Tag Archives: Erasmus Anderson

Civil War Recipe: Beef Stew

Stew vegetables

Same vegetables as in my root stew–substituting beef for the ham hock.

Beef stew is such a fundamental and flexible dish that I was pretty sure that the Civil War Soldiers would have eaten many versions of it. However, I recently came across a book that was published in 1862 by the Government Printing Office to give instructions to Union soldiers in the field. It includes a recipe for beef stew.

Note: Camp FIres and Camp Cooking: Culinary Hints for the Soldier is available in digital form at Google Books.

Union Army eating

Army of the Potomac the way they cook dinner in camp Library of Congress

It is a bit surprising–appalling actually, to learn that when the Civil War started, no one in Washington had given much thought to details like sanitary needs, health care and the basic feeding of the soldier in the field.  Captain James M Sanderson was chosen by the “Commission of Subsistence for Volunteers,” to write this book “Published for Districtuion to the troops, Headquarters, Army of the Potomac.” In the book, he suggested that each company should have one man designated as a cook. That might be someone who actually was trained as a cook, or someone who got on-the-job-training.  Additionally, other men would be assigned as the cook’s assistants.

How well this worked in practice, I have no idea. During the “fog of war”, during long marches and some horrible conditions, it is difficult to imagine many men actually thumbing through the Camp Fires and Camp Cooking or Culinary Hints for the Soldier to find a recipe for that evening’s dinner.  Nevertheless, for anyone who did have the luxury of time to look in the book, and the rarity of good ingredients to use, this book presents a handful of very practical recipes and hints for camp cooking.

Remember that beans, badly boiled, kill more than bullets; and fat is more fatal than powder.  In cooking, more than in anything else in the world, always make haste slowly.  One hour too much is vastly better than five minutes too little, with rare exceptions.  A big fire scorches your soup, burns your face and crisps your temper.  Skim, simmer, and scour, are the true secrets of good cooking.

The first and last two sentences there could make it on to embroidered mottos to hang in any kitchen.  However, sentence number two reveals one of the things we 21st century diners do not like about 19th century cooking–or rather overcooking, as blessed by Captain Sanderson.  Of course, with stew, he is mostly right.

Here is Captain Sanderson’s recipe:


Take the pieces of beef reserved for frying or broiling, and cut them into pieces about two inches square and one inch thick; sprinkle them with pepper and salt, and put them into frying pans, with a little fat; place them over the fire until half cooked; then turn them into camp kettles, adding a handful of flour and six onions cut in quarters to each kettle, with just enough cold water to cover the meat; add also to each kettle two dozen potatoes pared and cut in quarters. Stew slowly over a moderate fire, skimming every now and then, for three hours and a half; then stir in each two table spoonsful of vinegar, and serve smoking hot. All kinds of vegetables—such as leeks, carrots, parsnips, and turnips—can be added to this stew with advantage.   From Culinary HInts for the Soldier (1862)by Captain James M. Sanderson.

To arrive at my version of the beef stew, I went through two updates.  The first, from the book A Taste For War: The Culinary History of the Blue and the Gray (2003) by William C. Davis uses two pounds of beef. The author assumes that the original recipe is using about 6 pounds of beef, and therefore cuts the ingredients by one-third. Some changes are made for clarity and some apparently just because.

Cut 2 pounds of beef roast into cubes 2 inches square and 1 inch thick, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and put in frying pan with a little pork fat or lard. Put them over a fire until well browned but not fully cooked, and hen empty the pan into a kettle and add enough water to cover the meat. Add a handful of flour, two quartered onions, and four peeled and quartered potatoes. Cover and simmer slowly over a moderate heat for 3 ½ hours, skimming any fat that rises to the top. Then stir in 1 tablespoon of vinegar and serve. Other vegetables available, such as leeks, turnips, carrots, parsnips, and salsify, will make excellent additions. From A Taste for War by William C. Davis

Finally, I looked at the fascinating website History Kitchen where Tori Avery dissects and recreates historic recipes.  In 2012,  she follows Davis’ version, but adds carrots, parsnips and a leek.  I followed her recipe with some changes but found the 3 quarts of water she called for for two pounds of meat was far too much liquid.

The result, at any rate, since it is only seasoned with salt and pepper, can be rather bland for today’s tastes.  The original version was not BAD–it just perked up a lot when I added a mix of Italian herbs and some celery salt and garlic. But, it is after all, army food–so as a sample of what my Union soldier ancestors Henry Allen Butts and Erasmus Anderson were eating, it probably would have ranked high on their list. It was hot. It had some meat in it. It was filling.

