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Practical Tips for Improving the Authenticity of Reenacting Rations

By Austin Williams, 5th VA, Co. A

We spend hundreds of dollars on the best available reproductions of Confederate uniforms and equipment. We spend hours pouring over period manuals to ensure our drill is precise down to the smallest detail. And then, when it is time to eat… out comes the modern food from concealed coolers. Even though preparing and eating authentic food is one of the cheapest and easiest ways to improve your impression, even many reenactors in progressive campaigner units fall back on modern food and coolers. Since many of us don’t cook much at home and have even less experience cooking over a fire without refrigeration, tackling period food can be intimidating. It also requires some planning and prep work to carry authentic food, but it produces a much richer and more authentic impression to be munching on corn pone and bacon than to be frying up a hot dog and heading to the vendor area for funnel cake.


To give you a sense of what food was available to soldiers in the Civil War, the official Confederate army ration was the following [1]:

    • Either 3/4 lbs of pork or bacon; or 1 1/4 lbs of fresh or salt beef. This was latter modified to be 1/2 lbs pork/bacon or 1 lbs beef.
    • 18 oz of bread or flour; or 12 oz of hard bread [hardtack]; or 1 1/4 lbs of cornmeal. This was later modified so that the ration of flour or meal would not exceed 1 1/2 lbs or either. The regulations also call for this ration to be changed to 1 lbs of hard bread on campaign, marches, or on board transports.

Then, for every hundred men, rations included:

    • 8 quarts of peas or beans; or 10 pounds of rice
    • 6 lbs of coffee
    • 12 lbs of sugar
    • 4 quarts of vinegar
    • 1 1/2 lbs of tallow candles; or 1/4 lbs of adamantine candles; or 1 lbs sperm candles
    • 4 lbs of soap
    • 2 quarts salt
Union commissary tent near Fairfax Court House, 1863

Union army rations were similar, but also included options for desiccated potatoes, desiccated mixed vegetables, and tea [2]. Of course, the actual amounts issued and the availability of these items fluctuated throughout the war. By 1864, rations in the Army of Northern Virginia rarely exceeded 1/4 lbs of beef or bacon and 1 lbs corn meal according to a variety of brigade and divisional inspection reports. By 1865, the Confederate Commissary Department wasn’t able to sustain even this amount, issuing either meat or bread each day, but not both. For reference, 1 lbs of bread or 3/4 lbs of meal a day provides only about 900-1200 calories, while the modern US Army considers 4,000 calories per day necessary to sustain an adult male in a combat environment [3]. Regardless of the amount, the regulations and actual Commissary Department practice suggest that the foundation of authentic rations should be a meat (bacon, fresh pork, fresh beef, or salted beef) and a starch (flour, cornmeal, hardtack, or bread). To this foundation can be added other issue items like rice, peas, beans, coffee, sugar, salt, vinegar, potatoes, or desiccated vegetables. You can then supplement these rations with small amounts of scenario-appropriate “foraged” items such fresh fruit/vegetable or items you might have plausibly purchased from a sutler or received from home, but avoid relying on these too much. Issued foods should form the core of your weekend rations.

The starch portion of the ration is usually easier for even novice cooks to prepare. Particularly if the scenario being portrayed is relatively static, carrying fresh bread is feasible, as Confederate armies utilized field ovens and civilian bakeries as a source of fresh bread. To simulate this in your rations, either bake your own bread or look for smaller, more artisan loafs at the grocery store that look like they could be homemade. Hardtack is relatively simple to make, is extremely easy to carry in a haversack, and, if prepared reasonably close to an event, won’t risk breaking your teeth quite as much as the original. The following recipe makes about ten pieces and is sufficient for a weekend event:

4 cups flour
4 teaspoons salt
Water (less than 2 cups)

Pre-heat oven to 375° F. Mix the flour and salt together in a bowl. Add just enough water (less than two cups) so that the mixture will stick together, producing a dough that won’t stick to hands, rolling pin or pan. Mix the dough by hand. Roll the dough out, shaping it roughly into a rectangle. Cut into the dough into squares about 3 x 3 inches and ½ inch thick. After cutting the squares, press a pattern of four rows of four holes into each square, using a nail or other such object. Do not punch through the dough.  The appearance you want is similar to that of a modern saltine cracker.  Turn each square over and do the same thing to the other side. 
Place the squares on an ungreased cookie sheet in the oven and bake for 30 minutes. Turn each piece over and bake for another 30 minutes. The crackers should be slightly brown on both sides.

Confederate camp in Pensacola, Florida, 1861

However, period accounts suggest that the most common form of starch available to a Confederate soldier was cornbread. A Mississippi soldier grown tired of this recurring ration wrote to his sister in 1863 “I want Pa to be certain and buy wheat enough to do us plentifully, for if the war closes and I get to come home I never intend to chew any more cornbread.”[4] While experienced reenacting cooks can prepare corn dodgers over the fire, a good way to build your confidence with more authentic rations is to prepare cornbread before an event. Avoid the cornbread mixes in the grocery store, as they’re much lighter than what soldiers would have had and will crumble easily. The following cornbread recipe is delicious and survives transportation in a haversack mostly intact. Cook it in a cast iron skillet if possible and cut into four quarters prior to an event.

1⁄2 cup shortening
1 cup flour
1⁄4 cup sugar
3 teaspoons baking powder
3⁄4 teaspoon salt
1 cup cornmeal
3 eggs
1 cup milk

Preheat oven to 425. While oven is heating, melt the shortening in a cast iron skillet. Mix dry ingredients. Add eggs and milk and mix well with electric mixer. Pour melted shortening into batter and blend until smooth. Pour batter into hot iron skillet and bake 20 – 25 minutes until golden brown.

Cook house of the 71st New York Volunteers

While preparing an authentic starch is relatively straightforward, many reenactors struggle with incorporating meat into their rations without resorting to a modern cooler. While beef jerky and various sausages were certainly available in the period, they would not have been available in significant quantities and shouldn’t form the foundation of your rations. Instead, focus on the staples outlined in the official rations – bacon, pork, and beef. Double smoked slab bacon, also sometimes called country bacon, is available from some butchers or for purchase online and shouldn’t need refrigeration, particularly for the relatively short period of an event. Unless you have a local butcher that carries it, your best option may be to purchase a large slab, cut it into circa 3/4-1/2 lbs chunks, and freeze them either vacuum sealed or in individual plastic bags. Then, when it’s time for an event, you can simply pull a chunk of bacon out to defrost a few days in advance. Online options include this bacon from Broadbent’s, this from New Baunfels Smokehouse, or this from Edwards Virginia Smokehouse. As soldiers often cooked all of their rations upon issue rather than at individual mealtimes, you can pre-cook a portion of your slab bacon before an event and eat it cold, particularly if your Saturday lunch is hurried or eaten on the move.

Beef was among the staples of Confederate rations, but is rarely seen at reenactments. Some of this beef was issued fresh from slaughtered cattle – a single full grown cow provides enough meat for a full daily ration for 200 soldiers.[5] But some was shipped to the front lines with varying degrees of effective preservation, usually through salting. One Confederate soldier commented “The beef is so poor it is Sticky and Blue, if a quarter was thrown against the wall it would stick.”[6] To avoid your food matching this colorful description, you can pre-cook beef at home and it should last for a weekend without a problem (While the author is not a doctor and can’t guarantee the safety of this practice, he has eaten beef in this manner at events for years without a problem). Purchase some inexpensive cuts of beef from the grocery store, cook them at home, and then reheat them over the fire in the field with a little salt and pepper.

Beans, dried peas, and rice are all light and easy to carry in a poke sack, particularly if an event includes marching from one campsite to another. Just keep in mind that dry beans and peas need to be soaked overnight before cooking them. Rice is perhaps the easiest to purchase and quickest to prepare, as a handful of brown “minute rice” in a mucket of water will quickly boil and provide a filling side dish. Dried peas and even desiccated vegetables can be found for purchase online. Finish off your ration issue with a poke sack of coffee beans and you’ll have most of the items listed in the official regulations.

