Civil War Foods: What Do Union Soldiers Eat?

The Union Army in the American Civil War had a standard food ration. Before the ready-to-eat meals in the early 1980s, soldiers had to rely on basic meals that were just enough to fill their bellies and avoid malnutrition.

The food ration consisted mainly of three-quarters of pound meat, pound flour, cornmeal, vegetable, and molasses.

Later on, hardtack biscuits, salt port, and dehydrated vegetables were introduced. However, the quantity was limited, and the inexperienced cooks never considered taste.

To Union Soldiers, enduring hunger and eating poor quality food was part of their lives.

And due to poor living conditions, the troop had to come to terms with death. Continue reading as we discover how Soldiers survived on the battlefield.

Typical Ration For Union Soldiers

Typical Ration For Union Soldiers

The typical ration for Union Soldiers consisted mainly of hardtack, salt meat, coffee, and other foods.

And when these were not available, or delivery delayed, soldiers had to forage for their meals in the countryside.

The quantity and quality of food that soldiers ate determined their morale on the battlefield. Though they hardly get enough, the little they had motivated them to fight or march on the battlefield.

The food rations for Union Soldiers were divided into two depending on the region:

Northern Rations

The Northern Rations for Union Soldiers depended on the time. According to the US army regulations of 1861, soldiers had the following to eat:

  • 12 ounces of port or bacon or 1 pound and 4 ounces of fresh or salt beef.
  • 1 pound 6 ounces of soft bread flour or 1 pound and 4 ounces of cornmeal or one pound of hardtack

These two main meals could also be supplemented with many other options, including the following:

  • 15 pounds of sugar
  • 4 quarts of vinegar
  • 1 pound 4 ounces of adamantine or star candles
  • 4 pounds of soap
  • 15 pounds of beans or peas
  • 10 pounds of rice or hominy
  • 10 pounds of green coffee
  • 3 pounds 12 ounces of salt
  • 4 ounces of pepper
  • 30 pounds of potatoes
  • 1 quart of molasses

Desiccated compressed potatoes or mixed vegetables were also used in place of fresh potatoes, beans, peas, rice, or hominy. And in 1862, dried vegetables became the bulk of the diet.

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Southern Rations

Confederate soldiers ate less meat, coffee, vinegar, and salt than Union Soldiers of the north. Their diet mainly consisted of sugar, green corn, and fresh apples picked directly from the field.

The cornbread was the staple food, but soldiers complained about its tastelessness. They came to like hardtacks captured from Union soldiers.

Soldiers from the south were more foragers. Apart from acorns and dried apples, they also looked for corn kernels and chicory roots.

And if they had a chance, they exchanged their Southern tobacco with coffee from the Union soldiers.

3 Kind Of Food Did Union Soldiers Eat During The Civil War

3 Kind Of Food Did Union Soldiers Eat During The Civil War

Union soldiers ate different foods while at war, literally anything that could satisfy their hunger. But four most common items formed almost every meal.

These included hardtacks, salt meat, coffee, and other foods. Let us get into the details of each.


Like cowboys, pioneers, and settlers, Army meals were chosen from items with long shelf life. They had to stay fresh when transported to the soldiers in the field and last for a few more days in the camps.

Hardtack became the staple food for Union Soldiers because it had the characteristics mentioned.

Unlike pioneers who could only access cornmeal to make baked food, Union Soldiers’ lives depended on hardtacks.

Though tasteless, hardtacks kept them from starving to death and provided the energy needed.

The ingredients of hardtacks included flour and water, and salt if was available. Holes were made through the hardtack to allow it to dry out when baked.

If you are familiar with the modern cracker recipe, you can visualize the hardtack-making process as something similar.

The baking was repeated twice, making the cracker impossible to crack. In fact, soldiers needed liquid to soften them for chewing.

In most cases, crackers were dunked, crushed into hot coffee, or doused with water and fried in grease.

They could also be put in a bowl of stew just to make them taste. Check out the full recipe if you are interested in making it.

Sometimes the hardtacks got infested with worms and weevils. If you think that discouraged soldiers from eating them, you are worn.

Food was scarce. So, nothing could go to waste, even if it seemed unhealthy to eat. How then did soldiers go about the weevils and worms?

The weevil-infested hardtack was boiled in coffee. The dead insects and worms floated on top, making it possible to be filtered away.

That approach made even the hardtacks tastier, not just solving the bug problem.

Also read: 26 Delicious Recipes From The Pioneers

Salt Meat

Salt Meat

Preserving food with salt dates back many centuries, and no one has better proof than Union Soldiers. It was the only method at that time, making salt pork or bacon the most common meat ration.

