The best way to know what to cook at an event is to know what the soldiers were issued. Again, this handbook is on what to do, not why it’s done, so much of the research itself is not being presented here. However, a summary of that research shows us that the typical soldier of the ANV in 1863 was issued meat and a starch.
The meat was typically some type of salted pork; either salt pork or bacon. The exception was the Gettysburg Campaign, from mid-June to late July, 1863, when fresh beef courtesy of the Pennsylvania farmers, became the norm. A typical ration was a ¼ to ½ pound per day per man (more often than not, leaning towards ¼ lb.).
The starch was typically cornmeal (white cornmeal was more common, but yellow is not incorrect) or flour. In 1863, flour seems to be the primary starch for the first half of the year and then cornmeal began to dominate in the latter, post-Gettysburg, portion of the year. A typical ration was up to 18 ounces per man, per day. Although there are records of Confederates being issued hardtack and cornbread, plain meal or flour seems to be the norm in mid-war.
Other typical, but not necessarily regular rations, include rice, beans, salt, peas, molasses, salt beef and vinegar.
Another source of food was foraging. However, for most of the year, the ANV and AOP were in northern Virginia, where 60-70,000 Rebs and about 100,000 Yanks have been stripping the land for about two years. Nevertheless, descriptions of foraging potatoes and rutabagas can be found.
Life was better during the Gettysburg campaign as soldiers liberated chickens, milk, butter, sauerkraut, and even beer from their northern oppressors. An added plus was that cherries were in season.
Making Your Own Rations
There were two main forms of salted meat used for rations, both north and south: salt pork and salt beef. Most stores do not sell salt beef and what is sold as salt pork is not what was issued during the war. Wartime salt beef and pork can be made with any cut of the cow or pig.
Cut your meat into the size you would like. You may either salt individual rations for yourself, or larger chunks to issue to your mess. Get a large sack of salt (Kosher salt works well. Do not use rock salt designed for ice cream makers or water softeners; whatever salt you use, make sure it is food safe). Cover the bottom of some kind of container with a layer of salt, an inch thick or so. Put in your pieces of meat, not touching each other, dump more salt on, over, and between them. When you run out of meat, cover it with more salt. Now pour in a brine made of as much salt as the water will easily dissolve until the water is higher than the dry salt. You may need to weight down your meat with a rock or something to keep it from rising. That's it. It will last a few years at least.
If you would like to try something a little different, here's a recipe from Beeton's Book of Household Management (1861) for salt beef:
1/2 round of beef, 4 oz sugar, 1 oz saltpetre, 2 oz black pepper, 1/4 lb. bay salt, 1/2 lb. common salt [again, Kosher salt works fine; substitute 3/4 of a pound for both salts in this recipe].
Rub the meat well with salt, and let it remain for a day, to disgorge the slime. The next day, rub it well with the above ingredients on every side, and let it remain in the pickle for about a fortnight, turning it every day. It may be boiled fresh from the pickle, or smoked.
Note: the smaller the beef, the less time it takes to salt it. A joint of 8 or 9 lbs. will be sufficiently salty in a week.
As noted before, hardtack was not commonly issued to Confederates. However, if representing a time immediately after a Confederate victory, e.g., after the Chancellorsville Campaign, rations would be supplemented with captures stores.
Mix 5 cups of flour to 1 cup of water containing a 1/2-tablespoon of salt. Knead into a dough and roll out to 3/8-inch thickness. Cut into approximately 3-inch squares and pierce each with a fork or ice pick several times. Bake in a 400-degree oven for 30 minutes or until slightly brown.
Cooking Your Rations
Okay, so you have prepared your rations and you are now at an event. What do you do with it? There are a lot of books out there that claim to be full of “authentic” Confederate recipes. Many of them are of the era, but are better suited for the home front than for campaigner cooking. For example, any bread over the fire that uses baking soda or powder is out of the question unless you could justify an argument that you got it from a sutler – it just wasn’t issued. Even many recipes designed for soldiers are for established camps and are not appropriate for soldiers on campaign.
