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Thursday, July 31, 2014

Civil War Soldiers Made Coffee America's Drink

By Fredric C. Lynch


Enjoy a dark, steaming, rejuvenating cup of coffee or three today? Thank or blame the United States
Army and the American Civil War for bringing the boiled black brew into most every home and work site nationwide then and now.

Coffee is our nation's long standing breakfast, daytime, and supper beverage of choice. However, few
nineteenth century farm hands, store clerks, students, dock workers, domestic servants, hostlers or factory workers were regular consumers of the beverage. That changed when millions of boys and men 15 to 40 years of age marched off to live and fight as soldiers during the American Civil War 1861-65.

Enjoying coffee was a pleasant and satisfying experience shared among Civil War soldiers. The
American relationship with the aromatic beverage became a national pastime when the veteran soldiers
returned home - - whether as the victor or the vanquished. The war literally changed coffee from an
uncommon non-alcoholic social drink into the ubiquitous got-to-have-it beverage it is today.

The U.S. soldier's special relationship with coffee dates to 1832. That was when President Andrew Jackson ordered coffee and sugar added to the daily basic military food ration. The refreshing beverage served as an alternative to water and the government-issue gill (four fluid ounces) of whiskey provided American soldiers and sailors every day. Brewed coffee was considerably less expensive and of more reliable quality than locally-procured refined alcohol spirits.

In 1837, the U.S. Congress ordered an end to the soldiers' daily whiskey ration. Official justification for ending the ration was documented by U.S. Army Assistant Surgeon L. A. Birdsall plus Lieutenants
Blanchard and Eaton in a letter to Congress published in the May 24, 1838 Army and Navy Chronicle.
The letter was entitled Temperance in the Army and included:

"The undersigned officers of the United States army beg leave respectfully to represent that, in their opinion, the substitution of sugar and coffee for the whiskey part of the ration allowed to soldiers, has been productive of great good to the service, and also the means of preserving the health, efficiency, and happiness, and frequently affecting the moral reformation of that part of our army."

The change proved a lifestyle altering one for the nation's small standing Army of about 16,000 soldiers and officers located at mostly small military posts in the east and west.

The April 1861 attack on Fort Sumter in Charleston South Carolina created the environment that led to
today's fondness for coffee. The attack necessitated rapid mobilization of large volunteer armies North
and South to fight the War Between the States. About 1.5 million volunteers left northern states' hearths
to fight for the Union cause. About 1 million men left their southern states' homes or quit the U.S. Army "to go South" for similar reasons.

The hundreds of thousands of newly-minted volunteer soldiers from all of the nation's states were quickly molded into "Billy Yanks" and "Johnny Rebs." Regardless of the cause served, the lifeline of both armies soon became rations and equipment supplied through a complex and marginally reliable logistics chain.

Quartermaster and commissary duties dealing with getting food and equipment to soldiers in the field
were some of the Army's most challenging tasks. Large volumes of edibles and expendables had to be
purchased, packaged, stored, and transported in an organized manner under rarely predicable and often incredibly difficult conditions. At the farthest end of the logistical chain, huddled around campfires in the field rain or shine, were individual soldiers needing to be clothed, armed, and especially, fed.

According to U.S. Army regulations, a soldier was entitled each day to receive:
Twelve ounces of pork or bacon, or 1 pound 4 ounces of salt or fresh beef;
1 pound 6 ounces of soft bread or flour or 1 pound of hard bread, or 1 pound 4
ounces of corn meal.
Each company of 100 soldiers to share among themselves 1 peck of beans or peas;
10 pounds of rice or hominy;
10 pounds of green coffee or 8 pounds of roasted and ground, or 1 pound 8 ounces of tea;
15 pounds of sugar;
1 pound 4 ounces of candles;
4 pounds of soap;
2 quarts of salt;
4 quarts of molasses.

Coffee was among commissary items most consistently issued and available to Union soldiers each day. Coffee was a stimulant and bread supplied nutrition needed to sustain physical activity.

In general, the U.S. Army did a good job getting the necessities of war to troops in the field. The
Confederate States were not as successful. Their army was rarely well supplied. One problem
encountered by both armies was a lack of men who knew how to cook. Accordingly, food served tended to be bland, boring, and mainly bread in some form with coffee to wash it down.

