take it up in a paper, and stow it away in that well known receptacle for all eatables, the soldier's haversack, only to find it a part of a general mixture of hardtack, salt pork, pepper, salt, knife, fork, spoon, sugar, and. coffee by the time the next halt was made.
A recruit of longer standing, who had been through this experience and had begun to feel his wisdom-teeth coming, would take his up in a bag made of a scrap of rubber blanket or a poncho
; but after a few days carrying the rubber would peel off or the paint of the poncho
would rub off from contact with the greasy pork or boiled meat rational which was its travelling companion, and make a black, dirty mess, besides leaving the coffee-bag unfit for further use. Now and then some young soldier, a little starchier than his fellows, would bring out an oil-silk bag lined with cloth, which his mother had made and sent him; but even oil-silk couldn't stand everything, certainly not the peculiar inside furnishings of the average soldier's haversack, so it too was not long in yielding.
But your plain, straightforward old veteran, who had shed all his poetry and romance, if he had ever possessed any, who had roughed it up and down “Old Virginny,” man and boy, for many months, and who had tried all plans under all circumstances, took out an oblong plain cloth bag, which looked as immaculate as the every-day shirt of a coal-heaver, and into it scooped without ceremony both his sugar and coffee, and stirred them thoroughly together.
There was method in this plan.
He had learned from a hard experience that his sugar was a better investment thus disposed of than in any other way; for on several occasions he had eaten it with his hardtack a little at a time, had got it wet and melted in a rain, or, what happened fully as often, had sweetened his coffee to his taste when the sugar was kept separate, and in consequence had several messes of coffee to drink without
sweetening, which was not
to his taste.
There was now and then a man who could keep the two separate, sometimes in different ends of the same bag, and serve them up proportionally.
The reader already knows that milk was a luxury in the army.
It was a new experience for all soldiers to drink coffee without milk.
But they soon learned to make a virtue of a necessity, and
I doubt whether one man in ten, before the war closed, would have used the lactic fluid in his coffee from choice.
Condensed milk of two brands, the Lewis
, was to be had at the sutler's when sutlers were handy, and occasionally milk was brought in from the udders of stray cows, the men milking them into their canteens; but this was early in the war. Later, war-swept Virginia
afforded very few of these brutes, for they were regarded by the armies as more valuable for beef than for milking purposes, and only those survived that were kept apart from lines of march.
The milk ration.|
In many instances they were the chief reliance of Southern families, whose able-bodied men were in the Rebel
army, serving both as a source of nourishment and as beasts of burden.
When the army was in settled camp, company cooks generally prepared the rations.
These cooks were men selected from the company, who had a taste or an ambition for the business.
If there were none such, turns were taken at it; but this did not often happen, as the office excused men from all other duty.
When company cooks prepared the food, the soldiers, at
the bugle signal, formed single file at the cook-house door, in winter, or the cook's open fire, in summer, where, with a long-handled dipper, he filled each man's till with coffee from the mess kettles, and dispensed to him such other food as was to be given out at that meal.
For various reasons, some of which I have previously hinted at, the coffee made by these cooks was of a very inferior quality and unpleasant to taste at times.
It was not to be compar-
The company cook.|
ed in excellence with what the men made for themselves.
I think that when the soldiers were first thrown upon their own resources to prepare their food, they almost invariably cooked their coffee in the tin dipper with which all were provided, holding from a pint to a quart, perhaps.
But it was an unfortunate dish for the purpose, forever tipping over and spilling the coffee into the fire, either because the coals burned away beneath, or because the Jonah upset it. Then if the fire was new and blazing, it sometimes needed a hand that could stand heat like a steam safe to get it when it was wanted, with the chance in favor of more than half of the coffee boiling out before it was rescued, all of which was conducive to ill-temper, so that
such utensils would soon disappear, and a recruit would afterwards be seen with his pint or quart preserve can, its improvised wire bail held on the end of a stick, boiling his coffee at the camp-fire, happy in the security of his ration from Jonahs and other casualties.
His can soon became as black as the blackest, inside and out. This was the typical coffee-boiler of the private soldier, and had the advantage of being easily replaced when lost, as canned goods were in very general use by commissioned officers and hospitals.
Besides this, each man was generally supplied with a small tin cup as a drinking-cup for his coffee and water.
The coffee ration was most heartily appreciated by the soldier.
When tired and foot-sore, he would drop out of the marching column, build his little camp-fire, cook his mess of coffee, take a nap behind the nearest shelter, and, when he woke, hurry on to overtake his company.
Such men were sometimes called stragglers; but it could, obviously, have no offensive meaning when applied to them.
