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Recently I managed to track a large portion of my family who had previously eluded me, and one of the ancestors I “met” was the company cook for the 14th Alabama Infantry during the Civil War.  James W. Ennis was born Feb. 16, 1833 in Georgia, and died in Sharpsburg, Maryland on Sept. 17, 1862 (age 29) where he lies yet today. 

I discovered other soldiers, some who were also killed, and some who returned home, but because of my interest in historic foodways I found James especially interesting and set out to document what his daily routine may have been like.

He was certainly plagued with food shortages as was all the Confederacy, and had to stretch available rations and supplies as far as they could go.  Did he have any previous cookery experience?  Perhaps.  Perhaps not.  As we’ll see toward the end of this article, the U.S. Army recognized the need for training for cooks by 1875, however, James may have been one of those individuals who knew more about food preparation than his counterparts, but not enough to be considered an actual cook.  On the other hand, maybe he’d been a passable or even an exceptional camp cook in the hunting or fishing camps of his youth and had at least some idea of how to replicate familiar dishes from whatever he could scrounge up for the cook pot.  Since no particulars are to be found in his military record and I’ve, as yet, not discovered extant personal letters with any details, I can only look at generalities.

Some units, usually U.S., were able to hire cooks such as the Eighth Pennsylvania Reserves, U.S. who hired a black gentleman as company cook or another that hired a rejected recruit as company cook.  Soldiers who through age or poor health were no longer considered fit for service sometimes continued on as company cooks.  – Hill, Alonzo F.  Our Boys.  1867.  Philadelphia; Van Alstyne, Lawrence.  Diary of an Enlisted Man.  1910.  New Haven, Conn.; & Leonard, Albert Charles.  The Boys in Blue of1861-1865.  1904.  Lancaster, PA. 

The position meant commencing duty two hours before reveille and frequently still toiling at tattoo.  Breakfast had to be ready when the troops rose and pots and pans had to be cleaned and put away before the cook could retire for the evening. 

James would have used hard-tack in a number of ways with whatever he could add to it to scare up a hearty soup, similar to that prepared by a union peer.  “Many a savory soup or stew could the company cook prepare, converting mere hard-tack remnants into a savory ‘lobscouse’; triumphant still more when haply a fresh chicken or a young pig came to his sacrificial knife,–not stolen, it was said, but ‘hived’ in the neighborhood.” 

He would have foraged for wild greens to add to such a stew – dandelions, purslain, buckhorn plantain, poke, dock, etc., and he probably sent men from the company out on foraging trips for him.  “Sallow, hatchet-faced, deprived of flour, the poor, pinched Southern conscript lived often for days upon corn meal alone, or stews of rank bacon and mouldy biscuit [hard-tack], and bad transportation furnished a not unfrequent excuse for a poor commissary.  Indeed, the Confederate ration was far inferior to that on the Union side, as actually provided”.  – Schouler, James.  History of the United States of America:  1861-1865.  The Civil War.  1899.  NY.

Indeed, even Union troops whose rations were supplemented by supplies sent from the Sanitary Commission used whatever wild foods and berries they found in the area to freshen soups and stews made from dried vegetables, dried beans, and salted meat.

Soldiers and sailors found the hard-tack impossible to eat without soaking to soften it, and usually it was pounded, soaked, and used to thicken and stretch a soup being entirely too hard to eat otherwise.  Given shortages, Confederates ate it as long as it lasted, weevils and mold or mildew being no deterrent to filling a hungry stomach.  “It would seem that but little could be said of the culinary art in camp without involving some mention of hard-tack at almost every turn”.  – Bircher, William.  A Drummer-boy’s Diary.  [2nd Regt. Minnesota]  1889.  St. Paul.

A Union soldier documented an incident involving hard-tack in his diary which may be amusing to the reader.  He asked a passing chaplain what the initials “BC” meant to which the chaplain replied loudly, “it means before the birth of our Savior, previous to the beginning of the Christian era.”

He proceeded to give quite a profound theological exposition of the matter, and then inquired, ‘But, my man, why did you ask so unusual a question?’  ‘Oh, nothin’,’ answered the innocent Dick, ‘only we have seen it stamped on these sheets of hard-tack, and were curious to know why it was there.’  At this point the listeners all exploded with laughter, while the chaplain saw that he was sold, and walked rapidly away.  – Gerrish, Theodore, Rev.  Reminisces of the Civil War.  1882.  Portland. 

