Food and Rations

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Food and Rations

In the realm of food rations, the experiences of both Union and Confederate troops during the Civil War were similar in many respects. Each army set up commissary departments that in many operational aspects were mirror images of the other, and the typical soldier— whether a Yankee or a Rebel—endured periods in which food was scarce, particularly as the war progressed. Soldiers on both sides sought to supplement their army rations in similar ways as well, usually through foraging or visits to area sutlers (authorized civilian merchants). As the war progressed, it was the quantity of food (rather than quality) that most concerned the typical soldier (Sutherland 1989, p. 10).

The main difference in food rations between the armies of the South and North lay in the degree of deprivation. Whereas Union soldiers complained mightily—and with merit—about the rations they received, they nonetheless consumed sufficient food supplies to keep bellies full and malnutrition at bay, at least for the most part. Confederate soldiers were not as fortunate; as the war dragged on and the South's military fortunes turned for the worse, food scarcity became a significant problem for many Confederate troops.

Feeding the Troops

One of the first priorities of both sides in the weeks and months leading up to the Civil War was to set up commissary departments. In the North, the War Department was able to use the existing structure that was already in place for the federal army (though it had to overhaul it to accommodate the much greater demands of an expanded military). The Confederacy adopted a similar food distribution structure, in large measure because it was the system with which Southern officers who had resigned from the U.S. Army were familiar.

Boiled down to its essentials, the primary responsibility of these departments was to buy food for the soldiers and store and distribute the rations as needed. Because refrigeration (using blocks of ice) was not practical in camp or on the march, both armies relied heavily on salted or smoked meats and canned or dried vegetables. When the war began, the South adopted the official U.S. Army food ration structure for individual soldiers. The official daily ration for soldiers in camp included pork or bacon; fresh or salt beef; and cornmeal, bread, or flour. These staples were supplemented by rations that were doled out at the company level, such as beans, potatoes, peas, rice, coffee, tea, molasses, sugar, salt, pepper, and irregular dispensations of various types of vegetables or fruits. Fresh fruit, vegetables, and dairy products virtually disappeared from the soldiers' diet during the war, although some soldiers were able to "liberate" these goods from the civilian population during the course of military operations.

On Feast and Famine

James H. Clark, a Union soldier of the 115th New York Regiment, details his quotidian wartime experience in his 1865 book The Iron Hearted Regiment. One of his daily concerns included food and rations. While the army did supply a ration to each soldier, he endured times of scarcity:

September 16—I paid a silver quarter of a dollar for a poor breakfast, the same for dinner, and one quarter of a dollar for a little cider.

September 18—Could not get anything to eat at any price. Money was of no value to purchase food, than grains of sand. The soldiers were ordered out of nearly every house which they stopped at (p. 31).

In contrast, soldiers' journeys also occasionally brought them to places where any palate could be satisfied. In Zenas T. Haines's 1863 book Letters from the Forty-Fourth Regiment M.V.M.: A Record of the Experience of a Nine Months' Regiment in the Department of North Carolina in 1862–3, Haines describes their trip through Newburn as a veritable trove of delicacies:

Newburn has become quite a jolly place to live in. It is filled with Yankee jimcracks, ranging all the way from top-boots to preserved strawberries. The market supplies splendid Northern apples, Southern ditto, honey, cider, ginger cakes, crackers, fish, preserved meats and fruits, oysters, pickles, condensed milk, chocolate, sugar, tea, coffee. It is wonderfully convenient to be so near to all these little comforts … gingerbread, pies, and even apple-dumplings, are brought to us by the negroes in profusion, while the sutlers furnish us with butter, cheese, sardines, and all the main essentials of luxurious living. Our regular rations are not to be sneezed at, although at present a scarcity of hops has thrown us back on hardtack. We are treated to beef steaks, excellent rice soups, fish, etc. (pp. 48–49).

In times of both famine and feast, food was always on the soldier's mind.

carly s. kaloustian


Clark, James H. The Iron Hearted Regiment: Being an Account of the Battles, Marches and Gallant Deeds Performed by the 115th Regiment N.Y. Albany, NY: J. Munsell, 1865. Sources in U.S. History Online: Civil War. Gale. Available from

Haines, Zenas T. Letters from the Forty-Fourth Regiment M.V.M.: A Record of the Experience of a Nine Months' Regiment in the Department of North Carolina in 1862–3. Boston: Herald Job Office, 1863. Sources in U.S. History Online: Civil War. Gale. Available from

Neither the U.S. army nor the Confederate one was able to meet its official ration-dispensation goals on a regular basis once the war started. Getting food to soldiers in semipermanent encampments, however, was much easier than keeping up with companies on the move. Many soldiers on the move became accustomed to operating on half-rations (or on even less). This was especially true in the South, which fell so far short of its ration-distribution goals by the spring of 1862 that it quietly reduced its official food-ration targets.

