Most American soldiers didn’t exactly enjoy gourmet food during the Civil War—think hardtack, beans, watery coffee, and the rare rasher of bacon—but during that period in history, they learned a great many life skills. And a chef and a museum chief recently teamed up to give people a taste of what it was like.
“A lot of the problems soldiers had with cooking were because they were men,” says David Price, executive director of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, Maryland. Price, who served as a consultant to the creators of Mercy Street, the PBS Civil War drama centered around an Alexandria, Virginia hospital, says these young men were on their own for the first time, without the first clue about personal hygiene or meal preparation.
Soldiers were given a pan (usually iron) and a cup (tin), but few knew how to clean them or prepare food, Price says. After a few experiences with food poisoning, a.k.a. “death by skillet,” they learned. They also learned not to camp under trees where fellow soldiers liked to relieve themselves, he says.
While there were few comforts of home for the soldiers, even if their families tagged along behind the regiment in caravans (which Price says they often did) few things beat a hot cup of coffee.
Some scholars say the war ran on coffee. Jon Grinspan, an associate curator at the National Museum of American History and expert in the role young men and women played in American democracy in the 19th century, wrote recently in The New York Times:
For Union soldiers, and the lucky Confederates who could scrounge some, coffee fueled the war. Soldiers drank it before marches, after marches, on patrol, during combat. In their diaries, “coffee” appears more frequently than the words “rifle,” “cannon” or “bullet.” Ragged veterans and tired nurses agreed with one diarist: “Nobody can ‘soldier’ without coffee.”
In September 1862, a young William McKinley brought “vats” of hot coffee to Union troops under heavy fire to restore their will to fight at Antietam, according to Grinspan, and they won. Thirty years later, President McKinley ran for president in part on this famous coffee run.
With or without coffee, soldiers suffered a great deal on the battlefield, but even more in the disease-ridden camps where they spent most of their time. “The camps were cesspools,” Price says. Remember, this is before the age of antibiotics and people had pretty limited knowledge of how germs spread. Of the 1,500 days soldiers were enlisted, they only spent about 45 days in battle, Price says. That’s a lot of camp time.
Price says one of the greatest challenges the hospitals and camps faced was how to feed a lot of people at one time. During the war, the city of Frederick had a population of 8,000 residents and 10,000 hospital patients.
Hospital administrators and camp cooks alike figured out ways to stretch meats and vegetables across meals via soups and stews to combat scurvy and dehydration. They invented “beef teas” in which beef and bones were boiled long before bone broth K-cups were a dream in someone’s head. They also made use of lemons, potatoes and onions, with some access to molasses, and any herbs and meat they could scrounge.
Civil War cooks also found ways to make a lot of food hot at once using giant split-level cauldrons set up over hot fires that burned all day.
So why would anyone want to re-create what was surely a low point in American dining? To help make history come alive for modern times. This year, the National Museum of Civil War Medicine teamed up with Executive Chef Jeff Beard of the Wine Kitchen on the Creek, around the corner in Frederick, to set up a cauldron and cooking demonstrations on the restaurant’s patio.
A recent weekday morning demonstration included long-smoked baked beans, set in a Dutch oven in the coals, an updated hardtack, a spit-roasted leg of lamb, and an apple cobbler, along with colorful discussions of Gen. Robert E Lee’s demand for an egg every day and other stories.
To compete with video games and other forms of entertainment these days, “Museums need to reach people with a sensory experience,” Price says, and food can be a big part of that. Beer and wine dinners and historically appropriate gift shop food treats like popcorn can bring in people who are not traditional museum-goers.
Think of it as getting history with a slice of pie.