“Nobody can soldier without coffee.” –Union cavalryman Ebenezer Nelson Gilpin
It’s been a while since my last rendition of “Coffee and Conflict.” Previously I had talked about how coffee came to be America’s drink following the Boston Tea Party. Today I explain how coffee legitimately helped fuel the Civil War.
Coffee had become a wartime staple for soldiers thanks to President Andrew Jackson. In 1832 he signed an Executive Order adding coffee and sugar to the list of army rations. In 1859, Sharps Rifle Co. began producing a rifle with a hand grinder built into the handle that soldiers would use to ground their beans. So when the American Civil War broke out in 1861, Union soldiers were all set to be caffeinated.
Coffee was the soldiers’ fuel. They drank it at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They drank it before going to battle, returning from battle, and during all the downtime in between. According to the New York Times, the word “coffee” showed up in Union soldiers’ diaries more often than “rifle,” “bullet,” “war,” “Lincoln,” and “cannon.” Soldiers would write about how they craved coffee, the wonderful cup of joe they had a breakfast, or the awful cup that they somehow managed to consume. General Benjamin Butler used coffee to his advantage, ordering his men to carry coffee in their canteens and waiting to strike right when the caffeine kicked in. Oftentimes, if there was no time to prepare coffee before heading out, soldiers would chew on whole beans.
During the famous Battle of Antietam (the bloodiest single-day battle of the Civil War), it was coffee that revived the soldiers after a long morning of fighting. A young William McKinley (yes, future president of the United States) came under heavy fire to deliver vats of hot coffee to the waning Ohio regiment. Following battle, their officer remarked on the difference in energy and morale after their little coffee break. This particular instance is commemorated on a monument in Antietam.
The Confederacy was caught on the wrong side of history in more ways than one. While Union soldiers had ample access to coffee, Confederate soldiers had to scrounge for measly amounts, in great part due to the Union blockade (New Orleans had previously been the primary port). When they couldn’t find coffee, they would try to make substitutes out of rye, rice, sweet potatoes, nuts, corn, beets…anything really. If Confederate soldiers were to get their hands on some coffee, it would be due to informal truces where they would swap their tobacco for the North’s coffee. Citizens in the South also suffered from coffee-deprivation. They exchanged creative recipes, craving something dark and hot. One Arkansas person wrote into the local newspaper “describing his or her favorite coffee recipe using tan bark, old cigar stumps, and water, all boiled in a dirty coffee pot.” *Please excuse me while I gag*
Is coffee the reason the Union won the war? Who is to say? Though probably not… However, there is no denying that it fueled our soldiers and nurses, providing energy and inspiration as they fought for the freedoms of themselves and others. One final note, coffee might have been the last drink President Lincoln enjoyed before being assassinated. A White House servant saw him place a coffee mug down as he was heading out to Ford’s theater that fateful night in 1865. The mug is now on display in the Smithsonian.
Stay tuned for the next “Coffee and Conflict” where I talk about the role of coffee during World War I. In the meantime, what do you think about the role coffee played during the Civil War?