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Singing for Their Supper:
The Common Soldier's Fare

The fare of the common soldier may not have always been very tasty or palatable but was often a topic of discussion amongst the men in the ranks, as well as the subject of songs, correspondence, and journal entries. On this page you will find passages by Private Randolph A. Shotwell of the Eighth Virginia Infantry and Private Edward Murray of the 96th Illinois Infantry about life in camp—their fare included. Also on this page are lyrics to two popular soldier songs, "Hard Crackers Come Again No More" and "The Army Bean," along with recipes for bean soup and cornbread, and illustrations of camp life by Charles W. Reed.


Soldiers Speak about Camp Life and Their Supper

Confederate Private Randolph A. Shotwell, Eighth Virginia Infantry

Prior to his enlistment in the Confederate army, young Randolph Shotwell was a "schoolboy" who had never been away from home. Following the Battle of Ball's Bluff, Shotwell wrote about life in winter quarters at Centreville, Virginia in November 1861:

camp fire  illustration by Charles W. ReedFancy the comforts of such a life as this! Roused at dawn to crawl out and stand half-dressed in a drenching storm while the company-roll was being called; then return to damp blankets—or to rub the skin off of your knuckles, trying to start a fire with green pine poles in the storm; go down to the marsh to break the ice off of a shallow branch or rivulet, and flirt a few handfuls of muddy water upon your face, then wipe it off on the clean corner of a dirty pocket handkerchief, borrow a broken piece of comb (having lost your own, and having no money to replace it) and, after raking the bits of trash out of your stubby locks, devote the next hour to trying to boil a dingy tin-cup of so-called coffee; after which, with a chunk of boiled beef, or broiled bacon (red, almost, with rust and skippers) and a piece of cornbread, you are ready to breakfast. But now you have blackened your hands, and are begrimed with the sooty smoke from the snapping, popping, sappy, green pine logs, your eyes are red and smarting, your face burned while your back is drenched and chilled; and you have no place to sit while eating your rough meal.

Around you are dozens of rough, uncouth fellows, whose mingled complaints, coarse jests, quarrels, noise and impatience make you sigh at the prospect of spending the entire day and the next, and the next, and so on ad infinitum under precisely similar circumstances.

Union Private Edward Murray, 96th Illinois Infantry

When Edward Murray enlisted in the Union army, he left behind his wife and six children, as well as his farm. A month later, in October 1862, his regiment crossed the Ohio River at Cincinnati, and in Covington, Kentucky, Murray experienced life in camp for the first time. The following passage was written after the war's end:

Sibley  tent illustration by Charles W. ReedMost of the regiment got to our camp grounds. After stacking our guns, we threw ourselves on the ground with our blankets over us and took what sleep and rest we could. I opened my eyes about sunrise and sat up. Such a night I never dreamed of. There were about 1,000 men scattered over an old trodden camp ground. Not a spear of grass was to be seen. Every man was covered with a blanket or rubber. The bugle sounded and it was not long before all were stirring....

Well we had to get something to eat. After each one had his fire going, we boiled our coffee in a tin cup and ate our hard tack and a slice of raw pork. We were filled and refreshed. Next we pitched our tents. They was what they called the Sibley tent, quite large and oval and open at either end. A pole sat upright, about eight feet high and another across the top. The canvas stretched over the sides and was pegged down to the ground. It was nice to see a company laid out, all being in exact line. Kitchens were in the rear and the officers' tents in the rear of them. As soon as the tents were up, we had to get brushes instead of brooms and police or sweep the camp all over and carry off the dirt.

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Time-Life Editors, Voices of the Civil War: Soldier Life, Time-Life, Inc., Alexandria, VA, 1996, pp. 84-85.

Illustrations of camp fire and Sibley tent above by Charles W. Reed, from Hardtack & Coffee: The Unwritten Story of Army Life by John D. Billings, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, NE, 1993. (Reprinted from the original edition published by George M. Smith & Co., Boston, MA, 1887.)


Recipes for Soldiers in Camp

Bean Soup

1/2 pound uncooked navy beans
3/4 pound ham shank
1 cup diced potatoes (uncooked)
3/4 cup diced onion
3 large tomatoes, skinned and finely chopped
Salt and pepper
1 Tbsp parsley

Cover the beans with cold water and soak overnight. Rinse the beans, cover with fresh water, cook until tender and then strain. Cover the ham with cold water and simmer until tender, skimming off the fat. Add the beans, potatoes, and onion to the ham and simmer gently. When the vegetables are almost tender, add the tomatoes, salt and pepper, and parsley, and cook slowly until the vegetables are ready. The soup can be served immediately but tastes better reheated on the following day. Serves 6.

Cornbread

1/2 cup yellow cornmeal
1 cup flour
Pinch of salt
4 eggs
2 Tbsp milk
3 Tbsps butter, softened

Combine the cornmeal, flour, and salt in a bowl. Add the eggs, milk, and butter and mix well. Pour into a 9 x 9-inch buttered baking pan and bake in a moderate oven (375 degrees Fahrenheit) for 15-20 minutes.

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William C. Davis, The Civil War Cookbook, Courage Books, Philadelphia, PA, 1993, p.18, p.46.


Songs of a Soldier's Daily Fare

Hard Crackers Come Again No More

Words: Anonymous
Music: Stephen Collins Foster "Hard Times Come Again No More"

Let us close our game of poker,
Take our tin cups in hand,
While we gather round the cook's tent door.
Where dry mummies of hard crackers
Are given to each man;
Oh, hard crackers come again no more!

'Tis the song and the sigh of the hungry,
"Hard crackers, hard crackers, come again no more!
Many days have you lingered upon our stomachs sore,
Oh, hard crackers, come again no more."

There's a hungry, thirsty soldier,
Who wears his life away,
With torn clothes, whose better days are o'er;
He is sighing now for whiskey,
And, with throat as dry as hay,
Sings, "Hard crackers come again no more."

'Tis the song and the sigh of the hungry,
"Hard crackers, hard crackers, come again no more!
Many days have you lingered upon our stomachs sore,
Oh, hard crackers, come again no more."

'Tis the song that is uttered
In camp by night and day,
'Tis the wail that is mingled with each snore;
'Tis the sighing of the soul
For spring chickens far away,
"Oh, hard crackers come again no more."

'Tis the song and the sigh of the hungry,
"Hard crackers, hard crackers, come again no more!
Many days have you lingered upon our stomachs sore,
Oh, hard crackers, come again no more."

The Army Bean

Words: Anonymous
Music: Tune of "Sweet Bye and Bye"

There's a spot that the soldiers all love,
The mess tent's the place that we mean,
And the dish we like best to see there
Is the old-fashioned white army bean.

'Tis the bean that we mean,
And we'll eat as we ne'er ate before;
The army bean, nice and clean,
We'll stick to our beans evermore.

Now the bean in its primitive state
Is a plant we have all often met;
And when cooked in the old army style
It has charms we can never forget.

'Tis the bean that we mean,
And we'll eat as we ne'er ate before;
The army bean, nice and clean,
We'll stick to our beans evermore.

The German is fond of sauerkraut,
The potato is loved by the Mick,
But the soldiers have long since found out
That through life to our beans we should stick.

'Tis the bean that we mean,
And we'll eat as we ne'er ate before;
The army bean, nice and clean,
We'll stick to our beans evermore.

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Paul Glass and Louis C. Singer, Singing Soldiers: A History of the Civil War in Song, Da Capo Press, Inc., New York, NY, 1964, pp. 146-147, 168-169.

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