Food rations that did make it to the armies, whether they were encamped or on the march, were rarely prepared with much concern for making the food palatable. Commissary cooks and their supervisors were primarily concerned with stretching existing food resources as far as possible and delivering food to soldiers' plates with dispatch. Aesthetic considerations of taste and presentation were not primary in their food-preparation chores. "Our boys threaten a riot every day for the bad beef and spoiled bread issued to us," warned one unhappy Wisconsin soldier (Sutherland 1989, p. 10). Another Union soldier, a corporal from Illinois, no doubt spoke for many in his company when he bitterly wrote, "the boys say that our 'grub' is enough to make a mule desert, and a hog wish he had never been born" (Donald 2001, p. 247). Ignorance and indifference about careful food handling and sanitation also took its toll; diarrhea and other intestinal ailments were commonplace in the ranks of both the North and South.

Salt Pork, Hardtack, and Coffee

The core staples in the diet of both Rebel and Yankee were salt pork (usually fried), the hard, square biscuits known as "hardtack," and black coffee. Salt pork was easily the most widely consumed meat during the war, although perennial salt shortages in the South (which during the prewar years had acquired most of its salt from the North) made the food difficult to come by in Southern camps as the war ground on.

Hardtack was widely reviled for its rock-like character and the frequency with which it became infested with weevils and other insects. Fresh hardtack could be chewed, but most hardtack was consumed weeks or months after it had been made. These batches were virtually impossible to choke down without first soaking them in bacon grease, condensed milk, coffee, soup, or water.

Black coffee, meanwhile, outranked even tobacco as a necessity for most soldiers. One of the most valuable items in the kit of just about every Civil War soldier, from the infantry private to the artillery captain, was a metal can (usually tin) that he could use to boil coffee. Coffee rations were usually doled out in bean rather than ground form because of concerns that contractors would dilute ground coffee—a legitimate precaution given the venality of some Civil War—era contractors. Soldiers were thus responsible for grinding their own coffee. Most accomplished this task by using rifle butts as a sort of pestle to mash the beans into powder. "In the morning, in camp, you could tell when the boys were getting up by the rhythmic clinking, grinding noise that came up from in front of every tent" (Catton 1981, p. 42).

Supplemental Sources of Food

Occasionally, Civil War soldiers received packages of cookies, cakes, and other delights from loved ones back at home. These packages elicited a complex range of emotions in many recipients. On the one hand, soldiers savored the contents of these gift packages, which almost always were heavily weighted toward items that were known to be personal favorites. But such mail inevitably conjured up memories of the last meal the soldier had eaten back home before heading off to war—typically an extravagant feast from the family larder prepared by parents, wives, or siblings in the full knowledge that they might never see their departing relative again.

As the war progressed, Confederate and Union forces on the move also supplemented their army rations through fishing and hunting expeditions. Participation in these officially sanctioned expeditions was highly desirable, for it offered an escape from tedious camp chores and spiritually uplifted soldiers, who were reminded of past hours spent in the family fields and woods of Minnesota, Michigan, New York, Alabama, or Tennessee.

Many soldiers also turned to army sutlers, though this resource was beyond the financial means of some troops, especially in the last couple of years of the conflict. These civilian merchants sold a wide range of food and other items to soldiers with the official sanction of regimental commanders. Canny sutlers quickly realized that they could reap their greatest profits from the sale of food, and so they devoted a good percentage of their stockpile of goods to fresh fruit, onions, cheese, butter, condensed milk, cookies and cakes, and other products.

Union Foraging

For Rebel and Yankee companies moving through the country's eastern and western theaters, the civilian farms and general stores that lay in the vicinity of their camps and marching paths made up another resource. Both armies resorted to what was termed "foraging"—though this designation was little more than a self-serving euphemism for plundering the livestock and foodstuffs of civilians who could themselves be facing malnutrition or worse.

