Depending on where you lived, what you ate during the Civil War (1861-1865) was either pretty much status quo or it was something that could challenge even the most rugged digestive system.
By the time that first shot was fired at Fort Sumter, S.C., Northerners, unlike cotton-crazy plantation owners, had long been putting emphasis on growing food crops.
And instead of utilizing slave labor, farmers in Union states were already using mechanized ways of sowing and harvesting. For these reasons, all the way through the war’s end, Northern families had a steady supply of fresh meats, grains and produce. The region produced so much food that it was able to export surplus to Europe.
New Englanders had also already created a fledgling canning industry, and it mushroomed with the Union military’s wartime demands for processed food. The Confederacy, on the other hand, had little mechanization for either crops or food processing; slaves did all that work.
The food disparity between North and South began early on, when Southern men went off fighting, slaves began to scatter, and the Union blockaded all goods, including food, from entering the South.
By 1862, with no imports and no one to sow and harvest, most food for sale below the Mason-Dixon Line was outrageously expensive. Meat, coffee, milk, pork and fruit were scarce. Once-plentiful sugar was virtually nonexistent, as was salt, which was crucial for preserving.
Many white Southerners soon found themselves existing on what was once only doled out to slaves — cornbread, sorghum, wild greens and field peas. And they were the lucky ones.
Remember the ragged Scarlett O’Hara, standing in a field at Tara, clutching her pitiful radish and declaring she would “never go hungry again”?
A few of the South’s elites were able to maintain their extravagant lifestyles, and a good many Southern families in rural areas grew enough to feed themselves. But Scarlett types abounded. Numerous white women who had formerly led cushy lives were forced to scavenge.
Often they formed unlikely alliances with slaves, who didn’t have much in the first place, and who had virtually nothing after the plantations they worked were destroyed. Food riots erupted in cities. In April 1863, things got so heated that a group of mostly women stormed their way into Richmond, Va., grocery stores, demanding food.
The same thing happened in Salisbury, N.C., where a railroad depot was stampeded by a hungry mob looking for flour.
The two armies added to the Confederacy’s food anguish. Aside from Gettysburg and Antietam, the major Civil War battles were fought in the South. In addition to military rations, both sides ate what they considered the spoils of war, and that was usually the animals and produce belonging to unlucky farmers who happened to be in the way.
And when quartermasters could not navigate through mud-soaked roads and ambushes, or if commissaries were in disarray, as often happened with the Confederates, nothing was out of bounds, including the horses and mules that belonged to civilians.
Union soldiers, on the whole, ate better than the Confederates because the federal government had a well-established commissary system.
Typical rations included staples such as salt pork, dried fruit and vegetables, coffee, salt, and the infamous hard tack, a 3-inch square of rock-solid bread made from flour, water and salt.
Confederate soldiers were supposed to be supplied with items such as bacon, sugar, tea, molasses and cornmeal, but, as mentioned, that was never a guarantee.
For both sides, “extravagances” such as sugar, tobacco, coffee, canned meat, sweets, and fresh and canned fruit could be purchased from sutlers, civilian merchants who followed the armies and sold ridiculously high-priced goods to homesick soldiers.
In the end, the South was essentially starved into submission. And the cookbooks and magazines of the day starkly shine a light on the dining differences between the two enemies. For example, “Godey’s Lady’s Book,” the era’s premier magazine for women, which was published in the North throughout the war, continually featured recipes for things considered luxuries in the blood-soaked South, including beef, lamb, chicken, pies, ice cream and dessert cakes.
Conversely, the “Confederate Receipt Book: A compilation of over one hundred receipts adapted to the times” (1863) has a few flatbread, beer and pudding recipes, but no recipes for cooking any kind of meat. It includes instructions for many make-do items, such as apple pie without apples, preserving meat without salt, substitutes for cream and coffee, and instructions for filtering muddy river water. That’s quite a contrast.
But because of our ancestors’ Civil War hardships, today we Southerners know how to make something out of nothing.
And, of course, we here in Louisiana certainly learned how to appreciate good food.
Sources: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (www.docsouth.unc.edu); www.britishfoodamerica.com; “Civil War Recipes” (Spaulding, Spaulding, 1999); “Life on the Old Plantation in Ante-Bellum Days” (Lowery, 1911, www.docsouth.unc.edu); “Godey’s Lady’s Book,” January-June, 1862, “Lincoln’s Table” (McCreary, 2008); “Confederate Receipt Book” (1863, www.docsouthunc.edu); www.umich.edu, “Mrs. Goodfellow’s Cookery As It Should Be” (1865), www.civilwarinteractive.com
Cynthia LeJeune Nobles is a member of the Newcomb College Culinary History Writers Group and the author of LSU Press’s title “The Delta Queen Cookbook.” You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © 2011, Capital City Press LLC • 7290 Bluebonnet Blvd., Baton Rouge, LA 70810 • All Rights Reserved