Survival during war is often about more than just time spent on the front lines. During the Civil War, finding sufficient, edible food was challenging on account of a devastated landscape, insufficient labor after farmers went off to fight, as well as blockades and barricades preventing access to much-needed provisions.
Much like settlers headed out West during the expansion of the United States or millions of poverty-stricken individuals impacted by the Great Depression, Civil War soldiers and their civilian counterparts resorted to whatever they could find to eat. Sometimes the results were gnarly and out of the norm when viewed through a modern lens.
The following recipes reflect the creativity men and women undertook in the kitchen and at the campfire. From alternative forms of coffee to cakes of all kinds, you may not believe some of the things people actually ate.
Coffee was something both Union and Confederate soldiers consumed a lot of, but it wasn't always available. To make coffee-like consumables, soldiers resorted to using substitutions. This meant brewing peanuts, chicory, grains like rye, peas, and even apples. Other options included acorns, dandelion roots, and sweet potatoes. According to General J.E.B. Stuart:
Potatoes were peeled and cut into "chunks" about the size of coffee berries. The pieces were spread out in the sun to dry, then parched until brown, after which they were ground. The grounds were mixed with a little water until a paste resulted, after which hot water was added. When the grounds settled to the bottom of the coffee pot, the beverage could be poured and drunk...
Actual coffee beans were hot commodities during this time period and, in Atlanta, at least one jeweler used them instead of diamonds in decorative breastpins. When coffee was brewed on fields, it was still something noncombatants "probably wouldn't recognize... boiled in an open kettle, and about the color of a brownstone front."
Rations during the Civil War included salt beef and pork, as well as flour, water, salt, sugar, coffee, and vinegar. Meat wasn't always available, especially in the South where barricades often prevented provisions from arriving. One of the substitutes for meat was a mixture of rice and molasses. Sometimes cooks and soldiers added cornmeal, too.
Molasses itself was an acquired taste, used as a sweetner by Confederate troops once sugar ran out. A nice mixture of rye and cereal with molasses was "enough to produce deadly illness in any one who swallowed it, not excepting a Rebel soldier," according to one soldier. But they "learned to love it."
"Slosh" was a meal made from bacon, grease, and flour. To prepare slosh, soldiers fried bacon in a large amount of grease, then added watered-down flower that "flowed like milk." Sometimes called "cush," the mixture may have also included beef. Alternatively, it could be stewed with crumbled cornbread. Ideally, slosh was cooked until all of the liquid was gone, giving it a thicker texture and greater sustenance.
Another version of slosh known as "slapjack" featured less water, creating a flour paste that was mixed with grease and browned on one side. The slapjack was then flipped and cooked through.
When looking for sweetners, soldiers turned to molasses when sugar ran low and, as molasses became less available, they used watermelon syrup. Civilian Southerners also consumed watermelon syrup, alongside sorghum and persimmons, as a sugar substitute.
In addition to syrup made from the juice of watermelons, people made use of watermelon rinds to make preserves.