Saturday, October 22, 2022

Why Was Hardtack So Disdained by the Civil War Troops?

  Complaining about army rations has been a soldier’s task from time immemorial.  But is there really any basis for the Civil War soldier to grumble about the army provisions?  Well, John D. Billings (Hard Tack and Coffee. Soldier’s life in the Civil War 1887  p.113-16) has an interesting description of this ‘beloved’ government issued army ration which I’d like to serve up for your enjoyment, then you decide if you would sing it’s praises:

“I will speak of the rations more in detail, beginning with the hard bread, or, to use the name by which it was known in the Army of the Potomac, Hardtack.  What was hardtack?  It was a plain flour-and-water biscuit.  Two of which I have in my possession as mementos measure three and one-eighth by two and seven-eithers inches, and are nearly half an inch thick.  Although these biscuits were furnished to organizations by weight, they were dealt out to the men by number, nine constituting a ration in some regiments, and ten in others; but there were usually enough for those who wanted more, as some men would not draw them.  While hardtack was nutritious, yet a hungry man could eat his ten in a short time and still be hungry.  When they were poor and fit objects for the soldiers’ wrath, it was due to one of three conditions:  
First, they may have been so hard that they could not be bitten; it then required a very strong blow of the fist to break them.  The cause of this hardness it would be difficult for one not an expert to determine.  This variety certainly well deserved their name.  They could not be soaked soft, but after a time took on the elasticity of gutta-percha. 
[During the Civil War “gum blankets” (water-proof flexible ponchos/ground clothes) were issued to the troops made with either India rubber or gutta percha coated muslin cloth. According to an on-line video by Mike Woshner, author of India-Rubber and Gutta-Percha in the Civil War, only 4% were made with the gutta-percha latex, the rest with India rubber.  It seems the term “gutta percha” became the popular ‘slang term’ for everything that was black rubbery looking even though it was made with India rubber.  So, in this context John Billings is saying that even if you soaked them, at best it is still just like eating your gum blanket.]
The second condition was when they were mouldy [sic] or wet, as sometimes happened, and should not have been given to the soldiers.  I think this condition was often due to their having been boxed up too soon after baking.  It certainly was frequently to exposure to the weather.  It was no uncommon sight to see thousands of boxes of hard bread piled up at some railway station or other places used as a base of supplies, where they were only imperfectly sheltered from the weather, and too often not sheltered at all.  The failure of inspectors to do their full duty was one reason that so many of this sort reached the rank and file of the service.
The third condition was when from storage they had become infested with maggots and weevils.  These weevils were, in my experience, more abundant than the maggots.  They were a little, slim, brown bug an eight of an inch in length, and were great bores on a small scale, having the ability to completely riddle the hardtack.  I believe they never interfered with the hardest variety.
When the bread was mouldy [sic] or moist, it was thrown away and made good at the next drawing, so that the men were not the losers; but in the case of its being infested with the weevils, they had to stand it as a rule; for the biscuits had to be pretty thoroughly alive, and well covered with the webs which these creatures left, to insure condemnation.  An exception occurs to me.  Two cargoes of hard bread came to City Point, and on being examined by an inspector were found to be with weevils.  This fact was brought to Grant’s attention, who would not allow it landed, greatly to the discomfiture of the contractor, who had been attempting to bulldoze the inspector to pass it.
The quartermasters did not always take as active an interest in righting such matters as they should have done; and when the men growled at them, of course they were virtuously indignant and prompt to shift the responsibility to the next higher person, and so it passed on until the real culprit could not be found.
But hardtack was not so bad an article of food, even when traversed by insects, as may be supposed.  Eaten in the dark, no one could tell the difference between it and hardtack that was untenanted.  It was not uncommon occurrence for a man to find the surface of his pot of coffee swimming with weevils, after breaking up hardtack in it, which had come out of the fragments only to drown; but they were easily skimmed off, and left no distinctive flavor behind.  If a solider cared to do so, he could expel the weevils by heating the bread at the fire.  The maggots did not budge in that way.  The most of the hard bread was made in Baltimore, and put up on boxes of sixty pounds gross, fifty pounds net; and it is said that some of the storehouses in which it was kept would swarm with weevils in an incredibly short time after the first box was infested with them, so rapidly did these pests multiply.”

