Cooking Civil War Baked Beans and Molasses

In the last letter  that we read from Pvt. Erasmus Anderson, he talked about the rations alloteed to the Union soldiers in the Civil War. Here is what he said to his wife in that November letter.

dried beans for baked beans

dried beans

You wanted to know what our rations are. We draw coffee, sugar, crackers, either rice or beans or hominy. Either pork or beef and salt and yesterday we drawed molasses for the first time, coffee and meat and sugar we draw about enough, coffee plenty, but the rest of the rations it is hard work to make one drawing meet another; but I don’t think we have been drawing full rations yet, they all say so.

Today we’re going to focus on four of those items–beans, sugar, pork and molasses.

(When Erasmus mentions “crackers”, we can assume he is talking about hardtack, which was the rock hard biscuit distributed to the soldiers. We’ll get back to that in a later entry.)

There were five ways that the soldiers obtained food during the Civil War.

  • Rations, drawn from the company quarter-master by individuals, or issued to the company as a whole.
  • Food given to them by friendly strangers (as those that Erasmus liked so much in Cincinnati).
  • Food they buy from the suttlers–licensed peddlers who sold things, generally at inflated prices, or from stores in the region, when there are any still standing, or local farmers–as when Erasmus mentions buying apples.
  • Treats sent from home, which Erasmus seems determined not to ask for.
  • Crops, eggs, livestock that is foraged/pillaged–a definitely discouraged activity which nevertheless helps sustain the soldiers when they are on the march and in battle.

An online article provided some information about the Army and its beans. In this first excerpt, Bruce Catton, a preeminent writer on the Civil War, answers my question, “How did they deal with all those beans when they were marching?”. They didn’t.

Bruce Catton wrote in the 1962 edition of his book “The Army of the Potomac: Mr. Lincoln’s Army”:
“The favorite ration of all was the army bean. It was no go, of course, on the march, but in settled camps it was one food the men never tired of. Even the most inexpert cook knew how to dig a pit, build a wood fire, rake out the coals, lower a covered kettle full of salt pork and soaked beans, heap the coals back on and around it, cover the whole with earth, and leave it to cook overnight. The mess kettle, incidentally, was simply a heavy sheet-iron cylinder, flat-bottomed, some fifteen inches tall by a foot wide, with a heavy iron cover….
Baked Beans in the war

Baking Beans during the Civil War

From the same web article:

A soldier in the Maine Volunteers named H. B. Butler wrote to his wife, Mary, on New Year’s Day, 1865:
“We had some very nice baked beans this morning. We have a hole in the bottom of our fireplace where we bake beans as nice as they can be. We bake them in a pail with a cover to it. We put hot coals around the pail then cover them up with dirt. We put them in at night and in the morning they are nice and warm.”

From another website, we find these instructions on Baked Beans from an 1860 cookbook. 

Put a quart of white beans to soak in soft water at night; the next morning wash them out of that water; put them into a pot with more water than will cover them; set them over the fire to simmer until they are quite tender; wash them out again, and put them into an earthen pot; scald and gash one and a half pounds of pork; place it on top of the beans and into them, so as to have the rind of the pork even with the beans; fill the pot with water in which are mixed two table-spoonfuls of molasses. Bake them five or six hours; if baked in a brick oven, it is well to have them stand in over night.  Source: Mrs. Putnam’s Receipt Book and Young Housekeeper’s Assistant, New and Enlarged Edition, New York: Phinney, Blakeman & Mason, 1860.
Baked Beans

Baked Beans

I have to admit that I neither dug a pit as the Civil War soldiers would, nor did I discard the soaking water from the beans. I used my oven–thank you Mr. Edison for electricity–and I retained the soaking water because we know now that our great-great-grandmothers were throwing out a lot of nutrition with that soaking water.

I am struck when looking at these old recipes how little seasoning and sweetening they used, so you will see that I increased both.  I was happy to learn that Erasmus received some molasses, because I like to flavor things with molasses–like the molasses apples I cooked earlier. And the sugar he gets in his ration probably came in a cone and was like the light brown sugar that we use today.

I did not  add catsup and/or mustard to the baked beans, which are part of most recipes you see today. If you have a tin cup full of my beans, you might want to add your own catsup and mustard to taste, however, I must say that these turned out quite tasty with just sugar, molasses and a pinch of pepper.

Finally, since salt pork–the soldier’s meat mainstay–is harder to come by these days, and fattier than we prefer,  I substituted a ham hock from my butcher. The one I got this time happened to be much leaner than usual, so my baked beans with molasses will definitely be meatier and less greasy than Erasmus’ beans. But if Erasmus and his friends had a Dutch Oven and since they did have a few days in their camp at Charleston, and they had all the necessary ingredients–this is about as authentic as any Civil War recipes we’ll cook.

Baked Beans with Molasses

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 cup dried navy beans
  • 1/4 cup molasses
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • dash ground pepper
  • 1 ham hock

Directions

1. Rinse off, discard bad beans or stones, and soak beans overnight in 4 times as much water as beans.
2. Put beans and enough of the soaking water to cover in a large pan on the stove. (Reserve rest of soaking water)
3. Simmer beans on low heat for 2-3 hours. Test for doneness by putting a few beans in a spoon and blowing on them. If the skin loosens easily, they are done. Discard test beans.
4. Slash through rind of ham hock in several places. Slice any large pieces of meat off bone. Put meat and bone in bottom of ceramic or glass baking dish.
5. Drain beans, retaining hot liquid. Spread beans over ham.
6. Mix1 cup hot liquid with sugar, molasses, and pepper and pour over beans in baking dish. Add more hot water to just cover beans.
7. Bake, covered, at 300 degrees for four hours. If water boils off as cooking, add some of the reserved water. If still soupy, remove lid and continue to bake until excess liquid evaporates.

Notes: The Civil War picture and the dried beans picture come from Flickr and are used under a Creative Commons License. You can click on the pictures to learn more. The two pictures of cooked beans are mine.

I have cited sources above in the text for websites I consulted.

2 thoughts on “Cooking Civil War Baked Beans and Molasses

    1. Vera Marie BadertscherVera Marie Badertscher Post author

      Lindy: Thanks so much for stopping by. Yes, my family just continues to haunt me in the kitchen, and I can’t stop thinking about how they handled the food and the techniques and the equipment in some bygone age. Like your blog and website and I’m sure I’ll find lots of inspirations there.

      Reply

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