So here is my version, with a few suggestions for modernization if you do not want to trade taste for authenticity!

Civil War Beef Stew Updated

Serves 8
Prep time 35 minutes
Cook time 4 hours
Total time 4 hours, 35 minutes
Allergy Wheat
Meal type Main Dish
Misc Freezable, Pre-preparable, Serve Hot


  • 2lb Beef stew meat (cut in 2inch by 1 inch pieces)
  • 2 tablespoons Bacon grease
  • 2 quarts Water (Plus 1/2 for thickening)
  • 4lb Potatoes (peeled and quartered)
  • 3 Carrots (peeled and sliced)
  • 2 Parsnips (peeled and sliced thinner than carrots)
  • 2 small to medium Rutabagas (peeled and cut in pieces roughly the size of potato pieces.)
  • 1/4 cup flour
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 tablespoon vinegar
  • 1 garlic clove (minced (Optional))
  • 11/2 tablespoons Mixed Italian herbs (Optional)
  • 2 Onions (Optional)


1. Sprinkle beef with salt and pepper.Brown beef pieces in bacon fat in large pan. If you are using onion, brown it in the fat also.
2. Pour 2 quarts water over meat. Mix 1/2 cup water and 1/4 cup flour into a paste and stir into pot until smooth.
3. Add potatoes, carrots, parsnips and rutabaga to pot. Add water if needed to barely cover.
4. Stir in whatever herbs and spices you are using.
5. Let cook over medium heat for three and a half hours. Taste and add seasoning if needed and add vinegar.
6. Beef Stew is always better if it sets for at least a day before serving.


I do not cook with onions, because I can not eat them.  THat makes a difference in the taste, but even with onions, this would have been a bland recipe without the addtional spices.

I do not usually peel potatoes, but since this is an army recipe--well what are you going to do with the grunts if there are no potatoes to peel?

The celery salt I mention in the text above is a special product that I buy at my farmer's market made with celery leaves and sea salt.

For more stew for winter meals– See Roots Stew or Venison Stew



Letters From E–The Civil War Letters of Erasmus Anderson

Letters From Private Erasmus Anderson, Union Army, Ohio 16th Volunteer Infantry, and the end of his part of the war.  If you missed this Civil War series, here is an easy guide to lead you through the sequence.

Erasmus Anderson Civil War Letter

One of the letters from Erasmus Anderson to his wife “Suzi” 1862

Letter One:Cheerful Beginnings, Cincinnati, Ohio, September 10, 1862

In a Bad Humor at Camp Dennison, Camp Dennison, near Cincinnati, Ohio, October 7, 1862

Hard March to Kanawha Valley, Kanawha Valley Virginia (now West Virginia), October 26, 1862

November in Charleston, Charleston Virginia (now West Virginia), November 5, 1862

December in Memphis, Memphis Tennessee. Undated, but army camped twenty-three days, starting November 26, 1862.

The Civil War Wounded and The Hospital Ship Red Rover , Mississippi River, January 5, 1863

Civil War Deserters, Mississippi River, January 20, 1863

Politics and Peaches, Army of the Mississippi, February 17, 1863

In the Dark Woods of the Mississippi, No location, Undated letter, could have been between January 13 and 20 on boat on White River.

Vicksburg Campaign Starts ,Richmond Louisiana, April 8, 1863

Water, Water Everwhere on March to Vicksburg, Carthage, Louisiana, April 20, 1863

At the Perkins Plantation , Louisiana, April 27. The last existing letter.

The Union Army Marches into Battle in Mississippi April-May 1863

From Battle to Battle Fighting through Mississippi to Vicksburg May 16-22, 1863

The End of the Erasmus Story May 22, 1863

The End of the Erasmus Anderson Story

Vicksburg 2nd Siege

Vicksburg 2nd Siege. Thure de Thulstrup, titled “Siege of Vicksburg”, dated 1888. From MKWE.com, who believes it shows the 2nd Siege of Vicksburg

Erasmus never returned to the farm to graft those cherry trees, or plant the starts of Southern sweet potatoes he loved, or taste a big can of peaches. He never got to hug his wife Suzi and his two little boys.

Instead, on May 22, 1863, a Confederate sharp-shooter painted a target on his chest and he dropped on the muddy, bloody ground of the Vicksburg battlefield. Erasmus was carried to a field hopspital, but was declared dead on the same day–escaping the fate of so many who suffered long and angonizing deaths from chest wounds, or lay on the field for two days before their troops were able to retrieve them.

