Weird Foods and Methods People Used to Survive During the Civil War
Weird Foods and Methods People Used to Survive During the Civil War

Weird Foods and Methods People Used to Survive During the Civil War

Khalid Elhassan - July 21, 2021

Weird Foods and Methods People Used to Survive During the Civil War
Engraving of the Civil War ironclad USS Indianola. Harper’s Weekly

14. A Union Ironclad in Confederate Hands

The USS Indianola was a Union ironclad river gunboat that served in the Western Theater during the American Civil War with the US Navy’s Mississippi Squadron. She was built in Cincinnati in 1862, and was hurriedly commissioned into service before she was completed because of a perceived threat to the city. Once she was completed, she was sent to operate in the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers. In early 1863, she ran past Confederate batteries in Vicksburg to reach the Red River and help block Confederate supplies from sailing down its waters.

Once she reached her destination, however, the Indianola was set upon by Confederate rams on the night of February 24th, 1863, ran aground, and was captured. That derailed Union plans to blockade the Red River, and her presence in Confederate hands was too great a threat to Union operations in the region to be endured. So plans were made to recapture the ironclad or destroy it so as to deprive the enemy of its use. The outcome was one of the Civil War’s most successful deception operations and hoaxes.

Weird Foods and Methods People Used to Survive During the Civil War
Destruction of the USS Indianola. Harper’s Weekly

13. The Ruse That Got the Confederates to Destroy Their Own Ship

The US Navy realized that if the Confederates repaired the captured Indianola and added it to their river fleet, it could spell disaster for Union operations on the Mississippi River. Union naval commander David Porter did not have warships available to send on a risky mission to destroy the Indianola before the Rebels fixed her, so he resorted to a ruse of war. He ordered the construction of a dummy ironclad out of an old coal barge that was made to resemble a real warship. It was gussied up with paddle boxes, and fake gun emplacements out of which stuck “cannons” that were actually wooden logs painted black.

Barrels were stacked on the dummy ironclad to look like funnels, out of which poured smoke produced by smudge pots to mimic the smoke produced by a steam engine. The dummy warship, named Black Terror, was then floated past Vicksburg. When word that a powerful “ironclad” was headed their way reached the Confederate salvage crews working to repair and refloat the recently captured Indianola, they panicked. In order to prevent the captured Union gunboat’s recapture, the Confederates set fire to the ship’s magazine and blew her up.

Weird Foods and Methods People Used to Survive During the Civil War
Civil War Union civilian scout and hero James J. Andrews. Flicker

12. James J. Andrews’ Daring Raid

It was early 1862, and Union forces in the war’s Western Theater were worried about the possibility that Confederate forces might make a swift descent upon Chattanooga from Atlanta via the Western & Atlantic Railroad (W&R). So James J. Andrews, a Union civilian scout, proposed a daring raid to sever that rail connection. He and a picked band would seize a locomotive in Georgia, then travel north, and destroy a pair of connecting railway lines, along with their vital bridges.

Andrews’ idea was approved, and in early April 1862, he recruited Union Army volunteers for his raid. They slipped individually and in small groups through Confederate lines in civilian clothes, then, in accordance to plan, they rendezvoused in Marietta, Georgia. There, they boarded a train on April 11th. When it reached a small stop called “Big Shanty”, that had been selected by Andrews because it had no telegraph the Confederates could use to send out an alarm, the raiders sprang into action and seized the train’s locomotive, named the General.

Weird Foods and Methods People Used to Survive During the Civil War
Map of the Great Locomotive Chase. Wikimedia

11. The Civil War’s Most Epic Train Chase

Once James J. Andrews and his men seized the General, they uncoupled the locomotive from the rest of the train and took off. That kicked off the start of the Civil War’s – and America’s – most epic train chase. The raiders cut telegraph lines, and made a few stops along the way in order to remove some rail tracks. When a hue and cry was raised, the raiders led Confederate pursuers on a ninety mile chase on foot and on locomotives. Back in Big Shanty, the conductor whose locomotive they had hijacked, a man named William Allen Fuller, organized a pursuit.

They proceeded first by foot, then by handcar, until Fuller and the posse he had rounded up reached an idle locomotive on a spur line. The raiders in the General had passed it by and considered stopping to burn it. However, there were too many people nearby, and Andrews decided that a fight to seize the locomotive would take too long, and the sound of gunfire might alert nearby troops. Fuller and the pursuers came upon the locomotive, fired it up, and began the chase in earnest. The posse switched locomotives along the way, and steadily closed the distance with Andrews and his raiders.

