"And what a perfect Godsend it seemed to us at times! How often, after being completely jaded by a night march, -- and this is an experience common to thousands, -- have I had a wash, if thee 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! At such times it could seem to have had no substitute."
The above, written by John Billings in his postwar book, Hardtack and Coffee, perfectly describes just how great a cup of coffee can be for the Civil War soldier. I know from many events, especially the ones where the weather was anything but pleasant, that a cup of coffee made all the difference in my attitude and how my body felt. Two instances come to mind, and both were from 2017.
At Shiloh, the Friday night/Saturday morning temperature had fallen quite low, and it was one of those mornings where you wake up feeling frozen and stiff as a board. You're cold, your clothes feel cold, the blanket isn't keeping in the heat, and it seems like an eternity of standing by the fire just to feel like you are beginning to thaw out, and its dark. It was the morning that we moved out at what seemed like 4 AM, so we were up quite a bit earlier.
Once my fingers were loose enough to be used, I grabbed my boiler, filled it with water, and went to work making my morning coffee. After quickly chugging my cup, I felt brand new and ready to move with what seemed like a bounce in my step. We covered quite a distance that day which involved four different fire fights. All done by the time we made it back to camp that afternoon, and had it not been for that cup of hot coffee, I don't think I would have enjoyed the experience as much as I did. I definitely would not have felt as well, that is for sure!
The second is famous Wauhatchie in October 2017. Going into the event we knew the weather was not going to cooperate, and it didn't. Friday night, it was actually enjoyable and pleasant, but by Saturday morning it all changed. The temperature dropped to the low forties and upper thirties, and there was a constant drizzle that soaked everything. But I was determined that I was going to get my coffee.
While the rain came down, the fires sizzled away, barely staying alive. I filled my boiler with water, stuck on the coals, and went to work with my other things. I had crushed my beans the night before, so they were just waiting for the water to boil.
My poncho had actually ripped across the middle, and if it was not mended, would be totally useless in the rain that was going to fall all day. That's the good thing about boiling coffee. You can set and and forget it to work on other things. Out came the housewife, and the only time I have ever sewn a rubberized poncho began. In the rain. In the dark. I had to silhouette the needle and thread against the glow of the fire to thread it and then sew it up. I'm happy to report that it held, and all was good on that front.
Anyways, the water boiled, the coffee was added, and while I prepared my uniform, pack, weapon, and poncho, the coffee neared completion. When I was ready, it was ready. Sugar was promptly added, and the amazing drink was enjoyed. Thankfully, I had enough time to actually enjoy it, despite the weather. As if on cue, as I took the last swig, the time to fall in arrived. To this day, I still consider it the best cup of coffee I have ever consumed.
The 1861 US Army regulations stated that’s there should be 8 pounds of roasted coffee issued with every 100 rations, which comes out to about 1.3 ounces per man, per day. With sugar, the ration was 15 pounds per 100 rations, or 2.4 ounces per man. The thought being that one would use sugar for more things than just coffee. A quart of molasses was also issued for every 100 rations, for those who enjoyed putting some molasses in their drink. Rations were not always perfect, and sometimes when supply lines were long or even cut, rations would be cut to half, or in extreme cases, quarter rations and some items might not be available at all.
Luckily for Federal soldiers, the marching ration for coffee and sugar was the same as the garrison or camp ration. The government seemed to realize the positive affects coffee had on the men. The affects were well known by the Civil War, as the old "spirit" ration of rum, whisky, and other alcoholic beverages had been replaced with coffee and sugar in 1832. Throughout the war, the government experimented with Essence of Coffee, which was not popular and I can see why, and sometimes issued the coffee beans green. The soldiers were then responsible for roasting the beans to their liking before consumption.
My Perfect Cup
So how do I make my perfect cup of Joe at an event? Making coffee to one's taste is going to be different for everyone, so you may love this method, or disagree with it entirely.
Like people today, the amount of sugar you add to your cup depends on you. I love a lot. I use Splenda for my modern coffee, and cream, but at events I am over generous with my sugar. I'm not really worried about using more than what was issued, because not every soldier enjoyed sugar. Take this humorous story written by Leander Stillwell of the 61st Illinois in his book, The Story of a Common Soldier of Army Life in the Civil War, 1861-1865, for example:
"Owing to improperly cooked food, change of climate and of water, and neglect of proper sanitation measures in the camps, camp diarrhea became epidemic at Pittsburg Landing, especially among the "green" regiments like ours. And for about six weeks everybody suffered, more or less, the difference being only in degree. The fact is, the condition of the troops in that quarter during the prevalence of that disorder was simply so bad and repulsive that any detailed description thereof will be passed over. I never saw the like before, and never have seen it since. I always thought that one thing which aggravated this trouble was the inordinate quantity of sugar some of the men would consume. They would not only use it to excess in their coffee and rice, but would frequently eat it raw, by handfuls. I happen to think, right now, of an incident that illustrates the unnatural appetite of some of the men for sugar. It occurred in camp one rainy day during the siege of Corinth. Jake Hill, of my company, had covered the top of a big army hardtack with sugar in a cone-like form, piling it on as long as the tack would hold a grain. Then he seated himself on his knapsack and proceeded to gnaw away at his feast, by a system of 'regular approaches.' He was even then suffering from the epidemic before mentioned, and so weak he could hardly walk. Some one said to him, 'Jake, that sugar ain't good for you in your condition.' He looked up with an aggrieved air and responded in a tone of cruelly injured innocence, 'Haven't I the right to eat my r-a-a-tion?'
Strange to say, Jake got well, and served throughout the war. He was a good soldier, too.
For my part, I quit using sugar in any form, early in my army service, (except a little, occasionally, with stewed fruit, or berries,) and didn't resume its general use until some years after my discharge from the army."
Luckily my gut is better than Jake Hill's, and I can handle a lot of sugar in a few cups of coffee over a weekend.
Of course, the Confederate soldiers were not as lucky as their Federal counterparts. Coffee was missed, and really, nothing can replace it. Visiting British Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Freemantle remarked, "The loss of coffee afflicts the Confederates even more than the loss of spirits; and they exercise their ingenuity in devising substitutes, which are not generally very successful.” When you look at what was attempted, you can see why the substitutes failed like Freemantle tells us. Roots, seeds, nuts, and even cigar stumps. If possible, a Southern boy might attempt to gain some by way of trade with the enemy. If I was able to do that, I would every opportunity I got, probably to my own detriment. Since the Confederates generally did without, I won't spend much time on them today, maybe another day.
If you would to watch some amazing videos actually show you how its done, consider viewing these by the Civil War Digital Digest. My way is only slightly different, but if you would like to give it a shot, these will definitely help.
Give this other great source a read:
From "Emerging Civil War" by Ashley Webb
Find Leander Stillwell's book online here:
Read John Billilngs' book online here: