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Reading 2: The Mule Diet at Port Hudson
New York native Howard C. Wright was a newspaperman in New Orleans, Louisiana, when the Civil War began. He joined the 30th Louisiana Infantry Regiment when it was formed in 1862 and became a lieutenant. Captured at the surrender of Port Hudson, he was imprisoned with other officers in New Orleans. He wrote an account of the siege which was originally serialized as Port Hudson: Its History from an Interior Point of View in the Daily True Delta less than a month after the surrender. Wright's account was printed in book form for the first time in 1937 by the editor of the St. Francisville Democrat and republished in 1978 by The Eagle Press, Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The following excerpt is taken from that printing (p. 51).
The last quarter ration of beef had been given out to the troops on the 29th of June. On the 1st of July, at the request of many officers, a wounded mule was killed and cut up for experimental eating. All those who partook of it spoke highly of the dish. The flesh of mules is of a darker color than beef, of a finer grain, quite tender and juicy, and has a flavor something between that of beef and venison. There was an immediate demand for this kind of food, and the number of mules killed by the commissariat daily increased. Some horses were also slaughtered, and their flesh was found to be very good eating, but not equal to mule. Rats, of which there were plenty about the deserted camps, were also caught by many officers and men, and were found to be quite a luxury--superior, in the opinion of those who eat them, to spring chicken; and if a philosopher of the Celestial Empire could have visited Port Hudson at the time, he would have marvelled at the progress of the barbarians there toward the refinements of his own people.
Mule meat was regularly served out in rations to the troops from and after the 4th of July, and there were very few among the garrison whose natural prejudices were so strong as to prevent them from cooking and eating their share. The stock of corn was getting very low, and besides that nothing was left but peas, sugar and molasses. These peas were the most indigestible and unwholesome articles that were ever given to soldiers to eat, and the reason that such a large quantity was left on hand was probably accounted for by the fact that most of the troops would not have them on any consideration. To save corn they were issued out to horses and mules, and killed a great many of these animals. All of the horses and mules which were not needed for hauling or other imperative duties, had been turned out to graze, where numbers of them were killed or disabled by the enemy's cannonade and rain of Minie balls, and the rest nearly starved to death.
The sugar and molasses was put to good use by the troops in making a weak description of beer, which was constantly kept at the lines by the barrel-full, and drank by the soldiers in preference to the miserable water with which they were generally supplied. This was a very pleasant and healthful beverage, and went far to recompense the men for the lack of almost every other comfort or luxury. In the same way, after the stock of tobacco had given out, they substituted sumac leaves, which grew wild in the woods. It had always been smoked by the Indians under the name of killickenick, and, when properly prepared for the pipe, is a tolerably good substitute for tobacco.
Questions for Reading 2
1. How did the Confederates' food and drink standards change during the siege? Why?
2. Do you think the use of mules and other unusual food made the men feel they were being taken care of or that things were desperate? What effects might the changing diet have had on the Confederates? Why?
3. Do you think there were any ways in which the difficult conditions might have helped the defenders? Why or why not?