Some Union commanders forbade foraging, and many soldiers in the ranks looked at the practice as immoral and disgraceful. As the war progressed, however, and Union troops became increasingly weary of their meager, unappetizing, and unvarying commissary rations, the practice spread. As one soldier from Maine recounted, "despite most stringent orders against foraging, every morning the ground between the different encampments of the regiments was covered with sheep skins and feathers from turkeys, geese and hens that had given their lives, during the preceding night, for the relief of the hungry soldiers" (Robertson 1988, pp. 73–74).

Union plundering of Southern farms reached its greatest heights (or its nadir, depending on one's viewpoint) during General William Tecumseh Sherman's famous March through Georgia and the Carolinas in late 1864 and early 1865. As Sherman cut a methodical path through the heart of the Confederacy, he embraced foraging as official army policy. Seizing whatever they wished from the farms and stores that Sherman's army passed by, his men did destroy a great deal, including much livestock, but Sherman's orders directed that they should endeavor to leave each family enough food to get through until the next harvest. These orders were actually carried out at least some of the time. Armed with this official sanction, Sherma's troops routinely carried off food and other supplies by the wagonload from surrounding hamlets and farms. "We cannot change the hearts of those people of the South," the general declared. "But we can make war so terrible and make them so sick of war that generations would pass away before they would again appeal to it" (Grimsley 1997, p. 118).

Impressment and Hunger in the South

In the South, soldiers and civilians alike suffered from food shortages for much of the war. Factors responsible for the steadily diminishing availability of food included the effectiveness of Union naval blockades, the South's comparatively undeveloped railroad systems, and Federal occupation of vital agricultural areas, including Tennessee, Georgia, and large swaths of the Shenandoah Valley. Levels of hunger in the civilian population were further intensified by government impressments of crops and livestock for consumption by the army. "By the end of the war many staples had permanently disappeared from the southern diet…. Rats became a familiar item in many diets. President Davis was quoted as saying that he saw no reason for not eating them, for he thought they would be 'as good as squirrels.' But rats never became as popular as mule meat" (Donald 2001, p. 457). The food situation became so desperate that some Southern cities were rocked by food riots in the last two years of the war.

The diminishing availability of food inevitably had a negative impact on Confederate troops in the field. After the first year of war, Rebel soldiers were almost perpetually underfed. Their plight was further exacerbated by the incompetence and corruption of the commissary general of the Confederate Army, Lucius B. Northrop, who became widely hated.

In the latter stages of the Civil War, shortages of food rations became so severe that growing numbers of Rebel troops took to robbing fellow Southerners. "Impressment" of food was particularly commonplace among cavalry units, which had both greater mobility than their infantry counterparts and greater freedom from supervision. This grim development was difficult to witness for those Rebel soldiers who resisted the urge to plunder. "[Southerners] talk about the ravages of the enemy in their marches through the country," wrote one disillusioned Confederate soldier. "But I do not think that the Yankees are any worse than our own army" (Mitchell 1988, p. 163).

In the final analysis, however, most scholars agree that few Confederate military units ever succumbed to outright starvation or died as a direct result of acute malnutrition. But malnutrition undoubtedly was a contributing factor in the deaths of sick or wounded soldiers on both sides, and food shortages contributed to the cloud of dread that shadowed Southern troops in the latter stages of the war.


Catton, Bruce. Reflections on the Civil War, ed. John Leekley. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1981.

Donald, David Herbert, Jean Harvey Baker, and Michael F. Holt. The Civil War and Reconstruction. New York: W. W. Norton, 2001.

Grimsley, Mark. The Hard Hand of War: Union Military Policy toward Southern Civilians, 1860–1865. Cambridge, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Linderman, Gerald F. Embattled Courage: The Experience of Combat in the American Civil War. New York: Free Press, 1987.

Mitchell, Reid. Civil War Soldiers: Their Expectations and Their Experiences. New York: Viking, 1988.

Robertson, James I., Jr. Soldiers Blue and Gray. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1988.

Shannon, Fred A. "The Life of the Common Soldier in the Union Army, 1861–1865." In The Civil War Soldier: A Historical Reader, ed. Michael Barton and Larry M. Logue. New York: New York University Press, 2002.

Sutherland, Daniel E. The Expansion of Everyday Life, 1860–1876. New York: Harper & Row, 1989.

Wiley, Bell Irvin. The Life of Johnny Reb: The Common Soldier of the Confederacy. Indianapolis, IN, and New York: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1943. Reprint, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1992.

Williams, David. Johnny Reb's War: Battlefield and Homefront. Abilene, TX: McWhiney Foundation Press, 2000.

Kevin Hillstrom

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Food and Rations

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