Civil War Rations: Hardtack and O. B. Joyful

In the letter after the Chickasaw Bluffs battle, Erasmus does not talk about farmland, or about food. He is too focused on the aftermath of the disaster. But we know from other  sources, that a soldier’s Civil War rations during battle might consist mostly of hardtack and coffee. And a little something called O. B. Joyful.

It is not just the apron-wearing women folk and restaurant chefs who are creative with food. The soldiers in the field also yearn for variety in their diet and when faced with limited resources can get mighty creative.

The beans that they could soak and cook when they were in camp for a few days were impossible. No time to forage for root vegetables, and even plain biscuits of flour and water were now a luxury they had no time for. In his next letter, when the Union Army is once again on the march, Erasmus says of the Civil War rations:

…part of the time flour, or crackers, sugar, coffee, strong pork and sometimes not that for 2 or 3 days.

“Crackers” refers to what we call hardtack…so hard it could break a tooth if not soaked before eating. Anyone who has ever visited a National Historic Battlefield gift shop has seen small packages of the biscuits that were so essential to Civil War Rations.The soldiers soaked the hardtack in hot coffee or hot water, both to soften it, and to kill off the weevils that had emerged during the sometimes long transport from northern bakeries.

 

Civil War reenactment

Civil War Reenactment

My brother and his family participate in Civil War reenactments, so he contributed some information about the ubiquitous biscuit.

Erasmus would likely be eating a lot of <strong>hardtack</strong>. Originally known as a “sea biscuit”  by Navy use, the soldier’s version was a three inch by three inch piece of eternal flour called a “tooth duller” and “worm casket.”  

Erasmus and his comrades, it is said, would throw one of these in a pot of coffee and make bets on how many weevils would rise to the surface. It made a reasonably edible<strong> dessert</strong>.

Civil War Rations skillygallee

Hard Tack Skillygallee

There was also something called “skillygallee” that consisted of fried pork mixed with crumbled hardtack.

If soaked in brown sugar and whiskey (“O. B.  Joyful” as they called cheap whiskey). 

If you are wondering where they got the whiskey for the dessert, since I mentioned earlier that alcohol was strictly forbidden in camp and confiscated when found, I should tell you that whiskey was part of the rations during the cold winter along the Mississippi. (Theodore Wolback, “Camp and Field”)

And no, I am not providing a recipe today–not even for an O.B. Joyful pudding or skillygallee–although I do love the names.

If you are just dying to try some hardtack skillygallee–you can find a recipe here.

You can make your own hardtack, and learn more about it at this fascinating site, The American Table.

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