Civil War food was very different from the types of food we eat today.
Due to war-time food shortages and a lack of both refrigeration and large-scale food processing, most meals were simple, easy to prepare dishes made from basic ingredients that could be grown in a garden or purchased and stored easily.
What Did Civil War Soldiers Eat?
Food rations in the military were delivered to Union soldiers by volunteers in the United States Sanitary Commission. The purpose of the commission was to ensure that Civil War soldiers were fed healthy and nutritional meals to prevent malnutrition and food poisoning.
Since the focus was on health and nutrition, not culinary delight, and there were around 2 million soldiers to feed, the food tended to be bland, basic and simple. Each soldier’s daily rations included:
1. Three-quarters of a pound of pork or bacon, or one and one-quarter pound of fresh or salt pork
2. Eighteen ounces of flour or bread or 12 ounces of hardtack
3. One and one-quarter pound of cornmeal
Hardtack, also known as “army bread,” was type of hard, dry biscuit that soldiers had to soak in water and fry in grease or pork fat in order to eat.
Each unit was also given a food ration in addition to each soldier’s individual ration. A 100 man company was given:
1. Eight quarts of peas or beans, or 10 pounds of rice
2. Six to 10 pounds of coffee or one and one-half pounds of tea
3. Twelve to 15 pounds of sugar
4. Two quarts of salt
Vegetables, dried fruits, pickles and pickled cabbage were sometimes issued to prevent scurvy but only in small quantities. Other foods soldiers occasionally ate included baked beans, hardtack pudding, ashcakes and milk toast.
When weather or nearby fighting interrupted food deliveries, soldiers often had to forage for food. In extreme cases, such as during the Battle of Vicksburg, the soldiers had to eat rats, cats, bullfrogs and dogs, according to the book The Civil War Book of Lists.
The Confederate army provided its soldiers with the same rations as Union soldiers but food shortages in the south, caused by blockades of southern harbors, often made many of the ingredients hard to come by which forced many of the soldiers to hunt or forage for food.
As a result, boiled peanuts, which were an abundant crop in the south, became a staple of the Confederate army’s diet.
What Did Civilians Eat?
Civilian food was a little more flavorful than army food but still consisted of very basic and simple dishes.
Beans, baked goods and meat, including specific parts of the animal like the head, feet, brains, tongue and kidneys, were the most predominate type of food at the time (although meat was scare in the south during the war due to the blockades.)
Beef and pork were the most popular types of meat, yet civilians also ate pigeon, venison, chicken and rabbit. Fish and seafood were also very popular at the time.
Meat and seafood were usually eaten roasted, boiled or served in a stew or soup.
Fresh vegetables were difficult to obtain in the winter, except for root vegetables which were harvested in the fall and stored easily in cold, dry cellars.
Fruit was rare, except for apples and peaches which grew abundantly in the north and south.
Breakfast typically consisted of cornmeal mush with cream and maple syrup, cornmeal griddle cakes, doughnuts and tea.
Lunch, which was called dinner, was the largest meal of the day and often consisted of boiled potatoes, ham, fresh pork or corned beef served with apple, rhubarb or a berry pie, depending on the season.
Mincemeat pies were often eaten in the fall and winter months. Saturday dinners were usually boiled codfish and Sunday dinners were often baked beans, brown bread and Indian pudding.
Supper, which was served at night, was often a lighter meal. In the north, it typically consisted of johnnycakes and milk or bread and milk with maple syrup or flapjacks with brown sugar and a side of custard.
Southern meals were often just as plain, consisting mostly of pork and boiled corn served at almost every meal of the day, as well as sweet potatoes, cornbread, peas, rice and turnips.
Milk wasn’t as available in the south as it was in the north, where there were many dairy farms, so most southerners, especially the poor, drank water mixed with molasses.
Peaches grew better than apples in the south and were often the only fruit southerners ate.
Here are some popular Civil War-era recipes from the pages of Godey’s Lady’s Book, a magazine for women established in 1830 that regularly published recipes, and “The American Home Cook Book” published in 1864:
Maccaroni and Cheese – Boil the maccaroni [sic] in milk; put in the stew pan butter, cheese, and seasoning; when melted, pour in the maccaroni, putting breadcrumbs over, which brown before the fire all together.
Mincemeat Pie – Six pounds of currants, three pounds of raisins stoned, three pounds of apples chopped fine, four pounds of suet, two pounds of sugar, two pounds of beef, the peel and juice of two lemons, a pint of sweet wine, a quarter of a pint of brandy, half an ounce of mixed spice. Press the whole into a deep pan when mixed well.
