Biscuit Bakers and Camp Kettles: Notes on Confederate Mess Equipment
By Craig Schneider
While heading northward after the battle of Second Manassas in the summer of 1862, John Worsham and the 21st Virginia halted on the march to cook:
“As one ‘spider’ of biscuits and one frying pan of meat was cooked, it was immediately divided and eaten, then another was cooked and eaten, most of the rations for the twenty-four hours being thus disposed of. After the cooking was done and wagons were loaded, we resumed our march.”(1)
Key aspects of Confederate material culture and life both in camp and on campaign are often overlooked or incorrectly represented by living historians: the mess equipment carried by Southern soldiers and the manner in which they cooked their rations. It is largely understood that there were differences between the rations provided to United States Army soldiers and their Confederate counterparts, yet it is a mistake to assume that the equipment used to prepare those rations was alike. Indeed, the “skillet with lid” and cast iron “camp kettle” were fixtures in Confederate camps throughout the war, and should be more appropriately represented by living historians.
The Quartermaster Department in Richmond tasked Major J.B. McClelland(2) and later Major William Bentley with contracting for the manufacture of mess equipment and other items, and the warehousing and distribution of Quartermaster Stores throughout the armies serving in Virginia.(3) Asa Snyder & Company, a foundry located at the corner of 10th and Cary Streets in Richmond, was selected to be the primary supplier of mess equipment for the Army of Northern Virginia and the Valley District. The company completed numerous government contracts for field cooking utensils from 1861 until the end of the war.(4)
Rather than the sheet iron mess pots, basins, and frying pans typically seen in U.S. Army service, Snyder & Company produced cast iron skillets with lids and camp kettles. These were distributed to the armies by the thousands. Their usual production consisted of 10”, 11”, 12”, and 13” cast iron skillets with lids (also commonly referred to as “spiders” or in one contract as “biscuit bakers”), with the 10” and 11” versions being the most common. Camp kettles (occasionally referred to as “boilers”) were made in 8” and 9” diameter sizes.(5)
While surviving examples and images of the use of cast iron cookware in Confederate camps are rare, the available evidence shows that the common Confederate cast iron cookware was little different from what was commercially available at the time. Fragments of an 11” Snyder & Company marked skillet lid and the bottom of a camp kettle were recovered from the Army of Northern Virginia’s winter camps along the Rapidan River, and today are housed in the American Civil War Museum collection in Richmond, Virginia. The lid is of the ubiquitous 19th century design used for baking. The kettle bottom is rounded and has three small feet, again the same as typical commercial designs.(6)
Several Asa Snyder-marked skillets were recovered from a Confederate camp on Bolivar Heights near Harpers Ferry, including a 12” and 13” example.
An 1862 watercolor painted in the field by John Omenhausser of the 46th Virginia contains clear illustrations of mess equipment: a three-footed cast iron spider skillet with its lid heating in the fire, a camp kettle with rounded bottom and three feet, and a common cast iron tea or coffee kettle (often referred to as a “bird mouth kettle” by collectors today). The image also depicts several soldiers preparing biscuits, including one using a wooden basin as a mixing pan.(10)
A member of the 1st Texas Infantry displays a cast iron skillet and the bread baked in it in 1861.(11)
In a photograph of cooks preparing a meal for Confederate soldiers near Charleston, South Carolina, two small, round cast iron camp kettles with three feet, concentric rings, and flared rims are visible.(12)
A small cast iron kettle of a design usually associated with Philadelphia foundries was photographed inside the Confederate defenses of Petersburg in 1864.(13)
For the Living Historian
“The man most gifted in the use of the skillet was the one most highly appreciated about the fire, and as tyrannical as a Turk; but when he raised the lid of the oven and exposed the brown-crusted tops of the biscuit, animosity subsided.”(14)
The fact that the most consistent ration for Confederate soldiers, both in camp and in the field, was flour or meal, is widely acknowledged. This most fundamental aspect of the experience of the average Confederate soldier is rarely recreated, however, even among the more authentic living history community. This is due, in large part, to a lack of understanding of how the ration was prepared and the equipment used to do it.