As disdained as hardtack was by the soldier, it was a staple of army rations long before the Civil War, having variations of its production back to ancient times for various army and naval units.  So, its use in the Civil War time period is not a “new thing”.  William Davis writes “as many as three or four million hardtack [were] being consumed every day [by 1864], clearly too big a demand for any one baker to supply, and thus companies all across the North received contracts that kept their ovens at baking heat around the clock.” (A Taste for War: Culinary History of the Blue and the Gray  2003, p.42)  That is a lot of crates of hardtack being shipped to Union troops.
The South, not having as much access to wheat flour which was grown mostly in Virginia and Georgia, used other things like corn or rice to make something similar to hardtack known as “corn dodgers” or “Johnny cakes”.  This was a mixture of cornmeal, salt, and water cooked until it was just as dry and hard as the Union hardtack.
Given the challenges of the time period of limited preservation options combined with the large quantity needed and the transportation challenges, we have to give the soldiers back then much credit for making due with what they had, even if they grumbled and mocked it in songs like “Hard Crackers Come Again No More” (see the March 5, 2022 post about this humous song).  They made due with what they had in order to accomplish the task before them.  We can also see why the army sutlers enjoyed good business in offering expensive options of food variety to the soldiers.

        An example from the Vicksburg campaign of soldiers valuing this army ration is cited in Nothing But Victory; The Army of the Tennessee 1861 -- 1865 (p405-06) by Steven Woodworth.  "The [Union] army spent May 20 and 21 [1863] making preparations, improving its position and its supply situation.  Though the process of hauling up material from the river had begun on the nineteenth, it was taking time to get the new rations into the hands of the soldiers.  Riding his line on May 21, Grant heard one of the soldiers say, quietly, but just loud enough for the general to hear him, 'Hard tack.'  That was all it took, and within moments hundreds of men had taken up the chant of  'Hard tack!  Hard tack!' and it spread rapidly along the line in both directions.  Grant assured the soldiers nearby that the food was one the way, and shouts of 'Hard tack!' changed to cheers.  By the evening the army was able to issue full rations to all of its troops around Vicksburg."

Children’s projects:
1. Given the resources of the times, can your children understand that it was an honest attempt to have food available to eat that could be stored, transported and handed out to keep the men fed?  Remind your children this is before refrigeration and plastic packaging etc we take for granted today.
2. Which one of the three options would your children find most horrible if their rations were contaminated in one of the ways Billings lists.  Extra hard?  Moldy?  Weevil infested?
3. Do some on-line research about weevils.  Would they make nice pets?  What might be the rationale behind not rejecting weevil infested crackers?  Look at Billings description of how such biscuits were used by the men.

Saturday, October 15, 2022

"God's Love Is Free!" Insight Into the Heart of a Woman Who Desired to Bless Civil War Reenactors

    The following is a transcription of a devotional that my wife, Vicki Rowe gave to a woman’s group about her heart in reenacting the U.S. Christian Commission at Old Mahoning Baptist Church, Home, PA shortly after we had started reenacting -- probably about 1995 or 96.  She is sharing with the women of that church, none of whom were reenactors, what we as a family were doing and why.   I found her hand written notes of her testimony while going through old papers.  Those of you who have been blessed by her at the tent will indeed see that she loved you guys and wanted to bless you in many ways.  (Vicki went home to Heaven on March 3, 2016):

