Rational Rations Part 1
An Introduction to Civil War Field Rations
by Paul Winslow
There is one topic that most reenactors actively avoid–“GRUB”. Yes, rations can take the steam out of any period-specific discussion. Why delve into a topic populated by terms such as “iron biscuits”, “salt horse”, “worm soup”, etc. Indeed, why even ponder such things when sponsors provide rations, and there are Twinkies, Pop Tarts, and jerky to be had? The fact is that chow, good or bad, or the lack of it, was a major aspect in the life of those soldiers. These articles are not intended to convert you to a diet of salt pork, beans, and hardtack, but to demystify Civil War rations. If you feel compelled to change your reenacting diet after reading this, all the better.
The Civil War soldier’s field ration offered roughly 3,000 calories a day, the same caloric content of the modern MRE. Soldiers, modern or historic, needed the energy it provided to march, drill, or fight. The preservation techniques of the period dictated that everything had to be dried or salted. It is true that canning was well developed, but the weight of canned goods made them impractical.
Salt pork or bacon, in the amount of one pound, or one and one-half pounds salted or fresh beef, was the daily meat ration. One pound of bread came as hardtack, a loaf of bread, or a pound of flour. Dried pepper (red), cider vinegar, and occasionally an onion and/or a potato rounded out the ration. While Companies had funds to buy fresh meat and vegetables, it was seldom done, because they were simply not available, or the officer in charge of the fund was a crook. This lack of green vegetable led to many health problems, including night-blindness (sorry about that, Stonewall).
In Part Deux of Rational Rations, we’ll serve up how the Civil War soldier reacted to rations. We know your appetite has been whetted, but you must be patient. Bon appetit!
This article was originally published in the November-December 2000 issue of The Shrapnel, the newsletter of the Turner Brigade. For information about The Shrapnel, contact Capt. Randy Baehr, Editor.