COFFEE RATIONS, THOUGH SMALL, WERE CONSIDERED GODSEND TO SOLDIERS DURING CIVIL WAR PERIOD
By Dallas Bogan
Reprinted with Permission from Dallas Bogan. This article was published in the LaFollette Press.
This is a rather peculiar subject we shall review this week, coffee usage during the Civil War. Most of us cannot motivate in the morning without our cup or two of coffee. We shall first go into a little history of the stimulant and then go to the main subject.
Coffee was introduced into the United States about 300 years ago. But in the East it was widespread as a beverage, in every level of society, since earlier times. This history dates back to about 800 B.C. Homer and many Arabian legends tell the story of a mysterious black and bitter drink with powers of stimulation.
History states that the coffee plant was born in Africa in an Ethiopian region, (Kaffa). From there it spread to Yemen, Arabia and Egypt, where it developed enormously, and entered daily life.
Civil War rations consisted mainly of bread and, secondly, coffee. However, many soldiers agreed that coffee was the number one item for consumption. Coffee, being a stimulant, served only a temporary purpose, while the bread has nearly or quite all the elements of nutrition necessary to build up the wasted tissues of the body, thus utilizing a lasting benefit. There was but one opinion of the coffee which was served, and that was of glowing approval.
The soldier's coffee rations were small, with the commissary or quartermaster passing out a small allowance, but what they got was considered excellent. It was manifested as a Godsend to them at all times.
One soldier exclaimed that: "How often--after being completely jaded by a night march--and this is an experience to thousands--have I had a wish, if there was water to be had, made and drunk my pint or so of coffee, and felt as fresh and invigorated as if just arisen from a night's sound sleep!"
Coffee was usually brought to camp in an oat sack. The regimental quartermaster apportioned it among the ten companies, and the quartermaster-sergeant of a battery allocating the stimulant to his four or six detachments.
The orderly-sergeant of a company, or the sergeant of a detachment, devoted himself to dividing the pick-me-up. One method of division was to spread a rubber blanket on the ground, more than one if the company was large, and upon it were put as many piles of the coffee as there were men to receive rations. Special care was taken to make the piles of the same size to the eye, to keep the men from grumbling.
The sugar which always accompanied the coffee was spooned out at the same time on another blanket. With both in readiness, they were given out, each man taking a pile, or, in some companies, to prevent any charge unfairness or injustice, the sergeant would turn his back on the provisions, and take out his roll of the company.
Then by request, some one else would point to a pile and ask, "Who shall have this." The sergeant, without turning, would call a name from his list of the company or detachment, and the person thus called would appropriate the pile defined. This process would be continued until the last pile was gone. This process of distribution was the most common amongst others.
Each soldier with a month's experience in campaigning was provided with some sort of bag into which he spooned his coffee. But the kind of bag he used indicated pretty accurately the length of time he had served. For example, a newly arrived raw recruit would take it up in a paper, and stow it away in that well known container for all etables, the soldier's haversack, only to find it a part of a general mixture of hardtack, salt pork, pepper, salt, knife, fork, spoon, sugar and coffee by the time the next stop was made.
A seasoned recruit, who had been through this experience, would take his up in a bag made of a scrap of rubber blanket; but after a few days the paint from the rubber would peel off from contact with the greasy pork or boiled meat rations which was its traveling companion. Consequence, a black, dirty mess, besides leaving the coffee-bag unfit for further use.
The young soldier, considered just a touch starchier, would bring out an oil-silk bag lined with cloth, which his mother had made and sent him. But even oil-silk couldn't stand everything, certainly not the weird inside furnishings of the average soldier's haversack. Thus, it yielded after a very short period as a victim of time.
The old-time veteran of war would take out an oblong plain cloth bag, which looked as clean and tidy as the every day shirt of a coal-heaver, and into it he inserted without inspection both his sugar and coffee, and stirred them together methodically.
Experience taught him that his sugar was a better investment disposed of than in any other way. On several occasions he had eaten the sugar with his hardtack, a little at a time. Sometimes the sugar would get wet and melt and, as a consequence, he would have his coffee without sweetening, which was certainly unsuited for his taste.
Milk was certainly a luxury during the Civil War. It was a new experience for a soldier to drink coffee without milk. However, they soon adapted to the episode.
This story is to be considered just a minor episode in the life of a soldier. The writer is interested in the Civil War, with the small incidents and happenings more apt to interest me rather than the actual battles.
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