13. As With Other Wars, Civil War Armies Marched on Their Stomachs
Napoleon’s aphorism that an army marches on its stomach was as true of the Civil War as of any other war. Hunger is probably the world’s best seasoning and appetizer. Nothing does a better job than the pangs of an empty stomach to transform even the most unpalatable foods into the equivalent of mouthwatering savory dishes fit for royal feasts and banquets. That phenomenon is often demonstrated in wartime. Marauding armies, raiders, the diversion of labor to military pursuits, sieges and blockades, all combine to wreak havoc on the supply and distribution networks that normally keep people – soldiers and civilians alike – fed.
When that happens, people in and out of uniform often have to shift for themselves and improvise to find sufficient foodstuffs to replace the then-unappreciated, but now fondly recalled, plenty of peacetimes. That happened in the US Civil War, especially in the South. In those terrible years, the devastation of war, the shortage of farm labor after agricultural workers went into the military, and various blockades and barricades, kept provisions away from the eager hands – and mouths – of consumers. As seen below, people had to get creative with their food.
12. The South Was Agriculturally Rich, but its Soldiers Were Often Poorly Fed
Civil War Union soldiers were usually well fed and supplied with provisions by the standards of their era. Compared to their Confederate foes, Northern troops were routinely issued items that seemed like luxuries to Southern ones, such as sugar and coffee. Real coffee, that is, in the form of actual or ground coffee beans, not the substitutes that Rebel soldiers used in its stead. Union soldiers were also regularly issued meat, usually in the form of salt beef or park. Their opponents often had to do with meat substitutes.
Basic Confederate soldiers’ rations consisted of corn bread, and little if any meat. Much of the South was an agriculturally rich region brimming with foodstuff. However, supply and distribution network breakdowns kept many provisions, especially meat, from Southern field armies. Rebel troops often had to do with mule meat, and when even that was unavailable, resorted to meat substitutes. One of the most common was a mixture of rice and molasses, with cornmeal sometimes added to, or used in lieu of, rice.
11. Civil War Southern Soldiers Often Had to Eat Mule Meat
On paper, Southern rations in the Civil War were adequate and varied. In practice, they were not. Rebel soldiers were usually issued corn bread and bad beef, with corn bread the more constant provision. Basics like vegetables and salt were also often hard to come by. The supply of beef to Southern armies broke down quickly, and as early as 1861, the Confederates’ commissary general recommended the use of rice and molasses as occasional meat substitutes. Because of persistent supply and distribution difficulties, “occasional” became “quite often”.
By 1863, things had gotten bad enough that mule meat was issued as a standard ration item to Rebel soldiers. Even mule meat, rice and molasses, as well as corn bread, were often in short supply, and there are many reports of Southerners who had to subsist for days on handfuls of field peas and parched corn. On top of food shortages, and the poor quality of what food actually reached them, Confederate soldiers often lacked adequate cooking ware and eating utensils.
Hunger is more than just a great appetizer. It is also a great prod to get people’s culinary creative juices flowing. Inadequate and frequently interrupted food supplies made Southern Civil War soldiers come up with new dishes, of which the most famous – or infamous – were “cush” or “slosh”. Small bits of beef were placed in bacon grease, then water was added and the mixture was “stewed”. Cornbread was crumbled into the concoction and stewed again until all the water had evaporated.
One stew recipe used potatoes and green apples boiled together, then mashed and seasoned with salt, pepper, garlic, or onion. Another recipe began with a stew of potatoes and whatever meat was available, to which flapjack batter was added, a spoonful at a time. The mixture was stirred together, and as a Rebel soldier recalled, the next morning: “we got meat, bread, and potatoes all in the same slice“. Another dish known as “slapjack” used a thick mixture of flour or cornmeal fried in bacon grease in a skillet until the bottom turned brown before it was flipped over to cook the other side.
9. Coffee Was So Valued and Scarce in the South that it Was Used as Jewelry
Civil War soldiers liked their caffeine fix. However, only the Northern men at arms had regular access to coffee made from real coffee beans. The Union blockade of the South made coffee a rare commodity in the Confederacy, so Southerners often made do with substitutes. Rebels jonesing for a cup of joe brewed up chicory, peas, peanuts dried apples, acorns, rye, dandelion roots, or just about anything they could get their hands on that could trick their senses into believing it was coffee.
