Overview: Civil War and Reconstruction Foods

By John U. Rees

Published in Andrew F. Smith, ed., Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America, 2 vols. (New York and London: Oxford University Press, 2004), vol. 1, 631-633.


The Civil War (1861-65) and Reconstruction (1863-77) eras bridged old and new pathways, and western expansion, industrial innovation, and foreign immigration all had their effects.

Large-scale westward emigration began in the 1840’s, exposing Native Americans to Anglo foods, and vice-versa. Native cultures suffered and European foodways gradually came to the fore. Lakota Sioux medicine man Sitting Bull referred to this when advising against assimilation in 1867, “The whites may get me at last … but I will have good times till then. You are fools to make yourselves slaves to a piece of fat bacon, some hard-tack, and a little sugar and coffee.”

Society’s idea of basic sustaining daily food was indicated by the U.S. Army ration (1861-64): "twelve ounces of pork or bacon, or, one pound and four ounces of salt or fresh beef; one pound and six ounces of soft bread or flour, or, one pound of hard bread, or, one pound and four ounces of corn meal; and to every one hundred rations, fifteen pounds of beans or peas, and ten pounds of rice or hominy; ten pounds of green coffee, or, eight pounds of roasted (or roasted and ground) coffee, or, one pound and eight ounces of tea; fifteen pounds of sugar; four quarts of vinegar; ... three pounds and twelve ounces of salt; four ounces of pepper; thirty pounds of potatoes, when practicable, and one quart of molasses."

Troops supplemented government rations with found or purchased foods whenever possible: ripe or unripe fruits and vegetables, and pies, cakes and canned goods bought from sutlers (mobile storekeepers). Civil War soldier/cooks often imitated homemade fare, making soup, stew, hash, pudding, flapjacks, "fried cakes," corndodgers, boiled or roasted corn, "succatash," baked beans, "scouse," and applesauce. How close these dishes came to the home-cooked original is open to question. In 1862 Vermont Private Wilbur Fisk voiced a theme common to soldiers' cooking: "these ... boys ... out-Graham Sylvester Graham himself, in his most radical ideas of simplicity in diet ... Coarse meal, cold water and salt have been the ingredients composing many a meal for us, which a thanksgiving supper, in other circumstances, will scarcely rival."

Soldiers’ humorous epithets emphasized food’s significance: “dough bellies” (infantrymen), “chicken thieves” (cavalrymen), “Soft Breads” (Army of the Potomac soldiers), “’pound-cake’ brethren” (easy-living soldiers),  “coffee coolers” (stragglers), “Virginia rabbits” (pigs), “desecrated” (dessicated) vegetables, and a “square meal” (hardtack).

Hardtack came to symbolize the soldier’s life. Some men thought it inedible at first, but most came to agree with Lieutenant Fred Chapman, 29th United States Colored Troops: “two pieces of hard-tack with a slice of raw, fat salt pork between – not a dainty meal, but solid provender to fight on.”  Pennsylvania Major Frederick Hitchcock described a popular hardtack preparation. “ “’Lobskous’ … consisted of hardtack broken up and thoroughly soaked in water, then fried in pork fat …”

Cornmeal was a southern staple, and “cush” a dish associated with Confederate troops.  Texas Sergeant William W. Heartsill, described it in October 1863: “Well dinner is ready …  prepared in this manner, chop up a small quantity of fat bacon into a frying pan, get the grease all out of it, put in a quart of water, when it boils crumble in cold corn bread and stir until dry, and you are ready for a dinner of ‘CUSH.’” Another Texan, Second Lieutenant Robert M. Collins, added that “‘cush’ … with some of the corn-bread burned to a black crisp, out of which we make coffee, was fine living …” Real coffee, a prerequisite of Federal fare, having replaced the alcohol ration in October 1832, was often traded to Southern soldiers for tobacco.