During the Civil War, soldiers quickly grew to love their coffee. Coffee was almost always available to
every Billy Yank. It was highly transportable and not prone to spoil while in camp or on the march.
The coffee ration was distributed by commissary officers and sergeants through a bulk ration issue system that began with large sacks eventually being subdivided into small individual rations provided each soldier. Veterans stored ground coffee mixed together with their sugar ration in a small cloth pouch carefully secured in a haversack (ration bag) carried over their shoulder and rarely separated from their immediate control.

If soldiers received raw beans, they would roast them in a pan over a campfire. If they received cooked beans, they smashed them with a rifle butt, bayonet, or most any available harder than the beans object.

Whenever and wherever Union infantry, cavalry, or artillery men stopped for a break, wood was gathered and quickly turned into small fires. A pot or "boiler" would appear. A steaming cup of invigorating coffee reportedly could be brewed by a team of veteran soldiers using shared energy and resources in less than 10 minutes. And, that was important to the weary, footsore soldiers.

In his 1888 memoir of military service, Hardtack and Coffee, Union Army soldier John Billings, a veteran of the 10th Massachusetts Volunteer Artillery, wrote:
"What a Godsend it seemed to us at times! How often after being completely jaded by a night march . . . have I had a wash, if there was water to be had, made and drunk my pint or so of coffee and felt as fresh and invigorated as if just arisen from a night's sound sleep!"

Sipping coffee around the campfire became a characteristic of comradeship during the Civil War as it is at workplaces today. Fresh-brewed coffee not only provided an opportunity for social interaction among Civil War friends, it even sometimes facilitated goodwill with foes. Yankee soldier John F. Brobst of the Twenty-fifth Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry wrote his sweetheart in an 1864 letter sent from near Atlanta:
"We had two visitors day before yesterday. They were Johnny Rebs. They came over and took dinner with us and brought over some corn bread and tobacco and we made some coffee and all sat down on the ground together and had a good chat as well as a good dinner. They gave us some tobacco and we gave them some coffee to take back with them. They were real smart fellows both of them. You must not think up there that we fight down here because we are mad, for it is not the case, for we pick blackberries together and off the same bush at the same time, but we fight for fun, or rather because we can't help ourselves. If they would let the soldiers settle this thing it would not be long before we would be on terms of peace."

Although no soldier is known to have received a medal for his coffee, there is a monument honoring one for his coffee vending. Soldiers who remembered the deed paid for the memorial recognizing the unusual and courageous act.

Sergeant William McKinley was a Commissary Sergeant and member of Co. E, Twenty-third Ohio
Volunteer Infantry Regiment. During the battle of Antietam, near Sharpsburg, Md. Sept. 17, 1862,
McKinley was rear of the front lines with the unit wagon train and supplies. The men of the Twenty-third rushed into battle before dawn and were engaged in the thick of the fight all day. With exceptional
initiative, Sgt. McKinley gathered a work detail of volunteers, commandeered a couple of mule-drawn
wagons - - one of which was reportedly a mobile field kitchen - - and moved all quickly into harm's way transporting cooked rations and fresh boiled coffee.

In Robert Porter's 1896 Life of William McKinley, the Twenty-third Ohio regiment's commander,
Colonel Rutherford B. Hayes, later a U.S. President, wrote:
"The battle began at daylight. Before daylight men were in the ranks and preparing for it. Without breakfast, without coffee, they went into the fight, and it continued until the sun had set. Early in the afternoon, naturally enough, with the exertion required of the men, they were famished and thirsty, and to some extent broken in spirit. The commissary department of that brigade was under Sergeant McKinley’s administration and personal supervision. From his hands every man in the regiment was served with hot coffee and warm meats . . . . He passed under fire and delivered, with his own hands, these things, so essential for the men for whom he was laboring.

In recognition of his courage and devotion to duty, McKinley was promoted to second lieutenant and later to captain and brevet major as recognition for his overall distinguished wartime service. And, decades later he was elected president of the United States with strong nationwide support from fellow members of the Grand Army of the Republic, the largest post-Civil War veterans organization.

In 1903, a monument to William McKinley and his front-line coffee service was dedicated on the Antietam Battlefield adjacent to the parking lot south of Burnside Bridge. An inscription on the memorial notes that Sgt. McKinley "personally and without orders served hot coffee and warm food to every man in the Regiment, on this spot, and in doing so had to pass under fire." A different section of the monument shows McKinley, hot cup of coffee in hand, with shells bursting all around him.

Even though Union Army soldiers received ample coffee, their families back home did not. The reason
was as much lack of interest as lack of supply. The short supply of coffee was especially severe in the
South throughout the war.