Tea was served so rarely that it does not merit any particular description.
In the latter part of the war, it was rarely seen outside of hospitals.
One of the most interesting scenes presented in army life took place at night when the army was on the point of bivouacking.
As soon as this fact became known along the column, each man would seize a rail from the nearest fence, and with this additional arm on the shoulder would enter the proposed camping-ground.
In no more time than it takes to tell the story, the little camp-fires, rapidly increasing to hundreds in number, would shoot up along the hills and plains, and as if by magic acres of territory would be luminous with them.
Soon they would be surrounded by the soldiers, who made it an almost invariable rule to cook their coffee first, after which a large number, tired out with the toils of the day, would make their supper of hardtack and coffee, and roll up in their blankets for the night.
If a march was ordered at midnight, unless a surprise was intended,
it must be preceded by a pot of coffee; if a halt was ordered in mid-forenoon or afternoon, the same dish was inevitable, with hardtack accompaniment usually.
It was coffee at
meals and between
meals; and men going on guard or coming off guard drank it at all hours of the night, and to-day the old soldiers who can stand it are the hardest coffee-drinkers in the community, through the schooling which they received in the service.
At a certain period in the war, speculators bought up all the coffee there was in the market, with a view of compelling the government to pay them a very high price for the army supply; but on learning of their action the agents of the United States
were ordered to purchase several ship-loads then anchored in the English Channel
The purchase was effected, and the coffee “corner” tumbled in ruins.
At one time, when the government had advertised for bids to furnish the armies with a certain amount of coffee, one Sawyer
, a member of a prominent New York importing firm, met the government official having the matter in charge — I think it was General Joseph H. Eaton
--on the street, and anxiously asked him if it was too late to enter another bid, saying that he had been figuring the matter over carefully, and found that he could make a bid so much a pound lower than his first proposal.
replied that while the bids had all been opened, yet they had not been made public, and the successful bidder had not been notified, so that no injustice could accrue to any one on that account; he would therefore assume the responsibility of taking his new bid. Having done so, the General
that he was the lowest bidder, and that the government would take not only the amount asked for but all his firm had at its disposal at the same rate.
But when General Eaton
informed him that his first
bid was also lower than any other offered, Sawyer
's rage at Eaton
and disgust at his own undue ambition to bid a second time can be imagined.
The result was the saving of many thousands of dollars to the government.
I have stated that by Army Regulations the soldiers were entitled to either three-quarters of a pound of pork or bacon or one and one-fourth pounds of fresh or salt beef.
I have also stated, in substance, that when the army was settled down for a probable long stop company cooks did the cooking.
But there was no uniformity about it, each company commander regulating the matter for his own command.
It is safe to remark, however, that in the early history of each regiment the rations were cooked for its members by persons especially selected for the duty, unless the regiment was sent at once into active service, in which case each man was immediately confronted with the problem of preparing his own food.
In making this statement I ignore the experience which troops had before leaving their native State, for in the different State rendezvous I think the practice was general for cooks to prepare the rations; but their culinary skillor lack of it — was little appreciated by men within easy reach of home, friends, and cooky shops, who displayed as yet no undue anxiety to anticipate the unromantic living provided for Uncle Sam's patriot defenders.
Having injected so much, by way of further explanation I come now to speak of the manner in which, first, the freshmeat ration was cooked.
If it fell into the hands of the company cooks, it was fated to be boiled twenty-four times out of twenty-five.
There are rare occasions on record when these cooks attempted to broil steak
enough for a whole company, and they would have succeeded tolerably if this particular tid-bit could be found all the way through a steer, from the tip of his nose to the end of his tail, but as it is only local and limited the amount of nice or even tolerable steak that fell to the lot of one company in its allowance was not very large.
For this reason among others the cooks did not always receive the credit which they deserved for their efforts to change the diet or extend the variety on the
bill of fare.
Then, on occasions equally rare, when the beef ration drawn was of such a nature as to admit of it, roast beef
was prepared in ovens such as I have already described, and served “rare,” “middling,” or “well done.”
More frequently, yet not very often, a soup
was made for a change, but it was usually boiled meat; and when this accumulated, the men sometimes fried it in pork fat for a change.
When the meat ration was served out raw to the men, to prepare after their own taste, although the variety of its cooking may not perhaps have been much greater, yet it gave more general satisfaction.
The growls most commonly heard were that the cooks kept the largest or choicest portions for themselves, or else that they sent them to the company officers, who were not entitled to them.
Sometimes there was foundation for these complaints.
In drawing his ration of meat from the commissary the quartermaster had to be governed by his last selection.
