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Living on Hardtack

In a book titled Hardtack and Heartbreak, it might be worthwhile to define terms. Heartbreak needs little definition and the Civil War, like all wars, resulted in many tragic losses. But “hardtack” is not a word we hear now. It is safe to say none of us have ever encountered hardtack but it was an item of daily life for a Civil War soldier

Hardtack was made of flour with water added to make a stiff paste which was then rolled to a thickness of around half an inch, cut into large cracker sections, and baked. Unlike bread, it was not leavened. Thick and hard enough not to crumble, it could be carried in the soldier’s haversack for days and was a basic of his diet while on a march. Soldiers also carried coffee.

In World War II, soldiers in the field carried C rations of stew in small cans they could open with a key, but Civil War provisions were simpler. On the long march across Georgia in late 1864, Union soldiers supplemented their diet with food foraged from local farms but when that was not possible, hardtack was the meal.

Because wheat was chiefly grown in the Northern states, hardtack was primarily a food in the Union army. Confederate troops in the field were more likely to eat a hard corn bread.

At mealtime when on a march, soldiers formed mess groups of two or three who worked together to gather wood, start a fire, make coffee, and roast any available food.

Dipping in coffee softened hardtack to a chewable state and gave it some taste, but when rain or fear of alerting the enemy prevented a fire to make coffee, soldiers reported that eating hardtack was like chewing on a piece of wood.

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