Heavily salted pork is brined, and the resulting product is crusted with salt.

The highly concentrated salty conditions deterred bacteria and fungi from spoiling the meat. Hence, the pork could be stored for a long time.

The preserved meat had to be soaked in water to remove the salt before cooking. It could be left submerged in water overnight, after which it was dried and fried or made into stew.

Some soldiers sliced the meat and roasted it over campfires.

Salted pork provided grease needed to fry hardtacks, cornmeal, or anything else available to soldiers. Check out the salt pork recipe if you want to make it.

Also read: How Long Does Salted Meat Last? – 4 Important Types of salt-cured meat


Coffee became a basic need for Union Soldiers. It provided the needed energy to fight and march on the battlefield. It was not only the safest thing but also the only thing.

Drinking water was contaminated, killing more soldiers than the war itself. Ironically, soldiers did not even know water had disease-causing organisms.

Boiling water to make coffee killed the germs such as bacteria and fungi. The coffee was both safe and delicious.

So, it became their favorite. Unfortunately, coffee wasn’t always available. The situation worsened after the Union blocked imports.

Confederate soldiers had to find an alternative to coffee. They turned to chicory and other plants that could make a drink like coffee.

Soldiers grounded and made their own coffee. That was a precautionary measure introduced to avoid ground coffee dilution by contractors. So, soldiers had to improvise ways to complete the task.

Most soldiers used their file butts as a pestle to crush the beans into powder. It was a routine to hear the sounds every morning when soldiers grounded their coffee.

The rhythmic clicking sound made as their rifles hit coffee beans into powder was the alarm that made the camp bounce back to life.

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Other Foods

Occasionally, Union Soldiers received supplemental food. These consisted of cookies, cakes, and other delicacies but were only gifts from families.

Soldiers could also access some fresh meat, dried beans, and vegetables.

Fresh Meat

Fresh meat was not commonly available. And even if soldiers could find it, the status was awful.

In many cases, they reached soldiers when they were already spoiled. That was not appetizing, but did they have a choice?

The feeling of eating fresh meat can be exciting. However, that was not the case with the Union Soldiers because it was not fun to eat spoiled meat.

And since they had no choice, they just proceeded to make a stew or roast the meat over campfires.

Dried Beans And Vegetables

Saying that you can eat a dried vegetable today can be criticized. However, Union Soldiers never minded eating them.

The cake was made from shredded vegetables that were pressed and dried. They were added to the meat stew to improve texture and perhaps flavor.

The dried vegetable cakes were boiled by soldiers. The meal famously became known as decorated vegetables.

Was There A Shortage Of Food During The Civil War?

Was There A Shortage Of Food During The Civil War?

Yes. Soldiers and civilians hardly had enough to eat during the war. Since energetic men were in the war and farmlands became battlefields, there could never be enough food to support the situation.

Vegetables became scarce, and meat was rare to come by.

Also, there was a poor road network. The highways we have today never existed. That means there was no way of getting food to the troops in the field.

And then came the blockade at the ports, which prevented the importation of food.

By 1964, people resorted to odd means of survival. When foraging for greens was never an option anymore, they resorted to eating rats, frogs, cats, dogs, and other animals.

The famine continued even after the civil war. Life started to resume its normalcy many years later.

Also read: 22 Meals To Get Through The Great Depression


How did Civil War soldiers carry food?

Union Soldiers were on a strict food ration. They were given food once every three days, which they had to cook and carry when going to the battle.

Soldiers mainly used canvas haversacks with removable lining as carriages for their cooked food.

Did Civil War soldiers eat hardtack?

Yes. Hardtacks were the staple food for Civil War soldiers.

These cracker-like foods were made from flour, water, and sometimes salt if they were available.

Why did soldiers eat salt pork?

Pork or bacon was salted to preserve them. They were soaked in brine and salt-crusted to extend shelf life.

Additionally, pork provided grease that was used for frying other foods.

Check out: 10 Effective Ways To Preserve Meat Without Refrigeration

Some Thoughts

Civil Wars tested human resilience against challenging conditions. Food was scarce, but somehow the soldiers and civilians survived. They managed it amidst the challenges.

So, nothing will prevent you from having a better life off-grid. You don’t need to have a food ration off-grid as soldiers did, but you have to plan your food sources.

Thank you for reading this article at Em Offgrid. We hope you have learned valuation lessons to make your life off-grid better. Kindly share the content and explore the site for related articles.