If it was a hindquarter then, he must take a forequarter the next time, so that it will at once be seen, by those who know anything about beef, that it would not always cut up and distribute with the same acceptance.
One man would get a good solid piece, the next a flabby one.
When a ration of the latter description fell into the hands of a passionate man, such as I have described in another connection, he would instantly hurl it across the camp, and break out with such remarks as “something not being fit for hogs,” “always his blank luck,” etc. There was likely to be a little something gained by this dramatic exhibition, for the distributor would give the actor a good piece for several times afterwards, to restrain his temper.
The kind of piece drawn naturally determined its disposition in the soldier's cuisine
. If it was a stringy, flabby piece, straightway it was doomed to a dish of lobscouse, made with such other materials as were at hand.
If onions were not in the larder, and they seldom were, the little garlic found in some places growing wild furnished a very acceptable
If the meat was pretty solid, even though it had
done duty when in active service well down on the shank or shin, it was quite likely to be served as beefsteak, and prepared for the palate in one of two ways;--either fried in pork fat, if pork was to be had, otherwise tallow fat, or impaled on a ramrod or forked stick; it was then salted and peppered and broiled in the flames; or it may have been thrown on the coals.
This broiling was, I think, the favorite
style with the oldest campaigners.
It certainly was more healthful and palatable cooked in this wise, and was the most convenient in active service, for any of the men could prepare it thus at short notice.
The meat generally came to us quivering from the butcher's knife, and was often eaten in less than two hours after slaughtering.
To fry it necessitated the taking along of a frying-pan with which not many of the men cared to burden themselves.
These fry-pans — Marbleheadmen called them Creepers
--were yet comparatively light, being made of thin wrought iron.
They were of different sizes, and were kept
on sale by sutlers.
It was a common sight on the march to see them borne aloft on a musket, to which they were lashed, or tucked beneath the straps of a knapsack.
But there was another fry-pan which distanced these both in respect of lightness and space.
The soldier called in his own ingenuity to aid him here as in so many other directions, and consequently the men could be seen by scores frying the food in their tin plate, held in the jaws of a split stick, or fully as often an old canteen was unsoldered and its concave sides mustered into active duty as fry-pans.
The fresh-meat ration was thoroughly appreciated by the mell, even though they rarely if ever got the full allowance stipulated in Army Regulations, for it was a relief from the salt pork, salt beef, or boiled fresh meat ration of settled camp.
I remember one occasion in the Mine Run Campaign
, during the last days of November, 1863, when the army was put on short beef rations, that the men cut and scraped off the little rain-bleached shreds of meat that remained on the head of a steer which lay near our line of battle at Robertson's Tavern.
The animal had been slaughtered the day before, and what was left of its skeleton had been soaking in the rain, but not one ounce of muscular tissue could have been gleaned from the bones when our men left it.
The liver, heart, and tongue were perquisites of the butcher.
For the liver, the usual price asked was a dollar, and for the heart or tongue fifty cents.
The “salt horse” or salt beef, of fragrant memory, was rarely furnished to the army except when in settled camp, as it would obviously have been a poor dish to serve on the march, when water was often so scarce.
But even in camp the men quite generally rejected it. Without doubt, it was the vilest ration distributed to the soldiers.
It was thoroughly penetrated with saltpetre, was often yellow-green with rust from having lain out of brine, and, when boiled, was four times out of five if not nine times out of ten a stench in the nostrils, which no delicate palate cared
to encounter at shorter range.
It sometimes happened that the men would extract a good deal of amusement out of this ration, when an extremely unsavory lot was served out, by arranging a funeral, making the appointments as complete as possible, with bearers, a bier improvised of boards or a hardtack box, on which was the beef accompanied by scraps of old harness to indicate the original of the remains, and then, attended by solemn music and a mournful procession, it would be carried to the company sink and dumped, after a solemn mummery of words had been spoken, and a volley fired over its unhallowed grave.
So salt was this ration that it was impossible to freshen it too much, and it was not an unusual occurrence for troops encamped by a running brook to tie a piece of this beef to the end of a cord, and throw it into the brook at night, to remain freshening until the following morning as a necessary preparative to cooking.
Salt pork was the principal meat ration — the main stay as it were.
Company cooks boiled it. There was little else they could do with it, but it was an extremely useful ration to the men when served out raw. They almost never boiled it, but, as I have already shown, much of it was used for frying purposes.
On the march it was broiled and eaten with hard bread, while much of it was eaten raw, sandwiched between hardtack.
Of course it was used with stewed as well as baked beans, and was an ingredient of soups and lobscouse.
