Civil War Hospital Food

by Lori Eggleston. 0 Comments

We’ve all heard the jokes about the food in hospitals being terrible.  Were the meals different for Civil War soldiers in the hospitals?  After all, they didn’t have Jell-O back then!

I was recently cataloging the book “The Hospital Steward’s Manual,” by Joseph Janvier Woodward, published in 1862.  It contains a section titled, “Cooking in Hospitals” which not only lists the foods served to the patients, but the recipes (or “receipts”) as well!  The opening section reads, “Perhaps no subject is more worthy of attention in a hospital than the quality of the food and the character of the cooking. In the latter there is certainly greater room for improvement in United States army hospitals than in the former.”  So, it appears that perhaps hospital food was regarded about as well as it is today!

Let’s take a look at a few of the “Receipts adapted to the ordinary diet in hospitals.”


Would it surprise you to learn that the first recipe listed is for making coffee? Civil War soldiers, much like soldiers today, counted on their coffee to help keep them going! This 1863 lithograph by Winslow Homer is titled “The Coffee Call” and shows Army of the Potomac soldiers waiting for coffee at a campfire in an encampment. Library of Congress image.


No.1. Coffee for ten men.

Put 9 pints of water into a canteen, saucepan (or other vessel) on the fire; when boiling, add 7 1/2 oz. of coffee; mix them well together with a spoon or piece of wood; leave on the fire a few minutes longer, or until just beginning to boil. Take it off, and pour in 1 pint of cold water; let the whole remain ten minutes, or a little longer; the dregs will fall to the bottom, and the coffee will be clear.  Pour it from one vessel into another, leaving the dregs at the bottom; add 2 teaspoonfuls of sugar to the pint.  If milk is to be had, make 2 pints less of coffee, and add that much milk; boiled milk is preferable.

REMARKS. – This receipt, properly carried out, would give 10 pints of coffee, or 1 pint per man.”


During the Civil War coffee was also dispensed as medicine. This bottle contained Coffea cruda, or unroasted coffee. The handwritten label reads, “2X Coffea * Cruda 10 oz.”


Many of the hospital patients required fairly bland, easy-to-digest food.  Corn mush, called Indian mush in this Hospital Steward’s manual, served this purpose.

No. 12 Indian Mush for one hundred men

Ingredients – Indian meal [corn meal], 20 lbs., water, 70 pints (8 ¾ gallons), salt, 6 oz.

Moisten slightly the meal with water. It will require about one gallon and three-fourths for this purpose.  Have the rest of the water – say 7 gallons – in the caldron boiling; add the salt, then stir in the moistened meal.  The stirring should be continued after all the meal is in, to prevent burning.  From twenty minutes to half an hour will be found long enough to boil.  The above quantities will make 100 pints of mush, or a little more.  One pint may be served to each man, with molasses or milk.  If milk, one pint should be allowed to each patient; if molasses, one gallon to one hundred men.

REMARKS. – If the meal is stirred in dry, the mush will be lumpy.”


As you can imagine, making meals for a hospital full of patients was a big job! Though the Hospital Steward oversaw the kitchen, there were cooks employed to actually prepare the food. Here you can see the kitchen and staff at the Soldiers’ Rest Home in Alexandria, Virginia, in 1865. Library of Congress image.


As the patients improved, so did their dinner menu!  The following recipe for stew may have been a bit bland, but certainly sounds palatable.

No. 9. Plain Irish Stew for fifty men

Ingredients – Fresh mutton or beef, 50 lbs., large onions, 8 lbs., whole potatoes, 12 lbs., 8 tablespoonfuls of salt, 3 tablespoonfuls of pepper; water, a sufficient quantity.

Directions. – Cut the meat into pieces of a quarter of a pound each; put the ingredients into the pan with enough water to cover them all. Set it on the fire, and keep up gentle ebullition, stirring occasionally, for an hour and a half for mutton, and two hours for beef.  The mash some of the potatoes to thicken the gravy, and serve.

Variations. – Fresh veal, or pork, may be used instead, when convenient.”

Other “receipts” in the manual include beef soup, codfish hash, boiled salt pork, bean soup, baked pork and beans, corned beef and cabbage, and of course, bread.  It may not be considered fine dining today, but I’m sure the hospital patients were glad to get something besides hardtack!

Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, except where otherwise noted.

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