Hardtack, or; Worm Castles and Tooth Dullers

by James Brookes

It is rather common for the most plain and ordinary items to escape the attention of both contemporary observers and those historians who follow. This is understandable, as few in the present day feel any need to make particular comments about typical food items such as bread and butter, so why should we expect our forebears to do much of the same? The common staple of the Union soldier in the eastern theatre during the Civil War was hardtack; a plain biscuit made from flour and water. However, the literature on hardtack is by no means sparse; post-war recollections and diaries from the period contain references to hardtack from their enlistment right up until their return to civilian life. Rice C. Bull wrote of his first encounter with hardtack in September, 1862, stating: “We received a spoonful of boiled rice, a square chuck of salt pork, one slice of hardtack, and in our cups a dark fluid that was called coffee… the hardtack, the first we had ever seen, was of good quality but we had not yet learned to appreciate its value. It seemed like biting into a wood shingle and had not much taste… we were nearly starved so nibbled at [it].”[1] Notably, John D. Billings of the 10th Massachusetts Light Artillery Battery, found the unassuming crackers such a common theme of his service that they established themselves in the title of his post-war memoir: Hardtack and Coffee: The Unwritten Story of Army Life. Further to this, Billings had in his possession two pieces of hardtack measuring “three and one-eight by two and seven-eighths inches… nearly half an inch thick”, that he kept as mementos of his service.[2]

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Charles W. Reed, “A Hardtack – Full Size.”, sketch, in Billings, Hardtack and Coffee, p. 114

Despite being a mundane addition to any meal, it was this very characteristic that made them so notable to the soldiers.  The vast mobilisation of Union soldiers led to the establishment of shifting camps that prized efficiency over well-being and were “neither orderly, comfortable, nor sanitary.” The most remarkable feature of Civil War soldiers’ lives, according to the combatants themselves, was the “overabundance of men… In a society where women oversaw the domestic realm… the paucity of [females] hit hard.”[3] The absence of women not only manifested itself physically, but even within items such as hardtack. The bland, durable ration reflected the change from the comforting nourishment provided by the heroines of the Cult of True Womanhood to the industrial output of the mechanical baking companies contracted to the U.S. government. Bull provides a poignant comment which reinforces the notion of a transition from the longing for previous comforts to the understanding of the necessities of the present. Whilst travelling towards Washington, D.C., on September 29th, 1862, he wrote: “I had not yet reached the soldierly perfection when two or three pieces of hardtack and coffee could be made to satisfy my hunger.”[4]

Like the constantly expanding National army, the means of feeding the multitudes of men also had to develop in order to keep up. In the early days of the war, the Union army contracted with civilian bakers for hard and soft breads, and considering the concentration of Federal soldiers in cities such as Washington, D.C., Cincinnati and St. Louis, it was relatively easy to ensure appropriate foodstuffs reached these bustling centres of activity.[5] As campaigns began to commence, the need for hardtack grew. When Irvin McDowell led his 35,000-man army out of the capital for the five-day march that resulted in the battle of Bull Run, his commissaries had to organise the transportation of over one and a half million crackers. This was a modest amount compared to later campaigns, and William C. Davis estimates that in 1864 as many as three or four million of the infamous crackers were consumed every day. [6] Captain J. J. Scroggs of the 5th U.S.C.T. provides a detailed account of the industrial process in 1864, which makes interesting reading. The process meant that 1,000 pieces were baked at a time, which were then packed into wooden boxes holding 50 pounds.[7] Considering the sheer scale of its production, the item surely had an almost omnipresent characteristic to the vast majority of soldiers, and ingrained itself firmly into their recollections of service.

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Charles W. Reed, “A Box Of Hardtack.”, sketch, in Billings, Hardtack and Coffee, p. 116

Soldiers repeatedly establish themselves as a versatile and resilient lot of men, and it is no wonder that they overcame the initial problems presented by hardtack. Henry C. Work’s wartime tune Corporal Schnapps provides one with an amusing glimpse into a German immigrant soldiers’ quandary with his new diet:

“They kives me hartpred, tougher as a rock –

It almost preaks mein zhaw;

I schplits him sometimes mit an iron wedge,

And cuts him up mid a saw.”

Alfred Bellard had a more practical solution: “Our crackers we used to fry, to make them more palatable soaking them an hour or two to make them soft. We fried them in pork fat and made a tasty meal.”[9] Wilbur Fisk of the 2nd Vermont observed that one of his comrades, despite having only boiled soft beef and hardtack “has a very excellent way of making such material eminently palatable”.[10] Soldiers used broken pieces mixed with other eatables to create stews, whilst others used it to thicken soups. Rice Bull’s aforementioned comments regarding the undiscovered value of hardtack at the point of his enlistment in 1862 are important. One can see how soldiers deconstructed hardtack from a inedible brick of flour reserved only for boot heels and rifle butts to an item which could be used to fill stomachs, bulk out meals, and that would prove lasting and durable during the rigours of campaign. Regardless of its many flaws, it was certainly an important necessity of sustenance that must be considered along with any deliberation of the life of the Federal soldier.

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Charles W. Reed, “Frying Hardtack.”, sketch, in Billings, Hardtack and Coffee, p. 117


[1] Rice C. Bull, Soldiering: The Civil War Diary of Rice C. Bull, 123rd New York Volunteer Infantry, (Presidio Press: Novato, CA, 1977), p. 11

[2] John D. Billings, Hardtack and Coffee: The Unwritten Story of Army Life, (G. M. Smith & Co.: Boston, 1877), p. 113

[3] Sheriff, Carol & Reynolds, Scott R., The Male World of the Camp: Domesticity and Discipline, in Sheriff, Carol & Reynolds, Scott R., A People at War: Civilians and Soldiers in America’s Civil War, (New York: Oxford University Press,2007), pg. 214

[4] Bull, Soldiering, p. 16

[5] William C. Davis, A Taste for War: A Culinary History of the Blue and the Gray, (Stackpole Books: Mechanicsburg, PA, 2003), p. 30

[6] Ibid., pp. 41-2

[7] J. J. Scroggs, “How Hardtack Was Made,” Civil War Times Illustrated XI, (October, 1972), p. 34

[8] Henry C. Work, Corporal Schnapps. Song and Chorus., 1864, John Hopkins University, (Levy Sheet Music Collection)

[9] Alfred Bellard, ed. David Herbert Donald, Gone For A Soldier: The Civil War Memoirs of Private Alfred Bellard, (Little, Brown & Co., Boston, 1975), p. 120

[10] Wilbur Fisk, Anti-Rebel: The Civil War Letters of Wilbur Fisk, (Croton-on-Hudson, New York: 1983), p. 93

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