Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Hardtack v. flour v. corn meal

   A friend recently asked the question: “did Southern troops ever live off of Hardtack like Federal soldiers?” That’s a great question! And the simple answer is: sometimes.  (PS: this article is based on my research for my upcoming book, Feeding the Army of Northern Virginia.)

   Hardtack is made from flour, water, and sometimes salt. This mixture is rolled out and cut into pieces that are baked until, well, hard. They have been around for a long time and are also known as sea biscuits, or ship’s biscuits, or many other names. A standard issued of hardtack for Federal soldiers, for a day, was one pound, or about ten pieces. Hardtack is not a term frequently used in letters and diaries written during the war by Confederate soldiers in the East. It does appear more frequently in post-war writings. And, when the term hardtack is used, it usually denotes captured foodstuffs. For example, a member of the 13th Virginia Infantry, writing after the war, noted that at Second Manassas, he drew from his haversack “a piece of fat pickled pork and some hardtack—the rations I had selected from the varied assortment at Manassas.”[1] While at Frederick, Maryland, in September 1862, one member of the 15th Georgia complained that all of their hardtack was marked “’Cincinnati.’ It is a common remark that Banks is Jackson’s Quartermaster and Commissary.”[2]     

   More often, Confederates referred to their hardtack as crackers. A member of the 5th Alabama Infantry, writing from a camp near Fairfax Court House on July 16, 1861, noted that he was stationed as a guard at the commissary tent, presumably just for his regiment. He reported that he was guarding twenty-five barrels of crackers. A few days later, this same soldier reported that there was no flour locally, and they had to make use of crackers instead, and that “they are hard almost as a rock.”[3] Many soldiers found their crackers almost inedible. A member of the 44th North Carolina complained in October 1862 that the “Crackers you cannot brake them hardly with your hands. Yesterday Mr. Sykes had some Crackers beatting them up with a... hammer and said to me it is hard bread to have to take a hammer to brake it."[4]

    Soldiers were likely to be issued flour than hardtack. Earlier in the war, the Confederate government had purchased a bakery in Richmond to bake loaves of bread to be shipped to the men in the field. This really did not work, as the “light bread” as the soldiers called it, went moldy before it could arrive in the camps. Instead, the commissary department switched to grinding flour and shipping it to the front ranks. Ideally, flour would be issued to troops in camp, while crackers would be issued to men on the march. Most of the crackers which the men mention eating while on campaign seem to have been captured by the Federals. Instead, the men had to make do with flour, and usually no cooking utensils. From Manassas in July 1861, a member of the 10th Alabama complained that they had to bake their dough on planks and boards.[5] At Beverly Ford on August 22, a member of the 12th Georgia wrote of baking their dough on flat boards and stones before the fire.[6] On the way to Gettysburg in June 1862, a member of the 26th North Carolina wrote home that they were drawing flour. They stopped at 4:00 pm and commenced cooking.[7]  

   That’s not to say that the flour also did not come from the Federals. There are mentions of barrels of flour captured at Ball’s Bluff, during the Rominey Campaign, Seven Pines, Manassas Junction, and Williamsport, and taken from civilians during the Gettysburg campaign and Early’s Washington campaign in 1864.

   Not everyone was in favor of the flour. A member of the 53rd Georgia wrote from near Hagerstown on July 13 that he had eaten so much flour bread that he preferred corn bread.[8] Corn meal was a third option. A member of the 1st Maryland wrote from Fairfax Court House in early August that they were able to make first-rate cornbread.[9] Yet even this wore on some. South Carolinian Barry Benson wrote after the war that they were issued so much corn meal in the winter of 1863 that “our teeth staid on edge; even freshly cooked, the bread would taste sour.”[10] While cornbread might seem like a Southern staple, the corn meal ground during the war, epically, late in the war, was full of husk and kernels. “Often the corn meal issued to us… [was] so bad that hardtack… was hailed with delight,” wrote a member of the 17th Virginia in 1864.[11] From camp near Orange Court House in March 1864, one Tar Heel told the people at home that they were drawing “tolerable good rations,” including corn meal. However, he wished he could draw flour. “We are tired of meal."[12]

   As the war grinned on, there was never enough, whether it be crackers, wheat flour, or corn meal. Most of it really depended on the environment. (But that’s another post.)  A soldier simply had to draw “his waist belt a little tighter… and waited with bated breath the order to clear our works and charge the enemy.” If the charge was successful, then the “enemey’s camps furnished the rations we failed to get in the morning…”[13]

[1] Swank, Raw Pork and Hartack, 34.
[2] Ivy W. Duggan Diary, UGA, 95-96.
[4] Wright, The Confederate Letters of Benjamin H. Freeman, 14.
[5] Rourke, "I saw the Elephant, 15
[6] Ivy W. Duggan Diary, UGA, 87-88. 
[7] Smith and Price, “Your Affectionate Husband Until Death" Company Front, 55.
[8] Ronald, ed. The Stilwell Letters, 188.
[10] Benson, Berry Benson's Civil War Book, 55.
[11] Toalson, No Soap, No Pay, 94-95
[12] Hancock, Four Brothers in Gray, 253.
[13] Herbert, “The Seventeenth Virginia Infantry,” SHSP, 12:294.

