Fishing and Hunting for the Dinner Table
By: Victoria R. Rumble
Fish has been a mainstay in the diet of the Americas since recorded time, and the varieties available meant a ready supply of meat for the table almost any time of year. Fish and game were never a more welcome part of a family’s diet than during the shortages brought about during the war.
Refugees as well as citizens wrote of fishing and of the value of fish in their diet during the war. Many had known little else their entire lives, so they simply pursued the crafts they’d known and perfected the skills they’d possessed almost from birth. Near Beaufort, SC, a visitor described the locals as belonging to the class labeled, “poor whites”, who made a meager living fishing and raising a few vegetables. Abbott, John Stevens Cabot. The History of the Civil War in America. 1866. Springfield, Mass.
Those a little more well-to-do, may have approached hunting and fishing from more of a sporting point of view than the poor whites, who were more interested in putting food on the table, than in the sport of it, but whatever their approach, numerous writers left accounts of Southerners’ love of hunting and fishing.
Several of the Southern States-Virginia, South Carolina, and Louisiana among
others-possessed excellent military academies. The population, almost wholly
occupied in agricultural pursuits, was necessarily accustomed to life in the open
air, to horses, to hunting and fishing, to exposure, to unusual physical exertion from
time to time. Ropes, John Codman. The Story of the Civil War. 1895. NY.
The people of Apalachicola, FL were so destitute of supplies during the war they were said to be, “dependent on fish and oysters for subsistence”. William Davis wrote of federal commander, Stellwagen, and his declaration to a crowd of mostly women and children, who gathered upon his addressing them, that they had permission to fish and to use their own fishing boats provided they made no attempt to aid blockade-runners. Davis, William Watson. The Civil War and Reconstruction in Florida. 1913. NY.
Following the war negro share-croppers who were “found”, that is, who had rations supplied as part of their wages, were granted the right of hunting and fishing anywhere in the vicinity as part of their arrangement with the land owner. Fleming, Walter Lynwood. Civil War and Reconstruction in Alabama. 1905. NY.
Soldiers always found the addition of fish and game to their meager diets rewarding, and often resorted to a variety of methods of obtaining it.
While the troops of the command [in Missouri] were little interested in fishing
at that season of the year, they became more interested in hunting wild game, which
had noticeably increased since the war. With every foraging party sent out, the
mounted men of the escort to the wagons were constantly on the lookout for deer,
wild turkeys or wild hogs and were frequently rewarded with success in bringing in
with their other supplies some of the wild game, to the delight of other members of
their mess. – Britton, Wiley. The Union Indian Brigade in the Civil War. 1922.
Kansas City, MO.
Soldiers were often so bored during the inactive days in camp they welcomed the sport as much as the meal the pastimes provided.
We had little to do in the daytime. After drill, the time was our own, and we employed
it fishing for bullfrogs. They were plentiful and took the hook readily. It was great
sport, catching them with pole, line, and fishing hook to which a piece of red flannel
had been attached. The frogs were so greedy that they would often jump a foot out
of the water to get the bait. After the catch, we cut off the legs and after soaking
them in salt water, fried them in pork fat. The flesh was white and very tender; I
never tasted anything nicer, and they proved a great addition to the army ration.
Vail, Enos Ballard. Reminisces of a Boy in the Civil War. 1915. Brooklyn, NY.
Even those who played administrative roles during the war managed to arrange trips to the woods to renew their mental acuity.
He so ordered his business that he could leave it for several days or a few weeks,
and it was upon these trips when he lived among the fundamental things of the earth
that he imbibed much of the strength and courage for his greatest undertakings. In
the midst of the work of selling the war loans and the construction of the Northern
Pacific Railroad, hunted down, oppressed and anxious though he were, he went off
to fish with the enthusiasm of a boy. This became almost his only recreation… Oberholtzer, Ellis Paxson.
Jay Cooke, Financier of the Civil War. 1907. Philadelphia.
Before joining the army many soldiers had been anglers and market fishermen, and were thus skilled at finding a meal with what equipment could be fashioned in the field. Diary accounts exist in which prisoners of war recorded their realizations that their hunger could have been at least somewhat alleviated had they been able to procure fish or game from near their prison confines.
Back as far as the Civil War, excellent fishing for black bass in the big eddies
among the boulders and in the outer edges of the swift channel ways, all of
which was plainly seen from the windows of Libby Prison, by one, at least, of the
inmates, and the sight increased the misery of captivity, for it recalled the freedom
of former days and his life on the mountain streams. Outing: The Outdoor Magazine
of Human Interest. December 1904.
Men who served aboard navy vessels during the war, and who had an interest in angling, availed themselves of the opportunity. A member of the Seventh Iowa Infantry stated when he attempted to board a vessel in search of his brother, the first officer he saw came out of a cabin and proceeded to begin fishing over the stern of the steamer. – Smith, Henry. History of the Seventh Iowa Veteran Volunteer Infantry During the Civil War. 1903. Mason City, IA.
After the war, men like Charles Hallock, who spent three years in the northern army to preserve the union, made careers of writing about their experiences fishing and hunting. After getting out of the army Hallock spent three years in the wilds of Canada gathering fauna for museums and fishing the streams, and submitted articles about his experiences which were published in 1872. Hallock, Charles. An Angler’s Reminisces. 1913. Cincinnati.