In my last post I wrote about the common foods that my family ate on the farm. When I was researching another part of my family history, my relatives who were in the Civil War, somebody suggested that I check out the Vermont Civil War Hemlocks. The Hemlocks are reenactors who meet in Hardwick every month; they are dedicated to studying, recording, and preserving the history of the third Vermont regiment. I learned a lot of things from them – including about the food from that time. I have new appreciation for hard tack, boiled coffee, and salt pork.
Doing Civil War reenactments, you carried everything in a haversack, which was a cloth bag hung over your shoulder. If you were lucky, you’d get issued new rations every day. The first few meals after fresh rations were the best because you had fresh meat, sometimes you’d have butter, and you’d eat up all the things that could go bad. It was common to bring slabs of pork in and cook them with a stick, or on a tin plate over the fire. The haversacks were rarely, if ever, washed. Guys used to brag about how bad their haversacks would smell. We’d take the worst smelling haversack while guys were sleeping on the ground, bring it around, and hold it over their nose until they woke up.
The rations we got depended on either what battle or what time frame in the war we were reenacting. So if we were doing an early war impression and doing camp life we would have good full rations of beans and probably salt pork, or beef (salted or fresh), coffee, flour or cornmeal, sometimes a fruit depending on the time of year, or if we were marching through an orchard. But if we were doing a particular battle like the wilderness or something of that nature, we would have a lot fewer rations and less variety. Almost no meat, and no fresh fruit.
The most common and often despised ration was called hard tack It was a cracker about 3 inches square and an inch thick made of flour, water, and salt. It was very hard. We
either made it ourselves before we arrived or if we were at big reenactments there were companies that issued them. Hard tack was best eaten with coffee because you could soak it in the coffee to soften it up. Another concoction we used to make that was more palatable than the hard tack was cooked right during the reenactment in the fire. You’d take your flour ration, mix it with a little salt and water and then salt your tin plate (or if you were lucky enough to have bacon grease you’d put bacon grease on it) and you’d roll out this flour dough and cook it in your plate and sprinkle with sugar – or some people cooked it right into the ashes of the hot fire.
Being Vermont troops we sometimes had hard maple sugar that was issued to us and we’d mix that in with steel cut oats or cornmeal, and if we were lucky enough to have a ham or bacon ration that would make a great breakfast. You were also issued a ration of coffee beans and one of the other men showed me the best way to make coffee. . . we took our “housewives”, which is what they called sewing kits, and sewed up little cloth bags that were about 4 inches square with a drawstring . You put your coffee beans into that bag, cinched up the string, placed it on a rock and hit it repeatedly with your rifle butt, then put the bag into your tin cup of water in the fire and let it steep like a tea bag. You could usually get 2 or 3 big cups of coffee out of that before you had to replenish your beans.
The nights were so long I was so grateful for pretty much anything when breakfast came around. If I was doing an infantry impression then I’d either sleep in just a blanket on the ground or sometimes in a small two man tent. If I was doing an artillery impression we’d sleep in a Sibley tent, a big round tent that slept about 16 guys and had a little stove in the middle of it, so everyone would sleep with their heads out and feet in to keep them warm. It was smoky and loud because of the snoring. I’d often in the middle of the night reach for my secret stash of Advil and ear plugs.
One of the nicest memories I have was early one morning in Chancellorsville VA. It had just gotten light, there was low fog in the valley and we were up on a hill next to the artillery. I was drinking my first cup of coffee and I saw this drummer and a fife player walking across the field playing Battle Cry of Freedom – you could hear it across the whole valley as the country was waking up. There were more than 3,000 reenactors and a whole field of white tents with a thin layer of smoke above it; you could see the pickets – who serve as advance guards – out walking picket lines and you could see the cavalry’s horses tied up. You could walk through camp and hear people telling stories or singing songs or playing the harmonica, cleaning their rifles and smelling the food.