Home » Articles » Practical Tips for Improving the Authenticity of Reenacting Rations

Practical Tips for Improving the Authenticity of Reenacting Rations

By Austin Williams, 5th VA, Co. A

We spend hundreds of dollars on the best available reproductions of Confederate uniforms and equipment. We spend hours pouring over period manuals to ensure our drill is precise down to the smallest detail. And then, when it is time to eat… out comes the modern food from concealed coolers. Even though preparing and eating authentic food is one of the cheapest and easiest ways to improve your impression, even many reenactors in progressive campaigner units fall back on modern food and coolers. Since many of us don’t cook much at home and have even less experience cooking over a fire without refrigeration, tackling period food can be intimidating. It also requires some planning and prep work to carry authentic food, but it produces a much richer and more authentic impression to be munching on corn pone and bacon than to be frying up a hot dog and heading to the vendor area for funnel cake.

 

To give you a sense of what food was available to soldiers in the Civil War, the official Confederate army ration was the following [1]:

    • Either 3/4 lbs of pork or bacon; or 1 1/4 lbs of fresh or salt beef. This was latter modified to be 1/2 lbs pork/bacon or 1 lbs beef.
    • 18 oz of bread or flour; or 12 oz of hard bread [hardtack]; or 1 1/4 lbs of cornmeal. This was later modified so that the ration of flour or meal would not exceed 1 1/2 lbs or either. The regulations also call for this ration to be changed to 1 lbs of hard bread on campaign, marches, or on board transports.

Then, for every hundred men, rations included:

    • 8 quarts of peas or beans; or 10 pounds of rice
    • 6 lbs of coffee
    • 12 lbs of sugar
    • 4 quarts of vinegar
    • 1 1/2 lbs of tallow candles; or 1/4 lbs of adamantine candles; or 1 lbs sperm candles
    • 4 lbs of soap
    • 2 quarts salt
Union commissary tent near Fairfax Court House, 1863

Union army rations were similar, but also included options for desiccated potatoes, desiccated mixed vegetables, and tea [2]. Of course, the actual amounts issued and the availability of these items fluctuated throughout the war. By 1864, rations in the Army of Northern Virginia rarely exceeded 1/4 lbs of beef or bacon and 1 lbs corn meal according to a variety of brigade and divisional inspection reports. By 1865, the Confederate Commissary Department wasn’t able to sustain even this amount, issuing either meat or bread each day, but not both. For reference, 1 lbs of bread or 3/4 lbs of meal a day provides only about 900-1200 calories, while the modern US Army considers 4,000 calories per day necessary to sustain an adult male in a combat environment [3]. Regardless of the amount, the regulations and actual Commissary Department practice suggest that the foundation of authentic rations should be a meat (bacon, fresh pork, fresh beef, or salted beef) and a starch (flour, cornmeal, hardtack, or bread). To this foundation can be added other issue items like rice, peas, beans, coffee, sugar, salt, vinegar, potatoes, or desiccated vegetables. You can then supplement these rations with small amounts of scenario-appropriate “foraged” items such fresh fruit/vegetable or items you might have plausibly purchased from a sutler or received from home, but avoid relying on these too much. Issued foods should form the core of your weekend rations.

The starch portion of the ration is usually easier for even novice cooks to prepare. Particularly if the scenario being portrayed is relatively static, carrying fresh bread is feasible, as Confederate armies utilized field ovens and civilian bakeries as a source of fresh bread. To simulate this in your rations, either bake your own bread or look for smaller, more artisan loafs at the grocery store that look like they could be homemade. Hardtack is relatively simple to make, is extremely easy to carry in a haversack, and, if prepared reasonably close to an event, won’t risk breaking your teeth quite as much as the original. The following recipe makes about ten pieces and is sufficient for a weekend event:

Ingredients:
4 cups flour
4 teaspoons salt
Water (less than 2 cups)

Instructions
Pre-heat oven to 375° F. Mix the flour and salt together in a bowl. Add just enough water (less than two cups) so that the mixture will stick together, producing a dough that won’t stick to hands, rolling pin or pan. Mix the dough by hand. Roll the dough out, shaping it roughly into a rectangle. Cut into the dough into squares about 3 x 3 inches and ½ inch thick. After cutting the squares, press a pattern of four rows of four holes into each square, using a nail or other such object. Do not punch through the dough.  The appearance you want is similar to that of a modern saltine cracker.  Turn each square over and do the same thing to the other side. 
Place the squares on an ungreased cookie sheet in the oven and bake for 30 minutes. Turn each piece over and bake for another 30 minutes. The crackers should be slightly brown on both sides.

