History of Campbell County, Tennessee

Time Line


By Dallas Bogan

Reprinted with Permission from Dallas Bogan.  This article was published in the LaFollette Press.

Just what is "hardtack"? It was a ration of hard bread served in the Union Army of the Potomac during the Civil War. Its ingredients consisted of nothing but a mixture of flour and water. One soldier measured a slice of this biscuit and its measurements were three and one-eighth by two and seven-eights inches, and nearly one-half an inch thick. These biscuits were furnished to organizations by weight, and were dealt out to the men by number, nine constituting a ration in some regiments, and ten in others. There was usually enough for those who wanted more, as some men could not acquire a taste for it. Hardtack was considered nutritious, as a hungry man could eat his ten in a short time and still be hungry. The soldier would many times suffer from the use of this hardened biscuit. This drawback was that they might have been so hard that they could not be bitten; it then required a very strong blow of the fist to break them. One soldier related that he bit into a portion of hardtack and found something soft. After careful examination, he found it to be a horseshoe nail.

Causes of the hardness of this biscuit were difficult for an expert to determine. It could not be "soaked" soft, and after a time of a good soaking it took on the elasticity of gutta-percha.

A second condition was that when the hardtack was moldy or wet, which sometimes happened, the biscuit should not be given to the soldiers. Apparently this condition was often due to their having been boxed up too soon after baking. Also, exposure to the weather was a comparable condition. It was an all too common site 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 improperly sheltered from the weather, and many times, not sheltered at all. It seems that the failure of inspectors to do their duty was one reason that so many of this sort reached the rank and file of the soldiers.

A third condition was that these boxes were stored and became contaminated with maggots and weevils; the weevils were more plentiful than the maggots. The weevils physical description is that were a little, slim, brown worm an eighth of an inch in length, which bored their way into the hardtack.

When the hardtack was moldy and 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, as a rule, they had to stand it. The biscuits had to be pretty systematically alive, and well covered with the webs, which these life forms left, to insure disapproval.

The quartermasters often neglected such appalling matters and, consequently, the men snarled at them. Of course, these "leaders" promptly shifted the blame to the next higher power, etc., until the real wrongdoers could be found.

Hardtack was not considered such a bad food product, even when navigated by insects. Eaten in the dark, one could not tell the difference between it and hardtack that was untainted. Common occurrences state that a man would find on the surface of his coffee pot, weevils swimming along after breaking up hardtack in it. These insects were easily skimmed off and left no distinctive flavor behind. One method of getting rid of the weevils was by heating the bread at the fire.

Most of the bread was made at Baltimore and put in boxes of sixty pounds gross, fifty pounds net. It was said that in some of the storehouses in which it was kept would swarm with weevils in an amazingly short time after the first box was infested with them.

Many of these biscuits were served to the soldiers' plain, and it has already been described as being crumbled and dipped in coffee. Very possibly the hardtack was eaten more-so as described in the latter. Some soldiers crumbled them in soups for want of thickening, which served him best. Some crumbled them in cold water and then fried the crumbs in the juice of fat of meat. Another dish, which was said to make your hair curl, was prepared by soaking hardtack in cold water, then frying them brown in pork fat, salting to taste.

Some liked them toasted, or if butter was available, it made a somewhat "delicious treat." The toasting normally took place from the end of a split stick, and if they dropped it into the campfire, they were quickly "grabbed" to prevent them from getting charred. They were then saved for it was thought that this was good for weak bowels.

Sometimes the bread was worked into milk toast which was made of condensed milk, at seventy-cents a can. Only recruits with a big bounty, or an old vet, the child of a wealthy family, could afford this luxury. A few, who could by hook or crook, save a portion of their sugar spread it upon hardtack.

In various ways, the ingenuity of the men was strained to make this the plainest and most common yet most practical of army food to do duty in every imaginable combination.

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