Try to limit food that has been nominally sent from home, pilfered from a local farm, or purchased from a sutler. The bulk of soldiers, the bulk of the time, would have been forced to rely on issued food, particularly as armies picked Northern Virginia clean through several years of war and transportation of packages from home became increasingly difficult. These packages would be most prevalent early in the war while supplies were still plentiful on the home front and could include vegetables, sweets, butter, pickles, ketchup, apple butter, bread, potatoes, sausages, honey, or nuts. Units around Richmond early in the war even reportedly received shipments of fried chicken from home.[7] These packages did not necessarily disappear entirely by the end of the war – Private John Dull of the 5th Virginia Infantry wrote in January 1865 to his wife that, because multiple members of his mess had recently received packages from home, “we hav cabbitch potatoes Beans dried apples green apples flour meel pies cheas Bread cakes Sausage dried Beef chickon dried chearies cheary gam [cherry jam] molasos onions and evrey thing that house ceepers [keepers] generaley have excep wimon an children.” He wrote of having multiple hams hanging in his cabin, baking bread and biscuits, and selling surplus butter in Petersburg as they had more than they could use.[8] If possible try to match your non-standard issue food to the particulars of the unit and scenario you are portraying.

If, even in face of all the above options, you still want to incorporate some modern food in your weekend menu, do what you can to at least remove modern packaging and replace it with poke sacks, fabric, or paper wrapping to make it as unobtrusive as possible. If you want to use some can goods, there are lots of period can labels available online or for purchase through various sutlers to give your food a period appearance.

Pickets cooking rations near Fredericksburg, 1862

The skilled reenacting cook can combine the above ingredients into a dazzling array of dishes, but even novices can easily prepare simple meals using nothing more complicated than a mucket, canteen half, fork, knife, and spoon. Beef and bacon were commonly broiled, by simply skewering the meat with a stick or ramrod and roasting it over the fire (be aware that this technique could damage the weaker materials used in some reproduction ramrods). To avoid losing the valuable bacon grease from this method, try pan frying your bacon or beef in a small skillet or canteen half. The grease can be used to fry sliced potatoes or vegetables, but is also a fundamental ingredient of that uniquely Confederate dish, cush. A soldier in the Army of Tennessee provide the following recipe: “We take some bacon and fry the grease out, then we cut some cold beef in small pieces & put it in the grease, then pour in water and stew it like hash. Then we crumble corn bread or biscuit in it and stew it again till all the water is out then we have… real Confederate cush.”[9] Crumbled pieces of hardtack fried in bacon grease also tastes surprisingly good. You can mix together a variety of stews in a mucket or small pot. Just remember to add the ingredient which will take the longest to cook in first and progressively add the other ingredients as you get closer to completion.

For additional reading and recipies, consider reading the period manual Camp-Fires and Camp Cooking by Captain James Sanderson. Most Civil War soldiers were just as inexperienced in food preparation as the modern reenactor and Sanderson’s manual contains short, clear instructions on how to make a variety of basic dishes in camp (although many are designed for cooking for a mess or company rather than an individual). If you read Sanderson or other period recipes and are struggling to picture how they actually work over a fire, the excellent Civil War Digital Digest on YouTube has several videos demonstrating how to cook various period dishes and is a great resource to turn to if you’re uncertain about how to actually prepare period recipes in the field. For additional secondary sources, the article Cooking on Campaign with the Stonewall Brigade located elsewhere on this website is an excellent read, although some of the suppliers mentioned are no longer in business. The Liberty Rifles also have an excellent article on their website on Civil War and Reconstruction era food, as well as detailed looks at Union and Confederate cookware.


  1. Confederate War Department, Regulations for the Army of the Confederate States, 1863, J. W. Randolph, Richmond, 1863; Article XLII, para 1107-1109.
  2. United States War Department, Revised Regulations for the Army of the United States, 1861, J. G. L. Brown, Philadelphia, 1861; Article XLIII, para 1191-1193.
  3. Glatthaar, Joseph T., General Lee’s Army: From Victory to Collapse, Free Press, New York, 2008; p. 446.
  4. Wiley, Bell Irvin, The Life of Johnny Reb: The Common Soldier of the Confederacy, Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, 1943; p. 98.
  5. General Lee’s Army, p. 212.
  6. Life of Johnny Reb, p. 98.
  7. Life of Johnny Reb, p. 99-100.
  8. Augusta County: John P. Dull to Giney Dull, January 11, 1865, Valley of the Shadow: Two Communities in the American Civil War, University of Virginia Library (https://valley.lib.virginia.edu/papers/A6131).
  9. Life of Johnny Reb, p. 104-105.

All photos are public domain from the Library of Congress’s Civil War Glass Negatives and Related Prints Collection.

How to Adapt a Confederate ANV Impression by Time Period

By Austin Williams, 5th VA Co. A

One of the most challenging aspects of accuratly protraying Confederate infantry is the wide variation in uniforms and equipment based on location and period in the war. A member of the Army of Northern Virginia in 1862 looked vastly different from the same individual in 1865. To improve the authenticy of your impression, you should strive to match your kit to the period being protrayed. Understanding that many reenactors cannot afford to own multiple sets of different gear or want to prioritize the order in which they upgrade to campaigner quality items, the following guide will help you build a versatile impression by swapping out a few key items for a particular event. These are guidelines only and do not take the place of solid research.


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Top Five Tips for Getting Started in Civil War Reenacting

By Austin Williams, 5th VA Co. A

People come to Civil War reenacting in a myriad of ways. Perhaps you have a friend in the hobby who has encouraged you to give it a try. Perhaps you attended a reenactment as a spectator and found yourself wishing you were in the midst of the smoke and confusion rather than watching it from afar. Perhaps you have a deep interest in the Civil War and want to experience it and understand it in a way that books can never truly capture. But, for whatever reason, something about recreating the life of a Civil War soldier resonates with you and you’re interested in joining the hobby. Before you purchase a musket and show up to your first event, you may find the following tips useful. They are designed to save you money, help you avoid some of the most common mistakes first time reenactors make, and give you the best chance at enjoying the hobby over the long-term.

1) Put the Credit Card Away: The absolute best advice anyone can give you is to delay purchasing any gear. Almost every reenactor can tell you stories about uniforms or equipment they rushed to purchase when they first started out and later regretted after they learned it was of poor quality or didn’t fit the impression they ultimately pursued. Any unit you’re interested in joining should be eager to loan you a uniform and equipment for your first few events (if they are not or if you’re pressured to purchase equipment right away, you’re probably considering the wrong unit). Before you start investing cash in reenacting, attend enough events to ensure that it’s a hobby that you truly enjoy and want to purse. Do not make the mistake of spending a lot of money on gear that ends up gathering dust in your basement or up for sale on eBay.

