Billy Yank, Johnny Reb and a Cup of Joe — Real Coffee Was a Rarity for Civil War Soldiers

Just like people today, soldiers in Civil War armies refused to work without their daily coffee.

Just like people today, soldiers in Civil War armies refused to work without their daily coffee. (Image source: WikiCommons)

“While soldiers on both sides of the conflict had very different views on states’ rights, all shared an appreciation for a good cup of coffee.”

THE GATLING GUN, improved repeating rifles, and ironclad warships are just a few of the revolutionary breakthroughs to come out of the Civil War. Here’s an innovation you may not have been aware of: instant coffee.

A tin of Essence of Coffee.

A tin of Essence of Coffee.

While soldiers on both sides of the conflict had very different views regarding things like states’ rights, almost all shared an appreciation for a good cup of coffee. In fact, java was one of the small comforts of home that could make life on the march or in camp bearable.

Unfortunately for Southern troops, the Union naval blockade prevented all sorts of imported goods from getting into the Confederacy. Coffee was one of them. Rebs in the field had to settle for ad hoc coffee substitutes made from peanuts, potatoes, burnt corn and chicory and even acorns.[1]

Northern troops did get the real stuff, but the beans were doled out to the troops raw and unprepared. Soldiers had to roast the beans over their campfires, being careful not to burn them, and then grind them down using their rifle butts before brewing. This daily ritual, which commanders understood was vital for morale, consumed considerable time and energy. So much so that the Union army sought some sort of way to mass produce prepared coffee for armies in the field.[2] Although ground coffee was already widely available to Northern civilians, the army avoided making large purchases. Crooked military suppliers were famous for diluting sacks with dirt. Instead, in 1861, the army began issuing something called “essence of coffee” to troops. [3] A thick unappetizing sludge, it was made from concentrated boiled coffee, with milk and sugar added at the factory. Troops could prepare a mug by simply doling some into a mug and adding hot water. Not surprisingly the soldiers hated the stuff; it tasted horrid. Worse, it caused abdominal cramps and violent diarrhea, more than likely because shifty suppliers found that it was cheaper to make the concoction using spoiled milk. The Union army soon dumped its supplies and reluctantly returned to the raw coffee bean.

Although this first attempt at instant java was a flop, others would perfect the concept after the war. In 1901, a more palatable version of the drink was made public at the Pan American Expo in Buffalo, New York. By 1910, instant coffee was commercially available.

SOURCES
1. http://articles.cnn.com/2007-10-29/living/mf.coffee.confederacy_1_beans-union-troops-civil-war?_s=PM:LIVING
2. Ibid
3. Cape Fear Civil War Round Table.
4. http://www.cnn.com/2007/LIVING/wayoflife/10/29/mf.coffee.confederacy/

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