Civil War Grub: Feeding Billy Yank and Johnny Reb 

“An army travels on its belly.” – Napoleon Bonaparte

First…Some Numbers and Perspectives

Sometimes it is difficult to comprehend plain-old numbers. 

Like …more than 1,000,000 Union soldiers who fought in the Civil War – and more than 600,000 Rebels. Jiggling it into a more comprehensible picture: New York City, with the largest population in the country, had about 1 million residents (according to the 1860 census).

Like …a division or a corps vastly outnumbered many of the local populations where fighting took place. With around 80,000 soldiers, the Army of Northern Virginia (CSA) easily dwarfed the 38,000 Richmond residents. And Richmond was the third largest city in the South! (Charleston had around 40,000 – and they both paled in comparison to New Orleans with nearly 170,000.)

Like …Gettysburg, a small crossroad town of 2400. The combined armies had 60 soldiers for every civilian.  

Feeding the boys in blue and gray was a monumental task.

While In Camp…

It was not a problem at first – either side. The quartermaster corps and commissaries had cooks and supply staff, wagons and all the necessary equipment. And food.

Enjoying a meal

Many new recruits came with a modest “care package” from home, whether a sandwich, Mom’s cornbread, or a moveable feast from Delmonico’s. That, of course, did not last long.

The agricultural Southern states were generous in support of their own. Wagons of grain and corn, vegetables, beef, pork and chickens and whatever they could spare were shipped off regularly for the war effort. Whatever difficulties encountered later by their “starving armies” had less to do with supply. It was distribution. There are countless documents regarding badly needed (and expected) foodstuffs rotting in warehouses or train depots, for want of transportation.

The North did not have that problem. With a healthy railroad system and a much fatter pocketbook, food supplies reached their intended recipients regularly. The War Department purchased most of the food, and it was generally decent. There were many young soldiers writing home about gaining weight while in camp. 

Both armies had various sutlers (peddlers) who followed with their wagons of food and sundries available for purchase. And in the North, the Sanitary Commission provided tons of additional supplies, food and otherwise.

Dining al fresco

And, if Johnny Reb and Billy Yank were encamped for any length of time, loving families on both sides could send more corn bread or cookies. 

On The March…

…was more complicated. Both the Union and Confederate Armies were cities on the move. Feeding upwards of 30 or 40 or 50,000 men every day was fraught with difficulties. Soldiers were usually told to pack 3 or 4 days rations, which usually meant some coffee, hardtack (a biscuit-like edible, about the size of a subway tile with or without weevils), cornmeal (mostly in the South), sugar, salt, flour, lard, whatever bacon or ham they might have, corn or beans if available. And perhaps an apple or two. A luxury.

Hardtack could break your teeth.

Fresh water was not always available. Rivers and streams were used to water the animals, for occasional bathing, for laundry, for disposing of waste, and various purposes other than human thirst. This, of course, polluted the drinking water. Even then it was well known that typhoid and typhus, dysentery and cholera were caused by contaminated water. Soldiers sometimes strained their water; some boiled it. Most did not. The thirst outweighed the fear. 

Foraging was a way of life on the march. The best marksmen went after game. Dozens of soldiers North and South periodically descended on plantations or farmhouses, commandeering whatever hogs, chickens or cows were available. They raided storehouses and smokehouses, and dug up vegetables. Some were dispatched to find whatever they could to feed their own small groups of ten or a dozen.

A cook-out.

Then, of course, there were well orchestrated raids on the enemy’s supply line, where cavalry soldiers systematically “liberated” wagons of badly needed foodstuffs.

Jeb Stuart: Liberator of supply wagons

“Living off the land” was a relatively new tactic. Detaching an army from its supply line was verboten in every military manual. Nevertheless, General Ulysses S. Grant cut his supply line at Vicksburg – a lesson learned and perfected by General William T. Sherman on his march to the sea.

Slaking One’s Thirst

Alcohol has been a key ingredient in a soldier’s way of life since Biblical times. Maybe even earlier. Whether it was wine or whisky, beer or hard cider, both Johnny Reb and Billy Yank found ways to fortify themselves with spirits, often to the consternation of their officers and chaplains. The officers, of course, usually had a barrel of something conveniently located, a communal ladle, and an open invitation to their comrades.

The ol’ whiskey barrel

Not every soldier was inclined toward booze. Many of the boys were truly boys – in their early teens, or younger. Some were genuinely religious; some genuinely against drink itself. But there were always those who found a way to confiscate, purchase and in many cases, “distill” one’s own supply.

Alcohol was also a staple of medical practice. With shortages of chloroform or ether, whiskey would do in a pinch to help deaden, or at least lessen, the pain of surgery or amputation, of which there was never a shortage.

But perhaps even more than alcohol, coffee was the Number One drink of choice. It was part of every meal, sometimes in lieu of a meal. Hot was best, but cold coffee frequently sufficed. If sugar was available, it helped, but mostly the soldiers drank it black. It was often swapped between the lines, when Reb pickets were across a stream from the Yanks, and conversation, cigars, coffee – and sometimes newspapers were exchanged.

Union soldiers usually had a ready supply of coffee, but it was very hard on the Rebels, especially in the later years of the war. The boys in gray were resourceful however, and made “fake” coffee, from roasting and boiling whatever was handy – acorns, peanuts, potatoes, grain, peas, chicory, or whatever promised to be hot and palatable. Maybe. And never as good as it was at home.


Flagel, Thomas R. – The History Buff’s Guide to the Civil War – Cumberland House, 2003

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4 Responses to Civil War Grub: Feeding Billy Yank and Johnny Reb 

  1. bravedaddy says:

    Alcohol had been drunk for years by all ages simply because it was safer to drink than water, which would be dirty and could make you sick for a number of reasons. I’m surprised people would rather stay thirsty or chance the dirty water. Then again, faith can make you do something like that.
    There were all kinds of risk to soldiers if they were lucky enough to survive the battlefield: bad water, rotting food, heatstroke from a cotton uniform in the South during the summer. I like studying this, but I sure wouldn’t have wanted to live during this time.

    • Feather Foster says:

      Alcohol has been around since probably forever, but I don’t believe it is “quench-y”. (Not that I would give it up…);

  2. sheafferhistorianaz says:

    Reblogged this on Practically Historical.

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