2) Consider What You Want Out of Reenacting: Spend some time thinking about what aspects of reenacting interest you. Are you really excited about being a part of large battle reenactments? Are you looking for a highly immersive experience that puts you right in the shoes of a Civil War soldier? Are you looking for something you can do with your family? Are you interested in conducting research into tiny details of soldiers’ lives? Like any hobby, there is a broad spectrum within reenacting with different informal clusters of individuals and groups focusing more or less attention on authenticity. There is nothing inherently better or worse about any of these clusters – they are each different ways of experiencing the hobby and it is important that you pick the one that most closely matches what interests you. As you look at different reenacting units, you may see three terms in particular, which are commonly used to describe different segments of the reenacting spectrum. Many groups may bridge these labels and there is a great degree of variation within the clusters, but generally reenacting organizations fall into one of the following categories:

    • Mainstream: These units are the most relaxed about their impression and may enforce few, if any, authenticity guidelines. However, they are often larger in size and are more likely to prioritize attending large battle reenactments, referred to in the hobby as “powder burners” due to the amount of shooting you’ll likely do on the battlefield. The focus of many of these units is more on the social aspects of reenacting and the excitement of battle reenactments than in necessarily getting all the details of military drill, uniforms, and equipment exactly right. These groups often have little to no primary source research behind their impression, relying instead more on common reenactor practices than consulting period materials. You’ll usually be able to recognize the camp of a mainstream unit by an abundance of large tents, cast iron cookware, and wooden furniture. All this gear can get expensive, is time-consuming to set-up and take down, and requires space at home for storage. Many of these units are family-friendly and men might be accompanied by their wives and children. If you attend an average reenactment as a spectator, these are the units you are most likely to see, as they’re often camped in an open field close to the spectators.
    • Progressive: These units occupy the middle of the authenticity spectrum. They may attend a combination of mainstream events, as well as more authentic, immersive events. They will likely incorporate some smaller “living history” events in their calendar which do not include a battle reenactment, but instead focus on portraying Civil War camp life for the public. They will make a concerted effort to ensure the authenticity of their uniforms, equipment, and drill, but are willing to accept some compromises as needed. They will also usually adapt their impression in some way to fit the unit and time period being portrayed, which often means you will ultimately need to purchase a wider array of uniforms and equipment. While there may be a few members of the group who conduct research using period primary sources, most members will rely more on reading contemporary secondary sources and the knowledge of their fellow reenactors to improve their impression. Most progressive units are also campaigner units, meaning that their camps will have minimal canvas and men are more likely to be sharing small tents or tent flies without any of the heavy cookware or furniture found in a mainstream camp. A campaigner should be able to pack more or less all their equipment on their back, whether just to carry his gear from camp to his vehicle or even for an extended march as part of the event. If you attend a reenactment as a spectator, you may have to work harder to find these units, as their camps are often placed farther from the public in wooded areas to limit the number of modern intrusions. The Stonewall Brigade is a progressive campaigner unit – click here to to learn more about us.
    • Authentic/Hardcore: These units are the most dedicated to ensuring authenticity down to the smallest details. They are often smaller in size, but can offer a more fully immersive experience that will get you closer to the life of a Civil War soldier than any of the other groups discussed. Their impressions will always be adapted for the unit and period being portrayed, so you will need to acquire an array of different uniforms and equipment to meet their exacting authenticity guidelines. Authentic units are highly research driven and a significant number of unit members will regularly conduct primary source research into every possible aspect of soldier life. A single weekend event may be preceded by hours upon hours of extensive research and the purchase of particular uniform items, etc… unique to the event. These units may only rarely participate in battle reenactments and often instead focus on conducting smaller events where they can ensure high standards of authenticity for all participants. Some of these events will be conducted without spectators to remove all possible traces of the modern world, so you may not find them at all if you attend a reenactment.
    • https://www.traditionrolex.com/12

3) Do Your Research on Units: The current reality of the reenacting hobby is that every unit is eager, if not borderline desperate, to add new recruits to their ranks. Any unit you contact should be extremely welcoming and do everything they can to have you join their ranks. However, it is important that you find a unit that is a good match for you if you want to continue to enjoy reenacting over the long-haul. The unit you ultimately join should be in a position to provide the elements that you want to get out of reenacting. If you’re interested in an immersive, authentic experience, joining a mainstream unit will be a poor fit. Each unit also has a slightly different personality and quirks – they might be laid back or intense, their members may all have similar backgrounds and have known each other all their lives or they may be more diverse, they may be highly social at events and the life of the party or they may be more reserved. These characteristics can be challenging to identify by examining a unit’s website or Facebook page or by chatting with the members at an event. You may need to attend a handful of events with them before you get a good feel for the unit’s personality and whether it is a good fit for you. If it’s not, consider trying another group. If there were other units at the events you attended who seemed like a better fit for what you’re looking for, consider contacting them about falling in at their next event. You may want to speak candidly with your current unit’s commander about what you’re looking for in another unit, as they may have contacts or suggestions for other units that you can consider (if a unit commander isn’t willing to do this, its probably a sign you should leave that unit anyways, as they’re not looking out for your best interests). It is ultimately more important that you be happy and fulfilled in reenacting to ensure the hobby remains vibrant than for any particular unit to add an additional musket to the ranks.

4) Read As Much As You Can: The best way to start your career in reenacting out right is to read extensively. You’re obviously interested in the Civil War, otherwise you won’t be considering reenacting. Odds are that you’ve already read a decent amount about the war, but most Civil War books focus on the movements of vast armies and the leaders who directed them. While this material is of interest to reenactors, our hobby requires a detailed knowledge of the daily experience of individual soldiers. While some of the research is now a bit dated, there is no better place to start than Bell Wiley’s classics The Life of Johnny Reb: The Common Soldier of the Confederacy and The Life of Billy Yank: The Common Soldier of the Union. They are great foundational introductions to the topic. As you build your knowledge, there is a wealth of information available in online archives and books drawn from soldiers’ letters, diaries, and post-war memoirs. If you can find material written by men from the unit you portray, even better. For further reading suggestions and links to many of these online resources, please see the Stonewall Brigade’s Recommended Reading list.

5) Purchase Slowly and Strategically: When you are ready to start purchasing gear, take your time and make your purchases strategic. Most units will be eager to help you select gear that fits with their authenticity standards and will offer up the unit commander, a non-commissioned officer, or another senior member to mentor you through your initial purchases. They should also have a list of recommended vendors that sell uniforms and equipment that meet their unit’s standards. For instance, the Stonewall Brigade’s list is located here. Work with your unit point of contact to ensure that the items you select even from these vendors are appropriate, since not every jacket a particular vendor offers will fit your unit’s desired impression. Your mentor can also assist you in finding used gear either from unit members or outside resources like eBay or Facebook. This can be a great way to save money, but make sure you run all major purchases by your mentor to ensure you’re buying quality gear and not getting swindled. The best first purchase you can make is a pair of well-built shoes, usually called brogans or bootees. Most units will have a decent collection of clothes, gear, and even muskets that you can borrow, but it is often difficult to find loaner shoes since many reenactors only own a single pair. They are also made from a relatively standardized style, so they can be used across a wide variety of impressions should you ultimately decide to join another unit or develop a different impression. If you wear eyeglasses, consider purchasing period frames high on your shopping list as well.

Top Tips for Transitioning From Mainstream to Authentic Reenacting

By Austin Williams, 5th VA Co A

Civil War reenacting is a broad hobby with a wide spectrum of participants who all want different things out of the hobby. Just because you joined a particular unit doesn’t mean that it is necessarily the best fit for you. Maybe you’ve started to notice that the other members of your unit aren’t as serious as you are about the authenticity of your impression. Maybe you’ve watched with envy other units conducting interesting first person scenarios and want to join the fun. Maybe you’ve started reading period letters and diaries and are noticing how far the experience is from what you’ve encountered at most reenactments. All of these are signs you may find reenacting with a progressive or authentic group more fulfilling and a better match for your interests than the mainstream units that represent a large percentage of the hobby. However, it can be intimidating to join a new unit, particularly given the reputation of progressive/authentic reenactors being “stitch-counters” who look down on all those who fail to meet their lofty standards. The reality is that many members of progressive or authentic units started their reenacting career in more mainstream units and made the transition when they realized they wanted something out of the hobby that they weren’t getting with their original organizations. Most progressive/authentic reenactors are eager to help you join their ranks if you’re willing to put the same care and attention into the authenticity of your impression as they have. No one expects you to have a perfect impression right away. The following tips, drawn from the author’s own experience joining the progressive campaigner Stonewall Brigade after years as a mainstream reenactor, can help you make that transition smoothly.

