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.”
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.
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.