Friday, May 08, 2020

Bad Barrels

   Thomas Ballard was born ca.1825 in Virginia. He was proprietor of the Ballard House hotel in Richmond prior to the war, and at the age of 36 or 37, could have stayed at home. Instead, Ballard volunteered and was mustered in as a private on May 23, 1861, in the 4th Virginia Cavalry. Two months later, he was promoted to assistant commissary of subsistence and assigned to Ashland, Virginia, then on November 25, assigned to Monterey, Virginia. Ballard then transferred to various commands over the course of the war. He was with Elzey and Trimble in 1862, and with Ed. Johnson in 1863. He was promoted to major and assigned to John B. Gordon in June 1864, and then to R. H. Anderson in October 1864. At some point, he was on the staff of John C. Breckinridge. (Krick, Staff Officers in Gray, 66)

   Ballard’s compiled service record from the National Archives is actually quite lengthy. Most of it is made up of requisitions for forage for horses, or stationery, but there are a couple of interesting pieces. One of these is an account for lost or damaged commissary stores in 1862. Ballard’s notes are a good example of the trials and tribulations of commissary officers.

I. On or about the 9th of August 1862, during the night to supply the troops on the battlefield at “Cedar Run” one wagon loaded with two barrels of flour, packed in old second hand and very badly exposed barrels, upset, the barrels busted and the flour was strewn in the mud, losing about [9 lbs.]
II. On the same march by sifting through badly coopered barrels [8 lbs]

III. On or about the 15th of August 1862, while issuing rations on the Rappahannock, near Jefferson, our [train] was shelled by the enemy. The army falling back at the same time nececated [necessitated] the abandonment of [5 lbs]

IV. On or about the 29th of August 1862, on the march from Gaines Cross Roads, crossing the Rappahannock then swollen from recent rains, part of the time under shelling of the enemy near Subley Mills, the road in wretched condition, lost by the bursting of barrels, upsetting of one wagon and by getting wet in the river [10 lbs]

V. September 5 to 13th 1862. On the march from Leesburg, crossing the Potomac via Frederick City [and] Boonesboro, and recrossing the Potomac at Williamsport, lost from getting wet in the river from bad coopering [20 lbs]

VI. On or about the 18th of September 1862 by order of Genl Jackson a days rations was taken across the Potomac and deposited about two miles from Sharpsburg. Some of the troops being in line it could not all be issued before night, the wagon having been previously ordered to the Va side of the river. The army fell back during the night. We were compelled to abandon fourteen barrels. 14.
[Total lost in about six weeks: 61 pounds.]

I. During the month of October 1862, while encamped at [and] near Bunker Hill, the command was supplied with Flour by purchasing wheat [and] having it ground at various mills – new barrels could not be had and the flour was packed in old barrels. In some cases were used three or four times. The roads to some of the mills were very rough [and] much of the flour was necessarily wasted in transporting it in open barrels, over these roads… [18 bls.]

II. On the march from Berryville to Bunker Hill Winchester, thence across the Blue Ridge at Milams Gap, and down to the battlefield at Fredericksburg  the train was loaded with flour packed in very old [and] badly coopered barrels—lost by breaking of bands [and] sifting [10 lbs]

III. From about the 18th December 1862 to the 28th April 1863 the Division was encamped at Moss Neck from eight to ten miles from the Railroad Depot at Guiney’s Station and our supplies were transported this distance over roads almost impassible. Such was the condition of the roads that four or five barrels of flour were a load for a four horse wagon. A part of the winter the roads were utterly impassible with wagons and our supplies were transported by means of pack horses. This rendered necessary the packing of flour into sacks causing much loss. The flour issued to Maj Ballard during all the winter was in bad condition, barrels often bursting open in the roads from bad cooperage, in some instances with the top of almost every barrel. His loss from these causes during the winter was certainly not less tham twenty-eight barrels.

IV. On or about the 1st day of December 1862 at Orange CH one wagon was abandoned in consequence of the deaths of three horses of the team. Lost [thereby] four barrels.
Total sixty nine barrels.

   While Ballard’s accounting might seem tedious, there is actually a lot to unpack here. It seems that the Confederacy not only suffered from a lack of wagons (check out my blog post here and here), they suffered from inadequate supply of barrels. They were second hand, or had been used several times. They were badly constructed, and at time burst open. The barrels leaked, or “sifted” the flour out.  Commissary trains could be shelled by the enemy. The roads were so bad during the winter of encampment of 1862-63 that pack horses and bags replaced wagons and barrels.

   Ballard survived the war. He returned to the hotel business and died in 1902 in Salem, Virginia.