Research Over Reenactorisms

Common knowledge runs rampant in the reenactor community – things that your first sergeant confidently told you, that you heard from someone on sutler row, or that you can’t even remember where you heard it from. Unfortunately, the vast majority of this common knowledge is either flat out wrong or has no basis in historical documentation from the period we seek to portray. When you transition from a mainstream to a progressive/authentic unit, be prepared to question what you thought you knew about reenacting and the experience of Civil War soldiers. If you have picked a quality unit, your new comrades will be able to cite specific research using period primary sources to justify as many details of their impression as possible. If not, you probably should consider another unit, because research is the fundamental foundation of authentic reenacting. As you become more comfortable as a progressive/authentic reenactor, you will likely start conducting some research of your own, reading the letters and diaries of soldiers, examining period photographs, or delving into archival holdings. The same principle holds true regarding drill – many reenacting officers and NCOs unfortunately learned their drill from other reenactors or through modern drill digests/summaries rather than by cracking open the period drill manual. Your new progressive/authentic unit should be drilling straight out of original manuals and, when there are inevitably questions of interpretation or how vague written instructions should be put into practice, they will turn to other period sources to answer the debate. For instance, the Stonewall Brigade drills using Gilham’s Manual for Volunteers and Militia rather than the more common Hardee’s Light Infantry Tactics based on research in primary sources that the original Stonewall Brigade used this manual. All of the common period drill manuals are available online for you to study, along with a wealth of lesser-discussed manuals detailing every aspect of period military practice.

Assess Your Gear and Upgrade Slowly

Unfortunately, much of your mainstream gear will likely need to be replaced with new, campaigner quality gear. The good news, however, is that you should be able to do so slowly, as some of your gear might be “close enough” to get by for a limited time while you work to steadily upgrade. Other gear may just require modification to bring it closer to progressive/authentic standards. In particular, brogans and leather accouterments might be close enough to period patterns that only a truly educated eye will be able to spot that your cap pouch isn’t a standard model 1850 cap box or that your brogans aren’t exactly right. If they are black leather in a relatively generic pattern, you may be able to delay upgrading them until after you’ve addressed higher priority items. Your musket can continue to provide good service, but you will want to look into having it “defarbed” by having the modern markings removed and the stock refinished. Depending on your skill level, you might be able to do some of this work yourself with the help of online guides, such as striping off your stock’s factory polyurethane finish and replacing it with something more period appropriate. Your mainstream canteen may still be serviceable after removing the metal chain (other than the New York Depot, most Federal canteens and all Confederate canteens were issued with cord attaching the cork rather than chain) and replacing the wool cover with one of the jean wool canteen cover kits available from various quality sutlers. Your belt may still work, but you may need to purchase a new buckle (particularly if you fell prey to the common Confederate reenactorism of wearing an upside down US plate buckle…). Work with your new unit to examine your existing kit, see what needs to be replaced first, what can be altered, what you get by with for a time, and what you might be able to borrow from your new comrades.

Upgrade Your Jacket(s) and Headwear First

The two items that are least likely to be “close enough” for temporary service are your jacket(s) and headwear. These are the two most prominent parts of a Civil War uniform and thus mainstream vs. progressive/authentic quality can be apparent from a distance. Mainstream sutlers are rife with jackets bearing little resemblance to the cut, fabric, or color of period uniforms. Unless you were a particularly luckier or better informed purchaser than most, odds are high that the jacket you purchased isn’t close enough to your new unit’s authenticity guidelines to pass muster. If you are building a progessive/authentic Confederate impression, you will likely eventually need to purchase multiple jackets, as the uniforms worn by Confederate soldiers changed multiple times throughout the war. Lower quality headwear also stands out from a distance if it was made with an inauthentic profile/shape or from materials which don’t match period construction. Cheap wool felt hats that can’t hold their shape or kepis with plastic-like brims stand out like a sore thumb. Thankfully, quality headgear is a relatively inexpensive upgrade and is a good first step for improving your impression. Work with your new unit to identify the headwear and jacket(s) that will be most versatile for the impressions your unit regularly adopts.

Aim for Generic Nondescript

As you are working to assess your gear needs, aim to acquire versatile, foundational gear for a generic, nondescript impression. Many mainstream reenactors pursue various speciality impressions with distinctive, non-standard uniforms or incorporate flashy uniform items that, while they existed in the period, were not widely used. For instance, in most cases you will want to remove all brass insignia, feathers, or other decorative adornment from your hat (unless it is documented for a specific impression). Similarly, items such as gaiters or havelocks rarely appear in period documentation beyond the early months of the war. Yes, there are period photographs of some incredibly distinctive uniforms (Confederate cavalryman Captain Samuel Richardson’s leopard skin trousers being perhaps the most outlandish), but just because it existed, doesn’t mean it is appropriate for the impression you are portraying. As an overall rule, base your impression on specific research whenever possible and, if unit-specific research isn’t available, fall back on what would have been most common at that time and location.

Get Used to Carrying Your Gear

While progressive/authentic reenactors may pay more for individual pieces of gear, they generally own less equipment overall than their mainstream comrades and definitely bring less to an event. At most events, we are called upon to portray troops on campaign. While the large tents, wooden furniture, and heavy cast iron cookware that grace most mainstream camps certainly all existed in the period, as with uniforms you need to consider whether they are appropriate to the unit, time, and place being portrayed. Soldiers on campaign were almost exclusively reliant on their own backs to carry their gear and, thus, traveled light. As a general rule, if an event involves portraying troops on campaign, you shouldn’t be bringing more gear than you can carry, whether on the walk from the car to camp or on an extended march from campsite to campsite. Practice packing your knapsack or blanket roll, be ruthless about considering what you pack, and make sure you can move comfortably while wearing your equipment. Odds are good that you need to adjust the length of your canteen and haversack straps to keep them from hanging too low or riding too high – analysis of period images shows most soldiers wore them between the level of their beltline and their elbow. Accounts of soldiers dropping packs prior to going into battle become conspicuously less frequent as veteran troops learned the hard way that they risked never returning to their equipment. You should likewise become comfortable marching, drilling, and fighting with your gear, including your blanket roll or knapsack (again, unless there is period documentation indicating that the unit you are portraying discarded their packs).

It’s Not All About Gear

Progressive/authentic reenacting is about more than just purchasing the best uniform and equipment money can buy. How the authentic reenactor acts is just as important as what he wears and the best part is that this part of the transition is completely free. Study period rations and learn how to cook authentic food. If you smoke, forgo modern cigarettes for the weekend in favor of period tobacco. Learn how to conduct guard duty based on the period manuals.  Learn period slang and pepper a few choice phrases into your first person conversations. Learn to render a period salute and understand how to practice proper military etiquette. Above all, read and study constantly. Progressive/authentic reenacting isn’t about what clothes you wear, what drill manual you use, or what unit you are a member of. It is about consistent learning and study, always understanding that there is more you could be doing to improve, and striving constantly to be as close to the period as possible. We will never fully replicate the experience of the Civil War soldier, but by constantly trying and falling short, we ensure we are doing all we can to honor their memory by portraying their lives as accurately as possible.

Blanket Displays

By Brad Ireland, 4th Virginia, Co.A

I have been to many living histories in my time as a re-enactor. Most of these living histories involve a manual of arms demonstration, firing demonstration, and a drill demonstration. After the Demo, the visitors are often invited back to see the camp and to ask questions. Quite often the camp scene is filled with disheveled blankets spread out around a camp fire or rows of dog tents. What of the personal items of the soldiers?

Blanket Displays can be a valuable tool at living histories and reenactments that can give the visitors a memorable hands-on experience. You can read about how the soldiers marched and camped day in and day out and yet never quite draw the picture in your minds eye of what little the soldiers actually had to work with and what they had to do without in their daily lives. Blanket displays are a window into the daily life of the Civil War soldier that no battle reenactment or drill demonstration can open.

Read the full article here.

