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The ration issued during the Civil War was a substantial improvement over earlier rations, particularly from the standpoint of quantity. Bread, meat, and coffee were the staples of the diet, with beans, rice, or dried vegetables added occasionally. During active campaigning, however, the soldier got little more than the staples unless he foraged. “Hardtack” was the bread issued most frequently. The meat, called “salt horse,” was salted or pickled beef and pork.

Hardtack, a mixture of water and flour formed into a large cracker, was a staple of the Union soldier’s diet. Often called “sheet-iron crackers” or “teeth-dullers,” hardtack was virtually unbreakable and usually softened in water so that it could be eaten.

Coffee was a staple in the army and was nearly always in good supply. It was issued individually to the soldiers, thus the bags. The coffee can, also issued, was used as a general mess tin.

“Homespun” tobacco, or tobacco twisted into forms such as this, was preferred by the soldiers because it could either be chewed or cut into small pieces and smoked in a pipe.

Division of the History of Technology, Armed Forces History
National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution
Behring Center
Gifts of John A. Sours, C.F. Ray Sours, and Virginia Dell Sours (hardtack); F. L. Van Auken (coffee); W. E. Cooksey (tobacco)


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