What Civil War Soldiers Ate

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Rations-fixed daily supplies, as of food to an army; restricted provisions.
Civil War Soldier Food

Every soldier knows food is important to an army. Rations, the amount of food authorized for one soldier per day, keep an army moving. The quality of food, as well as the quantity, affects soldiers’ moods.

During the Civil War, the Union Army had two types of rations: “marching rations” and “camp rations.” Marching rations consisted of 16 ounces of hard bread, also known as ‘hardtack;’ 12 ounces of salt pork or 20 ounces of fresh meat, sugar, tea or coffee, and salt. Two or three pieces of hardtack, about 3 inches square each, fulfilled the daily ration for hard bread. Camp rations could substitute soft bread, flour, or cornmeal for hardtack, and included extras such as dried beans or peas, rice, vinegar, and molasses [a type of very sticky sweet substance], along with an amount of soap and candles. The ration was designed to fill a soldier’s stomach, not to provide energy to march or fight.

At the beginning of the war, soldiers had to cook their rations themselves. This took time, and the quality of meals depended on the cooking skills of the individual. Enlisted men would often cook with their friends, sharing the work and the food. As the war progressed company cooks were added that resulted in better food and higher morale [the amount of confidence and cheerfulness that a group of people have]. Officers did not receive rations when they were in camp; they received a money allowance to purchase food and supplies from the commissary [a military store for soldiers only] and could hire a civilian to cook their meals.

Two pieces of hardtack on a soldier's plate
This is a regiment's cook and a place for soldiers to eat

To add some variety to their food supply, soldiers would request favorite foods from home. They also received gifts of food from aid societies and could purchase food from sutlers [traveling stores that followed the army] in camp. However, the prices were often higher than they were at home..

When soldiers were on the march, the army’s supply lines stretched out and were vulnerable to attack. So, officers could send soldiers to forage for food and other supplies from Confederate citizens. This foraging happened often even though it was not “officially” allowed by Union army command.

The southern soldier’s diet was considerably different from his northern counterpart and usually in much less quantity. The average Confederate subsisted on bacon, cornmeal, molasses, peas, tobacco, vegetables and rice. They also received a coffee substitute which was not as desirable as the real coffee northerners had. Trades of tobacco for coffee were quite common throughout the war when fighting was not underway.

Resource Used:

Battle of antietam facts & summary. (2020, December 15). Retrieved March 11, 2021, from https://www.battlefields.org/learn/civil-war/battles/antietam?ms=googlepaid

Photograph Resource Used:

Civil war – about this collection. (2000, January 1). https://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/civwar/.