The Bugler

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Did Coffee Help Win the Civil War?

It was a welcome sight for the 23rd Ohio Volunteers spread across a cornfield in Sharpsburg, Maryland to see their 19-year-old commissary sergeant driving his mule team through shot and shell to their front lines bearing barrels of hot coffee and food. And it was that young man, William McKinley, who would later become 25th president of the U.S.

Might it be coffee that helped win the Civil War? The North had plenty of it. Federal quartermasters made it a practice of buying the best coffee beans available and they were generally issued to troops in either green or roasted form - ten pounds of green coffee or eight pounds of roasted and ground per 100 soldiers. The Union naval blockade of Southern ports dried up the Southern supply of coffee by 1862. A pound of coffee, if it could be found, cost as much as $70, which far exceeded a Confederacy soldier's monthly pay of $11. So other means were tried. While chicory was the preferred alternate, all sorts of things were parched, dried, toasted, roasted, and ground: bread crusts; rye grain; barley; beans; beets; bran; chestnuts; corn meal; molasses; sugar cane, cotton, dandelion, and watermelon seeds; wheat berries; sweet potatoes; peas; persimmons; and even acorns. As you can probably imagine, none of it was even a reasonable substitute for real coffee. Up north, rations were generous at six cups a day. Union Army camps glowed with thousands of campfires at night, each one with a soldier roasting beans and boiling water. Caffeine-starved rebels sometimes declared an unofficial truce so they could exchange southern tobacco for Yankee coffee. [Other items for trade and barter included newspapers, sewing needles, buttons, and currency.] Soldiers ground the beans with a musket butt and a hard surface, or created a rude mortar and pestle with a tin cup and bayonet. Foraging was popular among the troops, and a good cup of coffee was treasured.

[Lest any of the above "substitutes" for coffee sound way too grotesque, note that Postum, developed by C.W. Post in 1895, was made from toasted wheat bran, wheat, molasses and corn syrup, and it's still commercially available!]

Early in the war, the North determined that soldiers wasted too much time grinding and roasting coffee themselves, so the army tried a concentrated instant mixture. Coffee, milk, and sugar were boiled into a thick pudding-like product called essence of coffee but, reportedly, looked like axle grease. Later investigations revealed that some contractors used spoiled milk in making the product. Others adulterated ground coffee with sand and dirt to increase their per-pound profits.

In fact, coffee drinking was a safety measure supported by people like Florence Nightingale and the U.S. Sanitary Commission. The discovery that water-borne pathogens caused diseases such as cholera and dysentery lay more than a decade in the future, but in boiling their water to brew their coffee, soldiers were unwittingly sanitizing contaminated water supplies.

For the Union soldier, the food ration was usually meant to last three days while on active campaign and was based on the general staples of meat and bread. Rations of beef, a rare treat, or pork were boiled, broiled or fried over open campfires. Army bread, if it could be called such, was a flour biscuit called hardtack. It was basically flour and water baked to the consistency of a brick - usually about 3?" long, 2?" wide, and a O" thick. If boxed too soon, it was usually moldy and often it was infested with weevils. It could be eaten plain, though most preferred to toast them over a fire, crumble them into soups, or crumble and fry them with their pork fat in a dish called skillygalee. One Civil War-era canned product remains in production - Borden's sweetened condensed milk. When Federal soldiers were lucky enough to receive a can of that, they made a concoction they called milk toast with the hardtack. Other food items included rice, peas, beans, dried fruit, potatoes, molasses, vinegar, and salt. Baked beans were a northern favorite. Coffee and sugar may have been the most important of all.

The southern soldier's diet was considerably different and there was less of it. The average Confederate subsisted on bacon, cornmeal, molasses, peas, vegetables, rice, and tobacco. The cornmeal was a little more palatable and versatile than hardtack, but it could also be rancid, moldy, and bug infested. It was generally mixed with a little water and a pinch of salt and cooked into what are still called hoecakes in the South. When troops were on the move, there was no opportunity to cook, so three or four days of rations would be prepared.

Not surprisingly, sickness and disease were the scourge of both armies and more men died of disease than in battle. Sanitation in the camps was very poor. Germs and the existence of bacteria had not yet been discovered, and medical science was quite primitive by today's standards. Whiskey was universally given for most ailments, as was brandy and other stimulants. Extremely ill soldiers were sent to brigade hospitals where most were further affected by disease. Thousands of men in both armies died without ever firing a shot in battle.

After reading this, do we hear any complaints about today's MREs?!

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