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A Civil War Coffee Story
Did you know that there are more than 23 million veterans in the US? This Friday we commemorate their service to the country, offering a good excuse to thank any veterans you might know.
Our vets had to endure a lot no matter when they served, putting up with all kinds of deprivations. But few know about the value and scarcity of coffee during the Civil War over 150 years ago. Coffee and bread constituted the soldier’s rations. Small though the coffee rations were, the coffee was considered excellent - a “Godsend”. And it was a far cry from Klatch or Latitude.
It seems there was quite a ceremony involved in divvying up the coffee among the troops. After arriving in camp in an oat sack, it was divided several times before making its way to the divisions. There the company orderly-sergeant or the detachment sergeant divided the precious commodity among the soldiers.
One rubber blanket or more was spread on the ground and filled with a small pile of coffee for each soldier. Another blanket held the sugar piles. The sergeant had to be careful to make each pile exactly the same size, to prevent grumbling by the troops.
Once this was done, in the most dramatic dispersal system, the sergeant would stand with his back to the blankets and take up the roll call list. Someone would point to a pile and say “Who shall have this?” The sergeant then checked off a name on his list, without looking at the piles. One by one, the men were served their coffee rations.
But that only solved half of the problem. Now the soldier had to carry the coffee and sugar until hot water could be offered. The containers, usually various types of sacks, were mingled in with everything else in the knapsacks, such as salt pork, hardtack, salt and pepper, utensils etc.
An article by Dallas Bogan states, (http://www.tngenweb.org/campbell/hist-bogan/coffee.html)
“The old-time veteran of war would take out an oblong plain cloth bag, which looked as clean and tidy as the everyday shirt of a coal-heaver, and into it he inserted without inspection both his sugar and coffee, and stirred them together methodically.
"Experience taught him that his sugar was a better investment disposed of than in any other way. On several occasions he had eaten the sugar with his hardtack, a little at a time. Sometimes the sugar would get wet and melt and, as a consequence, he would have his coffee without sweetening, which was certainly unsuited for his taste.”
With milk a luxury during the Civil War, most of the soldiers also had to adapt to black coffee, in addition to everything else. So figuring out a way to mix in the sugar first was an advantage.
Things have changed in the last 150 years, but there it’s a rare veteran that didn’t have to give up conveniences and adapt to a harder way of life, regardless of the closeness to battle. We salute them.