How to Make a Richmond Arsenal Musket Ammunition Crate

By Austin Williams, 5th Virginia Co. A

There are many sources from which one can purchase a Federal arsenal musket ammunition crate and there are readily available guides in print and online to make your own. Confederate arsenals, however, are more difficult to locate and I am not aware of any sources for a reasonably authentic Richmond Arsenal crate. This guide will allow anyone with basic carpentry skills to make a Richmond Arsenal musket ammunition crate that is as authentic as available research allows.

Read the full article here.

Guard Duty: A Primer for Civil War Reenactors

By Austin Williams, 5th Virginia

What follows are the most salient points of guard duty, tailored to the circumstances we most often encounter during reenacting events. When improperly executed, guard duty is tedious and boring, but when following the period requirements, it can be a memorable part of your impression of a soldier of the 1860s. For anyone really interested in the intricacies of guard duty, I recommend Instructions for Officers and Non-Commissioned Officers on Outpost and Patrol Duty and Troops in Campaign (1863).

Types of Guards
The guard system used during the Civil War was designed to serve a variety of purposes, ranging from maintaining internal camp discipline to preventing a surprise attack from the enemy. As such, the system as structured around layers of guards. Just outside of the sight of the enemy, a line of outposts of a few men would be posted. These outposts send forward guards to directly observe the enemy, called sentinels if composed of infantry or vedettes if composed of cavalry. Behind this line of outposts and sentinels, a line of grand guards provides support to slow the enemy if he should attack. These grand guards are in turn supported by a line of pickets, which consist of 40 men commanded by a lieutenant. Their purpose is to hold the enemy until the main body of troops has time to form up. The camp of the main body lies behind the pickets and a group of police guards surround the camp of each regiment and are posted at important points within the camp.

It is very rare to see a reenactment which attempts to maintain a line of pickets, grand guards, etc… due to the manpower required. In most cases, when we conduct guard duty during an event, we are portraying police guards. The remainder of this primer will discuss police guards.

Composition and Duties of the Police Guard

Per regulations, the Police Guard consists of the following personnel:

  • One Captain, serving as Officer of the Day (OOD)
  • One Lieutenant, serving as Officer of the Guard (OOG)
  • Two Sergeants, one serving as Sergeant of the Guard (SOG) and the other commanding the Advanced Post
  • Three Corporals, serving three shifts as Corporal of the Guard
  • Two musicians, one located at the Guard Tent with the Officer of the Guard and the other located at the advanced postAt least thirty nine privates, serving three shifts of 13 sentinels. If the regiment is on either flank of the brigade, the guard contains at least 42 privates, as an extra sentinel is posted on the flank of the brigade.

Thirteen sentinels are on duty at a time and are arranged as above. Off duty sentinels remain either at the Guard Tent, which functions as the headquarters for the guard, or at the Advanced Post. The Advanced Post contains the battalion’s prisoners and is commanded by a Sergeant. He will have under his command a musician and nine men. Men assigned to the Advanced Post should be the best of the guard and do not leave the Advanced Post; they do not drill or march with the Battalion and their food is brought to them at the Advanced Post. The Advanced Post positions two advanced guards and a third guard who watches the prisoners and the arms of the Advanced Post off-duty sentinels. All other sentinel posts are relieved by sentinels who remain at the Guard Tent when not on duty.

In reenacting, a guard will more commonly consist of the OOD, a Corporal of the Guard, and sentinels. If less than thirteen men at a time are available to serve as sentinels, priority should be placed on posting guards at the Guard Tent, the colors/arms, and at least one sentinel on each flank and to the rear and advance of the Battalion.

The placement and size of the guard will be determined by the Regimental Staff and the OOG, although no sentinel should be out of earshot of the Guard Tent, either directly or by having closer sentinels relay alarms from distant sentinels. When placing sentinels, each sentinel should be giving a number, beginning with Post No. 1 for the sentinel at the Guard Tent. When calling for the Corporal of the Guard, the sentinel can then relay his position, i.e. “Post No. 3! Corporal of the Guard!”

Rules Governing the Conduct of Sentinels and Their Duties
Sentinels take orders only from the OOG, OOD, Sergeant of the Guard, or the Battalion commander. Unless ordered to march over a particular stretch of ground (“walking a beat”), sentinels may not leave their appointed position for any reason. Likewise, a sentinel must never ground or allow anyone to touch his weapon and should carry it on either shoulder.

When posted, sentinels should be provided with the orders and regulations they are tasked to enforce. All sentinels have the following general orders:

“I am required to take charge of this post and all public property in view; to salute all officers passing, according to rank; to give the alarm in case of fire, or the approach of the enemy, or any disturbance whatsoever; to report all violations of the Articles of War, Regulations of the Army, or camp or garrison orders; at night, to challenge all persons approaching my post, and to allow no one to pass without the countersign until they are examined by an officer or noncommissioned officer of the Guard.”

Additional responsibilities may be assigned based on the sentinel’s assigned post:

  • Sentinel at the Battalion Commander’s Tent: This sentinel has orders to inform the Colonel, day or night, of “unusual movements” in or around the camp.
  • Sentinel at the Battalion Colors: This sentinel has orders that no one may touch the colors except the color bearer or the Sergeant of the Guard if accompanied by two armed men. The colors may not be moved without an escort.
  • Sentinel over the Arms Stacks: These sentinels ensure no one removes a weapon from the stacks without permission from an officer or the Sergeant of the Guard.
  • Sentinels at the Battalion’s Flanks, Rear and Advance: These sentinels ensure no one leaves camp with a weapon unless conducted by an officer or NCO and prevents all NCOs and privates from leaving the camp at night except to visit the sinks. They are also charged with arresting any suspicious people in the vicinity of the camp.

When required by his orders, a sentinel should sound the alarm by calling for the Corporal of the Guard as described above, making sure to state his post number. A sentinel may also sound the alarm by firing his weapon or yelling “Fire!” as the situation dictates.

Sentinels are to be respected by everyone, officers and enlisted. They are not allowed to converse except as part of their official duties. For additional details on the conduct of a sentinel, please see pages 28-39 of Customs of Service for Non-Commissioned Officers and Soldiers.

The guard, as the only group of men in the Battalion camp who are armed at all times, is responsible for rendering honors for general officers and other dignitaries. Since, as reeneactors, we rarely have a guard other than sentinels on duty, this primer will not cover many of these honors, as they involve the off duty sentinels be formed up. As we rarely maintain a guard of off duty sentinels, those interested in learning the procedures for these honors should consult pages 584-586 of Gilham’s Manual.

Sentinels halt and give the following honors at anytime between reveille and retreat:

Shoulder Arms Any officer above the rank of Captain; the OOD; the Battalion’s commanding officer; friendly groups of armed men led by an officer; the Colors of any battalion
Present Arms Any Captains or Lieutenants; friendly groups of armed men led by an NCO

At night, no honors are paid, except to the OOD, who may inspect the sentinels as part of Grand Rounds and upon whose approach, sentinels come to shouldered arms (see Challenging and Grand Rounds).

Guard Mount and Relieving Sentinels
Guard Mount is a daily review and parade between the guard of the previous day and the guard of the new day. As reenactors, we almost never conduct guard duty on 24 hour shifts and generally only provide men for the guard just prior to their guard duties rather than having the entire guard reviewed during a morning Guard Mount. The purpose of Guard Mount is to transfer authority from one OOD and one OOG to a new command team, as well as to inspect the new guard’s weapons. The full description can be found on pages 610-614 of Gilham’s Manual.

Sentinels are to be relieved by the Corporal of the Guard. The relief will march by the flank in two ranks at support arms. The Corporal of the Guard will designate the man in the first rank of the first file as No. 1, the man in the second rank of the first file No. 2, and so on. If the relief passes any officer, the corporal will order the men to come to shoulder arms until the officer is past. When a sentinel sees the relief approaching, he will halt and face the relief at shoulder arms. Approximately six paces from the sentinel, the Corporal will order:

1. Relief. 2. HALT.

The corporal will then designate the man to replace this sentinel and will order than man to come to arms port.