Alcohol was occasionally issued, and both officers and men continually sought other sources. Nurse Cornelia Hancock alluded to its widespread use in July 1864, “I introduced [brother William] to all my friends. They, of course, invited him to drink some whiskey which he refused to do … a very rare thing in the army.” Sergeant Cyrus Boyd, 15th Iowa Volunteers, told of soldiers’ behavior in Tennessee, January 1863, “I took a ramble thro’ Memphis … Whiskey O Whiskey! Drunk men staggered on all the streets. … The streets were full of drunk men. The men who had fought their way from [Fort] Donelson to Corinth and who had met no enemy able to whip them now surrendered to Genl Intoxication.” Widespread alcohol consumption fueled the Temperance movement. The Prohibition Party was founded in 1869, and the 1873-74 Woman's Crusade resulted from years of female activism against alcohol consumption and traffic.

For wartime southerners deprivation and make-do were the order of the day. Game animals, fish, and eggs replaced beef and pork, one wag remarking that a “hundred ways of cooking an egg became well-known in the Confederacy.” Preserves made with sorghum, instead of sugar, ”had a twang,” rice bread was called “Secession Bread,” rye and other coffee substitutes were used. Occasionally meals were reminiscent of pre-war plenty. South Carolinian Mary Chestnut: Charleston, April 1861, “… the supper was a consolation - pâté de foie gras salad, biscuit glacé and champagne frappé.” Richmond, “Christmas Day, 1863 … We had for dinner oyster soup, besides roast mutton, ham, boned turkey, wild duck, partridge, plum pudding, sauterne, burgundy, sherry, and Madeira. There is life in the old land yet!”; “February 1st.[1864] - Mrs. Davis gave her ‘Luncheon to Ladies Only’ … Gumbo, ducks and olives, chickens in jelly, oysters, lettuce salad, chocolate cream, jelly cake, claret, champagne, etc. …”

New Jersey Quaker nurse Cornelia Hancock’s letters home show the variety of dishes possible in an 1864 Virginia army hospital. Brandy Station: 11 February, “Today the men had for their breakfast oysters, meat and breads. For dinner, soup, Turkey broth, corn and lima beans. For supper oysters, farina, bread, and butter. So you see, although out of the world we are of the world.”; 2 March, “We had what is called here a splendid dinner – Ham, Eggs, Oyster pie, Roast Beef and Potatoes, peach tarts and cup custards.” City Point:  4 July, “a real Fourth dinner, potatoes, beef, onions, canned peach pie, and corn starch pudding. …”; 18 July, “Twice have I given ice cream to my patients.”

Large city-centered populations need quantities of long lasting, easily stored foodstuff. Moving armies have the added requirement of portable, compact comestibles. While not an army-issue item, canned foods began to fill those needs. In 1870 Captain T.J. Wilson, tasked by the army to study American canned goods quality, wrote “Ten years ago Baltimore … cou’d boast no more than half a dozen packing establishments (there are now, December, 1867, at that place, from twenty-five to thirty) … Hermetically sealed goods at that day sold for fabulous prices, and were consumed by a few only. The outbreak of the Rebellion, in 1861, brought about a sudden and remarkable change. Manufactories sprung up everywhere, and the demand for the supply for the army, through sutlers, became enormous.” A 1924 study noted that at the war’s onset “Probably five million cans of everything [was annually produced] … in 1870 … the output reached thirty million cans. … factories could not be built fast enough to supply customers … Canneries were started inland for the first time, at Cincinnati, Indianapolis, and other places.”

Wartime demand for meat fueled the growth of western beef business. As a major rail-hub, and because of the Mississippi River blockade, Chicago epitomized this trend. By 1865 the new 320-acre Chicago Union Stock Yards was operating, attracting to the city the large meatpacking firms of Armour, Swift, Morris, and Hammond. By 1900 “Chicago's meatpacking industry employed more than 25,000 people and produced 82 percent of the meat consumed in the United States.” The 1872 institution of meat coolers allowed year-round meatpacking, and adoption of refrigerated rail cars in 1882 meant long-distance travel for processed meats.

