Detailed Minutiae Of Soldier Life In The Army Of Northern Virginia (Part 4)
BY CARLTON McCARTHY,
Private of Second company Richmond Howitzers, Cutshaw's Battalion.

Paper No. 4. -- Cooking and Eating

        Rations in the Army of Northern Virginia were alternately superabundant and altogether wanting. The quality, quantity and frequency of them depended upon the amount of stores in the hands of the commissaries, the relative positions of the troops and the wagon trains, and the many accidents and mishaps of the campaign. During the latter years and months of the war, so uncertain was the issue as to time, quantity and composition, the men became in large measure independent of this seeming absolute necessity, and by some mysterious means, known only to purely patriotic soldiers, learned to fight without pay and find a subsistence in the field, the stream or the forest, and, on the bleak mountain side, a shelter.
        Sometimes there was an abundant issue of bread and no meat; then meat in any quantity and no flour or meal. Sugar in abundance and no coffee to be had for "love or money," and then coffee plenteously without a grain of sugar. For months nothing but flour for bread and then nothing but meal, till all hands longed for a biscuit, or fresh meat until it was nauseating; and then salt pork without intermission.
        To be one  day without anything to eat was common. Two days fasting, marching and fighting was not uncommon, and there were times when no rations were issued for three or four days. On one march, from Petersburg to Appomattox, no rations were issued to Cutshaw's battalion of artillery for one entire week, and the men subsisted on the corn intended for the battery horses, raw bacon captured from the enemy, and the water of springs, creeks and rivers. No doubt there were other commands suffering the same privations.
        A soldier in the Army of Northern Virginia was fortunate when he had his flour, meat, sugar and coffee all at the same time and in proper quantity. Having these, the most skillful axe man of the mess hewed down a fine hickory or oak, and cut it into. "lengths." All hands helped to "tote it" to the fire. When the wood was convenient, the fire was large and the red coals abundant.
        The man most gifted in the use of the skillet was the one most highly appreciated about the fire, and as tyrannical as a Turk; but when he raised the lid of the oven and exposed the brown, crusted tops of the biscuit, animosity subsided. The frying pan, full of "grease," then became the centre of attraction. As the hollow cheeked boy "sopped" his biscuit, his poor, pinched countenance wrinkled into a smile and his sunken eyes glistened with delight.
        The strong men squatted around, chuckling over their good luck and "cooing" -- like a child with a big piece of cake. Ah! this was a sight which but few of those who live and die are ever permitted to see.
        And the coffee, too -- how delicious the aroma of it, and how readily each man disposes of a quart.
        And now the last biscuit is gone, the last drop of coffee, and the frying pan is "wiped" clean. The tobacco bag is pulled wide open, pipes are scraped, knocked out and filled, the red coal is applied, and the blue smoke rises in wreaths and curls from the mouths of the no longer hungry, but happy and contented soldiers.
        Songs rise on the still night air, the merry laugh resounds, the woods are bright with the rising flame of the fire, story after story is told, song after song is sung, and at midnight the soldiers steal away one by one to their blankets on the ground and sleep till reveille. Such was a meal when the mess was fortunate. How different when the wagons had not been heard from for forty eight hours, and the remnants of stock on hand had to do. How, the question is, how to do the largest amount of good to the largest number with the smallest amount of material? The most experienced men discuss the situation and decide that "somebody" must go foraging. Though the stock on hand is small, no one seems anxious to leave the small certainty and go in search of the large uncertainty of supper from some farmer's well filled table. But at last several comrades start out, and as they disappear the preparations for immediate consumption commence. The meat is too little to cook alone, and the flour will scarcely make six biscuits. The result is that "slosh" or "coosh" must do. So the bacon is fried out till the pan is half full of boiling grease. The flour is mixed with water until it flows like milk, poured into the grease and rapidly stirred till the whole is a dirty brown mixture. It is now ready to be served. Perhaps some dainty fellow prefers the more imposing "slap jack." If so, the flour is mixed with less water, the grease reduced, and the paste poured in till it covers the bottom of the pan, and, when brown on the underside, is by a nimble twist of the pan turned and browned again. If there is any sugar in camp it makes a delicious addition.
