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Civil War: Thanksgiving Foods

Since the holidays are upon us, and we are also still in the midst of commemorating the Sesquicentennial of the U.S. Civil War, we thought it might be interesting to explore what the soldiers ate during that war and how they celebrated the Thanksgiving holiday.

George Washington had signed a Thanksgiving Proclamation in 1789 recommending November 26th of that year be a “day of public thanksgiving and prayer.”  (The Library of Congress has a copy of this proclamation).  At the time of the Civil War, some states did celebrate Thanksgiving on a day decided by the governor—usually in October or November after the crops had been harvested and the bounty preserved.  From 1837-1877, Sarah Buell Hale, editor of  the country’s most popular magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book, promoted Thanksgiving through the pages of her magazine.  She printed recipes for creating the perfect dinner of turkey, oysters, potatoes, macaroni, chicken pot pie, cranberries, and pie.  She also lobbied every president from Zachary Taylor to Abraham Lincoln to proclaim Thanksgiving as a national holiday.  On October 3, 1863, in the midst of the war, President Lincoln issued a Proclamation of Thanksgiving, setting aside the last Thursday in November “as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise.”

Thanksgiving in camp sketched Thursday 28th 1861. Alfred R. Waud.

Thanksgiving in camp sketched Thursday 28th 1861. Alfred R. Waud.

From Civil War diaries we know what the troops ate generally and on special occasions.  For holidays, various organizations solicited donations of food including poultry, mince pies, sausages and fruit.  One account notes that the Sanitary Commission put on a feed in the field that consisted of Turkey, Chicken, and Apples—but a day late.  A soldier noted, “It isn’t the turkey, but the idea that we care for.” In the University of Iowa’s collections of Civil War Diaries and Letters, Asa Bean, a surgeon in the Union Army, wrote describing his Thanksgiving dinner on November 27, 1862, and I quote:

There has been a surprise party here to Day for the Benefit of Soldiers and Nurses they were furnished with a Thanksgiving Dinner roast Turkey; Chicken & Pigeon & Oysters Stewed.  … I had a good dinner of Baked Chicken & Pudding Boiled potatoes, Turnip, Apple butter, cheese butter, Tea & Trimmings …we live well enough, but cannot Eat Much without being sick.

The Confederate soldier’s rations consisted of corn bread, mule meat or a meat substitute of “rice and molasses.”  There are reports of men existing for days on handfuls of parched corn or field peas.  “Cush” or “slosh”—a dish of necessity—was made by putting small pieces of beef in bacon grease, then pouring in water and “stewing it.” Next, corn bread was crumbled in it, and the mixture was “stewed” again until all the water was cooked out.”  Another dish combined Irish potatoes and green apples boiled together and mashed and seasoned with onions.  Yet another dish, known as Slapjack, consisted of a thick mixture of cornmeal or flour and fried in Bacon grease until it was brown.

"Hard Tack" Hartford, Conn. : The War Photograph & Exhibition Co.

“Hard Tack” Hartford, Conn. : The War Photograph & Exhibition Co.

The Union soldiers’ rations were somewhat better.  Salt pork, ham, beans, split peas, dried fruits, hardtack, and desiccated vegetables were on the list.  The unpopular desiccated vegetables were often called desecrated vegetables.  These were layers of cabbage leaves, turnip tops, sliced carrots, turnips, parsnips, and a few onions; they were dehydrated in large blocks in ovens and then cut into one-ounce cubes.  Issued to prevent scurvy, they were made into soup or fried.  Other recipes used in the Union army included:


  • Ashcakes – cornmeal mixed with salt and water, wrapped in cabbage leaves and cooked in ashes until firm.
  • Baked beans – Baked in a kettle placed in a hold in the ground and then covered and banked with hot coals and allowed to cook overnight – sometimes salt pork added.
  • Hardtack Pudding – hardtack pounded into a powder, mixed with water and flour if available, then kneaded into dough, rolled out like a pie crust, and filled with apples or anything available.  Finally it would be wrapped up in a cloth and boiled for an hour.
  • Hell-fire stew – Hardtack boiled in water and bacon grease.
  • Lobscouse (lob scowz) – stew of pieces of meat, vegetables, and hardtack.
  • Milk toast – Hardtack soaked in condensed milk (Borden had just started to can).

Happy Thanksgiving to all of our readers!

Today’s post is brought to you by our guest author Connie Carter, Head of the Science Reference Section.

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