1. Number One. 2. Arms – PORT.

The sentinel will also come to arms port and he and his relief will approach each other and the sentinel relay his orders to his relief. The sentinel and relief will then come to shoulder arms and the old sentinel will go to the rear of the relief column. The corporal will then order:

1. Support – ARMS. 2. Forward. 3. MARCH.

The column then proceeds to the next sentinel until all posts are relieved.

Challenging and Grand Rounds
Challenges are only given at night and are done by calling out “Who comes there?” and coming to arms port. After a challenge, the approaching party provides the countersign, a word given to officers and NCOs of the guard or other individuals authorized to leave the camp at night. Unlike the modern usage, there is no sign/countersign exchange, such as the famous “Thunder. Flash” sign/countersign used during the Normandy invasion in World War Two. Instead the countersign is a single word set by the OOD, and was historically the name of a battle. The following is the exchange as laid out in the manual:

Sentinel: Who comes there?
Approaching Party: Friends.
Sentinel: Halt, friends. Advance one with the countersign.

The countersign should never been spoken above a whisper. If the incorrect countersign is given, the sentinel should call for the Corporal of the Guard.

At night, the OOD will conduct Grand Rounds to inspect the sentinels and ensure they remain alert. He will travel with an NCO and two men. Upon being challenged by a sentinel, the NCO will answer “Grand Rounds!” The Sentinel will reply “Halt, Grand Rounds! Advance, Sergeant, with the Countersign!” The NCO then advances and provides the countersign. The sentinel will then state “Advance, rounds!” and stand at shoulder arms until they have passed.

Instructions for Officers and Non-Commissioned Officers on Outpost and Patrol Duty and Troops in Campaign (1863)
Manual of Instruction for the Volunteers and Militia of the United States; by William Gilham (1861)
The 1862 Army Officer’s Pocket Companion; by William Craighill (1862)
Customs of Service for Non-Commissioned Officers and Soldiers; by August Kautz (1865)

Cooking on Campaign: A Guide to Period Rations and Food Preparation

Authentic food and correct food preparation enhances any living history and becomes quite an enjoyable activity for a mess of “possums” around the campfire. Still, for many members of the Brigade, authentic cooking is viewed as quite daunting and many are discouraged from even trying to cook while in the field. Fortunately, similar to learning the rudiments of drill in Gilham’s manual, once the basics are mastered, campaign cooking is easy and the benefits are great: correct rations are simple to prepare, affordable to purchase, and make life much easier – and hey, it could even become fun. In addition, utilization of period rations in our haversacks and preparing them correctly (and safely) is critical to accurately portraying a Confederate soldier on campaign. With practice, each living historian can become self-sufficient in the field with respect to period cooking, and combined efforts of messmates can result in tasty, enjoyable meals at events, while being authentic to the time period.

The purpose of this article is to provide a general guide for cooking in the field. Vendors and food source suggestions are provided in the appendix attached to this guide. This guide is not all-encompassing but is written to provide the minimum essentials. Each living historian is encouraged to conduct their own research on vendors, food sources, and cooking techniques.

Mess Gear
At the outset, you need the proper utensils, implements, and storage containers.

Individual Mess equipment – Everyone should have the following items at a minimum:

  • Huck Towels (at least one for food and one for personal cleaning)
  • Poke Bags
  • Tin Cup
  • Tin Plate or Canteen Half
  • Spoon and/or fork
  • Pocket Knife
  • Lye Soap (in a small muslin bag works best)
  • Match Safe
  • Haversack
  • Canteen

Optional Individual Items and Extra Necessities for Dog Robbers/Foragers:

  • Linen, muslin, or cotton rags
  • Peach can with bail
  • Small skillet
  • Small hatchet
  • Forage Bags (for dog robbers/foragers)
  • Extra Haversack (for dog robbers/foragers)
  • Small burlap sacks (for dog robbers/foragers)

By way of background, “dog robber” is a period term for the member of a mess most often charged with cooking and/or foraging.

Mess Equipment
When portraying a Confederate infantryman on the march, it’s important to remember that less is more. If a static camp is used for an event, then more leeway is available. If we are going to march and fight for the entire weekend (like at McDowell or Burkittsville), then only bring what you and your messmates can easily carry (i.e. a spider is unrealistic, but a one quart camp kettle or small coffee pot can easily be attached to a knapsack or bedroll). Mess items include such things as:

  • Hot Tin Dipped Camp Kettle (one quart “nesting” variety that can be carried on march)
  • Skillet (small or medium sized to fit in haversack or strapped to back of knapsack)
  • Spider (for static camp impressions)
  • Small coffee pot (small enough to strap onto back of knapsack)
  • Medium or large size Wooden Spoon

Food Storage
The most important aspect of proper use of period rations is correct storage. Nothing can kill a period scene for a spectator (or other event participants) and ruin the atmosphere of a living history/event if an otherwise period looking living historian reaches into his haversack and suddenly pulls out a bag of potato chips, food wrapped in plastic, or other modern food items.

All food items should be stored in poke sacks, wrapped in huck towels, or otherwise stored with period wrappings, such as muslin. Brown paper is sometimes used by re-enactors, but given that paper was in such short supply in the Confederacy (and especially in the army) during the war, paper wrappings should be kept to the minimum.

Preparing and eating foods that were most commonly issued to Confederates during the war is relatively simple. Most foods that were issued back then are still available for purchase today. These items do not require refrigeration in order too keep from spoiling (no refrigeration in the 1860s!). Even slab bacon can keep in your haversack for a two or three day event without spoiling or causing health/safety concerns. Food rarities to the common soldier in the field, such as cheeses, pies/sweets, fresh foods that require special care in warm weather, should be avoided. In addition to not being very accessible for most soldiers on the march in a campaign during the Civil War, such items require special handling and storage that are not available at events (i.e. access to a cooler with ice, need for plastic wrapping etc), particularly living history programs or events where there is no access to vehicles.

List of Period Ration Items:
It is important to remember that rations varied depending on the time of year (summer, winter, spring, fall) and campaign scenario. These factors impact the availability and selection of food (i.e. seasonal foods and accessibility depending upon wagon transportation, etc.).

  • Salt pork/slab bacon
  • Black eyed beans
  • Long grain rice (unprocessed)
  • Corn Pone
  • Parched Corn
  • Corn Meal
  • Dried Peas
  • Corn (unshucked) and other seasonal appropriate vegetables
  • Goober Peas/Peanuts
  • Salt
  • Coffee substitute (i.e. sweet potato coffee)
  • Cone sugar, molasses or sorghum

Fresh beef would be appropriate for rations on rare occasion. Make sure it’s a poor cut of meat, like rump roast or shoulder roast, not T bones and tender sirloins. Unlike slab bacon which is smoked /cured and will not spoil for up to 3 days before cooking, fresh beef needs to be issued and cooked immediately for health safety reasons.

Corn pone is authentic. Corn bread generally is not. The difference is that corn pone does not rise, while corn bread does. Corn pone, when cooked properly, is harder in substance and will not crumble as easily if stored in a haversack. A corn pone recipe is included below.

Corn meal should be coarse ground – not the fine ground meal sold in supermarkets. Most international food sections of supermarkets have coarse ground. A vendor is also listed below.

