Hardtack during the Civil War



During the Civil War one of the most common meals for soldiers was a cracker-like food called hardtack. Hardtack is made from flour, water, and salt. It could last a long time- there is even hard tack from the Civil War in the museum at Manassas National Battlefield Park today! Soldiers really didn’t like eating hardtack. It was known as “sheet iron crackers” or “tooth duller” because it was so hard. It also was known for getting wet, which allowed mold to grow in the boxes of it that were supplied to the Army. In addition, insects would sometimes lay their eggs in the hard tack giving it the nickname, “worm castles.” Hardtack was important for the men to eat- it gave them energy they needed, and it was a big piece of their diet- so they tried to find all kinds of different ways to eat it.

Commonly, soldiers would soften their hardtack in coffee. This also was also a way to help kill the little maggots and worms that lived inside of it, allowing soldiers to skim them off of the top of the coffee. They would also break up the hardtack with the butt (the back part) of their rifles and throw it in soups such as a stew called “lobscouse,” which also included soldiers’ rations of salt pork (which was preserved with salt to make it last a long time too), and any other things they could find to add to it. They also would soak hardtack in water and fry it in bacon fat or lard (animal fat) to make something they called “skillygalee.” If a soldier could afford to spend some of their monthly pay, they might buy ingredients from a sutler, a merchant who sold goods to encamped soldiers. For example, soldiers would sometimes mix hardtack with a can of condensed milk they bought from a sutler. However, sutlers often charged a lot of money for their supplies, so many men could not afford to pay for these goods because their money was needed to support their families back at home. Men sometimes would also forage, or look around an area, for additional ingredients that could be eaten with their hardtack.

The Confederates did not always have hardtack, because it was made from wheat flour, and wheat was not widely grown in most Confederate states, aside from Virginia and Georgia. The Confederates instead relied on two crops they grew to make their bread: corn and rice. In particular, they used corn to make something similar to hardtack that was known as “corn dodgers” or “Johnny cakes.” This was a mixture of cornmeal, salt, and water cooked until it was just as dry and hard as the hardtack. Soldiers might try to make them taste a better too! They would use whatever grease or fat they could find and fry their Johnny cakes with it to make something they called “cush” or “slosh.” People ate Johnny cakes before the Civil War and they still do today. However, recipes from before and after the war add ingredients that a Confederate soldier might not have had access to- like milk, sugar, and baking soda (see recipe below.)


Hardtack Activity Questions:

1. What is hardtack? Who do you think soldiers might not have liked it?

2. What did the soldiers try to do to make hardtack or Johnny cakes easier to eat?

3. Why do you think the soldiers wrote a song about hardtack?

4. Pretend you are a soldier who has returned home after the war. How would you describe hardtack or Johnny cakes to your family?

Last updated: June 26, 2021

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