Many of us have since learned to call it an indigestible ration, but we ignored the existence of such a thing as a stomach in the army, and then regarded pork as an indispensable one.
Much of it was musty and rancid, like the salt horse, and much more was flabby, stringy, “sow-belly,” as the men called it, which, at this remove in distance, does not seem appetizing, however it may have seemed at the time.
The government had a pork-packing factory of its own in Chicago
, from which tons of this ration were furnished.
Once in a while a ration of ham or bacon was dealt out to the soldiers, but of such quality that I do not retain very grateful remembrances of it. It was usually black, rusty, and strong, and decidedly unpopular.
Once only do I recall a lot of smoked shoulders as being supplied to my company, which were very good.
They were never duplicated.
For that reason, I presume, they stand out prominently in memory.
The bean ration was an important factor in the sustenance of the army, and no edible, I think, was so thoroughly appreciated.
Company cooks stewed them with pork, and
Mess kettles and A mess pan.|
when the pork was good and the stew or soup was well done and not burned,--a rare combination of circumstances,--they were quite palatable in this way. Sometimes ovens were built of stones, on the top of the ground, and the beans were baked in these, in mess pans or kettles.
But I think the most popular method was to bake them in the ground.
This was the almost invariable course pursued by the soldiers when the beans were distributed for them to cook.
It was done in the following way: A hole was dug large enough to set a mess pan or kettle in, and have ample space around it besides.
Mess kettles, let me explain here, are cylinders in shape, and made of heavy sheet iron
They are from thirteen to fifteen inches high, and vary in diameter from seven inches to a foot.
A mess pan stands about six inches high, and is a foot in diameter at the top. I think one will hold nearly six quarts.
To resume;--in the bottom of the hole dug a flat stone was put, if it could be
obtained, then a fire was built in the hole and kept burning some hours, the beans being prepared for baking meanwhile.
When all was ready, the coals were shovelled out, the kettle of beans and pork set in, with a board over the top, while the coals were shovelled back around the kettle; some poles or boards were then laid across the hole, a piece of sacking or other material spread over the poles to exclude dirt, and a mound of earth piled above all; the net result of which, when the hole was opened the next morning, was the most enjoyable dish that fell to the lot of the common soldier.
Baked beans at the homestead seemed at a discount in comparison.
As it was hardly practicable to bake a single ration of beans in this way, or, indeed, in any way, a tent's crew either saved their allowance until enough accumulated for a good baking, or a half-dozen men would form a joint stock company, and cook in a mess kettle; and when the treasure was unearthed in early morning not a stockholder would be absent from the roll-call, but all were promptly on hand with plate or coffee dipper to receive their dividends.
Here is a post-bellum jingle sung to the music of “The sweet by and by,” in which some old veteran conveys the affection he still feels for this edible of precious memory:--
Boiled potatoes were furnished us occasionally in settled camp.
On the march we varied the programme by frying them.
Onions, in my own company at least, were a great rarity, but highly appreciated when they did appear, even in homceopathic quantities.
They were pretty sure to appear on the army table, fried.
Split peas were also drawn by the quartermaster now and then, and stewed with pork by the cooks for supper, making pea-soup, or “Peas on a Trencher” ; but if my memory serves me right, they were a dish in no great favor, even when they were not burned in cooking, which was usually their fate.
The dried-apple ration was supplied by the government, “to swell the ranks of the army,” as some one wittily said.
There seemed but one practicable way in which this could be prepared, and that was to stew it; thus cooked it made a sauce for hardtack.
Sometimes dried peaches were furnished instead, but of such a poor quality that the apples, with the fifty per cent of skins and hulls which they contained, were considered far preferable.
At remote intervals the cooks gave for supper a dish of boiled rice (burned, of course), a sergeant spooning out a scanty allowance of molasses to bear it company.
Occasionally, a ration of what was known as desiccated vegetables was dealt out. This consisted of a small piece per man, an ounce in weight and two or three inches cube of a sheet or block of vegetables, which had been prepared, and apparently kiln-dried
, as sanitary fodder
for the soldiers.
In composition it looked not unlike the large cheeses of beefscraps that are seen in the markets.
When put in soak for a time, so perfectly had it been dried and so firmly pressed that it swelled to an amazing extent, attaining to several
times its dried proportions.
In this pulpy state a favorable opportunity was afforded to analyze its composition.
It seemed to show, and I think really did
show, layers of cabbage leaves and turnip tops stratified with layers of sliced carrots, turnips, parsnips, a bare suggestion of onions,they were too valuable to waste in this compound,--and some other among known vegetable quantities, with a large residuum of insoluble and insolvable
material which appeared to play the part of warp to the fabric, but which defied the powers of the analyst to give it a name.