Although he wouldn’t have understood the medical explanation for it, James would have known that using such fresh greens, nuts, and berries as Nature provided helped prevent scurvy and keep fighting men in the field.

While records aren’t as plentiful for the Southern army, James’ cooking set-up probably differed little compared to his Union counterpart.  Lawrence Van Alstyne penned an excellent account of the domain of the company cook for the U.S. Army.

Some get mad and cuss the cooks, and the whole war department, but that is usually when our stomachs are full.  When we are hungry we swallow anything that comes and are thankful for it.  The cook house is simply a portion of the field we are in.  A couple of crotches [forked sticks] hold up a pole on which the camp kettles are hung, and under which a fire is built.  Each company has one, and as far as I know they are all alike.  The camp kettles are large sheet-iron pails, one larger than the other so one can be put inside the other when moving.  If we have meat and potatoes, meat is put in one, and potatoes in the other.  The one that gets cooked first is emptied into mess pans, which are large sheet-iron pans with flaring sides, so one can be packed in another.  Then the coffee is put in the empty kettle and boiled.  The bread is cut into thick slices, and the breakfast call sounds.  We grab our plates and cups, and wait for no second invitation.  We each get a piece of meat and a potato, a chunk of bread, and a cup of coffee with a spoonful of brown sugar in it.  Milk and butter we buy, or go without.  We settle down, generally in groups, and the meal is soon over.  Then we wash our dishes, and put them back in our haversacks.  We make quick work of washing dishes.  We save a piece of bread for the last, and which we wipe up everything, and then eat the dish rag.  Dinner and breakfast are alike, only sometimes the meat and potatoes are cut up and cooked together, which makes a really delicious stew.  Supper is the same, minus the meat and potatoes.  The cooks are men detailed from the ranks for that purpose…Boxes or barrels are used as kitchen tables, and are used for seats between meals.  The meat and bread are cut on them, and if a scrap is left on the table the flies go right at it and we have so many the less to crawl over us.  They are never washed, but are sometimes scraped off and made to look real clean.  I never yet saw the cooks wash their hands, but presume they do when they go to the brook for water”. 

That is rather a bleak picture, now consider the added difficulty with food shortages, with procuring horses and wagons for transporting supplies, shortages of soap which was the only cleaner available at the time, for the Confederate troops and we see that James’ stew or chowder made from hard-tack and its accompanying weevils, often rancid salt pork, and any wild greens one of the men pulled from the earth or a few vegetables offered by a citizen was life-sustaining and much appreciated fare.

Years after the Civil War, the U.S. Army took a critical look at the position of company cook and had this to say.

The position of company cook is not a specially desirable one, and it is recommended that extra-duty pay should be allowed to them.  Several officers of experience recommend that cooks should be specially enlisted for that duty, and good negro cooks could easily be thus obtained.  It is also recommended that at each recruiting depot there should be a school for the training of cooks as in the English service. 

The Cook’s Creed.

Cleanliness is next to godliness, both in persons and kettles.  Be ever industrious, then, in scouring your pots.  Much elbow-grease, a few ashes, and a little water, are capital aids to the careful cook.  Better wear out your pans with scouring than your stomachs with purging; and it is less dangerous to work your elbows than your comrade’s bowels.  Dirt and grease betray the poor cook, and destroy the poor soldier, while health, content, and good cheer should ever reward him who does his duty and keeps his kettles clean.  In military life punctuality is not only a duty, but a necessity, and the cook should always endeavor to be exact in time.  Be sparing with sugar and salt, as a deficiency can be better remedied than an overplus.

Remember that beans, badly boiled, kill more than bullets; and fat is more fatal than powder.  In cooking, more than in anything else in this world, always make haste slowly.  One hour too much is vastly better than five minutes too little, with rare exceptions.  A big fire scorches your soup, burns your face, and crisps your temper.  Skim, simmer, and scour, are the true secrets of good cooking.  – Surgeon-General’s Office.  A Report on the Hygiene of the United States Army:  with descriptions of Military Posts.  1875.  Washington.

Slumber peacefully, James, your toils are done.  I thank you for your service and for being a positive example for our family.  Though your parents, siblings, and even your aunt, my great great grandmother Sarah, missed you and mourned for you, they lie with you now, also at peace.  I regret that when I visited Sharpsburg I knew not of you, however, when next I journey north to Pennsylvania, I shall visit again and pay my respects.    – Your devoted cousin, Victoria.  thehistoricfoodie.wordpress.com©

For more on food preparation through the 18th and 19th centuries see my books outlined in the Store on this blog.  Orders welcome.