It seems appropriate, as we approach Memorial Day, that I talk about one of the very few of the many veterans in our family that gave his life in battle.

After the day of rest and refueling that I described in the last episode, the morning of the 22nd, a beautiful day, saw cannon fire and then soldiers advancing.  An account by Private Frank Mason of the 42nd Ohio, tells the story that probably includes the last minutes of Erasmus Anderson.

“At ten o’clock, the Brigade, headed by the Sixteenth Ohio [Erasmus’ Regiment], moved up the valley to the assault. Rounding the clump of willows at the bottom of the ravine, the column was met by a terrific fire, but pressed on to where the shape of the ground afforded partial protection. It was arranged that the Sixteenth Ohio should mount the hill to the left at the head of the ravine, the Forty-Second should take the center, the Twenty-Second Kentucky the right, while the Forty-Fourth Indiana should act as support, and reinforce promptly whichever regiment should first cross the parapet. From the nature of the ground, the Sixteenth, as brave a Regiment as ever marched, having the shortest distance to go, reached the point of attack first. Its skirmishers quickly climbed the hill, and made a dash for the ditch. Their appearance was the signal for a terrific volley from the Confederates. The skirmish line was swept away in a moment. The head of the regiment appeared over the crest of the hill, but was literally blown back. The whole surface of the ridge up to the ditch was raked and plowed with a concentric fire of musketry and cannister at pistol range. No man, no company could live to reach the ditch. The few survivors of the skirmish line took refuge in a rugged gorge cut by the water, and held that position. They could neither advance nor retreat.” 

“The assault, which at several points was renewed in the afternoon, failed along the whole line. The enemy’s works were of immense strength, the difficulties of approach were too great for any courage or discipline to surmount, and the garrison, if we had but known it, was almost equal in numbers to the assailants. It only remained, therefore, to hold what ground had been gained and conquer Vicksburgh by siege.”

The Southern soldiers had proved more resistant than General Grant had hoped, and he now set about to starve the city of VIcksburg after  the attacks on 20th and 21st of May and this one on May 22, which would precede a 47-day period of “waiting them out”

The soldiers and citizens of Vicksburg were reduced to a diet of mule meat and rats before their final surrender on July 4, 1863.

The Vicksburg campaign is hailed as the turning point in the war, but also is known as the series of battles that cost the most lives. As in most wars, the majority of them were young. My great-grand uncle Erasmus Anderson, however was a mature thirty-three, married with two young children–two and four years old when he died.

His sister, Margaret, in her book of remembrances, kept a lock of E’s hair and his printed obituary when he died. Margaret was mentioned more than once in his letters, and apparently wrote to Erasmus while he was away. My cousin Bonnie who now owns the remembrance book, says the hair is a deep red color. (Red heads were common among our Scottish-derived Andersons.)

Erasmus obituary and lock of hair

Erasmus Anderson obituary and lock of hair from a family Death Book

Four years after Erasmus died, his wife Susanna married George Reed, a neighbor who had four children. The lived in Millersburg until George died in 1891. She apparently lived in Florida for a time, but died in New Canton Illinois. They had three children together.

So far, I have been unable to trace the two children of Erasmus and Susannah, Frank and James, and therefore any possible cousins that might be descended from Erasmus. Frank Anderson became a medical doctor and when Susanna died in 1903, was living in Waycross Georgia.  James Anderson lived in Russelville Illinois in 1903.

Erasmus is now buried in the National Cemetery at Vicksburg, Mississippi. Section G, Grave 5177.

Vicksburg cemetery

Vicksburg cemetery. Photo by Bonnie Gibson

I’m sorry about the canned peaches and the sweet potatoes, E.



Notes: This entire series on Erasmus Anderson in the Civil war would not have been possible if it were not for the generosity of a descendant of Erasmus’ widow and her second husband. He provided me with transcriptions of Civil War letters from “E”  which I use with his permission. I am deeply grateful for permission to share the letters.

Other sources include:

  • A site devoted to the 16th OVI that is a real treasure trove of information about Ohio’s soldiers in the Civil War. That site is the source for Cpl. Wolbach’s “Camp and Field” report which was published in the 1880s.
  • Ancestry.com where I find birth, census death, military and other records of my ancestors and the people that Erasmus mentions.
  • The painting comes from Michael K. Wood’s site on the 16th OVI, linked above.
  • The photograph and information on burial come from a site devoted to the Vicksburg National Military Cemetery. 
  • The image of the obituary and lock of E’s hair were sent to me by a cousin who owns the remembrance book of Margaret Anderson Lisle, Erasmus’ sister.