An inspector found in one lot which he examined powdered glass
thickly sprinkled through it, apparently the work of a Confederate emissary; but if not it showed how little care was exercised in preparing this diet for the soldier.
In brief, this coarse vegetable compound could with much more propriety have been put before Southern swine than Northern soldiers.
vegetables” was the more appropriate name which the men quite generally applied to this preparation of husks.
I believe it was the Thirty-Second Massachusetts Infantry which once had a special ration of three hundred boxes of strawberries
dealt out to it. But if there was another organization in the army anywhere which had such a delicious experience, I have yet to hear of it.
I presume that no discussion of army rations would be considered complete that did not at least make mention of the whiskey ration so called.
This was not a ration, properly speaking.
The government supplied it to the army only on rare occasions, and then by order of the medical department.
I think it was never served out to my company more than three or four times, and then during a cold rainstorm or after unusually hard service.
Captain N. D. Preston
of the Tenth New York Cavalry, in describing Sheridan
's raid to Richmond
in the spring of 1864, recently, speaks of being instructed by his brigade commander to make a light issue of whiskey to the men of the brigade,
and adds, “the first and only regular issue of whiskey I ever made or know of being made to an enlisted man.”
But although he belonged to the arm of the service called “the eyes and ears of the army,” and was no doubt a gallant soldier, he is not well posted; for men who belonged to other organizations in the Army of the Potomac assure me that it was served out to them much more frequently than I have related as coming under my observation.
I think there can be no doubt on this point.
The size of the whiskey allowance was declared, by those whose experience had made them competent judges, as trifling and insignificant, sometimes not more than a tablespoonful; but the quantity differed greatly in different organizations.
The opinion was very prevalent, and undoubtedly correct, that the liquor was quite liberally sampled by the various headquarters, or the agents through whom it was transmitted to the rank and file.
While there was considerable whiskey drank by the men “unofficially,” that is, which was obtained otherwise than on the order of the medical department, yet, man for man, the private soldiers were as abstemious as the officers.
The officers who did not drink more or less were too scarce in the service.
They had only to send to the commissary to obtain as much as they pleased, whenever
they pleased, by paying for it; but the private soldier could only obtain it of this official on an order signed by a commissioned officer,--usually the captain of his company.
In fact, there was nothing but his sense of honor, his self-respect, or his fear of exposure and punishment, to restrain a captain, a colonel, or a general, of whatever command, from being intoxicated at a moment when he should have been in the full possession of his senses leading his command on to battle; and I regret to relate that these motives, strong as they are to impel to right and restrain from wrong-doing, were no barrier to many an officer whose appetite in a crisis thus imperilled the cause and disgraced himself.
Doesn't it seem strange that the enforcement of
the rules of war was so lax as to allow the lives of a hundred, a thousand, or perhaps fifty or a hundred thousand sober men to be jeopardized, as they so often were, by holding them rigidly obedient to the orders of a man whose head at a critical moment might be crazed with commissary whiskey?
Hundreds if not thousands of lives were sacrificed by such leadership.
I may state here that drunkenness was equally as common with the Rebels
as with the Federals
The devices resorted to by those members of the rank and file who hungered and thirsted for commissary
to obtain it, are numerous and entertaining enough to occupy a chapter; but these I must leave for some one of broader experience and observation.
I could name two or three men in my own company whose experience qualified them to fill the bill completely.
They were always on the scent for something to drink.
Such men were to be found in all organizations.
It has always struck me that the government should have increased the size of the marching ration.
If the soldier on the march had received one and one-half pounds of hard bread and one and one-half pounds of fresh beef daily with his sugar, coffee, and salt, it would have been no more than marching men require to keep up the requisite strength and resist disease.
By such an increase the men would have been compensated for the parts of rations not issued to them, or the increase might have been an equivalent for these parts, and the temptation to dishonesty or neglect on the part of company commanders thus removed.
But, more than this, the men would not then have eaten up many days' rations in advance.
It mattered not that the troops, at a certain date, were provided with three, four, or any number of days rations; if these rations were exhausted before the limit for which they were distributed was even half reached, more must be immediately issued.
As a consequence, in every summer campaign the troops had drawn ten or fifteen days
marching rations ahead of time
, proving, season after season, the inadequacy of this ration.
This deficiency of active service had to be made up by shortening the rations issued in camp when the men could live on a contracted diet without detriment to the service.
knew nothing of this shortage at the time,--I mean now the rank and file,--else what a universal growl would have rolled through the camps of each army corps while the commissary was “catching up.”
“Where ignorance is bliss,” etc.