Grab your haversack, Springfield and messkit—it’s time to eat! During the American Civil War, each side had a Commissary charged with dispensing food to the troops, but soldiers cooked their own rations. Often, small groups, or “messes”, would form to share food and cook together. If a long march was inevitable, the messmates might cook several days’ worth of rations and store everything in the canvas haversacks they carried.

An army marches on its stomach, so even though fine dining it was not, Union and Confederate soldiers made the best of the rations they had: hardtack, salt pork and desiccated vegetables—known less-than-fondly as “desecrated” vegetables—for the North; cornmeal, saltpeter-soaked bacon and goober peas for the South. Union soldiers could supplement their rations with food purchased from sutlers and items that arrived from home in care packages. Foraging was not permitted, at least not at the outset of the war, but commanding officers often looked the other way when it happened.

To increase the edibility of their comestibles, resourceful soldiers created simple new “receipts”:




Pork fat


Smash hardtack into small pieces with your rifle. Cook in pork fat.





Beef or salt pork



Fry ingredients in a skillet or form into dough; wrap dough around your rifle’s ramrod and cook over the fire.




Anything roast-able, for example: chicory, acorns, okra seeds, peanuts, rye, wheat berries, wood splinters…



Dry and roast your roast-ables. Grind (perhaps with your rifle?), combine with water in a coffeepot and brew over the fire.


Food can be a really an interesting lens on history, giving us a small taste of “what life was like back then” (Hint: it was arduous). Upcoming programs at the Troy Historic Village will focus on the experiences of common soldiers during the Civil War era:

Join us on Thursday April 28 at 11am or 2pm for “Hardtack & Coffee” with author and actor Robert Myers. Call 248.524.3570 to purchase tickets.

Social Studies Teachers, Curriculum Directors and Administrators: You are invited to preview our Civil War Days program May 16 – May 20. Presented to 8th grade students, this program is a full day of activities and presentations related to the American Civil War. Call 248.524.3598 for more details and to reserve your place.


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