The Role of Coffee in the Civil War
Who would have thought that coffee, of all things, would have played such an important role in the American Civil War? According to Garry Fisher, historian and author of Rebel Cornbread and Yankee Coffee, that little caffeinated bean we love so much was a true morale booster for both Federal and Confederate soldiers.
“Drinking a hot cup of coffee around the campfire was probably the best part of the day for most soldiers in the field,” said Fisher during an interview from his home in Winston-Salem. “It helped take the monotony out of the day to day march.”
It wasn’t long before the United States Secretary of War, Simon Cameron, recognized the effect coffee had on his men and ordered more than 500,000 rations of coffee for Federal troops just before Christmas in 1861.
But what did the Federal troops do before Cameron issued the order? And what did Confederate troops do because northern blockades had clogged up the ports?
A sulter, or civilian traveling behind the troops, usually in a covered wagon, would provide commodities like tobacco, coffee and sugar following a skirmish. The sutler would also provide non-military goods and put together activities for soldiers like gambling and drinking off post.
When asked to describe a sutler, Fisher said that by today’s standards he’d be considered a shark. And, when a sutler began to demand outrageous price for his goods, trading amongst enemy troops became commonplace. Rebels would trade tobacco for coffee, as coffee was always scarce, while Federal troops would trade coffee for tobacco, as coffee was always plentiful. According to first hand reports, these trades would take place right on the front lines, although Fisher says the accounts may be slightly exaggerated.
When coffee was completely unavailable, Confederate soldiers would boil acorns, walnuts or chicory. “If it made the water brown, they’d drink it,” Fisher said. Chicory became especially popular throughout the South because it was readily available and an inexpensive substitute for the real thing. Fisher said that just about everyone in the South, even those not in the battlefield, ended up drinking something other than coffee due to the Northern blockades.
If coffee was available, it was usually in a green bean form, according to Fisher, and troops would have to roast and grind it in the field. “They’d roast the beans right in a skillet with some grease until they turned brown,” he said. “The trick was to pull them off the fire at just the right time so they didn’t burn. Timing was everything.”
And once they were roasted, you’d grind them up right in your cup – usually with the butt of your rifle. “A little boiling water, strain the grinds through a piece of flannel, and you’ve got yourself a cup of coffee.” Federal troops, he said, had it a little easier, as they’d often put the grinds together with some sugar in a sack and infuse it altogether.
Either way you brewed it, coffee was the best thing most soldiers, Federal or Confederate, had on the battlefield. “Coffee put a smile on their faces and gave them something to enjoy – when there wasn’t much to enjoy,” Fisher said.