Partial List of Period Foraged Items:
Availability of “foraged” items depends upon the season and campaign. These items could be sent in a box from home, foraged from the country side, taken from a federal haversack on the battlefield, or purchased from a sutler if the army was in winter quarters or otherwise stationary. It is important to remember that forage items would be rare and in small quantities, since an army of 20,000 to 80,000 soldiers on the march would strip a countryside clean of food items. Foraged items would include:

  • Corn on the cob (unshucked)
  • Apples (in the fall)
  • Peaches, Cherries (summer)
  • Dried Fruit (sent from home)
  • Spring Onions (in the spring)
  • Potatoes (sweet/yam; red or white)
  • Eggs (boiled eggs will keep for a week w/o refrigeration)
  • Coffee beans (green coffee beans were most common, requiring toasting before grinding)
  • Turnips
  • Baked biscuits/round loaves of soft bread
  • Federal Hardtack

Issuing Rations
For a large group, you can spread out a couple of ground clothes and make individual piles of each food item. The members of the company line up and proceed down the line to receive their portion of each item. The supervising sergeant and NCOs can use a tin cup to dole out equal quantities of the goods from the bags directly to each person receiving rations. Demeanor for rations issue: Be business-like about issuing the rations. The Sergeant (or person running the issue) should be quick and decisive when issuing.

Another method is to buy quantities of cheap muslin that are cut it into handkerchief-sized squares, put the requisite quantity of food stuff in the middle of this square, and wrap and tie it up hobo style. Each person receiving a ration is then given one muslin package that contains equal quantities all food items issued.

Rations can be received in a canteen half, in a cup, in poke bags, or in a piece of cloth – it’s just a matter of a soldier’s ingenuity. Each person should always have at least 4-5 poke sacks and 1-2 huck towels or pieces of cloth in their haversack for rations. Foragers can also store rations for transportation in larger forage bags or small or medium sized burlap sacks. These bags can be tied to a knapsack, tied and hung off of a belt, or even tied to the haversack strap to hang down by the forager’s side while on the march. Again, food storage and transportation on the march is just a matter of ingenuity and creativity in the field. As long as period items are used, just do whatever you come up with that works: chances are a soldier back in the 1860s figured out and used the same method.

Cooking (The Moment of Truth)
Salt Pork/Slab Bacon: Salt pork was often called ‘sow belly’ by soldiers in blue and grey. Salt pork was the most common meat issued soldiers in both armies – a rations staple no matter what time of year. Avoid modern ‘salt pork’ sold in supermarkets – it’s mostly fat and tastes absolutely terrible. Period salt pork is not readily available. The best substitute is slab bacon (which is also better to eat, tastier, and not nearly as salty).

Slab bacon does not need to be refrigerated and can keep in your haversack for up to three days before cooking. Just use common sense if you have raw slab bacon in your haversack (i.e. don’t leave it sitting out in the sun during the summer). You can also cook your slab bacon at home and then store in your haversack for up to three days without a problem.

Slab bacon is generally sold (by the vendors listed below) in 4-5 pound slabs. Upon receipt, simply take the slab out of its plastic wrapper and cut into one half pound or pound pieces. For storage in your haversack, the easiest method is to simply wrap it in a huck towel or place in a larger sized poke bag. Extra slab pieces can be stored in larger sized forage bags.

Slab bacon can be boiled, roasted, or fried.

  • For boiling: place a piece in a tin cup or peach can, add water, and place on the fire. After the meat is cooked through, the remaining water can be used as a base for a broth or stew.
  • For roasting: you can simply place the slab bacon on the end of a stick or bayonet and place over the fire. For cooking for a large group, simply take the slab bacon pieces and put onto a ramrod; next, rest the ramrod on the backside of socket ends of two bayonets stuck in the ground on either side of a fire.
  • For frying: place a piece of slab bacon in a canteen half or small skillet, after a small amount of grease cooks off the bacon into the cooking container, add a bit of water to avoid burning the meat; continue to add water as needed to avoid burning until cooked through.

Black Beans or Field Peas: The most important thing to remember when issued beans in the field is to soak them overnight or through the day (at least 8 hours) in a cup or boiler to facilitate cooking. When preparing beans, simply boil until soft enough to eat. Beans can be combined with rice, or added with other items for a stew or soup.

Hominy: This makes a great breakfast as it is a good idea to soak the hominy overnight (or all day if you plan on making it for supper) before you boil it. Cover the hominy with twice as much water plus a bit extra (one cup of hominy to at least two cups of water or if you want a runnier consistency add more water). Hominy is very bland. You can add a bit of the sugar cone or molasses to this if you want it somewhat sweet or you could add salt pork fat, or both the sweetener and the fat.

Rice: Make sure to use only natural, unprocessed rice. Most stores that sell “organic” foods will have a variety of rice available to buy in bulk. In addition for use with stews, beans, and soups, rice can also be used as a breakfast item. Simple boil the rice until ready, and then add brown sugar and/or molasses. This provides a tasty cereal and plenty of carbohydrates for a long day.

Corn Meal: The following corn meal cooking techniques are listed in a cooking article from the 16th Virginia website (reprinted here with permission from the author, Vince Petty):

  • Corn Cakes (“Corn Dodgers”) – To the corn meal and flour mix add bacon grease and enough hot water to make stiff dough. Pinch or spoon off from the dough enough to pat out into a patty the size of an old silver dollar and fry it in a canteen half (make sure you use plenty of bacon grease) until golden brown and a little crunchy.

    Texas troops in winter quarters in 1861 near Manassas display their fresh baked cornbread.
  • Hoe cakes – To the corn meal and flour mix add bacon grease and enough hot water to make stiff dough. Pinch or spoon off from the dough enough to pat out into a patty the size of an old silver dollar. Instead of frying, prop up a canteen half close to the heat of the fire and bake rather than fry (an ideal method when there is no bacon grease available to fry with). By propping up the canteen half very close to the fire you are using it like a reflector to bake with. It is because these corn cakes were often cooked on the blades of hoes and shovels that they were often called hoe cakes.
  • Ash cakes – When no mess gear is available the ash cake is another option for using corn meal. Prepare your dough as you would for hoe cakes or corn cakes. Once prepared wrap up the dough in corn husks, tie the husks closed and bury in ashes and coals of a fire. Allow to bake for about 30 minutes. Following is one soldier’s account of baking ash cakes: “The next morning we drew bacon and meal from which the commissary had ‘presses’ in the country. This was the first food we had had for three days, except the small ration of beef on the day before, but there was not a cooking vessel of any description in the brigade, so we had to make up our dough on boards, pieces of bark or any flat material we could procure. Probably more ‘ashcakes’ were made in one hour than had ever been made in the same length of time and everybody knows they are hard to beat for bread, but I made an improvement on the style of cooking mine without the unpleasant feature of having it coated with ashes. I found a corn shuck from which the ear had been removed and, making my dough on a broad piece of bark, filled the shuck, tying the end with hickory bark, covered it with hot ashes and coals. My experiment proved a complete success, for when I uncovered it and stripped of the shuck, I had a beautiful ‘pone’ of bread just the size and shape of an ear of corn and I can truthfully say it was the best bread I have ever eaten before or since.” J. P. Cannon, 27th Alabama Infantry.

Dried Peas: Follow the same general process as for cooking hominy and beans (soaking over night or most of the day before putting the kettle or cup on the fire). You do not need to add sugar or salt pork fat as dried peas actually keep their flavor.

Potatoes: Potatoes can be baked in coals; sliced and fried in bacon grease (make sure to add a bit of water to avoid burning); or boiled. Potatoes can be combined with other items for soup or basic stew.

Sweet Potato Coffee Substitute: Put about two heaping tablespoons of coffee substitute in a tin cup, add water and boil the hell out of it. The recipe on how to make sweet potato coffee substitute is included below.

Unprocessed Sugar Cone: Can be purchased in one pound cones. Easiest method is to shatter the cone and divide among your mess mates for storage in a poke sack.

Mess Practices
All mess activities revolve around the Dog Robber and Assistant Dog Robber. They take the lead in food preparation and cooking, but everyone in the mess and/or unit needs to participate. For example, two people should gather firewood, another charged with prepping/cutting the meat or veggies, another messmate in charge of maintaining adequate water supply, and one or two in charge of actual cooking and supervision of the food preparation.

Mess equipment (and you don’t really need very much) should be divided among the messmates while on the march.