In general, you want to keep it low and slow. Keep the heat of your fire low, and cook your food slowly. Too hot of a fire will result in food that is burnt on the outside and raw on the inside. It’s a lot easier to stoke up a fire that isn’t hot enough than to wait for a hot fire to cool down. Coals cook better than flames.
Salted Meats: Salted meats, including some salt cured bacons, need to be soaked for a long period of time, or boiled, before they can be eaten. The quickest way to prepare salt pork or salt beef is to put what you want to cook up in your tin cup, cover it with water, stick in on the fire, and bring it to a boil. The thicker the meat, the longer the boil time needed; cut it into slices before boiling if it seems too thick. Expect to boil it up to twenty minutes. Unless you have unusually thick pieces of meat, it’s pretty much cooked at this point. Anything else you do is more for flavor and texture. Common cooking methods include frying it in a frying pan, or roasting it on a stick or your ramrod. For fatty meats, such as bacon, use a frying pan if you or others may want the grease for cooking.
Flour: In a plate or canteen half, put in a bunch of flour. Add a little bit of water and knead it in. Keep adding a little bit of water and kneading it in until you have created a stiff dough. The dough may be cooked a variety of ways: twisting it onto a stick or ramrod and cooked over a fire, forming it into patties and frying them up, or rolling them into balls and dropping them into a boiling liquid to make dumplings are some options.
Cornmeal: Put some water in your cup, stick it on the fire and bring it to a boil. Once it is boiling, slowly stir in your cornmeal a little at a time (use a fork to help break up lumps) until you get close to the consistency you want. It will continue to thicken after you think it’s done. For a fine cornmeal, you can take the water off of the fire when you stir in the meal. For a course cornmeal, you may need to boil it a bit. Salt it if you have some. You have just created mush. It may be eaten as is, or used as a starting point for other creations. The most common next step is to form the mush into patties (add a little bacon grease or other meat dripping for extra flavor if you’d like; they’ll also hold together better for taking them on the march) and fry them up. If you pack the mush into a container, and let it cool, it will become a very solid block that is easy to handle. The block can be sliced and the slices fried up. “Hoe cakes” are essentially fried mush patties. A good source for a period correct cornmeal is:
Those are your basics. From there, if you can think of doing it, the men we are portraying probably already thought of it.
Here are a few quotes from soldiers on what they did.
Cush or Slosh: Shortage of utensils and ingredients combined to produce some astonishing dishes. The most frequently mentioned was a concoction known as cush - dubbed "slosh" by one of its less admiring partakers. This dish was born of the greater convenience of cooking small portions of meat together instead of separately; but let a soldier give the recipe: "We take some bacon & fry the grease out, then we cut some cold beef in small pieces & put it in the grease, then pour in water and stew it like hash. Then we crumble corn bread or biscuit in it [some soldiers made mush or paste of flour or meal and added one or both of these at this point instead of crumbs] and stew it again till all the water is out then we have ... real Confederate cush." He added that he and his comrades on Missionary Ridge considered the preparation to be quite a luxury. From “Life of Johnny Reb” by Bell Wiley (pp 104-105)
Skillygalee (if you happen to come across some hardtack): A dish akin to this one, which was said the “make the hair curl,” and certainly was indigestible enough to satisfy the cravings of the most ambitious dyspeptic, was prepared by soaking hardtack in cold water, then frying them brown in pork fat, salting to taste. From Hardtack and Coffee by John D. Billing (p 117) – Although this is written from a federal perspective, this book is an excellent resource on soldier life.
Hell-Fire Stew (similar to Skillygalee): When, as was generally the case on a march, our hardtack was broken into small pieces in our haversacks, we soaked these in water and fried them in pork fat, stirring well and seasoning with salt and pepper, thus making what was commonly called a “hell-fired stew.” From A Drummer-Boy's Diary: Comprising Four Years of Service with the Second Regiment Minnesota Veteran Volunteers, 1861 to 1865, by William Bircher (p 126). Civil War Digest has an episode based on this recipe.
