Hardtack

Photo by Infrogmation

In the last post containing Henry Trowbridge’s letter of November 14, 1863, he mentions “fried hard tack.” If I’d heard the term before back in my school days, I’d forgotten it so I looked it up. It’s said that armies travel on their stomachs; without a doubt an army that is well nourished has the strength, both mentally and physically, to perform better than one that is not. Though I suspected the diet at the time was pretty limited and unhealthy, it was even worse than I’d imagined. Henry Trowbridge alluded to the tedium of the daily diet: “we had fried hard tack, pork, and coffee. and when we get hard of that, we have coffee, pork and hard tack.” Many Civil War diseases were diet-related. Often spoiled foods were consumed. I’d assumed “hard tack” was some kind of beef jerky, but it was actually a heavy unleavened biscuit pierced with holes that could last a long time before being consumed. The Visit Gettysburg website discusses hardtack in detail, even offering a recipe. From this site I learned that the biscuit had a number of aliases like “tooth dullers,” “hardbread,” “worm castles,” and “sheet iron crackers.”

A Soldier’s Life (note: from Google images; could not find indication that photo is under copyright)

Each soldier would receive six to eight biscuits to hold them for a three-day period. As the biscuits got older they became so hardened, the soldiers would have to soften them up using soup, coffee, or water. Frying them up in bacon grease was also a solution for making them edible. From Henry Trowbridge’s letter, we can see that this was his approach. There was even a song written during the war about hardtack called “Hardtack, Come Again No More”(see below).

Interestingly, the small insects that infested the biscuits over time were actually helpful in providing protein for the troops when the normal sources of protein were scarce. To see a list of Union Army daily rations and to read a very interesting essay on the daily diets of the soldiers on both sides of the conflict, click here. For insight into the role of coffee during the war, click here. For a firsthand account of a soldier’s experience with Civil War rations, you can view online the 1888 book, Hardtack and Coffee, by John Davis Billings, a Union soldier. Visit Internet Archive.

Hardtack, Come Again No More
Author Unknown

Let us close our game of poker, take our tin cups in our hand
As we all stand by the cook’s tent door
As dried mummies of hard crackers are handed to each man.
O, hard tack, come again no more!

‘Tis the song, the sigh of the hungry:
“Hard tack, hard tack, come again no more.”
Many days you have lingered upon our stomachs sore.
O, hard tack, come again no more!

‘Tis a hungry, thirsty soldier who wears his life away
In torn clothes—his better days are o’er.
And he’s sighing now for whiskey in a voice as dry as hay,
“O, hard tack, come again no more!”

‘Tis the wail that is heard in camp both night and day,
‘Tis the murmur that’s mingled with each snore.
‘Tis the sighing of the soul for spring chickens far away,
“O, hard tack, come again no more!”

But to all these cries and murmurs, there comes a sudden hush
As frail forms are fainting by the door,
For they feed us now on horse feed that the cooks call mush!
O, hard tack, come again once more!

‘Tis the dying wail of the starving:
“O, hard tack, hard tack, come again once more!”
You were old and very wormy, but we pass your failings o’er.
O, hard tack, come again once more!

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