Another way – Two pounds of raisins, three pounds of currants, three pounds of beef-suet, two pounds of moist sugar, two ounces of citron, one ounce of orange-peel, one small nutmeg, one pottles of apples chopped fine, the rind of two lemons and juice of one, half a pint of brandy; mix well together. This should be made a little time before wanted for use.
Pie-Crust for Meat Pies – Take one pound of dried flour and rub into it six ounces of lard, six ounces of butter, a small quantity of salt, and a half teaspoon of baking powder. Mix all these ingredients well together, and then use as much water as will make them into a nice stiff paste. Roll it out, let it stand for about ten minutes and then roll it once more before putting it on the meat. The pie should be baked in a moderately quick oven.
Johnnycakes – Half a pint of boiled rice of hominy, two eggs, one tablespoon of butter, a little salt, flour enough to make a stuff batter, spread on an oaken board, and bake before a hot fire; When nicely baked on one side, turn, and bake the other, cut through the centre, and butter well. It pays for the trouble.
Hot Cross Buns – Rub a quarter pound of butter into two pounds of flour, quarter of a pound of brown sugar, mix all well together; a pint of milk made warm, three well-beaten eggs, one tablespoon of yeast, one tablespoon of soda, one pound of currants, one ounce of candied lemon, one ounce of citron, a little lemon-peel and salt; make it all up into a light paste, set it by the fire to raise an hour, and make into buns, twenty minutes will bake them.
Dough Nuts – Take a pound of flour, one-quarter pound of butter, three-quarters pound of brown sugar, one nutmeg grated, and a teaspoon of ground cinnamon, mix these well together; then add a tablespoon of bakers’ yeast, and as much warm milk, with a bit of carbonate of potash about the size of a pea dissolved in it, as will make the whole into a smooth dough; knead it for a few minutes, cover it and set it in a warm place to rise, until it is light; then roll it out to one-quarter inch thickness, and cut it into small squares or diamonds, ready for cooking. Have ready a small iron kettle; put into it one pound of lard, and set it over a gentle fire. When it is boiling hot [exactness is required here], put the dough nuts in quickly, but one at a time, if the fat be of the right heat, the dough nuts will, in about ten minutes, be of a delicious brown outside, and nicely cooked inside. Keep the kettle in motion all the time the cakes are in, that they may boil evenly. When they are of a fine color, take them out with a skimmer, and lay them to drain on a sieve, turned upside down. If the fat be not hot enough, the cakes will absorb it; if too hot, they will be dark brown outside before the inside is cooked.
Pigeon Soup – Take eight good pigeons; cut up two, and put them on with as much water as will make a large tureen of soup, adding the pinions, necks, gizzards and livers of the others; boil well and strain; season the whole pigeons within with mixed spices and salt, and truss them with their legs into their belly. Take a large handful of parsley, young onions, and spinach, pick and wash them clean, and shred small; then take a handful of grated bread, put a lump of butter about the size of a hen’s egg in a frying-pan, and when it boils throw in the bread, stirring well until it becomes a fine brown color. Put on the stock to boil, add the whole pigeons, herbs, and fried bread, and when the pigeons are done enough, dish up with the soup.
Half a Calf’s Head Boiled – Clean it very nicely, and soak it in water, that it may look very white; take out the tongue to salt and the brains to make a little dish. Boil the head extremely tender; then strew it over with crumbs and chopped parsley, and brown them; or if liked better, leave one side plain. Serve bacon and greens to eat with it. The brains must be boiled, and then mixed with melted butter, scalded sage chopped, pepper and salt…[The head] should be cut in thin slices from [line] 1 to 2, the knife passing down to the bone. The best part in the head is the throat sweetbread, which is situated at the thick part of the neck [line] 3, and should be carved in slices from [line] 3 to 4, and helped with the other part. If the eye is wished for, force the point of the carving-knife down on one side to the bottom of the socket, and cut it quite round. The palate or roof of the mouth is esteemed a great delicacy; and some fine lean will be found on the lower jaw, and nice gristly fat about the ear. The brains and tongue are generally sent to table on a separate dish; the centre slice of the tongue is considered the best.
A Tongue – should be cut across, nearly through the middle, and thin slices taken from each side; a portion of the fat which is situated at the root of the tongue, being assisted with each.
Beef or Mutton Soup – Boil very gently in a closely covered saucepan, four quarts of water, with two table-spoonfuls of sifted bread raspings, three pounds of beef cut in small pieces, or the same quantity of mutton chops taken from the middle of the neck; season with pepper.and salt add two turnips, two carrots, two onions, and one head of celery, all cut small; let it stew with these ingredients 4 hours, when it will be ready to serve.