Weird Foods and Methods People Used to Survive During the Civil War
Andrews and his raiders set fire to a rail car in an attempt to destroy a bridge and thwart pursuit. Wikimedia

10. The End of the Chase

For some time, the Union raiders stayed ahead of news of their raid because they had cut telegraph wires. That prevented warnings and orders to block the raiders’ escape route from reaching Confederate forces ahead of the fleeing Union volunteers. However, things began to go wrong for the raiders when they tried to burn a wooden railroad bridge, but were unable to do so because heavy rains had left the structure too waterlogged to catch on fire. So Andrews and his men moved on, and left the bridge intact behind them. That gave the Confederates hot on their trail a clear path to follow them on a stern chase.

When the pursuers finally reached an intact telegraph line, they sounded the alarm, and the raiders were blocked. Andrews halted the General on the outskirts of Ringgold, Georgia, and ordered his men to get out and scatter into the wilderness. They were captured over the next few days, then tried by the Confederates for “acts of unlawful belligerency”. Andrews and seven of his men were convicted and hanged in June, 1862. Eight raiders managed to escape, and the remainder were released in a prisoner exchange in March, 1863. Participants in what came to be known as The Great Locomotive Chase were among the first ever recipients of the newly-created Medal of Honor. Unfortunately, Andrews was not among them. As a civilian, he was ineligible for the nation’s highest award for valor.

Weird Foods and Methods People Used to Survive During the Civil War
Civil War Boy Sailor Aspinwall Fuller. United States Navy Memorial

9. While the US Army Employed Child Soldiers, the US Navy Made Do With Child Sailors

Since its earliest days, the US Navy employed children on warships, literally and officially labeled “Boy Sailors”. They had official rankings that began with powder monkeys at the bottom of the heap, who comprised the youngest and smallest crewmembers. Next came Boys 3rd Class, who typically served as stewards or in clerical capacity, often in port. As he grew up and gained experience, a child sailor could rise to Boy 2nd Class, then Boy 1st Class. At age eighteen, child sailors automatically became rated as ordinary seamen, and received the same pay and came under the same discipline as adult sailors.

During the Civil War, a remarkable photograph was taken in 1865 of a child sailor, Boy 1st Class Aspinwall Fuller, above. It shows the lad, fourteen-years-old, beside a 100-pound Parrot gun aboard the USS New Hampshire, a 74-gun ship of the line. His very presence aboard ship was against regulations, but as happens often in war, regulations were ignored. In 1861, President Lincoln had issued a directive that prohibited the enlistment of underage recruits without their parents’ consent. However, heavy casualties and the war’s insatiable demand for fresh bodies led many recruiters to look the other way if a child tried to enlist. Which explains how Fuller joined the US Navy at age thirteen, without parental consent.

Weird Foods and Methods People Used to Survive During the Civil War
Colonel Benjamin Grierson. Wikimedia

8. The Civil War’s Most Successful Cavalry Raid

Union Colonel Benjamin Grierson led a cavalry brigade of 1700 horsemen out of La Grange, Tennessee, on April 17, 1863. Their mission was to create a diversion from General Ulysses S. Grant’s plan to attack Vicksburg, Mississippi. Grierson and his men were to plunge southward deep into Mississippi in a raid that would traverse the length of that state, then reemerge at the other side and cross into the safety of Union lines in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. En route, the raiders sought to do all they could discomfit the enemy and disrupt his communications.

The Union cavalrymen were to tear up railroad tracks, destroy bridges, wreck and demolish Confederate installations and facilities, and otherwise wreak havoc and sow confusion throughout Mississippi. Until then, Confederate cavalry had been markedly superior to that of the Union, and literally rode circles around them. An additional motive for Grierson and his men was to demonstrate what federal horsemen could do with an exploit of their own to match the headline-grabbing ones of Confederate cavalrymen such as J.E.B. Stuart and Nathan Bedford Forrest.

Weird Foods and Methods People Used to Survive During the Civil War
Grierson’s raiders terrified Civil War era Mississippi. Amazon

7. The Civil War Cavalry Commander Who Hated Horses

Ironically, the commander of the Grierson Raid, Colonel Benjamin Grierson, was a former music teacher who happened to hate horses. It did not prevent his rise to command of a cavalry brigade. He and his cavalrymen travelled light. They packed only five days’ worth of rations for what planners envisioned would be a ten-day mission, 40 rounds of ammunition, and oats for their mounts. Preceded by scouts in enemy uniform, they rode for 600 miles through the heart of enemy territory that had never before seen enemy soldiers or felt the touch of war.