Confederate General J. E. B. Stuart described the use of potatoes as coffee substitutes: “Potatoes were peeled and cut into “chunks” about the size of coffee berries. The pieces were spread out in the sun to dry, then parched until brown, after which they were ground. The grounds were mixed with a little water until a paste resulted, after which hot water was added. When the grounds settled to the bottom of the coffee pot, the beverage could be poured and drunk“. Coffee beans became such hot commodities in the South during the Civil War that one Atlanta jeweler used them instead of diamonds in breast pins.
8. Food – and the Scarcity Thereof – Played a Key Role in the Civil War’s Course and Outcome
Civil War Union soldiers had it good when it came to food, compared to their Confederate foes. Their regular rations included salt pork, fresh or salt beef, hard and soft bread, flour, potatoes, beans, split peas, dried apples, peaches, and vegetables, vinegar, salt and pepper. Ham and bacon were also issued on occasion. Union troops also regularly received coffee and sugar – luxuries to be found only in Confederate soldiers’ dreams. Civil War gallows humor had it that the ferocity of Rebel charges could be explained by the eagerness of hungry Southerners to get their hands on the contents of Yankee soldiers’ haversacks.
Food played a key role in how the Civil War turned out. When Robert E. Lee finally threw in the towel and surrendered at Appomattox, he told Ulysses S. Grant that his men had been without food for two days, and some for even more. He asked the victor to supply them with provisions, and a magnanimous Grant sent enough rations for all of Lee’s soldiers. Despite the bitterness of defeat and surrender, the famished Southern soldiers sent up a loud cheer at the sight of the Union food wagons.
7. For the Longest, America Had a Lax Attitude Towards Presidential Security
The assassination of Abraham Lincoln at the end of the Civil War owes much to the fact that he had been assigned the most incompetent bodyguard to have ever been tasked with the protection of an American president. For much of America’s history, presidential protection was an ad hoc affair. The Secret Service, created in 1865 to catch currency counterfeiters, did not become presidential bodyguards until 1902, after the assassination of President William McKinley. Before that, security for US presidents was quite lax. For example, on the night that Lincoln was assassinated, April 14th, 1865, only one man had been assigned to protect him: an inept and unreliable cop named John Frederick Parker.
6. An Extremely Bad Cop, With an Important Assignment
Close calls, the knowledge that many wished him ill, and reports of numerous plots against his life did not daunt Abraham Lincoln, and he often went about unescorted. The tall, bearded, gangly, and easily identifiable president sometimes walked alone at night from the White House to the War Department. He often attended church or went to the theater without bodyguards, and generally disliked the fuss of a military escort. On the fateful night of April 14th, 1865, he was assigned a bodyguard – but an inept one. By any measure, John Frederick Parker (1830 – 1890) was a bad cop. One of the first officers to join Washington’s Metropolitan Police Force when it was created in 1861, he stood out for his ineptness and unsuitability as a policeman.
Parker was often brought before the police oversight board on a variety of charges, any of which could have gotten him fired. The most frequent accusation was conduct unbecoming an officer. He was let off each time with a slap on the wrist. Parker’s infractions included but were not limited to the abuse of civilians. He was known to curse in public, frequent brothels, get drunk on the job, and sleep off his inebriation in streetcars instead of walk his assigned beat. Each time, he got away with no more than a reprimand. Despite that poor record, when in November 1864, the Metropolitan Police Force created the first permanent detail to guard the president, Parker was one of four officers assigned the task.
Officer John Frederick Parker of the Washington Metropolitan Police escorted President Lincoln and his wife to their box seats in Ford’s Theater on the night of April 14th, 1865. The bad cop then grabbed a seat in the hallway behind Lincoln in the theater but was unable to see the play from there. So he abandoned his post to watch from downstairs. The play bored him, however, so he left the theater altogether, to go grab a drink in a nearby bar.
It is possible that Parker might have crossed paths there with John Wilkes Booth, who was also at the bar for the last shot of liquid courage before he headed to Ford’s Theater. Booth, a famous actor, was a Confederate sympathizer. During the Civil War, Booth had lacked the courage of his convictions to take up arms and join the Confederate armies in the field. When it was all over and the Confederacy was defeated, he found enough courage – or at least bitterness – to finally act.
