Even though I am president of the college’s reenactment club, I had never had the “pleasure” of experiencing one of the primary staples of the average Union soldier’s diet: hardtack. I had seen it made and eventually eaten by reenactors, but I always wondered what it tasted like and why it was so important to soldiers during the Civil War. After deciding to make a batch, I wondered if my friends would view it in the same way as the soldiers who originally ate the flour tiles, their means of survival for four years. Many accounts from the Civil War name hardtack as one of the worse aspects of military life, as it was often distributed moldy or infested with worms. Other soldiers created songs expressing their dislike for the cracker, most complaining about the bland taste and the hard texture. I decided to initiate the “Hardtack Challenge of 2015,” feeding unsuspecting people a baked mixture of flour and water, comparing their reactions to those of Civil War soldiers, and answering this question: how does hardtack hold up today?
Three ingredients are used to make hardtack: water, flour, and salt. I could give out a proportion of flour to water, but honestly, it would be of no help as the consistency of hardtack proved tricky to master. I continually asked my friend Elizabeth for help with the consistency and begged for the constant kneading to be over, but I found myself being sent back many times in order to make it just right. Much more flour than water is used, and only a few pinches of salt are added. After mixing the doughy ball for an hour, I pressed it on the counter, using a hardtack cutter to shape the dough into the squares that come to mind when we envision the famous cracker. After baking for roughly two hours, my small jawbreakers were ready to be consumed.
As members arrived for the weekly meeting of the Pennsylvania College Guard Reenacting Club, they were offered a piece of hardtack and told to give me their impressions of the brick they were about to consume. Most did not like the taste, and almost all of them had difficulties with the first bite. The general consensus was that there was a lack of flavor, and that it was more difficult to chew in comparison to contemporary crackers. Many commented that if the hardtack had been dipped in a drink it would have been more appetizing, but it was still not something they wished to regularly consume.
Did Union soldiers feel the same way? Overall, the answer to this is yes, many Union soldiers did not enjoy their many rations of hardtack. Often receiving nine or ten pieces of hardtack at a time, many noted that these crackers were hard and displeasing to eat. Hardtack was dealt to the army by weight, normally arriving wet and moldy or infested with insects. If the cracker arrived in poor condition the shipment would be thrown away, but it remained in camp and was distributed even if it suffered from infestation.
I found that there were a great deal of similarities in reaction to hardtack between Civil War soldiers and Gettysburg College students. As a soldier, the men of the Civil War had limited food, often eating only what the army provided. This food was often bland, contaminated, or stale, forcing the soldiers to eat whatever they could find.
So was hardtack important in the lives of Civil War soldiers? The main purpose of hardtack was to feed the army while using as few resources as possible. Overall, it was easy to make, easy to transport, easy to distribute, but difficult to eat. Regardless of how difficult it was to consume, it was filling and it succeeded in feeding the armies. The men disliked it, but did not fully appreciate how it helped keep them alive during the war. Civil War food looks different than the food we eat today, but the food for the soldiers was primarily for survival, not for taste. The “Hardtack Challenge of 2015” demonstrated the opinions of the soldiers toward the staple cracker still hold true today, but it also showed me how easy it was to forget its purpose: to keep men alive during the Civil War.
Billings, John D. “Army Rations.” In Hardtack and Coffee. Boston: George M. Smith & Co., 1887.
Trumbull, H. Clay. “Disclosures of the Soldier Heart.” In War Memories of an Army Champlain. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1898.