A regular ration of flour or meal and the presence of cast iron skillets with lids were necessities to the Confederate soldier. The mixing of dough in makeshift pans and baking biscuits was a daily occurrence. Ugie Allen of the 21st Georgia regularly wrote to his wife about his baking exploits. “I can wade into a pan of flour with as much grace as eat the biscuits when cooked,” he wrote, while asking her to mail him some yeast.(15) “Let me tell you I made up some dough yesterday and baked some fine biscuits. No soda or salt.”(16) Marion Hill Fitzpatrick, another Georgian in the Army of Northern Virginia, described some of the specifics of biscuit preparation in his letters home. “We draw a plenty now, and occasionally get a good ration of pork, and then we have greece to put in biscuits. We have quit putting tallow in biscuits, we had to buy it from the butcher and they got to selling it so high that we quit the business.”(17) With his mess content with using leftover grease, they were able to save their money to purchase soda from the sutler.
“We draw about equal quantities of flour and meal, beef and bacon which is much better than altogether of either. We put soda in the meal as regular as we do in the flour. It helps it the most in the world. You ought to try it once or twice with just a little soda. Soda cost $5.00 per lb.”(18)
The skillets used to bake biscuits were such a commonplace item that they even lent their name to the wagons that carried them. The “skillet wagon” was a term certainly known to most Confederate soldiers, with each regiment or brigade typically having one dedicated to transporting the all-important mess equipment. As the war dragged on the transportation allowance was reduced. When the Army of Northern Virginia was limited to one wagon for all of the baggage for enlistedmen in each regiment in early 1864, it was the skillet wagon that remained.(19) A U.S. Army officer wrote of the fate of the last skillet wagons while pursuing Lee’s army in the closing days of the war:
“The road thither, for several miles, showed that their animals were giving out. The way was completely strewed with tents, ammunition, officers’ baggage, and, above all, little Dutch ovens—such a riches of little Dutch ovens never was seen! I suppose they bake hoe-cakes in them. You saw them lying about, with their little legs kicked up in the air, in a piteous manner!”(20)
The preponderance of “campaign” themed events and interpretive programs among the authentic living history community, and the obvious fact that the cast iron mess equipment necessitates transportation by wagon, might discourage some from utilizing the otherwise commonplace cooking utensils. It should be noted, however, that a relatively small percentage of any soldier’s service was spent “on campaign,” and an even smaller proportion conducted at a pace that limited daily access to the regimental skillet wagon. Indeed, on July 2, 1863, in the midst of the Battle of Gettysburg, the men of the Texas Brigade got their utensils from the skillet wagon and began preparing their flour rations:
“Here they were notified that rations would be issued as soon as the commissary wagons could be brought up, and as about that time the skillet wagon drove up and unloaded each regiment’s share of cooking utensils, fires were built and skillet lids put on to heat, preparatory to cooking the flour that was to be issued.”(21)
Acquiring Cast Iron Mess Equipment
Reproduction cast iron mess equipment is currently unavailable. However, appropriate original 19th Century pieces are not terribly difficult to find, can usually be purchased at reasonable prices, and with a little effort can be maintained in working order. Spider skillets with lids in 10”, 11”, and 12” sizes, as well as kettles in smaller 8” and 9” diameter sizes, are almost always available on online auction sites and can typically be found at any large antique mall. As a caveat, one must be aware of the particular forms that were used in mid-19th Century cooking equipment, search for the obvious “gate mark” casting feature that period pieces will exhibit, and be willing to investigate the time frame certain manufacturers were in business if marked examples are found.
Appendix: Rebel Flour
A living historian might be tempted to think that flour milling was a crude process in the mid-19th Century, and modern whole wheat flour a good representation of the period product. Flour production was an industrialized process, however, and the Confederacy boasted some of the world’s largest and most prolific mills. White flour with little remaining bran was typical. Indeed, even modern all-purpose white flour might be considered of subpar quality compared to the standard flour issued to troops serving in the Army of Northern Virginia and the Valley District.
