Thanksgiving is a day that has become associated with large meals. In the spirit of the holiday, I have decided to talk about one of the most common foodstuffs of the Civil War-Hardtack.
Hardtack, or Army Bread, got its name from the toughness of the cracker and the British sailor slang for food- “tack.” The wafer was first introduced in 1801 by Josiah Bent of Milton, Mass. as “water crackers” which would not deteriorate during long sea voyages from the port of Boston. It is a three-inch-by- three- inch, quarter-inch-thick-cracker made of unleavened flour and water. In taste and appearance it is similar to an oversized, unsalted, saltine cracker. Hardtack, when properly stored, can last for years. Because of its long shelf life and its low manufacturing costs, it was a major staple of U.S. Army soldier rations for much of the 19th century. Hardtack was also a common food staple of 19th century sailors, trappers and miners.
Army regulations called for soldiers to be issued a pound of hardtack a day. It was usually eaten by itself or dunked in coffee to soften it up and was probably more commonly eaten at breakfast and dinner. Some soldiers used the cracker as a thickener for soups. One common hardtack dish was called skillygalee or cush. It was made by putting the crackers into cold water, then frying the crumbs in meat fats.
Though it was a common staple of army life, it was not a very popular one. The soldiers almost always complained about its bland taste and that the cracker was so hard that it was almost inedible. A far worse problem was that often the wafers arrived either wet or moldy, which besides achieving the seemingly impossible task of making the hardtack even less appetizing, these crackers would be infested with insects. Legend holds that some of the crackers given to the soldiers early in the war were surplus from the Mexican War of the 1840s and that some Civil War surplus hardtack was issued to troops during the Spanish-American War of the 1890s.
One soldier who was very fond of hardtack was Gen. William T. Sherman, who had four boxes of it put in his mess before he left Savannah, Ga. for his march through the Carolinas, and often sang the praises of the biscuit to those around him.
Today hardtack is still popular in Hawaii and Alaska. It is also popular with survivalists and those who re-enact 19th century American wars. The G. H. Bent Company, founded by a grandson of Josiah Bent, located in Milton, Mass. continues to sell hardtack. For those adventurous to try Hardtack can order it through them at:
But remember, you were warned!