        About the time the last scrap of "slap jack" and the last spoonful of "slosh" are disposed of, the unhappy foragers return. They take in the situation at a glance -- realize with painful distinctness that they have sacrificed the homely slosh for the vain expectancy of apple butter, shortcake and milk, and, with woeful countenance and mournful voice, narrate their adventure and disappointment thus: "Well, boys, we have done the best we could. We have walked about nine miles over the mountain, and haven't found a mouthful to eat. Sorry, but it's a fact." "Billy Brown fell down the mountain and mashed his nose; Patso nearly scratched his eyes out with the briars, and we are all hungry as dogs -- give us our biscuit." Of course there are none, and, as it is not contrary to army etiquette to do so, the whole mess professes to be very sorry, and is greatly delighted.
        Sometimes, however, the foragers returned well laden with good things, and, as good comrades should, shared the fruits of their toilsome hunt with the whole mess. Foragers thought it not indelicate to linger about the house of the unsuspecting farmer till the lamp revealed the family at supper, and then modestly approach and knock at the door. An invitation to enter was almost certain to follow and was certainly accepted. The good hearted man knew that his guests were "posted" about the meal which was in progress in the next room, the invitation to supper was given, and, shall I say it, accepted with an unbecoming lack of reluctance.
        The following illustrates the ingenuity of the average forager.
        There was great scarcity of meat, and no prospect of a supply from the wagons. Two experienced foragers were sent out, and as a farmer about ten miles from the camp was killing hogs, guided by soldier instinct, they went directly to his house, and found the meat nicely cut up, the various pieces of each hog making a separate pile on the floor of an outhouse. The proposition to buy met with a surprisingly ready response on the part of the farmer. He offered one entire pile of meat, being one whole hog, for such a small sum that the foragers instantly closed the bargain, and as promptly opened their eyes to the danger which menaced them. They give the old gentleman a ten dollar bill and request the change. He is pleased with their honest method and hastens away to his house for the desired change.
        The two honest foragers hastily examine the particular pile of pork which the simple hearted farmer has designated theirs, find it very rank and totally unfit for food, transfer half of it to another pile, from which they take half and add to theirs, and await the return of the farmer. He returns, gives them their change and assures them they have a bargain. They agree that they have, toss the good and bad together into a bag, say goodbye, and depart as rapidly as artillerymen on foot can. The result of this trip was a "pot pie" of large dimensions, and some six or eight men gorged with fat pork, declaring that they had never cared and would never again wish to eat pork -- especially pork pies.
        A large proportion of the eating of the army was done in the houses and at the tables of the people -- not by the use of force, but by the wish and invitation of the people. It was at times necessary that whole towns should help to sustain the army of defence, and when this was the case, it was done voluntarily and cheerfully. The soldiers -- all who conducted themselves properly -- were received as honored guests and given the best in the house. There was a wonderful absence of stealing or plundering, and even when the people suffered from depredation they attributed the cause to terrible necessity rather than to wanton disregard of the rights of property. And when armed guards were placed over the smokehouses and barns, it was not so much because the Commanding General doubted the honesty as that he knew the necessities of his troops. But even pinching hunger was not held to be an excuse for marauding expeditions.
        The inability of the government to furnish supplies forced the men to depend largely upon their own energy and ingenuity to obtain them. The officers knowing this, relaxed discipline to an extent which would seem, to an European officer for instance, ruinous. It was no uncommon sight to see a brigade or division, which was but a moment before marching in solid column along the road, scattered over an immense field searching for the luscious blackberries. And it was wonderful to see how promptly and cheerfully all returned to the ranks when the field was gleaned. In the fall of the year a persimmon tree on the roadside would halt a column and detain it till the last persimmon disappeared.
        The sutler's wagon, loaded with luxuries, which was so common in the Federal army, was unknown in the Army of Northern Virginia; and for two reasons, the men had no money to buy sutlers' stores and the country no men to spare for sutlers. The nearest approach to the sutler's wagon was the "cider cart" of some old darkey or a basket of pies and cakes displayed on the roadside for sale.
        The Confederate soldier relied greatly upon the abundant supplies of eatables which the enemy was kind enough to bring him, and he cheerfully risked his life for the accomplishment of the two fold purpose of whipping the enemy and getting what he called "a square meal." After a battle there was general feasting on the Confederate side. Good things, scarcely ever seen at other times, filled the haversacks and the stomachs of "Boys in Gray." Imagine the feelings of men half famished when they rush into a camp -- at one side, while the enemy flees from the other, and find the coffee on the fire, sugar at hand ready to be dropped into the coffee, bread in the oven, crackers by the box, fine beef ready cooked, desiccated vegetables by the bushel, canned peaches, lobsters, tomatoes, milk, barrels of ground and toasted coffee, soda, salt, and in short everything a hungry soldier craves. Then add the liquors, wines, cigars and tobacco found in the tents of the officers and the wagons of the sutlers, and remembering the condition of the victorious party, hungry, thirsty and weary, say if it did not require wonderful devotion to duty and great self denial to push on, trampling under foot the plunder of the camp, and pursue the enemy till the sun went down.