4. Getting a President Killed Through Neglect and Incompetence Was Still Not Enough to Get This Cop Fired
John Wilkes Booth hatched a plot to assassinate President Lincoln and some of his key cabinet members, and on the night of April 14th, 1865, he and his accomplices fanned out across Washington, DC. Booth’s coconspirators failed to carry out their parts. Booth, however, got into Ford’s Theater, where Officer John Frederick Parker had abandoned his post as presidential bodyguard to drink at a nearby bar. Booth snuck into the president’s private box and shot Lincoln in the back of the head. He then made a dramatic escape, and went on the lam for twelve days.
A massive manhunt eventually tracked Booth to a Virginia barn, where he was killed in a shootout. It is unclear if Officer Parker ever returned to Ford’s Theater that night, or only found out about Lincoln’s assassination the next day. Parker was charged with failure to protect the president, but incredibly, the charge was dismissed and he kept his job as a Washington Metropolitan Police officer. He was even kept on the presidential protection detail for another three years before he was finally fired when he was caught once again asleep on the job.
3. No President Ever Carried as Heavy a Burden as Abraham Lincoln
Throughout the history of the United States, no president before or since has ever faced challenges as varied and as difficult as did Abraham Lincoln. Chief among them was the Civil War, which killed about 700,000 to 900,000 people. Prorated to the current US population, that would be the equivalent of about nine to ten million dead Americans today. He had to handle that bloodbath without the vast support staff and civil bureaucracy available to modern presidents to ease and streamline their workload. He had to cope with ineptness and incompetence by sundry generals, who dealt the Union cause setback back after setback and piled up defeat after defeat.
In addition to armed rebellion in the South, Lincoln had to contend with treason in the North. There were vicious attacks directed at him from both right and left, from the opposition Democrats and from within the ranks of his own Republican party, and accusations of incompetence and tyranny. There was disloyalty within his own cabinet, plots and schemes and terrorism, plus a serious threat of foreign war against Britain and France. In the middle of all that, a beloved son caught a fever and died, at the tender age of eleven years old. To top it all off, he had to deal with a crazy wife at home – a spouse who literally suffered bouts of insanity.
2. Abraham Lincoln Had Confederate Money in His Wallet When He Died
Abraham Lincoln went through the hell of the Civil War, and finally prevailed: the rebellion was crushed, and the Union was preserved. He handled all the challenges that fate threw at him with, all things considered, nearly superhuman poise, grace, and dignity. The way in which he overcame so many adversities, and still retained his sanity and humanity to the end, was extraordinary. Less than a week after the main Southern army surrendered, when he could finally relax, he went to see a play at a theater, only to be assassinated by a sore loser Confederate.
In one of Lincoln’s pockets when he was shot was a crisp five-dollar Confederate bill. Most likely, it was a memento from a recent trip he made to Virginia, as the war in the eastern theater entered its final days and the Union Army entered Richmond. The president was in the vicinity when the Confederacy’s capital fell. He made an impromptu tour of the ruins of the place and took the banknote, worthless once the Rebel cause went down to defeat, as a souvenir.
1. Lincoln’s Possessions When He Was Assassinated Were Eventually Donated to the Library of Congress
Abraham Lincoln had a white linen handkerchief when he was shot, with “A. Lincoln” embroidered in red. He also had a pocketknife with an ivory handle. He had a pair of gold-rimmed glasses mended with a string, a pair of folding spectacles in a silver case, plus glass cleaner and buffer. The arms on his glasses – he had one for reading and the other to correct his strabismus – often came loose. Lincoln probably carried the pocketknife to tighten them whenever that happened. There was also a sleeve button with a gold initial “L” on dark blue enamel and a watch fob.
The Confederate banknote was in a brown leather wallet. People did not carry identity cards back then, so Lincoln did not have any. Oddly, the wallet contained no cash other than the worthless Confederate $5 note. Instead, there were eight newspaper clippings with positive coverage of his presidency. Given the difficulties, he faced on a daily basis, and the torrent of negativity directed his way, the president probably carried the clippings around to boost his morale and as a means of positive affirmation. The contents of Lincoln’s pockets were kept by his family for decades, they were donated to the Library of Congress in 1937.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading