Thursday, July 23, 2015

Civil War Subsistence Department


In 1775 the Continental Congress created a Commissary General of Stores and Provisions used to provision the Continental Army; however, few funds were allocated to feed the army. Therefore, in 1818 Congress reorganized the Quartermaster Department and provided for a Subsistence Department under a Commissary General of Subsistence.

Responsible for provisioning the Army, the Subsistence Department controlled the procurement
of all rations. When the Civil War broke out there was a staff of twelve, four of whom left to join the Confederacy.

Joseph P. Taylor headed the Department for most of the war. As Commissary General, Taylor drew
up specifications for the various foodstuffs that made up Union rations. Private contractors submitted bids based upon those specifications. The lowest bid was chosen. Bulk food supplies were then packaged and delivered to depots and warehouses in major metropolitan centers including Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and St. Louis.

When foodstuffs reached their point of distribution it became the responsibility of the Quartermaster's Department to get the food to the Army’s field of operations by various methods including steamboats, barges, and railroads. Quartermasters stored food temporarily in warehouses, sheds, or out in the open until it was shipped, usually by rail, to the army's advance depots. From there, army supply wagons carried the rations to temporary depots in preparation for ultimate distribution to soldiers.

The Subsistence Department not only purchased enormous amounts of pork, coffee, and hardtack, but they also provided flour to government run bakeries where vast amounts of bread were baked each day. A soldier’s diet lacked fresh vegetables. Without the vitamin C that vegetables provide, many soldiers developed scurvy and other vitamin deficiencies. By the end of the war the U.S. Army required 3 million pounds of rations per day for its soldiers throughout the country.

Providing enough food for the Confederate Army was a considerable problem for the southern
Subsistence Department. Commissary General, Lucius B. Northrop, an inexperienced officer,
preferred to centralize all purchasing details from his office, hampering his subordinate’s ability to
buy locally. Northrop’s policy was to purchase large amounts of raw materials and transport and
store them for future distribution. Rampant inflation caused prices to escalate and the Confederacy
was forced to impress food, crops, fuel, and other commodities to support their army.

Army Hardtack Recipe
• 4 cups flour (preferably whole wheat)
• 4 teaspoons salt
• Water (about 2 cups)

Preheat oven to 375. Mix the flour and salt together in a bowl. Add just enough water (less than two cups) so that the mixture will stick together, producing a dough that won’t stick to hands, rolling pin or pan. Mix the dough by hand. Roll the dough out, shaping it roughly into a rectangle. Cut into the dough into squares about 3 x 3 inches and ½ inch thick.

After cutting the squares, press a pattern of four rows of four holes into each square, using a nail or other such object. Do not punch through the dough. The appearance you want is similar to that of a modern saltine cracker. Turn each square over and do the same thing to the other side. Place the squares on an ungreased cookie sheet in the oven and bake for 30 minutes. Turn each piece over and bake for another 30 minutes. The crackers should be slightly brown on both sides. Makes about 10 pieces.

Image 1: Clerks of the Commissary depot with boxes of hardtack. Library of Congress

Image 2: Supply wagons


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