Roast Leg of Mutton – Put the leg into an iron saucepan with enough cold water to cover it, let it come to a boil gently, parboil it by simmering only; have the spit or jack ready; and take it from the hot water and put it to the fire instantly; it will take from an hour to an hour and a half if large, and less time if small.
Mock Turtle Soup — Take a calf’s head, the skin having been scalded and the hair scraped off clean, wash it thoroughly; take out the brains and boil them separately till done enough. Put the head into a pot with more water than will cover it. Skim it frequently till it boils, and let it boil for an hour, but very gently. Take it out, and when cool cut the meat into pieces of about an inch square. Scrape and cut the tongue in the same manner. Lay all these pieces aside, then put into the water in which the head was boiled, about three or four pounds of leg of beef and a knuckle of veal — the meat cut small and the bones broken. Add four or five onions, a carrot and turnip, sliced, a small bunch of sweet-herbs, and some whole black pepper. Boil all together slowly, for four or five hours, then strain it and let it cool, when take off the fat. Now melt a lump of butter in a stewpan, put to it two handful of flour, and let it brown, stirring it all the time. Add a little of the soup, and a few sprigs of parsley. Boil this for a quarter of an hour, strain it through a sieve, put it, with the pieces of meat, into the soup, with the brains pounded, and boil all together for an hour. Add half a teacupful of ketchup, the juice of a lemon, cayenne pepper, and salt, to taste, also four glasses of sherry, and when dished in a tureen, put in two dozen of force-meat balls, and the same quantity of egg-balls, which are made as follows:
Egg Balls — Boil four or five eggs till they are quite hard. Take out the yolks and beat them in a mortar, with salt and cayenne pepper. Make this into a paste with the white of egg. Roll the size of small marbles. Roll them in a little flour and fry them in butter, taking care they do not break.
Force-meat Balls — Cut half a pound of veal and half a pound of suet fine, and beat them in a mortar. Have a few sweet-herbs shred fine; dried mace beaten fine; a small nutmeg grated; a little lemon-peel cut very fine; a little pepper and salt, and the yolks of two eggs; mix all these well together, then roll them in little round balls; roll them in flour and fry them brown. If for white sauce, put them in a little boiling water, and boil them for a few minutes, but do not fry them.
Chicken Soup — Cut up two large fine fowls and wash the pieces in cold water. Take half a dozen thin slices of cold ham, and lay them in a soup-pot, mixed among the pieces of chicken. Season them with a very little cayenne, a little nutmeg, and a few blades of mace, but no salt, as the ham will make it salt enough. Add a head of celery, split and cut into long bits, a quarter of a pound of butter, divided in two, and rolled in flour. Pour on three quarts of milk. Set the soup-pot over the fire, and let it boil rather slowly, skimming it well. When it has boiled an hour, put in some small round dumplings, made of half a pound of flour mixed with a quarter of a pound of butter ; divide this dough into equal portions, and roll them in your hands into little balls about the size of a large hickory nut. The soup must boil till the flesh of the fowls is loose on the bones, but not till it drops off. Stir in, at the last, the beaten yolks of three or four eggs; and let the soup remain about five minutes longer over the fire. Then take it up. Cut off from the bones, the flesh of the fowls, and divide it into mouthfuls. Cut up the slices of ham in the same manner. Mince the livers and gizzards. Put the bits of fowl and ham in the bottom of a large tureen, and pour the soup upon it.
Baked Cod-Fish — Clean the piece of cod, and make a stuffing of bread-crumbs, parsley, and onions, chopped small, pepper and salt, a piece of butter moistened with egg; put this stuffing into the open part of the fish, and fix it in with skewers; then rub the fish over with beat egg, and strew crumbs of bread, pepper, and salt over it; stick also some bits of butter on it; set in a Dutch oven before the fire to bake; serve with melted butter or oyster-sauce.
Salmon—Broiled — Cut the fish in slices from the best part — each slice should be an inch thick; season well with pepper and salt; wrap each slice in white paper, which has been buttered with fresh butter; fasten each end by twisting or tying; broil over a very clear fire eight minutes. A coke fire, if kept clear and bright, is best. Serve with butter, or tomato sauce.
“The American Home Cook Book: With Several Hundred Excellent Recipes”; The American Lady; 1864
“Civil War Recipes; Recipes from the Pages of Godey’s Lady’s Book”; Lilly May Spaulding; John Spaulding; 1999
“The Civil War Book of Lists”; Donald Cartmell; 2001
PBS: Civil War Cooking: What The Union Soldiers Ate: http://www.pbs.org/food/the-history-kitchen/civil-war-cooking-what-the-union-soldiers-ate/