On the Periphery of War: Sutlers, Luxuries, and the USCT

By Jon Danchik ‘17

This post comes from the exhibit catalog for “Right to Serve, Right to Lead:  Lives and Legacies of the USCT,” an exhibition in Special Collections and College Archives at Musselman Library, Gettysburg College. During the spring of 2017, we asked the CWI Fellows to select a item on exhibit and discuss its history and context. The resulting exhibit catalog is available at Special Collections, where the exhibit will run through December 18, 2017.

Sutler’s Token. This coin would be used as credit with a sutler, or vendor, who followed the Union Army, selling a range of luxury items from toothbrushes and soap to tobacco, cheese, and custom identification tags. Courtesy of Special Collections and College Archives, Gettysburg College.

The Civil War caused an unmistakable strain on production and the allocation of resources in the North as well as the South. In order to keep armies in good order, a steady influx of supplies was needed, leading to shortages of food on the home front and in places like prisoner of war camps. The armies were typically well-fed, and many rations commonly consisted of small amounts of coffee, salt pork, and hardened bread called “hard-tack.” While enough to keep one from starvation, rations could hardly be described as appealing, and soldiers spent much of their time in camp devising new and innovative ways to make them more appetizing. Foraging for supplies yielded resources for combatant armies, but the practices of foraging depended on different commanders’ interpretations of official policies and unofficial social contracts. Soldiers were capable of living off of the land, and sometimes taking supplies from hapless farmers at the point of a bayonet was the only way to stay well-fed. Clearly the rationing system had its downsides.

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A Taste of the Civil War: Barbara Sanders’ Lecture on Civil War Era Food

By Savannah Labbe ‘19

There are few ways to better immerse oneself in the past than through food. It is relatively easy to follow a recipe from the Civil War era and enjoy the same cuisine as Union and Confederate soldiers. In this way, one can experience the past in a most interactive way. Experiencing the past was accomplished in the lecture “Hearth, Hardtack, and Hospital: A Close Look (and Taste) of Civil War Era Food,” given by Gettysburg National Military Park education specialist Barbara J. Sanders. The lecture focused on the topic of the interaction between history and food, specifically in the Civil War.

Many soldiers would fry their hardtack to make it more appetizing. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Sanders’s lecture, while directed at an older audience, was just as interactive as one she might give to a younger audience. She provided samples of food from the Civil War era for the audience to try and showed the audience how rations were issued, having an officer stand with his back to the rations, randomly reading off names of the soldiers to make sure that no soldier was purposefully getting a larger ration than another. She also ground up some coffee beans with a bayonet, as the soldiers would have done. All of these activities helped the audience better experience and imagine what a soldier’s diet and food preparation habits would have been. Continue reading “A Taste of the Civil War: Barbara Sanders’ Lecture on Civil War Era Food”

Crack Open a Bottle of General Lee – A Second Course

By Ryan Nadeau ’16

Welcome back, fellow historical diners. Last time, you joined me in comparing a fine selection of Union generals to food. Today, we’ll be examining some of their southern counterparts. Let’s dig in!

Robert E. Lee – Aged, Fine Red Wine with a Side of Steak

Consider the following: red wines are often consumed with red meats such as steak. Steak can be enjoyed in any number of ways, from a backyard barbecue to the finest of dining establishments. In this sense, steak is the former Confederacy, ranging as it did from the most rural farmers to the opulent planters.

In memory, Lee is the Confederacy’s classic companion: the red wine to the red meat, though perhaps one better suited to a classier setting. A dish stereotypically and frequently associated with masculinity, paired with an emblem of class. When considering a general frequently held up as the ideal gentleman of the South, could such a combination be any more fitting? Continue reading “Crack Open a Bottle of General Lee – A Second Course”

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays from the CWI!

An early depiction of Santa Claus from the Civil War Era. This illustration by Thomas Nast first appeared in Harper’s Weekly in 1863. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

For your holiday enjoyment, our social media coordinator Megan McNish ’16 has put together a Buzzfeed quiz where you can figure out what role you would have played during the Civil War. Would you have served on the front lines or stayed at home and supported the war effort? Click here to take the quiz and find out!

And, if you missed it over Thanksgiving, she also made one about what Civil War food matches your personality (Don’t take it personally if you receive desiccated vegetables. Yours truly did as well.)

Happy holidays from the students and staff of the CWI!

General McClellan is a Fruitcake and Other Tasteful Metaphors

By Ryan Nadeau ’16

GrantatoThe idea for this post was born from a comment I made while bored and generally sleep deprived on a road trip to the James Buchanan symposium earlier this fall. After some serious historical discussion with my traveling companions, including two other CWI fellows, I made a very non-serious observation. It went something like this:

“You know, I think Buchanan looks a lot like a soft-serve vanilla ice cream cone.”

After being met with some justifiably confused replies, I explained myself: in all the pictures I had seen of him he seemed to have a round and soft face with an upturned tuft of wispy white hair that reminded me of the machine-processed look of a soft-serve vanilla ice cream. I extended my metaphor beyond looks as well, saying that much like ice cream, Buchanan melted under the pressure and heat of the nation during his presidency, requiring Lincoln to come in and clean up the mess—politics and melted dessert both. Continue reading “General McClellan is a Fruitcake and Other Tasteful Metaphors”

The Hardtack Challenge: How a Soldier’s Staple Holds Up Today

By Savannah Rose ’17

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.

Hardtack, previously called hard bread, is a simple mixture of flour, water, and salt. Photo courtesy of author.
Hardtack, previously referred to as hard bread, is a simple mixture of flour, water, and salt. Photo courtesy of author.

Continue reading “The Hardtack Challenge: How a Soldier’s Staple Holds Up Today”

Lewis Tway’s Tin Cup

On July 1, 1913, veterans of the American Civil War, both Union and Confederate, gathered to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. The anniversary activities served a dual purpose of commemorating the battle and those who p…


On July 1, 1913, veterans of the American Civil War, both Union and Confederate, gathered to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. The anniversary activities served a dual purpose of commemorating the battle and those who perished there, and giving veterans the chance to come together and reminisce and share with each other experiences that few outsiders would be able to appreciate or understand. Despite worries that hostility may lie between veterans from the North and South the event as a whole was a harmonious occasion that ultimately commemorated the anniversary of one of the greatest battles fought on American soil.

For many, mention of the American Civil War conjures up notions of excitement and danger; these elements, while certainly present, had less of a presence than many of us would believe. In fact estimates say that up to 75% of a soldier’s time was spent marching and in camp, in situations that were relatively safe from the threat of combat. This led to periods that soldiers described as times of intense boredom.
Continue reading “Lewis Tway’s Tin Cup”