Coffee was an import, and the U.S. Navy blockade of Confederate ports prevented beans reaching
consumers. However, as is often the case in hard times, ingenuity provided a solution. Southern soldiers and civilians alike created coffee substitutes using chicory, burnt corn, peas, potatoes, peanuts, or acorns.

Doctor A. Poitevan, M.D., documented one recipe Nov. 5, 1861 in the Natchez Daily Courier:
"If, therefore, the blockade should continue, and the importation of coffee is rendered impracticable, it would be very natural that the use of acorn coffee, mixed with the genuine should become universal. The poor would find it equally a source of economy and a valuable remedy; and soldiers in camp would be less exposed to diarrhea, one of the most terrible evils that can exist in an army. In order to prepare this coffee, the acorns must first be roasted in an oven. The hard outer shell is removed, and the kernel is preserved, which, after being roasted, is ground with ordinary coffee."

An Atlanta newspaper, the Southern Confederacy of Nov. 7, 1861 offered an alternative:
"Take sweet potatoes and after peeling them, cut them up into small pieces about the size of the joint of your little finger, dry them either in the sun or by the fire, (sun dried is probably best) and then parch and grind the same as if coffee. Take two thirds of this to one third of coffee to a making. Try it, not particularly for its economy but for its superiority over any coffee you ever tasted.

When the war ended, and the soldiers returned to their farms, factories, offices, and families they brought home the custom of drinking coffee and the practice of sharing it. Their families and friends soon equally enjoyed the pleasure and benefits of hot, fresh-brewed coffee. The tradition continues although memory of how America's coffee drinking habit traces its origin to the American Civil War has faded from public memory.

Want to taste history? Try one of the above substitute recipes, or consider brewing a pot of coffee in a
manner replicating how the beverage was created and savored by the boys in blue and gray. Here is how:

1. Place a heavy cast iron frying pan atop a campfire griddle or warm burner. Pour green, uncooked coffee beans into the pan. Move the beans around frequently. Stir them until they turn "milk chocolate" brown. Avoid getting them "French roast" dark brown unless you prefer a bitter brew. Let the beans "pop" a little - - the cooking removes moisture from beans. If in a hurry, use already cooked beans bought from a grocery store.

2. When roasted to your preference, let the beans cool. Then, break them up with something. A Civil War soldier would likely use his rifle butt, his bayonet, or a big stick. Use a coffee grinder or food processor if you so choose, but keep the grind rough and coarse.

3. Put the crushed or ground coffee into a metal pot or cup (a tin military issue cup used by most
soldiers held a pint of liquid). A heaping large spoonful plus a little extra should suffice for each cup to be consumed. Pour cold water over the ground coffee. Heat the container of water until just below boiling. As an alternative, boil the water in another container and pour the hot liquid over ground coffee in a cup. Leave an inch or so of space space between the top of the brew and the rim of the cup. Let the brew steep for awhile.

4. A frothy layer should form after scalding hot water is poured into the pot or cup. Stir the layer
until it drops to the bottom. Let it rise again to the top and then stir it once more to the bottom. When the crust rises back up, stir it into the brew once again.

5. When the brew's color suits your fancy, pour some cold water on top of the hot coffee. Cold water helps ensure most floating grounds sink to the bottom. After the grounds settle, let the steaming liquid cool to drinking temperature and enjoy a tasty brew akin to that which helped Union soldiers win the American Civil War.

As you enjoy each and every future cup of "soldier coffee," or the modern day equivalent, reflect upon the debt the American people owe our nation's "Boys in Blue and Gray" 1861-65. And, maybe while doing so, read about their many other contributions to building a great United States of America and a
wonderful way of life for all who dwell within its many states.

Fred Lynch is a member of the Company of Military Historians and the Ohio Valley Civil War
Association. He raises heirloom herbs and vegetables in the backyard of his suburban Ohio homestead. He is also a local camp and state department officer in the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War. The SUVCW is a national organization that exists: "To perpetuate the memory of the Grand Army of the Republic and of the men who saved the Union 1861 to 1865; To assist in every practicable way in the preservation and making available for research of documents and records pertaining to the Grand Army of the Republic and its members; To cooperate in doing honor to all who have patriotically served our country in any war; And, to teach patriotism and the duties of citizenship, the true history of our country, and the love and honor of our Flag."

Image: William McKinley coffee break monument


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