Grierson and his men saw to it that Mississippi now saw enemy soldiers and felt the touch of war, and the state went into a panic as a result. Union horsemen burned storehouses, tore up railroads and twisted them atop burning crossties, freed slaves, wrecked bridges, destroyed trains, and put Confederate commissaries to the torch. Throughout, in order to add to the Southerners’ confusion, Grierson peeled off detachments and sent them on feints to baffle and confuse the enemy about his actual whereabouts, intentions, and direction of march.

Weird Foods and Methods People Used to Survive During the Civil War
Sherman’s March Through Georgia. Pintrest

6. Grierson’s Raid Gave Sherman The Idea About a March Through Georgia

Grierson’s Raid was a smashing success in both the literal and figurative senses. As he and his men rampaged at will for over a fortnight deep in the heart of enemy territory, the Union cavalrymen wreaked significant damage upon enemy property and enemy morale. Although vigorously pursued by Confederate forces, Grierson’s men eluded their pursuers even as they continued to cause mayhem in the enemy’s heartland. After fifteen days of raising Cain, in which they lost only three killed, seven wounded, and nine missing, the federal horsemen crossed into the safety of Union lines near Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

In addition to its immediate impact, the raid demonstrated that Union soldiers could live off the land deep within Confederate territory. That started to turn some gears in the mind of Union General William Tecumseh Sherman about the vulnerability of the Confederacy’s interior, which he compared to soft innards surrounded by a brittle shell. A year and a half later, the result was Sherman’s March Through Georgia, then his even more devastating March Through the Carolinas, that sealed the Confederacy’s doom.

Weird Foods and Methods People Used to Survive During the Civil War
Civil War drummer boy Alexander H. Johnson. Kentake

5. The Massachusetts Drummer

Civil War child soldier Alexander H. Johnson was born in Massachusetts, and enlisted in the Union Army when he was fourteen-years-old. He joined the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, whose exploits were depicted in the 1989 movie Glory, as a drummer boy when that regiment was formed. Since the 54th Massachusetts was one of the Union’s first colored regiments, young Alexander was probably the first African American musician to enlist in the Civil War. He saw significant service during the conflict.

During the war, young Alexander was the with the 54th as it took part in the battles of Honey Hill, Boykins Mill, James Island, Olustee, and the siege of Charleston, South Carolina. He was present at the murderous assault on Fort Wagner, and participated in Sherman’s march through the Carolinas. His drum was struck by enemy fire six times, and he was wounded in the leg while on active service. Alexander stayed with the 54th Massachusetts until war’s end and his discharge in 1865.

Weird Foods and Methods People Used to Survive During the Civil War
Alexander H. Johnson with his drums, years after the Civil War. Worcester Historical Museum

4. After the Civil War, Alexander H. Johnson Led His Town’s Drum Corps

After the Civil War, Alexander H. Johnson returned home with the drum he had carried at Fort Wagner. The former child soldier settled in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he taught drumming and founded that town’s first drum corps. Nicknamed “Major”, in reference to his being the drum major of the town’s drum corps, Alexander married, raised a family, and had 17 children. He was a lifelong active member in the Grand Army of the Republic, as well as a member of the Sons of Union Veterans.

In 1897, a memorial sculpted by Augustus Saint-Gaudens was unveiled in Boston, to honor the 54th Massachusetts and its colonel, Robert Gould Shaw, who had died fighting at the regiment’s head during the assault on Fort Wagner. The memorial, erected in front of the Massachusetts State House in Boston, where it can be seen to this day, depicts Colonel Shaw and his regiment as they depart the city for the South. In that bronze bas relief, Alexander is depicted with his drum, tapping the beat at the head of a column of his comrades. He lived to the age of 83, and died in 1930.

Weird Foods and Methods People Used to Survive During the Civil War
Confederate Civil War veteran Henry Hopkins Sibley. University of Kentucky

3. Confederate Veterans Fought in Africa After the Civil War

Surreal as it might sound, the second half of the nineteenth century saw Confederates in the thick of combat in Africa. Ten years after they lost the Civil War, some Confederate veterans were back in action when they fought as mercenaries in what was then termed “The Dark Continent”. One of them rose to a high rank in the Egyptian army, and played a key role in an attempt – that ended in disastrous defeat – to forge a colonial empire in eastern Africa.

Weird Foods and Methods People Used to Survive During the Civil War
William Wing Loring. Find a Grave

In 1868, Union Army veteran Thaddeus Mott met the ruler of Egypt, the Khedive Ismail, and regaled him with tales about American military advances during the recent fratricidal war. Ismail was convinced to hire veterans of that conflict to help modernize the Egyptian army. The first of them, Confederate veterans William Wing Loring and Henry Hopkins Sibley, arrived in 1870. Loring became the Egyptian army’s Inspector-General, and in 1875 he was appointed chief of staff of an army that was sent to fight Ethiopia.

