Hardtack, most often described as a bland, rock-solid, 3×3” piece of flour-and-water “bread,” technically should never have gained the infamy it did. Its original function in Civil War armies was that of dietary filler, used to supplement proteins and what vegetables became available (Madden 137). However, other ration components often gave out, leaving hardtack or its Confederate counterpart, the equally forbidding cornmeal biscuit, the unfortunate cornerstone of a soldier’s diet. This largely resulted from both the Federal and the Confederate governments’ assumption that the war would be decided on ground close enough to Union-governed cities to easily transport food, and would end so quickly that neither Union storehouses nor the large tracts of farm in the Confederacy would sag too significantly under the effort (127).
These assumptions proved incorrect, of course, and by the war’s second year hardtack and other portable but gravely innutritious foods had become chief army ration components. On days when rations were available, a Civil War soldier could have expected about a pound of salted meat, twelve ounces of hard bread, small portions of beans, rice or dried vegetables, and even smaller provisions of coffee, vinegar and salt. An August 1861 directive from the U.S. Congress to provide fresh meats and potatoes “when practicable” revealingly suggests how little either army could usually manage to exceed or even meet this ration (Nelson and Sheriff 215). Because of the great difficulty of shipping fresh foods to camp areas out of the reach of rail lines, soldiers most often encountered meat that in a heavily “cured” form, filled with so much preservative salt that it was virtually unchewable and needed to be soaked before eating (Madden 135). Vegetables were similarly subjected to a similar preservative dehydration process, called “desiccation,” then shaped into roughly one-ounce blocks that were, by all accounts, a repulsive dietary necessity (137).
Even these relatively imperishable items frequently ran out or turned rotten, leaving hardtack/cornmeal and beans as the most common foods available on many mornings. Unsurprisingly, their health suffered as a result. Hardtack’s plain starch might have filled the empty bottoms of soldiers’ stomachs, but its obvious lack of fats, vitamins and other essential nutrients left Union and Confederate men alike with profound dietary gaps. Also, hardtack often arrived filled with weevils and maggots, an unsanitary condition that only kept men from eating it in the most severe infestations (Madden 138). Soldiers in both armies attempted to improve their hard breads’ taste when possible, as in the Union example of “skillygalee,” comprised of hardtack soaked in cold water and browned in small amounts of pork fat. These enhancements remained only occasionally possible, however, leaving the bread as tasteless and nutritionally hollow as ever (Wiley 237). Although beans, when baked in a kettle, provided a comparative wealth of both protein and carbohydrates, soldiers’ common tendency to eat these beans undercooked caused them to ingest a toxin, phytohaemagglutinin, that caused severe gastric unrest and diarrhea. Such toxins, combined with infectious bacteria from whatever meat soldiers could sometimes scrounge, damaged the lower intestines from repeated illness, often with fatal results (Nelson and Sheriff 216). The tiny portions in which men often received their hardtack, beans, cornmeal, etc. further plagued the armies with chronic hunger that made soldiers’ bodies more vulnerable to non-dietary illnesses (Madden 147).
We should hardly be surprised, then, that Civil War hospitals were filled with men suffering these infections and deficiencies alongside their wounded or otherwise diseased comrades. In his daily hospital visits, Whitman tried to fill some of these inadequacies with his gifts of fruit, jams, etc. However, soldiers in camp struggled to supplement their hardtack-and-bean diets without such friendly civilian aid. When payday came, or if they came from more affluent families, men of both armies would fill this need via the camp sutler, a civilian entrepreneur who would sell cheese, small, canned meats and other relative delicacies—for exorbitant prices (Wiley 232). Soldiers often voiced their resentment of the sutlers’ exploitive practices, sometimes even inflicting violence on the ware-peddlers out of frustration, but the abject paltriness of their thin rations saw them continually pay for whatever they could afford (Madden 152). These conditions instilled in soldiers “the common knowledge that wealthier soldiers tended to outlive poorer ones,” since the dietary fortification provided by sutlers’ goods often determined a man’s survival (Nelson and Sheriff 217).
Rather than buying their way into this better dietary health, though, Union and Confederate men regularly commandeered the food supply of civilian populations near their camp or operating area. Thus the hunger of armies operating on hardtack and little else radiated out to worsen the hunger of civilians from whom the soldiers stole while out “foraging.” This civilian impact occurred far more dramatically in the South, of course, since most major land campaigns outside of Gettysburg and Antietam took place within Confederate states. Often such food appropriation received official sanction, especially from Union leaders who were navigating their troops through enemy territory and had little access to large-scale supply routes (Wiley 234). A particularly clear example of this would be the wholesale consumption of Georgia’s livestock and produce during Union General William Tecumseh Sherman’s famed “March to the Sea.” However, soldiers desperate for nutrition stole just as often without that approval from above, sometimes risking even capital punishment to supplement their diets (Madden 156). Although the adversarial relationship between Union troops and Southern civilians gave this “forage”-theft a political dimension, Confederate men stole roughly as much and as frequently from the Southern homes they passed while out on campaigns. A Vermont soldier related his encounter with a beleaguered Southerner who stated this experience quite plainly: “[W]e can hardly live between the two armies” (Madden 155). This erasure of North-South identity in the face of enveloping hunger illustrates how deeply the limited availability of rations, and the nutritionally insubstantial nature of those rations, affected soldiers’ conceptions of the war. Hardtack thus lingers on as a vital symbol of Civil War hardship because the dissatisfaction caused by that type of bland, rock-like bread forced Union and Confederate men to measure themselves against what they were willing to do to eat better—and live.
Madden, David, ed. Beyond the Battlefield: The Ordinary Life and Extraordinary Times of the
Civil War Soldier. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000.
Nelson, Scott, and Carol Sheriff. A People at War: Civilians and Soldiers in America’s Civil
War, 1854-1877. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Wiley, Bell Irvin. The Life of Billy Yank: The Common Soldier of the Union. Baton Rouge:
Louisiana State University Press, 2008.