        When it was allowable to halt, what a glorious time it was! Men who a moment before would have been delighted with a pone of corn bread and a piece of fat meat now discuss the comparative merits of peaches and milk and fresh tomatoes, lobster and roast beef, and forgetting the briar root pipe, faithful companion of the vicissitudes of the soldier's life, snuff the aroma of imported Havanas. In sharp contrast with the mess cooking at the big fire was the serious and diligent work of the man separated from his comrades, out of reach of the woods, but bent on cooking and eating. He has found a coal of fire, and having placed over it in an ingenious manner the few leaves and twigs near his post, he fans the little pile with his hat. It soon blazes. Fearing the utter consumption of his fuel, he hastens to balance on the little fire his tin cup of water. When it boils, from some secure place in his clothes, he takes a little coffee and drops it in the cup, and almost instantly the cup is removed and set aside; then the slice of fat meat is laid on the coals and when brown and crisp, completes the meal -- for the "crackers" or biscuit are ready. No one but a soldier would have undertaken to cook with such a fire, as frequently it was no bigger than a quart cup.
        Crackers, or "hard tack" as they were called, are notoriously poor eating, but in the hands of the Confederate soldier were made to do good duty. When on the march and pressed for time, a piece of solid fat pork and a dry cracker was passable or luscious, as the time was long or short since the last meal. When there was leisure to do it, hard tack was soaked well and then fried in bacon grease. Prepared thus it was a dish which no Confederate had the weakness or the strength to refuse.
        Sorghum, in the absence of the better molasses of peace times, was greatly prized and eagerly sought after. A "Union" man living near the Confederate lines was one day busy boiling his crop. Naturally enough, some of "our boys" smelt out the place and determined to have some of the sweet fluid. They had found a yearling dead in the field hard by, and in thinking over the matter determined to sell the Union man if possible. So they cut from the dead animal a choice piece of beef, carried it to the old fellow and offered to trade. He accepted the offer and the whole party walked off with canteens full.
        Artillerymen, having tender consciences and no muskets, seldom, if ever, shot stray pigs; but they did sometimes, as an act of friendship, wholly disinterested, point out to the infantry a pig which seemed to need shooting, and by way of dividing the danger and responsibility of the act, accept privately a choice part of the deceased.
        On one occasion, when a civilian was dining with the mess, there was a fine pig for dinner. This circumstance caused the civilian to remark on the good fare. The "forager" remarked that pig was an uncommon dish, this one having been kicked by one of the battery horses while stealing corn and instantly killed. The civilian seemed to doubt the statement after his teeth had come down hard on a pistol bullet, and continued to doubt though assured that it was the head of a horseshoe nail.
        The most melancholy eating a soldier was ever forced to do, was when pinched with hunger, cold, wet and dejected, he wandered over the deserted field of battle and satisfied his cravings with the contents of the haversacks of the dead. If there is anything which will overcome the natural abhorrence which a man feels for the enemy, the loathing of the bloated dead and the awe engendered by the presence of death, solitude and silence, it is hunger. Impelled by its clamoring men of high principle and tenderest humanity, become for the time void of sensibility and condescend to acts which, though justified by their extremity, seem afterwards, even to the doers, too shameless to mention.
        When rations became so very small that it was absolutely necessary to supplement them, and the camp was permanently established, those men who had the physical ability worked for the neighborhood farmers at cutting cordwood, harvesting the crops, killing hogs or any other farm work. A stout man would cut a cord of wood a day and receive fifty cents in money or its equivalent in something eatable. Hogs were slaughtered for the "fifth quarter." When the corn became large enough to eat, the roasting ears, thrown in the ashes with the shucks on and nicely roasted, made a grateful meal. Turnip and onion patches also furnished delightful and much needed food, good, raw or cooked.
        Occasionally, when a mess was hard pushed for eatables, it became necessary to resort to some ingenious method of disgusting a part of the mess, that the others might eat their fill. The "pepper treatment" was a common method practiced with the soup, which once failed. A shrewd fellow who loved things "hot" decided to have plenty of soup, and to accomplish his purpose, as he passed and repassed the boiling pot, dropped in a pod of red pepper. But, alas! for him, there was another man like minded who adopted the same plan, and the result was the "mess" waited in vain for that pot of soup to cool.