Confederate camp in Pensacola, Florida, 1861

However, period accounts suggest that the most common form of starch available to a Confederate soldier was cornbread. A Mississippi soldier grown tired of this recurring ration wrote to his sister in 1863 “I want Pa to be certain and buy wheat enough to do us plentifully, for if the war closes and I get to come home I never intend to chew any more cornbread.”[4] While experienced reenacting cooks can prepare corn dodgers over the fire, a good way to build your confidence with more authentic rations is to prepare cornbread before an event. Avoid the cornbread mixes in the grocery store, as they’re much lighter than what soldiers would have had and will crumble easily. The following cornbread recipe is delicious and survives transportation in a haversack mostly intact. Cook it in a cast iron skillet if possible and cut into four quarters prior to an event.

Ingredients
1⁄2 cup shortening
1 cup flour
1⁄4 cup sugar
3 teaspoons baking powder
3⁄4 teaspoon salt
1 cup cornmeal
3 eggs
1 cup milk

Instructions
Preheat oven to 425. While oven is heating, melt the shortening in a cast iron skillet. Mix dry ingredients. Add eggs and milk and mix well with electric mixer. Pour melted shortening into batter and blend until smooth. Pour batter into hot iron skillet and bake 20 – 25 minutes until golden brown.

Cook house of the 71st New York Volunteers

While preparing an authentic starch is relatively straightforward, many reenactors struggle with incorporating meat into their rations without resorting to a modern cooler. While beef jerky and various sausages were certainly available in the period, they would not have been available in significant quantities and shouldn’t form the foundation of your rations. Instead, focus on the staples outlined in the official rations – bacon, pork, and beef. Double smoked slab bacon, also sometimes called country bacon, is available from some butchers or for purchase online and shouldn’t need refrigeration, particularly for the relatively short period of an event. Unless you have a local butcher that carries it, your best option may be to purchase a large slab, cut it into circa 3/4-1/2 lbs chunks, and freeze them either vacuum sealed or in individual plastic bags. Then, when it’s time for an event, you can simply pull a chunk of bacon out to defrost a few days in advance. Online options include this bacon from Broadbent’s, this from New Baunfels Smokehouse, or this from Edwards Virginia Smokehouse. As soldiers often cooked all of their rations upon issue rather than at individual mealtimes, you can pre-cook a portion of your slab bacon before an event and eat it cold, particularly if your Saturday lunch is hurried or eaten on the move.

Beef was among the staples of Confederate rations, but is rarely seen at reenactments. Some of this beef was issued fresh from slaughtered cattle – a single full grown cow provides enough meat for a full daily ration for 200 soldiers.[5] But some was shipped to the front lines with varying degrees of effective preservation, usually through salting. One Confederate soldier commented “The beef is so poor it is Sticky and Blue, if a quarter was thrown against the wall it would stick.”[6] To avoid your food matching this colorful description, you can pre-cook beef at home and it should last for a weekend without a problem (While the author is not a doctor and can’t guarantee the safety of this practice, he has eaten beef in this manner at events for years without a problem). Purchase some inexpensive cuts of beef from the grocery store, cook them at home, and then reheat them over the fire in the field with a little salt and pepper.

Beans, dried peas, and rice are all light and easy to carry in a poke sack, particularly if an event includes marching from one campsite to another. Just keep in mind that dry beans and peas need to be soaked overnight before cooking them. Rice is perhaps the easiest to purchase and quickest to prepare, as a handful of brown “minute rice” in a mucket of water will quickly boil and provide a filling side dish. Dried peas and even desiccated vegetables can be found for purchase online. Finish off your ration issue with a poke sack of coffee beans and you’ll have most of the items listed in the official regulations.