Dough–Gods (Federal source, but good for all that flour issued in the first half of 1863): September 14 flour was issued to us, but no salt… We had no coffee or tea, – using sassafras and pennyroyal as a drink, – and no meat, but plenty of flour, of which we made what the boys called "dough-gods." This was done by mixing flour and water into a dough, wrapping it around their ramrods, and baking it before the fire. This was not very palatable without salt, but as it was all we had, we were of course compelled to eat it. From A Drummer-Boy's Diary: Comprising Four Years of Service with the Second Regiment Minnesota Veteran Volunteers, 1861 to 1865, by William Bircher (p 42). Civil War Digest has an episode based on this recipe.
Fry Meat and Gravy (good for the Gettysburg campaign when fresh beef was plentiful): Get your frying-pan very hot, put in some fat pork which will immediately melt, then put in the meat you wish to fry, (a small teaspoonful of salt and a quarter of a teaspoonful of pepper to every pound of meat.) When done, lay the meat on a dish, add a pint of water to the fat in the fryingpan, a few slices of onions, or 2 teaspoonsful of vinegar; thicken it with a little flour and pour it over the cooked meat. From Hand-Book for Active Service: Practical Instructions in Campaign Duties for the Use of Volunteers, by Egbert L. Viele (1861). Civil War Digest has an episode based on this recipe.
Suet Dumplings: Take half a pound of flour, half a teaspoonful of salt, a quarter teaspoonful of pepper, a quarter of a pound of chopped fat pork or beef suet, eight tablespoonfuls of water, mixed well together. It will form a thick paste, and when formed, divide it into six or eight pieces, which roll in flour, and boil with the meat for twenty minutes to half an hour. Little chopped onion or aromatic herbs will give it a flavour. A plainer way, when Fat is not to be obtained. — Put the same quantity of flour and seasoning in a little more water, and make it softer, and divide it into sixteen pieces; boil about ten minutes. Serve round the meat. From Soyer's culinary campaign by Alexis Soyer (p 533). Civil War Digest has an episode based on this recipe.
Hoe-Cake and Short-Cake (similar recipes; one using cornmeal and the other flour): HOE-CAKE.--Mix a stiff dough of Indian meal, a little salt, and water (scalding water is best); flatten it on a board, and tilt it up before the camp-fire until brown on one side; turn, and brown the other. When our fathers fought the Indians, and ground their corn in mortars, they thought hoe-cake very good. It can also be baked in hot ashes, and with hot stones, Southern fashion. SHORT-CAKE.--Mix a dough of flour, salt, and cold water, and bake in the same way. If you have any kind of fat, rub a little into the flour thoroughly, before adding the water. If you have baking-powder, use it, a tea-spoonful to a pint of flour, stirring it in before adding the water; but it is good without, when baked before the fire. From The Military Hand-Book, and Soldier's Manual of Information (p 76). Civil War Digest has an episode based on the Hoe Cake recipe.
Confederate Coffee Challenge
By mid-war, real coffee was scarce and soldiers receiving rations of it were rare. This is an area many Confederate reenactors fall down. The Confederate Coffee Challenge is this: pick an event and do not bring any coffee to it; make your own "coffee" out of a documented substitute.
Many substitutes can be used. Substitutes could be just about any parched, dried, browned or roasted plant material that is then boiled to extract flavor. Here are some documented substitutes that were used. • chicory • acorns • beans • beets • corn (including popcorn) • cornmeal • cotton seeds • dandelion root • okra seeds • peanuts • peas • sugar cane seeds • wheat berries • hardtack • carrots • persimmon seeds • sweet potatoes • toasted bread • yams • rye • asparagus seeds • wood splinters
And a personal favorite: • Tan bark combined with cigar butts
How to prepare: Here are a few ways to turn your whatever into “coffee” from original sources:
[LITTLE ROCK] ARKANSAS TRUE DEMOCRAT, October 17, 1861: We have tried these substitutes, but the best we ever found was acorns. These, hulled, dried, roasted and ground, not only taste like coffee but have the same qualities or medicinal effects.