        The individual coffee boiler of one man in the Army of Northern Virginia was always kept at the boiling point. The owner of it was an enigma to his comrades. They could not understand, his strange fondness for "red hot" coffee. Since the war he has explained that he found the heat of the coffee prevented its use by others and adopted the plan of placing his cup on the fire after every sip. This same character never troubled himself to carry a canteen, though a great water drinker. When he found a good canteen he would kindly give it to a comrade, reserving the privilege of an occasional drink when in need. He soon had an interest in thirty or forty canteens and their contents, and a drink of water if it was to be found in any of them. He pursued the same plan with blankets and always had plenty in that line. His entire outfit was the clothes on his back and a haversack accurately shaped to hold one half pone of corn bread.
        Roasting ear time was a trying time for the hungry privates. Having been fed during the whole of the winter on salt meat and coarse bread, his system craved the fresh, luscious juice of the corn, and at times his honesty gave way under the pressure. How could he resist? -- he didn't -- he took some roasting ears! Sometimes the farmer grumbled, sometimes he quarreled and sometimes he complained to the officers of the depredations of "the men." The officers apologized, eat what corn they had on hand and sent their "boy" for some more.
        One old farmer conceived the happy plan of inviting some privates to his house, stating his grievances and securing their cooperation in the effort to protect his corn. He told them that of course they were not the gentlemen who took his corn! Oh no! of course they would not do such a thing; but wouldn't they please speak to the others and ask them please not to take his corn? Of course! certainly! oh yes! they would certainly remonstrate with their comrades. How they burned though as they thought of the past and contemplated the near future. As they returned to camp through the field they filled their haversacks with the silky ears, and were met on the other side of the field by the kind farmer and a file of men who were only too eager to secure the plucked corn "in the line of duty."
        A faithful officer, worn out with the long, weary march, sick, hungry and dejected, leaned his back against a tree and groaned to think of his inability to join in the chase of an old hare, which, he knew from the wild yells in the wood, his men were pursuing. But the uproar approached him -- nearer, nearer and nearer until he saw the hare bounding towards him with a regiment at her heels. She spied an opening made by the folds of the officer's cloak and jumped in and he embraced his first meal for forty eight hours. An artillery man was camped for a day where no water was to be had. During the night, awakened by thirst, he arose and stumbled about in search of water. To his surprise he found a large bucketful. He drank deep and with delight. In the morning he found that the water he drank had washed a bullock's head and was crimson with his blood.
        Some stragglers came up one night and found the camp silent. All hands asleep. Being hungry they sought and to their great delight found a large pot of soup. It had a peculiar taste, but they "worried" it down, and in the morning bragged of their good fortune. The soup had defied the stomachs of the whole battery, being strongly impregnated with the peculiar flavor of defunct cockroaches.
        Shortly before the evacuation of Petersburg, a country boy went hunting. He killed and brought to camp a muskrat. It was skinned, cleaned, buried a day or two, disinterred and eaten with great relish. It was splendid.
        During the seven days' battles around Richmond, a studious private observed the rats as they entered and emerged from a corncrib. He killed one, cooked it privately and invited a friend to join him in eating a fine squirrel. The comrade consented, ate heartily, and when told what he had eaten, forthwith disgorged. But he confesses that up to the time when he was enlightened he had greatly enjoyed the meal.
        It was at this time, when rats were a delicacy, that the troops around Richmond agreed to divide their rations with the poor of the city, and they were actually hauled in and distributed. Comment here would be like complimenting the sun on its brilliancy or warmth.
        Orators dwell on the genius and skill of the general officers; historians tell of the movements of divisions and army corps, and the student of the art of war studies the geography and topography of the country and the returns of the various corps: they all seek to find and to tell the secret of success or failure.
        The Confederate soldier knows the elements of his success -- courage, endurance and devotion. He knows also by whom he was defeated -- sickness, starvation, death. He fought not men only, but food, raiment, pay, glory, fame and fanaticism. He endured privation, toil and contempt. He won, and despite the cold indifference of all and the hearty hatred of some, he will have for all time, in all places where generosity is, a fame untarnished.
Source:  Southern Historical Society Papers.  Vol. VI. Richmond, Virginia, July, 1878. No. 1

This Page last updated 10/07/01

ON TO PART 5

RETURN TO A CONFEDERATE SOLDIER'S LIFE PAGE