Weird Foods and Methods People Used to Survive During the Civil War
Years after fighting for the Confederacy in the Civil War, William Wing Loring became Loring Pasha, a general in the Egyptian army. Wikimedia

2. The Confederate Leaders of the Egyptian-Ethiopian Wars

William Wing Loring (1818 – 1886) and fellow Confederates had fought in America’s Civil War to preserve a system based on the enslavement of Africans and their descendants. A decade later, Loring was back at war, this time in Africa. He sought to realize Khedive Ismail’s dreams of an Egyptian empire in Africa, that stretched from the Mediterranean Sea to Lake Victoria, and from the Sahara to Somalia. In 1874, Ismail took the first steps to realize his dreams when he ordered an invasion of Ethiopia, Egypt’s chief rival in northeast Africa.

That kicked off the Egyptian-Ethiopian War (1874 – 1876), in which Egyptian columns set out on two occasions to conquer that landlocked kingdoma. The first marched from Egyptian-controlled Sudan, and the second one began its invasion from the Egyptian-controlled Red Sea coast of what is now Eritrea. Each time, the Egyptian forces, equipped with modern weapons and led by Western officers such as Loring, were crushed by poorly equipped but numerically superior Ethiopians. Loring played a significant role in the second failed attempt, which ended in a crushing defeat at the Battle of Gura in 1876.

Weird Foods and Methods People Used to Survive During the Civil War
Nineteenth century Egyptian army. Smithsonian Institute

1. The Confederate Who Lost in Africa

Command of the second Egyptian invasion of Ethiopia had initially been promised to William Wing Loring, but the assignment went instead to an Egyptian named Ratib Pasha, and Loring was appointed his chief of staff. In March, 1876, an Egyptian army of 13,000 men, equipped with modern firearms and artillery, and an Ethiopian force of 50,000 armed mostly with swords and spears, drew near at the Plain of Gura, in today’s Eritrea. The Egyptian commander sought to fight a defensive battle from a fortified position. It was a sensible choice, but Loring taunted Ratib Pasham and accused him of cowardice for not marching out to meet the Ethiopian host in an open valley.

Weird Foods and Methods People Used to Survive During the Civil War
Ethiopian tribal warriors attacking an Egyptian fort. Look and Learn

Stung, the Egyptian commander led his army out of its fortifications to offer battle in the surrounding plain. It got routed at the Battle of Gura, a disastrous defeat that ended Egypt’s ambitions to conquer Ethiopia. Loring, who rose to the rank of major general in the Egyptian army, was heavily criticized. In 1878, he and other American officers were dismissed. He returned to America, where he penned his experiences in Africa, A Confederate Soldier in Egypt, published in 1884.

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Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

American Battlefield Trust – The Declaration of Causes of Seceding States

American Battlefield Trust – The Reasons for Secession: A Documentary Study

Bonds, Russell S. – Stealing the General: The Great Locomotive Chase and the First Medal of Honor (2006)

Brown, Dee – Grierson’s Raid (1954)

Catton, Bruce – The Coming Fury (1961)

History Collection – The Life of a Slave in Thomas Jefferson’s House

Keesee, Dennis M. – Too Young to Die: Boy Soldiers of the Civil War (2001)

Library of Congress – Civil War Thanksgiving Foods

Loring, William Wing – A Confederate Soldier in Egypt (1884)

Military History Now – Confederates on the Nile: Meet the Civil War Vets Who Volunteered to Fight For the Egyptian Army

National Museum of the United States Navy – Powder Monkeys and the American Civil War

National Park Service – Fort Scott: Cooking Food Rations

PBS – Causes of the Civil War

Quartz – For the Last Time, the American Civil War Was Not About States’ Rights

Ranker – Unconventional Foods People Ate to Survive the Civil War

Sears, Stephen W. – To the Gates of Richmond: The Peninsula Campaign (1992)

Spaulding, Lily May and John, Editors – Civil War Recipes (1999)

United States Navy Memorial – Aspinwall Fuller

Warfare History Network – Grierson’s Raid: Wrecking the Railroad With the Butternut Guerrillas

Washington Post, February 26th, 2011 – Five Myths About Why the South Seceded

Wikipedia – Ethiopian-Egyptian War

Wikipedia – USS Indianola (1862)

Wikipedia – William Tappan Thompson

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