During the Civil War, soldiers on both sides of the fight were given rations (pre-measured portions) of food. Examples of rations included: flour, salt, potatoes, cornmeal, beans, sugar, coffee, and dried or cured beef. Union soldiers had more access to some of these rations than Confederate soldiers. This was because food supplies were often limited in the South, due to blockades and supply issues.
Using the rations, the soldiers would “cook” their own meals, often right on the battlefield. Of course, access to cooking supplies such as pots and pans was often extremely limited. Remember, army regiments would pack up and move often – so everything had to be carried with them!
As you can see, these rations didn’t give the soldiers much variety in their diet. They ate many of the same things over and over again. I’m sure it got pretty boring eating the same diet day after day. But boredom wasn’t their only problem. Their diet often lacked key vitamins and minerals. Many soldiers developed serious health problems, like scurvy, from lack of vitamin C and other nutrients.
To change up their diet, soldiers would also forage for food. Sometimes they would hunt for fresh meat. And often, they relied on the generosity of others for luxuries like fresh milk and dairy products. Fruit and produce were sometimes available from local farmers. And yes, at times, a hungry soldier would even steal food from local civilians. Many times, soldiers went hungry, especially in the south where food shortages were more common during the war.
Some Union soldiers could buy food from sutlers. Sutlers were traveling salesmen that would follow behind the Union regiments. However convenient they might be, their prices were usually extremely high and often the food was bad or spoiled. Many soldiers called them “vultures.”
A common food many soldiers ate was a flour-based cracker called hardtack. Hardtack was often premade in the north for Union soldiers, and given as part of their rations. It was a cheap food source for soldiers and it was also easy to carry. It didn’t go bad or spoil.
Hardtack is a simple cracker made from flour, salt, and water – and just like the name suggests, it is very hard. Soldiers would soften their hardtack by adding fat from meat or by dipping it in their coffee or tea. And if it wasn’t softened enough, it could even break your teeth! In fact, soldiers gave hardtack many nicknames like “teeth-dullers” or “sheet-iron crackers.” Believe it or not, sometimes hardtack was the only thing soldiers had to eat.
Did you know: Some hardtack dating back to the Civil War still exists in museums today!
Make Your Own Hardtack
You can try hardtack for yourself. It’s easy to make. You’ll need the following supplies:
- 2 cups flour (plus a little extra)
- ½ cup of water (plus a little extra)
- 5 pinches of salt
- Mixing bowl
- Rolling pin
- Cookie sheet
- Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.
- Add flour and salt to mixing bowl. Mix.
- Add in your water. Mix again.
- Use extra flour and water as needed to make sure your dough is not sticky. But be careful not to make your dough too dry, either. If it is too sticky, add a little flour. If it is too dry, add a little water.
- Knead your dough until it is easy to work with, like playdough or clay.
- Using a rolling pin, roll the dough into a rectangle on your ungreased cookie sheet. Roll it to about ½ inch thickness.
- Bake for 30 minutes.
- Remove from oven. Cut into 3 x 3 inch squares. Use a fork to poke holes in your squares.
- Flip the squares over and return to the oven for 30 more minutes.
- Turn off the oven and let your hardtack completely cool inside the oven.
Remember: Be careful when you bite it! It will be very hard. Try dipping it in tea, coffee, or even hot chocolate.
If you liked this activity, be sure to check back soon. We have several more Civil War recipes to share with you!