Flour was one of Richmond’s leading exports at the start of the Civil War. Two of the three largest flour mills in the United States were operating in the city, with one being arguably the world’s largest. The Haxall Mills, owned by Haxall, Crenshaw, & Co., ran 22 pairs of grinding stones in their mills located near 12th and 13th Streets on the James River. The Gallego Mills, owned by Warwick & Barksdale, operated nearby along 12th and Canal Streets. Gallego’s recently completed main mill building stood 12 stories high next to their 9-story mill built in 1848. On eight acres of floor space, the mill ran 31 pairs of grinding stones, six water wheels designed to use water twice over, and a bran duster or system of brushes designed to most effectively separate out the bran. Richmond flour supplied much of South America, fed the California Gold Rush, and satisfied the needs of both the U.S. Army and the Royal Navy. The military requirements for flour were specific:
“Flour should be free from dark specks, arising from cockle, a black round seed, and from imperfect grinding, and imperfect bolting, of good strong body, and clear color. A blue tinge shows the presence of smut. The specs from cockle, mustard seed, bran, etc., are easily seen on white paper, pressing the flour into a flat, smooth surface, and carrying it into strong sun-light.”(22)
Both mills fulfilled enormous contracts for the Confederate Subsistence Department during the war, supplying over a million barrels of flour to feed the Army. Haxall and Crenshaw’s operation included the purchase of wheat directly from farmers across the region on behalf of the government, the transportation of wheat to Richmond which was compensated by the government, the manufacture of barrels (which was similarly compensated), and the production and delivery of flour directly to the Subsistence Department. Despite a poor wheat crop in 1862, the mill was turning out over 600 barrels per day late that year, and was continuing to produce flour for the Army at an impressive rate even in the midst of the Bread Riots.(23)
Gallego’s grindstones supplied high grades of Family and Extra flour for the Army throughout the war, and at times the mill ground corn as well.(24) Both mills sold large quantities of their milling byproduct— offal, Brown Stuff, or bran—as animal feed. Haxall, Crenshaw, & Co., in particular, found themselves protesting attempts by the Subsistence Department to commandeer their bran as the war went on. Both Haxall and Gallego continued to manufacture flour for the Army at the highest capacity the dwindling wheat supply would allow until the closing days of the war.(25)
Worsham, John H., One of Jackson’s Foot Cavalry (New York: The Neal Publishing Company, 1912), 137.
Compiled service record, J. B. McClelland, Major; Compiled Service Records of Confederate Soldiers, Record Group 109; National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC.
Compiled service record, William Bentley, Major; Compiled Service Records of Confederate Soldiers, Record Group 109; National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC.
Citizens file, Asa Snyder; Confederate Papers Relating to Citizens or Business Firms, Record Group 109: National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC. Asa Snyder’s firm held many government contracts during the war. Aside from large amounts of mess equipment, the company completed contracts for stoves, stovepipe, stove repairs, furnaces, balls and chain, wagon and ambulance boxes, rifle shells, copper sabots, solid shot, canister shot, canister plates, and large kettles, baking pans, and various utensils for hospitals in Richmond. While the foundry burned in April 1865, Asa Snyder continued to run a successful business for many years after the war. Much of his ornate architectural ironwork, particularly spiral staircases, is still found throughout Richmond today.
American Civil War Museum, Richmond, VA.
The Horse Soldier, Gettysburg, PA.
Les Jensen collection.
Omenhausser, Joh, “Richmond Mess,” 1862, watercolor, American Civil War Museum, Richmond, VA.
“1st Texas Infantry, Dumfries, Virginia,” Austin History Center, Austin Public Library, Austin, TX.
Cook, George S., “Confederate artillery near Charleston, S.C. in 1861 [i.e. 1863],” Library of Congress, Washington, DC.
O’Sullivan, Timothy, “Petersburg, Va. Redoubt near Dunn’s house in outer line of Confederate fortifications captured June 14, 1864 by Gen. William F. Smith,” Library of Congress, Washington, DC.
McCarthy, Carlton, Detailed Minutiae of Soldier Life in the Army of Northern Virginia (Richmond: B.F. Johnson Publishing Company, 1899), 57.
Allen, Randall and Keith S. Bohannon, eds., Campaigning with ‘Old Stonewall’: Confederate Captain Ujanirtus Allen’s Letters to His Wife (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1998), 116.
Hodges, Sam and Jeffrey C. Lowe, eds., Letters to Amanda: The Civil War Letters of Marion Hill Fitzpatrick, Army of Northern Virginia (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2003), 30.
The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series I, Volume XXXIII (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1891), 1264.
Agassiz, George, ed., Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox (Boston: The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1922), 351.
Polley, J. B., Hoods Texas Brigade (New York: The Neale Publishing Company, 1910), 154.
Kilburn, C. L., Notes on Preparing Stores for the United States Army (Cincinnati: Bradley and Webb, 1863), 20.
Business file, Haxall, Crenshaw, & Co.; Confederate Papers Relating to Citizens or Business Firms, Record Group 109: National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC.
Flour mills named and defined their products differently from one another, but it was generally acknowledged that Family and Extra flour were superior products, graded above and commanding higher prices than Superfine and Fine.
Business file, Warwick & Barksdale; Confederate Papers Relating to Citizens or Business Firms, Record Group 109: National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC.
“Haxall Flour Mills about 1865,” Valentine Museum, Richmond, VA.
Gardner, Alexander, “Richmond, Va. Ruins of the Gallego Flour Mill,” Library of Congress, Washington, DC.