    We all cherish photographs because they remind us of special people or events.  Our heart also carries pictures of God’s faithful training in our lives.  I asked God which snapshot from this past year to share with you.
    Have you ever told God that you wanted to serve Him – that you were willing to do whatever He asked?  When God answered and gave you a job to do, maybe the job was less than fun, maybe even something you were not good at – but He was asking you to depend on Him.  Deep down inside, we all hope God will use our strong points, instead of exposing our weaknesses to other people.
    To be painfully honest, I am afraid of grasshoppers – terrified of bees – dislike making buttonholes – feel sick at the smell of smoke – not good at avoiding stepping in the cow patties -- and my least favorite subject in school was history.  Do you understand my sinking feeling when God chose to give my family a hobby of Civil War reenacting?  When I married my husband 20+ years ago, I had no idea that we would eventually develop a hobby that include so many things I was afraid of.
    I smiled at God’s sense of humor, and decided to keep my promise to serve Him in trying to be God’s hands, feet, and voice to this group of people.  Last year was our first full year, and we chose 6-8 events to be involved in.  We planned various acts of kindness that included baking food to share with the troops, helping cook over the open fire, sewing pouches with buttonholes, crocheting scrubbies, handing out samples of stamps/envelopes, and carrying many bucketfulls of water.  We would come home both sore and tired – but God has been faithful to teach us many lessons.
    This year the Mesopotamia [Ohio] event was one we worked hardest preparing for. Probably about 1500+ reenactors. We decided to take a week’s vacation so we could be there for the full 3 days.  We spent a month doing without sleep so we could get everything done that God had laid on our hearts to do.
    Saturday came – we actually made it there in one piece with projects just finished, wool outfits pressed and on the proper person, and did fairly well in being there on time in the morning.  The kids and I worked on getting ready to carry the boxes in while my husband went to find our unit’s location.  And could you believe it – it started pouring.  Everything was soaked including the sewing projects we brought to share, our clothes, shoes.  You cannot build a fire in pouring rain.  I started telling God how discouraged I was – how I feared that the children would get sick from being cold and soaked.  I felt God had neglected His duty to bless my obedience and smooth the way.  After all, if we are doing God’s work, doesn’t He smooth the way and give good results?
    But as I thought about why we were there – to show acts of kindness to the reenactors in hopes that God will soften their hearts to Him and draw some of them closer to Himself, what better way to show God’s love then to do it when things are difficult.  Jesus did not come to earth, taking on human limitation, to offer Himself as sacrifice for our sins because it was easy to do.  Jesus showed His kindness and love on the cross at Calvary under the harshest of circumstances.
    Maybe God has asked you to serve Him in something that is fun to do – or maybe He has asked you to do a job that leaves you feeling bedraggled.  Either way, He still asks the same question.  “Who is the servant – Me or thee?”  Are we going to allow God to use us even doing things that we are not good at?  He is asking us to depend on Him.
    That weekend at Mesopotamia through the rain and mud we offered God’s love to the reenactors – “God’s love is free! So is this soldier!”  Through the grasshoppers and bees, amidst the cow patties, in spite of the rain we watched God use what little we could do to point reenactors to Him and His free love for them.  Only God knows the results.  Let God use you in all you do, the things you are good at and the things that you struggle to do, to point others to Him.   Pass along the grace God’s given you to others so that they too may find God’s free grace. 

Some of my reflections on her commitment to passing along God’s love to other through reenacting:
    When I first expressed interest in doing Civil War reenacting, Vicki asked if we could do it as a family.  I said yes, the unit is family friendly.  So, she said she wanted to be involved.  Of course, she fed our unit with goodies at the early events we attended.  Then when we learned about the U.S Christian Commission, I remember her saying that we should portray them because it would allow us to offer food and drink to others beyond our unit.  Feed the unit or feed the whole reenactment? OK why not.
    She also sewed things like small pouches & housewives kits, drawstring bags we filled with things like packets of salt & sugar & matches, and handkerchiefs to put out on the gift table at our tent along with the stationery kits & tracts I would put out.
    As we reenacted over the years, she actually came to enjoy history.
    At the event that she cites, I do remember that among the large assortment of cookies and baked goods were six banana boxes full of pumpkin bread loaves.  At that time, we didn’t have a tent, so we used our unit’s storage tent to keep things, and would throughout the day fill up trays with goodies and walk around among the encampment along with lemonade in porcelain pots saying “US Christian Commission. God’s love is free and so is this”.
    So, in the above talk which Vicki is sharing with the ladies at the church about why she is working so hard at a challenging opportunity the Lord has asked her to do -- what is her motivation? It is not fame or fortune.  It is to be a small part in pointing others to Jesus.  It is to bless others in Jesus’ name.  Serving Him is our way of saying “Thank you Jesus for doing on the cross what we could never do ourselves – atone for our sin.” God’s love is free!  God’s love is not for sale!  It is not “church” or “rituals” or “money” or “good deeds” which saves us from judgement for our sins.  It is believing in our hearts that we are forgiven by grace – undeserved love – that Jesus showed on the cross.  Do not be a Pharisees who pridefully thinks that by keeping the laws then God will then owe you forgiveness & heaven.  Come as the thief on the cross who admits "I really do deserve punishment" yet cry out to Jesus for mercy “remember me Lord”.
    Vicki wants to welcome you at the tent in Heaven with a hug and some special delicious goodies saying “God’s love is free! Welcome Home! Come on in!”  Put your faith in Jesus alone.
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Ephesians 2:8-9 ESV

God bless,
Glenn Rowe