In addition to the exhausting forced marches that Civil War soldiers undertook as they pursued or were pursued by their enemies, the soldiers’ diets during these marches were equally onerous. More often than not, soldiers in both armies subsisted on hardtack while in the field. These three-inch by three-inch crackers made of flour and water (and sometimes salt) were baked until they were rock solid. Usually prepared in sheets then stamped into squares, the biscuits could then be packed more efficiently than round crackers. The men who ate them claimed that dry hardtack was “nearly dense enough to stop a musket ball.”
The density of hardtack did not deter the infestation of worms and insects. Men found that the hardtack issued to them was often filled with pests and “not fit for swill.” When older pest-filled hardtack was burned and replaced with fresh crackers worms and insects continued to be found. Members of the 155th Pennsylvania Regiment were so resigned to eating wormy crackers they resorted to eating hardtack “after night and before daylight” to limit what they saw.
Designed to withstand long durations of storage and inclement weather, hardtack became a joke among soldiers from both North and South. Stephen Foster’s popular song Hard Times Come Again No More, became Hard Tack Come Again No More among the soldiers who faced their adversities with humor. The renowned “C-Rations” of World War II would have to wait another eighty years before they made an appearance in soldiers’ diets.
One ray of hope for Civil War soldiers was the arrival of a box from home. Carefully wrapped dried fruits, nuts, and candies were a much-appreciated gift from the home front that recipients generally shared with fellow soldiers.
Text based on sources in Your Brother in Arms: A Union Soldier’s Odyssey (University of Missouri Press)
Photo courtesy of The Library of Congress