Leaves & Beans of History: The Civil War
By Matt Foster, Kaldi's Coffee Roasting Company
Tea and coffee each have long and fascinating histories. Some of it is true, some of it is legend, and some of it is somewhere in between, but what can’t be denied is that their pasts are inexorably intertwined with our own. Had people not found and manipulated these products the leaves and cherries would have just hung there on their trees, probably perfectly content. However, since we made them our own it should come as no surprise that they often followed us into our other great successes and calamities. In fact, at times they even served as the impetus for such events.
Each month, L&B of History will highlight a notable event or time period in history and then endeavor to expound on how tea and/or coffee played a part in them. This will by no means be an exhaustive analysis on the event(s) presented, but hopefully these brief accounts will spark an interest in others to study further.
The Civil War
The American Civil War (1861 – 1865) was the bloodiest conflict the United States has ever been in, with an estimated 620,000 lives lost by the time it ended. 1 Just as in the Revolutionary War, a mere 82 years earlier, the conflicts took place not in secluded battlefields, but in and among the populace and their homes. Farms and fields were raided and foraged to near desolation in order to supply both armies with food and supplies. Coffee and sugar had replaced alcohol as a staple in army food rations since 1832 thanks to an executive order by Andrew Jackson 2, but Union soldiers had a much easier time acquiring the coveted beans than their Confederate counterparts.
Hit’em Where It Hurts
Resources often dictate the actions and outcomes of wars. When the Civil War first broke out most of the food rations were grown in the north. The south was mainly made up of cash crops like tobacco and cotton. The more industrial north also had more railways to transport their food and supplies long distances quickly. Last, one of the first actions the Union took was to form a blockade around the Southern ports. This severely limited the importation of goods, including coffee. New Orleans had been the primary port where coffee was shipped in, but soon after the blockade was established New York became the new hub.3
Each Union solider was given a daily ration (if available) of 1 ½ ounces of coffee beans.4 If the beans were green the soldiers would roast (or rather burn) the beans themselves in a camp kettle over a fire. To grind them they would lay them out on a stone and use the butts of their muskets to crack them into bits.
An interesting side note, near the end of the war a Lt. Col. Walter King introduced an idea to install a hand-crank mill into the butt of each man’s rifle. The mill would allow foraging soldiers to mill grain in the field, but this same mill in the Sharps Breech-Loading Carbine New Model 1863 has also come to be called a coffee mill. Unfortunately, as appealing as that idea sounds very few of these rifles were modified as such, even fewer genuine productions survive to this day, and modern testing proves that the mill would have been unsuitable for fresh grain, much less coffee beans. 5
To brew the coffee soldiers were issued a tin dipper to boil the broken-up beans and water together, but this was soon replaced with a simple tin can and improvised wire handle for hanging on the end of stick over the fire. For those who could afford it, or when several soldiers pooled their money, they could buy a metal kettle with a hinged lid and thick wire handle from a sutler (a merchant who followed the army). All of these wares were often strapped to the back and outside of the soldier’s pack for ease of access, causing a cacophony whenever the army was on the march unless the officers ordered for stealth. 6
When available, coffee was had at every meal and was one of the first tasks the soldiers busied themselves with when camp was being made. Coffee softened one of the other food ration standbys, hardtack, so that if could be more easily consumed. Coffee helped scouts and watchmen stay alert late into the nights. Gifts from home usually contained luxuries such as cheese, applesauce, chocolate, cookies, preserves, and often coffee and tea.
The Confederate troops, however, were much more hard up for a cup of coffee as the beans were next to nonexistent in the south. In lieu of maybe trading some tobacco for coffee across picket lines during a truce the southern army was forced to make due with what they had. This resulted in brews made up of,
“Chicory, acorns, beans, beets, bran, corn, cornmeal, cotton seeds, dandelion root, okra seeds, peanuts, peas, sugarcane seeds, and wheat berries…” 7
These were all dried, roasted, and prepared as coffee, but were at best lacking and at worst awful.
Tea was also drunk during this time and luckily adequate substitutes for this were more easily procured.
“…many domesticated and wild herbs, as well as leaves from fruit-bearing plants…leaves of blackberry, dittany, holly, huckleberry, spice berry, and the many varieties of mint could all be used to make “tea,” as could saw palmetto berries, sassafras roots, sumac berries and yapon shrub twigs.”
So did access to coffee have a massive effect on the outcome of the war? Probably not, but cutting off supply lines to the south, that included coffee, definitely did. In addition, surviving letters, diaries, and other articles of the time are saturated with references to it. According to Jon Grinspan, a curator of political history at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History,
"I went looking for the big stories," Grinspan says. "And all they kept talking about was the coffee they had for breakfast, or the coffee they wanted to have for breakfast."
The word coffee was more present in these diaries than the words "war," "bullet," "cannon," "slavery," "mother" or even "Lincoln." "You can only ignore what they're talking about for so long before you realize that's the story," 8
Matt Foster is the Wholesale Trainer at Kaldi's Coffee Roasting Company in St. Louis Missouri. Level 1 and IDP certified, he spends his days teaching and his nights reading and writing. He's also competed on the regional and national levels of the US Brewer's Cup. His other interests include intriguing cocktails, delicious food, adorable dogs, and traveling the world to find all those things to put his face in.
Contact at firstname.lastname@example.org
1. Civil War Casualties↩ 2. Davis, Brig. Gen. George B. The Military Laws of the United States, 4th ed, (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1908), pg. 308↩ 3. Soldiers Loved a Refreshing Cup of Coffee↩ 4. Volo, Dorothy Denneen and Volo, James M. Daily Life in Civil War America. Greenwood Press 1998. pg. 129↩ 5. Springfield Armory Museum – Collection Record↩ 6. Volo, Dorothy Denneen and Volo, James M. Daily Life in Civil War America. Greenwood Press 1998. pg. 130↩ 7. Varhola, Michael O. Life in Civil War America. Family Tree Books 1999 pg. 164↩ 8. If War Is Hell, Then Coffee Has Offered U.S. Soldiers Some Salvation↩