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Oh Hard Tack, Come Again No More

There’s an adage the soldiers march on their stomach, and there is some real truth to that. If you’ve ever tried doing anything that remotely requires exertion while hungry… well. I suppose you’d well know what I mean. You fatigue easier, you lose concentration, your body turns to cannibalizing its own muscle mass in order to have energy to keep going– deepening the cycle. One gets weaker in both the short and long term. It can be debilitating. Naturally then, it has been of utmost importance during times of war that leadership has turned to whatever means necessary to keep their soldiers in the field fed adequately, but how? How to provide sufficient nutrition for thousands and by the American Civil War, tens of thousands of soldiers in the field, day after day? How to keep all that food from spoiling?

Hard tack.

Hadtack

My own hardtack in the making.

Anyone who’s seen, felt or tasted the theoretical baked good (hey, technically it is a baked good!) know that the stuff is dry as a bone, hard enough to serve as building material, and about as tasty as the paste that that one kid would jam across his tongue in kindergarten. In many ways though, hard tacks greatest weaknesses are its greatest strengths as well. I’ve made the stuff myself: It’s just flour and water. Nothing more. Mix it, roll it cut it, and bake it. Once all the water is baked out, stack the things so that they will stay flattened (if not, they tend to curl a bit around the edges), and let them sit.

For days. Or weeks. Or months.

In my own replica haversack I have four hardtack crackers that I made two years ago. They are no more or less edible than they were the day I made them. Hard as a brick and tasteless as ever, if I wanted to, I could take a bite into them right now and be none the worse for wear. This is the heart of the value of the stuff. It keeps. And keeps. And keeps. If one lets the thing stay dry, it will keep for better than a century. The sane reader probably thinks I’m kidding. I’m not. Take a gander at my own fresh-cut and unbaked hard tack crackers on the image up and to the right. Compare and contrast with this one just below and to the left.

Hard tack from the Civil War. No joke.

Yeah. So, that one to the left? That hard tack dates from 1862, is in a museum today, and was probably issued to a unit in the field (though obviously never eaten). Knowing what I know of the stuff, I would not be concerned about taking a bite of that particular cracker right now, 155 years after it came out of the oven. This hardiness enabled the government to purchase massive lots of the crackers from local makers (including the G.H. Bent company in Milton Massachusetts, that still makes hard tack to this day), package them, and ship them off via sail, rail, and wagon to the soldiers at the front as part of their ration package. Whether sitting in a government depot, on the docks, or in a haversack, the crackers would keep and be edible for the soldiers when they needed them.

John Billings of the 10th Massachusetts Light Artillery served with the Army of the Potomac and had instance to write about his experiences in the army after the war, and unlike many of his contemporaries, did so with an eye towards explaining the everyday, humdrum existence of army life that filled the larger share of time compared with the battles which were the exception and not the rule. One of the things he wrote on quite a bit was hardtack, even referenced in the title of his book, Hardtack and Coffee.

“The word ‘hardtack’ suggests to the uninitiated a piece of petrified bread honeycombed with bugs and maggots, so much has this article of army diet been reviled by citizen and soldier. Indeed, it is a rare occurrence for a soldier to allude to it, even at this late day [Ed: 1887], without some reference to its hardiness, the date of its manufacture, or its propensity for travel.”

But:

“I think the government did well… to furnish soldiers with so good a quality of food as they averaged to receive. Unwholesome rations were not the rule, they were the exception.”(1)

While tasteless and tough, hardtack allowed the men in the field to have unspoiled and edible nourishment, even if it was in no way an enjoyable experience. When calories are critical and spoilage an issue, hardtack proved to be a great boon. Even so, as Billings implies, the men did not necessarily have much love for the stuff. As was common practice at the time, some lads whose names may well be lost to history rewrote a period song (Hard Times, Come Again No More) to be a parody and lampooning of the dread hardtack: Hard Tack, Come Again No More. In it, the soldiers lament their lot to eat those crackers that “many days … have lingered upon our stomachs, sore” and beseech the cracker to– as the title suggests– come again no more. That is, until the closing verse of the song suggests supply problems forcing the army to give them only horse feed “called mush” that they sing away:

“Tis the dying wail of the starving:
“O, hard tack, hard tack, come again once more!”
You were old and very wormy, but we pass your failings o’er.
O, hard tack, come again once more!”

Of course, none of the hardiness or necessity for the hardtack made it any more palatable for the soldiers who for better or worse had to eat the things. At the time, they were particularly ill-prepared to do much with it themselves since common convention held that women would cook, men would not– so not only were they getting tough and tasteless crackers as a core part of their rations, they often had no cooking skills developed to allow them to do anything with them to improve the taste. None the less, necessity is the mother of invention, and the men improvised where they could.

Billings notes that the hardtack would at times become infested with boll weevils, such that “it was no uncommon occurrence for a man to find the surface of his pot of coffee swimming with weevils after breaking up hardtack in it” but that it was easy to scoop the insects out, and that they would leave little or no taste behind. (2) Though one is left to ponder what the “little” taste of the pests might be, at least they did not disturb the soldiers overly so. This also suggests one way in which soldiers would add some flavor to the “simple flour tile”– dipping it into coffee, serving both the purpose of softening it somewhat, and also adding a bit of flavor. (3)

Another approach was to create a dish that they termed “skillygalee” that Billings indicates “would make the hair curl”. In this Frankensteinian concoction, the soldier would soak the cracker in cold water before frying them in the grease left over from the cooking of another soldier “favorite” (term used loosely and sarcastically), salt pork. Billings suggests that the soldiers would salt the resulting mush to taste, but knowing the intense saltiness of salt pork (it is salted sufficiently to keep at Virginia summer temperature indefinitely without spoiling or being cooked), one wonders who might possibly need to add salt to the slop. (4)

Other soldiers still might toast the hardtack at the end of a stick over a campfire (hence adding a carbonized flavor), or if a sutler were nearby selling wares, the gastro-minded soldier might buy some butter and spread it over the hardtack. Others still would spread condensed milk over it, to create an ersatz milk toast. (5) While these results were of varying quality, one is clearly less expensive, while the other more tasteful.

Though it may have inspired cynical commentary, countless tasteless meals, and endless dental discomfort, hardtack proved to be a critical component of keeping the Civil War soldier fed and (quasi-) healthy in the field, far from home or hearth. Billings kept a few hardtack crackers as mementos of his time with the Army of the Potomac, and with so many soldiers talking about them long after the war, one is left with the thought that while the impression made by the crackers was a mixed bag at best, that likely a great many men in the fields of Virginia, or Tennessee, or Georgia quite likely had those times when they called out for the crackers to ‘come again once more’.

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References:

(1) Billings, J. D. (1993). Hardtack and Coffee, or, The Unwritten Story of Army Life. Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press. pp 110.
(2) Ibid, pp. 115-116.
(3) Ibid, pp. 116.
(4) Ibid, pp. 117.
(4) Ibid, pp. 117-118.
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