By century’s end canned goods and refrigerated beef became commonplace items at the supper table; the 1898 U.S. Army subsisted on both in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines.



Acken, J. Gregory, Inside the Army of the Potomac: The Civil War Experience of Captain Francis Adams Donaldson (Mechanicsburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 1998), 69, 289,290.

Chicago Historical Society, “The Birth of the Chicago Union Stock Yards” and “Meatpacking Technology,” World Wide Web, http://www.chicagohs.org/history/stock.html

Collins, James H., The Story of Canned Foods (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1924), 15, 16, 17, 18-23. World Wide Web, http://cdl.library.cornell.edu/cgi-bin/chla/chla-cgi?notisid=AFN9487

Connell, Evan S., Son of the Morning Star: Custer and the Little Bighorn (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1984), 217. See also, Tatanka-Iyotanka (Sitting Bull), (1831-1890), World Wide Web, http://www.pbs.org/weta/thewest/program/episodes/six/tatanka.htm

Donald, David Herbert, ed., Gone for a Soldier: The Civil War Memoirs of Private Alfred Bellard (Boston, Toronto, London: Little, Brown and Co., 1975), 172.

Jaquette, Henrietta Stratton, Letters of a Civil War Nurse: Cornelia Hancock, 1863-1865 (Lincoln, Ne., and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1998), 49, 58, 118-119, 129, 132.

Martin, Isabella D. and Avary, Myrta Lockett, eds., A Diary From Dixie, as written by
Mary Boykin Chestnut
, (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1905), 30-31, 237, 268, 284; World Wide Web, http://docsouth.unc.edu/chesnut/maryches.html)

Massey, Mary Elizabeth, Ersatz in the Confederacy: Shortages and Substitutes on the Southern Homefront (Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1993), 58, 62-63, 66-69, 72-73.

McKay, Scott, “Food Documentation Relative to the 10th Texas Infantry”; William W. Heartsill, Fourteen Hundred and 91 Days in the Confederate Army (Wilmington, N.C.: Broadfoot Publishing Co., 1987) and R. M. Collins, Chapters From the Unwritten History of the War between the States (Dayton, Oh.: Morningside Press, 1982); World Wide Web, http://members.aol.com/cbbelt/Food/

Ohio State Univ., Temperance and Prohibition, http://prohibition.history.ohio-state.edu/Contents.htm

Strong, Robert Hale, A Yankee Private's Civil War, Ashley Halsey, ed. (Chicago: Henry Regnery Co., 1961), 208.

Rawlings, Kevin Rawlings, We Were Marching on Christmas Day: A History and Chronicle of Christmas During the Civil War (Baltimore, Md.: Toomey Press, 1996), 73.

Rees, John U., "'The foundation of an army is the belly.' North American Soldiers' Food, 1756-1945," ALHFAM: Proceedings of the 1998 Conference and Annual Meeting, vol. XXI (Assoc. for Living History, Farm and Agricultural Museums, Bloomfield, Ohio, 1999), 52, 56-57; also contains Continental and British army ration lists. (World Wide Web, Rev War ’75 Resource Library, http://revwar75.com/library/rees/index.htm

Thomas, Samuel N. and Silverman, Jason H., eds., A Rising Star of Promise: The Civil War Odyssey of David Jackson Logan, 17th South Carolina Volunteers, 1861-1864 (Campbell, Ca.: Savas Publishing Co., 1998), 95.

Throne, Mildred, ed., The Civil War Diary of Cyrus F. Boyd, Fifteenth Iowa Infantry, 1861-1863 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1998), 53, 106-107

Trudeau, Noah Andre, Like Men of War: Black Troops in the Civil War, 1862-1865 (Boston, New York, London: Little, Brown, and Co., 1998), 236.

Wilson, T.J. (captain), Notes on Canned Goods (Prepared Under the Direction of the Commissary General of Subsistence U.S.A.) (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1870), 1-2.