by William C. Davis
"My Christmas was bean soup without bread. The boys are not seeing a good deal of fun," wrote Johnny Jackman in his diary 145 years ago.
A trooper in the 9th Kentucky of the Confederacy, Jackman's lean Christmas was shared by thousands of other young American men in 1863. Food supplies for the armies of the Civil War were usually limited to the basics and deprivations were common. If they filled their journals with reviews of their meals it was because these events were often the highlight of an otherwise dismal day.
In 1864, Jackman's Christmas holiday was a little brighter: fresh pork, baked sweet potatoes, hardtack.
Civil War historian William C. Davis has compiled an authoritative record of the conflict's cuisine, describing the menus of the camp commissaries and how selected dishes were prepared. Published by Running Press, The Civil War Cookbook combines historic photographs and reportage with handsome studio portraits of meals and kitchen accoutrements. More than four dozen authentic Civil War era recipes are included, from Southern gumbo and rice bread to Yankee doughnuts.
The sweet potatoes Johnny Jackman referred to in his diary may have been prepared as sweet potato pudding for holiday fare. Look right for the recipe Davis found:
The old maxim that an army marches "on its stomach" was certainly appropriate for the Civil War, whose outcome may have been decided in the camp kitchens as much as on the battlefields. Union kitchens were almost always better supplied than their Confederate counterparts, and consequently their soldiers ate more heartily.
A Union solder's Christmas was often more festive, writes Davis, "with their mess tables or camp kettles groaning with turkeys, chickens, hams, and special issues of vegetables, supplemented by goodies sent from home and goods locally purchased from sutlers and farmers." Beef steaks were cooked over an open fire according to the recipe for Beef Steaks (see in column to the right).
Captain William Seymour of the Confederacy's famed "Louisiana tigers" is quoted from his diary on Christmas Eve, 1864. It was a cold night at Racoon Ford, Virginia, and Seymour had been warming his toes by the campstove.
"We had made up our mind to go egg-nogless to bed, when -- about 11 o'clock -- the welcome sound of horses hoofs on the crisp snow outside; out we rushed and there we found the tardy 'Mose' with his well-filled demijohn. The eggs were quickly beaten -- the sugar stirred in and then the whiskey added, and we had one of the most delicious nogs that ever mortal man quaffed."
Davis also offers the recipe for Egg Nog (see right) that Seymour so enjoyed.
Back to the Book Stall
Civil War Cookbook
A Unique Collection of Traditional Recipes and Anecdotes from the Civil War Period
Sweet Potato Pudding
6 medium-sized sweet potatoes (white or orange-fleshed)
1 C milk
1 C sugar
Juice of a lemon
1 tsp cinnamon
Boil the potatoes for 30 minutes until soft and mash with the milk to a smooth consistency. Add the sugar, eggs, lemon juice, and cinnamon, and beat until smooth. Pour into a shallow, lightly buttered dish and bake in a moderate oven (375 degrees) for 30 minutes. Serves 4.
2 Tbsps butter or oil
2 beef steaks (best quality available)
Beat the steaks with a mallet. Peel the onions and cut into thick circles. Heat thebutter or oil in a large frying pan, when hot place the steaks in the center of the pan and surround with onion slices. Sprinkle the steaks and onions with the pepper and herbs and fry quickly over a high heat to required doneness, turning halfway through. When the steaks are almost ready, sprinkle over some grated horseradish. Serve the steaks straight from the pan. Serves 2.
4 egg yolks
4 Tbsps sugar
1 C cream (whipping)
1 C brandy
1/4 C wine
4 egg whites
A little grated nutmeg
Beat the egg yolks until light, then slowly beat in the sugar, cream, brandy and wine. Whip the egg whites separately and then fold into the other ingredients. Sprinkle with nutmeg to serve.