CHARLESTON MERCURY [SC], February 8, 1862: Take Rye, boil it, but not so much as to burst the grain; then dry it, either in the sun, on a stove or a kiln, after which it is ready for parching, to be used like the real Coffee Bean.
NATCHEZ DAILY COURIER [MS], February 7, 1862: The Cotton Seed is parched, and ground or powdered, as if it were the Coffee bean, and prepared for use accordingly.
CHARLESTON MERCURY [SC], October 15, 1862: A Few Words About Chicory… It has been found that the root, cut into thin slices, roasted and ground, is an admirable substitute for coffee…
SOUTHERN CONFEDERACY [ATLANTA, GA], January 18, 1862: [The Confederate soldier] should have coffee once or twice a day, but if not to be got, the substitutes are, acorns stripped and roasted, ground sassafras nuts [sic?], grated crust of bread, rye or wheat, parched with butter, beech root, horse beans, etc.
THE SOUTHERN BANNER [ATHENS, GA], October 28, 1863: I mix two parts of dried sweet potatoes to one of persimmon seed. Dr. Buck says this coffee is equal to Java coffee! By the boiling the seeds are rid of all musilaginous substances, and just right for coffee or buttons.
SOUTHERN CONFEDERACY [ATLANTA, GA], November 7, 1861: Take sweet potatoes and after peeling them, cut them up into small pieces about the size of the joint of your little finger, dry them either in the sun or by the fire, (sun dried probably the best,) and then parch and grind the same as coffee.
MONTGOMERY WEEKLY ADVERTISER, November 18, 1863: Persimmon Coffee. – The Petersburg Express states that the seeds of the persimmon when roasted and ground produces a beverage, which cannot, even by old and experienced coffee drinkers, be distinguished from genuine coffee.
SEMI-WEEKLY RALEIGH REGISTER, October 9, 1861: Wheat as a Substitute for Coffee. Editors Dispatch: – Being on a visit to the county of Mecklenburg a short time since, I was told by one of my female acquaintances, near Clarksville, that she had found an excellent substitute for that very popular and indispensable article called "coffee." It consists in wheat parched, ground, and prepared in the same manner you do coffee. Experienced and devoted lovers of coffee have tried the wheat and report it equally as good as the genuine article.
MONTGOMERY WEEKLY ADVERTISER, September 23, 1863: Okra Coffee. To those who, like ourselves, are too poor to drink coffee at seven or ten dollars per pound, we can recommend a substitute which is as good to our taste as the original. We received from Col. James B. Merriwether, of this county, a specimen of okra seed, ground and parched, which had so much of the appearance and odor of the genuine coffee that, notwithstanding our prejudice against substitutes, we had prepared in the usual way, and found it as good as the best. We do not believe anybody could discover the difference.
CHARLESTON MERCURY, January 9, 1864: Richmond, Monday, January 4 – Reports of a want of food in Lee's army circulated yesterday… The privates may not fare so well, but I hear of no complaints. They make excellent coffee out of toasted "hard tack," use fodder blades for yeast, and by hook or by crook get along finely. Talking about substitutes for coffee, let me advise you to try persimmon seed parched and ground. It is the exact thing, so far as taste is concerned.
[LITTLE ROCK] ARKANSAS TRUE DEMOCRAT, October 17, 1861: Recipes for the Times. – To Make Coffee. – Take tan bark, three parts; three old cigar stumps and a quart of water, mix well, and boil fifteen minutes in a dirty coffee pot, and the best judges cannot tell it from the finest Mocha.
That should give you the general idea.