Try to limit food that has been nominally sent from home, pilfered from a local farm, or purchased from a sutler. The bulk of soldiers, the bulk of the time, would have been forced to rely on issued food, particularly as armies picked Northern Virginia clean through several years of war and transportation of packages from home became increasingly difficult. These packages would be most prevalent early in the war while supplies were still plentiful on the home front and could include vegetables, sweets, butter, pickles, ketchup, apple butter, bread, potatoes, sausages, honey, or nuts. Units around Richmond early in the war even reportedly received shipments of fried chicken from home.[7] These packages did not necessarily disappear entirely by the end of the war – Private John Dull of the 5th Virginia Infantry wrote in January 1865 to his wife that, because multiple members of his mess had recently received packages from home, “we hav cabbitch potatoes Beans dried apples green apples flour meel pies cheas Bread cakes Sausage dried Beef chickon dried chearies cheary gam [cherry jam] molasos onions and evrey thing that house ceepers [keepers] generaley have excep wimon an children.” He wrote of having multiple hams hanging in his cabin, baking bread and biscuits, and selling surplus butter in Petersburg as they had more than they could use.[8] If possible try to match your non-standard issue food to the particulars of the unit and scenario you are portraying.

If, even in face of all the above options, you still want to incorporate some modern food in your weekend menu, do what you can to at least remove modern packaging and replace it with poke sacks, fabric, or paper wrapping to make it as unobtrusive as possible. If you want to use some can goods, there are lots of period can labels available online or for purchase through various sutlers to give your food a period appearance.

Pickets cooking rations near Fredericksburg, 1862

The skilled reenacting cook can combine the above ingredients into a dazzling array of dishes, but even novices can easily prepare simple meals using nothing more complicated than a mucket, canteen half, fork, knife, and spoon. Beef and bacon were commonly broiled, by simply skewering the meat with a stick or ramrod and roasting it over the fire (be aware that this technique could damage the weaker materials used in some reproduction ramrods). To avoid losing the valuable bacon grease from this method, try pan frying your bacon or beef in a small skillet or canteen half. The grease can be used to fry sliced potatoes or vegetables, but is also a fundamental ingredient of that uniquely Confederate dish, cush. A soldier in the Army of Tennessee provide the following recipe: “We take some bacon and 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 and stew it again till all the water is out then we have… real Confederate cush.”[9] Crumbled pieces of hardtack fried in bacon grease also tastes surprisingly good. You can mix together a variety of stews in a mucket or small pot. Just remember to add the ingredient which will take the longest to cook in first and progressively add the other ingredients as you get closer to completion.

For additional reading and recipies, consider reading the period manual Camp-Fires and Camp Cooking by Captain James Sanderson. Most Civil War soldiers were just as inexperienced in food preparation as the modern reenactor and Sanderson’s manual contains short, clear instructions on how to make a variety of basic dishes in camp (although many are designed for cooking for a mess or company rather than an individual). If you read Sanderson or other period recipes and are struggling to picture how they actually work over a fire, the excellent Civil War Digital Digest on YouTube has several videos demonstrating how to cook various period dishes and is a great resource to turn to if you’re uncertain about how to actually prepare period recipes in the field. For additional secondary sources, the article Cooking on Campaign with the Stonewall Brigade located elsewhere on this website is an excellent read, although some of the suppliers mentioned are no longer in business. The Liberty Rifles also have an excellent article on their website on Civil War and Reconstruction era food, as well as detailed looks at Union and Confederate cookware.

Endnotes

  1. Confederate War Department, Regulations for the Army of the Confederate States, 1863, J. W. Randolph, Richmond, 1863; Article XLII, para 1107-1109.
  2. United States War Department, Revised Regulations for the Army of the United States, 1861, J. G. L. Brown, Philadelphia, 1861; Article XLIII, para 1191-1193.
  3. Glatthaar, Joseph T., General Lee’s Army: From Victory to Collapse, Free Press, New York, 2008; p. 446.
  4. Wiley, Bell Irvin, The Life of Johnny Reb: The Common Soldier of the Confederacy, Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, 1943; p. 98.
  5. General Lee’s Army, p. 212.
  6. Life of Johnny Reb, p. 98.
  7. Life of Johnny Reb, p. 99-100.
  8. Augusta County: John P. Dull to Giney Dull, January 11, 1865, Valley of the Shadow: Two Communities in the American Civil War, University of Virginia Library (http://valley.lib.virginia.edu/papers/A6131).
  9. Life of Johnny Reb, p. 104-105.

All photos are public domain from the Library of Congress’s Civil War Glass Negatives and Related Prints Collection.

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