A practice that works well for the 4th Virginia is to pre-assign food items to bring. For example, in the 4th VA newsletter before an event, each person attending is assigned one food item: i.e. one or two people are charged with bringing 3-4 sweet potatoes each; one person is charged with bringing rice; another with corn meal; another with spring onions, etc. etc. etc. Generally, only one person handles ordering slab bacon, and then the rest of the messmates reimburse that person their pro-rata share of the costs. Granted, if a person does not show up, then that food item is missing – but when you think about it that would be entirely correct if a messmate carrying rations straggled on the march or was killed in battle, thus rendering his stored food or cooking implements unavailable for the rest of his messmates.

Parched Corn: Parched Corn was also issued to Confederate soldiers. This food item needs to be prepared at home prior to an event. Parched corn is a nice “snack” food, easy to store in a poke bag, lightweight, and perfect for your haversack.

Parched Corn is made by first drying fresh corn cobs until thoroughly dried, and then cooking the dried kernels with a small amount put in a skillet or spider with some bacon. The bacon grease would keep the corn from sticking and the heat would make the small kernels of dried corn swell up and turn brown. Parched Corn is the swollen and browned kernels.

If you can’t get fresh corn on the cob (or don’t want to because of the price and time involved in drying it), then just go buy frozen whole kernel corn at the grocery store. If you have a dehydrator that will simplify drying the corn, but if not, then you can simply spread the corn kernels out on cookie tins and set your oven to 150 degrees and leave the door cracked an inch or so. It will take up to eight (8) hours or more to dry, just be sure to check on it every thirty minutes or so.

Once you get it fully dehydrated, then it’s time to get out your favorite skillet and oil or grease. Almost any kind of oil or grease works, just heat the skillet on a low heat and oil the skillet. Once the skillet is hot, spread the oil around for just a thin coating on the skillet surface. PAM spray also works very well for this.

Next, you should pour in a little of the dried corn; you should have not quite enough corn to coat the bottom of the skillet. You have to constantly stir the corn around so it won’t burn. It takes less than a minute to parch the corn. When the corn swells up and turns a light to medium brown color, it is ready. Dump the corn out onto a plate that has some cloth (or some paper towels) on it to soak up any of the oil/grease that might be left on the corn, then re-oil your skillet and do some more. If you are doing it right it will take several skillets full to make a weekend’s ration but you won’t end up burning any of it. The corn kernels will take a while to dry out. You should allow the kernels to stay out overnight to dry.

Sweet Potato Coffee Substitute: Peel and cube the sweet potatoes. Dry in an oven on low heat (about 150 degrees) for several hours. Afterwards, you can brown the dried cubes in a skillet (do not use oil, just place on skillet). Next, finely grate/ground the dried cubes using a cheese grater or food processor. You can use these grounds for brewing coffee or, for some caffeine content, you can make a mix of three parts sweet potato grounds, and one part coffee grounds.

“Corn Pone” or “Indian Bread”: From Confederate Receipt Book: A Compilation of over 100 Recipes Adapted to the Times – West & Johnson, Richmond – 1863

1 quart Butter Milk
1 quart Corn Meal
1 quart Coarse Flour
1 cup Molasses
a little Soda (baking soda) & Salt
Mix and Bake

Editor’s note: Mix ingredients together, let batter sit for an hour. Pour batter in greased cake pans and bake in 425 degree preheated oven for 35-45 minutes (though baking in greased cast iron skillet is best – if using skillet bake a bit longer).

You can add more molasses to make it a bit tastier. Note that if properly cooked, this will be harder and more ornery looking than regular cornbread.

Corn Pone in the Field: You can also make corn pone in the field – simply take left-over bacon grease and add to corn meal and a bit of water. Make a dough and place on a skillet on camp fire coals (low heat) and then cover the skillet with another plate or some sort of lid.

Cush: Another Confederate staple made in a variety of ways. One soldiers account:

“We take some bacon and fry the grease out, then we cut some cold beef in small pieces and put it in the grease, then pour in water and stew it like hash. Then we crumble corn bread or biscuit in it [some soldiers made mush or paste of flour or meal and added one of both of these at this point instead of crumbs] and stew it again til all the water is out then we have . . .real Confederate cush.” The Life of Johnny Reb, at pp. 104-105, by Bell Irvin Wiley.

Editors note – you can also add vegetables, like potatoes and/or onions to cush.

Irish Mashed Potatoes: Boil Irish potatoes and green apples together, then mash together, season with salt, pepper, onions, and/or garlic. Wiley at p. 105.

Special Thanks to Greg Schultz (17th Virginia, Co. E/Delmonico Mess) of Michigan for his guidance, information, and recipes; and to Vince Petty for allowing us to use excerpts from his research article on corn meal from the 16th Virginia website.

Equipment Vendors and Food Suppliers
Grocery Items:
Carter and Jasper Mercantile
Excellent selection of period dry goods and food containers

Green Coffee Beans and Cone Sugar:
Jas. Townsend and Son

Hominy and Stoneground Corn Meal:
Blue Heron Mercantile

Slab Bacon Vendors: Each of these vendors will ship slab bacon to your doorstep via two day air delivery. Affordable and reliable. It’s advisable to call ahead to ensure availability. It’s recommended to order at least 7-8 days before an event to ensure it arrives in time for an event. The slabs are packaged in plastic. To prepare for an event, simply remove plastic and cut into ½ or ¾ pound pieces, and put in haversack. Slab bacon will last in the field without refrigeration for at least 3 days.

Scott Hams
Item #55 Slab Bacon

New Braunfels Smokehouse
Catalog Item #394 – Smoked Comal Slab Bacon (4-5 pound slab)
To order by phone call 1-800-537-6932

Edwards Virginia Smokehouse:
Catalog Item # 078B Country Style Virginia Half Slab Bacon (4-5 pounds)

Mess Equipment Vendors:
Carl Giordano Tinsmith
Small Nesting Kettles – One quart with lid and bail

The Village Tinsmith
Small Coffee Pot – Catalog Item #3
Peach Can Boiler – Item # 9
Tin Mucket – Item #10
Tin Plate (copied from original) – Item #20
Tin Dipper – Item #37
Match Safe Tin – Item #50

N.J. Sekela

Making Reproduction Extract of Coffee

For use in a modern-day encampment; a close copy may be made by combining instant coffee and Condensed milk. Condensed milk is the original, thick, heavy-sugar product invented by Dr.Borden in the 1830s. Although other brands may be found, I like to use “Borden’s” brand condensed milk. It brings me just a little closer to the original. Do not use evaporated milk. It is not thick enough and does not contain sugar.

After unsuccessful experiments with liquid coffee and Italian espresso, I tried present day instant espresso mixed with Borden’s or Eagle brand condensed milk. I had to go to several groceries to find instant espresso, but it is out there. I think that this mix makes a very close copy of the original. I think that coffee prepared from ordinary American roast is not quite strong enough. Nestles makes an instant dark roast if you can’t get instant espresso.


Place one half cup of instant coffee crystals in a cup and add a few drops of boiling water.

Use as little water as possible, adding just a few drops at a time. It doesn’t take much water to break down the coffee crystals. When the crystals have barely dissolved, you should have no more than a teaspoonful of water mixed into the half cupful of coffee powder. You can mix the dry crystals directly into the condensed milk but this makes the extract look spotty and it takes more labor to mix.

Next, empty one can of Borden’s condensed milk into a suitable bowl. You may heat the condensed milk slightly in the microwave or on the stove. This is not necessary but will help with the mixing. Now mix the coffee paste into the condensed milk until it is all blended together.

The resultant Extract of Coffee will be a thick paste that looks like liquid fudge. Pack the Extract of Coffee in any suitable container. One tablespoon of the Extract of Coffee, mixed into a tin cup of hot water will produce Civil War instant coffee, as made from Extract of Coffee, one of the most popular but long-forgotten food items issued to the Federal troops.

Reprinted from Civil War Reenactors Forum