Lobcourse, Skillygalee and the Civil War

by Sarah Webb. 0 Comments

Aside from politics, I never would have survived being a Confederate soldier: the South ran out of chocolate (FNP, January 30, 2013). My mom could attest to this weakness. It’s a long story, but it involves a large block of Hershey’s that she hid in the Yellow Pages. Suffice it to say had I been born in the South in the 1800s I would have defected to the North just for the chocolate.

I gave a sigh of relief for John Trout because he served on the side that didn’t run out of chocolate. From what I’ve read though, he probably cared more about coffee, whiskey and tobacco.

I was curious about his military food rations since I have read that malnutrition contributed greatly to illness, disease, and death. Fortunately for him, under the larger canopy of the Army of Potomac, and serving in the eastern theater of the war, he had access to more rations than many other soldiers in the Union, and especially those of the South.

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Camp Life

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Prints and Photographs Division

More” rations is a relative term; it doesn’t mean his rations were sufficient. The staple diet for the Union soldier was “hard tack”, a half-inch thick cracker commonly referred to as a “teeth duller” because it was so hard. Soldiers created various ways to eat this cracker by boiling, frying or softening it in coffee. They came up with creative recipe names to go with it: Lobcourse, Skillygalee, Bully Soup, and Hellfire Stew.

The crackers were impervious to mice and cockroaches, but weevils loved to lay eggs in them. Rations of hard tack – if not already moldy - often included this unintended protein. It’s easy to see how diarrhea became a common ailment just based on the description of hard tack.

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Cartoon of Hard Tack -1861

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If that weren’t bad enough, fresh beef rations were rare and often came instead as “salt beef” or beef preserved in a brine solution. This gave the beef a black color on the outside and a yellowish- green color on the inside. If the beef was deemed edible, soldiers would marinate it in a nearby stream overnight to weaken the brine (and thereby any taste). It wasn’t unheard of however, to give it a mock “funeral” complete with a synchronized volley into the air and skip the ration altogether. As a result, salt pork was more common and palatable to soldiers.

To supplement hardtack and beef or pork rations, the government distributed desiccated vegetables. These dehydrated cakes usually consisted of beans, beets, carrots, onions, turnips and other unidentifiable compounds. Soldiers referred to them as “desecrated” vegetables. Yum.

Enter the sutler. A sutler was a civilian merchant who followed the armies and provided various items soldiers needed. Army regulations permitted commanders to return rations that went “unused” in order to attribute the returned sum to a “Company Fund.” Food could then be purchased at a sutler’s station and shared among the company. This was helpful because a sutler’s prices were often too high for the common soldier.

In theory this process would have made available a healthier variety of foods. In reality the “Company Fund” didn’t work. Oftentimes, rations were returned (unbeknownst to the common soldier), and officers confiscated the funds or food for themselves. Is it any wonder some reports claim that privates were always “half-starved?”

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Sutler’s Tent

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It’s easy to see how a laboring private became prone to illness and disease in camp and on a march. Add the stress of battle and one can see why coffee became a valuable staple. At least coffee was a recognizable drink and provided a needed energy boost.

For additional relief from the meager and unappetizing meals, whiskey was at the top of many lists. I sympathize. Just reading about Civil War rations makes me want to go out a buy a bottle.

Buying liquor was illegal unless authorized by a company commander. Some soldiers still attempted to get it illegally. General McClellan said, “No one evil agent so much obstructs this army…as the degrading vice of drunkenness.”

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Punishment – too fond of whiskey!

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During free time many soldiers wrote letters and played games like cribbage or euchre (gambling was common), but it was the observation of John D. Billings in Hardtack and Coffee that illiterate soldiers – like John Trout – smoked in great quantities instead of participating in games. Oftentimes soldiers in the same battalion would congregate after receiving mail from home and exchange news of ones they all knew. I picture John Trout sitting in a tent smoking a pipe listening to stories of Frederick County friends. I wouldn’t be surprised if he retained a smoking habit throughout his life.

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Smoking Tobacco Label

Library of Congress

Prints and Photographs Division

It’s hard to imagine marching in the heat and humidity of a mid-Atlantic summer, sleeping in the rain, or going into battle without sustenance aided only by the adrenaline rush of coffee, but that’s exactly what John Trout had to do. By July 1864 John Trout carried nearly 120 pounds of equipment on a cavalry horse and headed into the Battle that Saved Washington.

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