How a Steady Supply of Coffee Helped the Union Win the U.S. Civil War

Amer­i­cans doing “e‑mail jobs” and work­ing in the “lap­top class” tend to make much of the quan­ti­ty of cof­fee they require to keep going, or even to get start­ed. In that sense alone, they have some­thing in com­mon with Civ­il War sol­diers. “Union sol­diers were giv­en 36 pounds of cof­fee a year by the gov­ern­ment, and they made their dai­ly brew every­where and with every­thing: with water from can­teens and pud­dles, brack­ish bays and Mis­sis­sip­pi mud,” write NPR’s Kitchen Sis­ters. “The Con­fed­er­a­cy, on the oth­er hand, was decid­ed­ly less caf­feinat­ed. As soon as the war began, the Union block­ad­ed South­ern ports and cut off the South’s access to cof­fee.”

Smith­son­ian Nation­al Muse­um of Amer­i­can His­to­ry cura­tor Jon Grinspan tells of how “des­per­ate Con­fed­er­ate sol­diers would invent makeshift cof­fees,” roast­ing “rye, rice, sweet pota­toes or beets until they were dark, choco­laty and caramelized. The result­ing brew con­tained no caf­feine, but at least it was some­thing warm and brown and con­sol­ing.” (See video at bot­tom of the post.) The stark caf­feina­tion dif­fer­en­tial that result­ed must count as one of many fac­tors that led to the Union’s ulti­mate vic­to­ry. Part of what kept their cof­fee sup­plies robust was imports from Liberia, the African repub­lic that had been estab­lished ear­li­er in the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry by freed Amer­i­can slaves.

“The Union’s abil­i­ty to pur­chase and dis­trib­ute cof­fee from Liberia, along­side oth­er sources, was help­ing the army’s morale,” writes Bron­wen Ever­ill at “In Decem­ber 1862, one sol­dier wrote that ‘what keeps me alive must be the cof­fee.’ ” Mean­while, a north­ern gen­er­al famous­ly gave this advice to oth­er gen­er­als: “If your men get their cof­fee ear­ly in the morn­ing, you can hold.” Many har­row­ing bat­tles lat­er, “at the Con­fed­er­ate sur­ren­der at Appo­mat­tox in April 1865, Michi­gan sol­dier William Smith not­ed that the Con­fed­er­ate sol­diers present were lick­ing their lips hope­ful­ly, with ‘a keen rel­ish for a cup of Yan­kee cof­fee.’ ” (John­ny Reb had pre­sum­ably acquired this taste between those bat­tles, when sol­diers from both sides would meet and exchange goods.)

The Civ­il War in Four Min­utes video above explains the cof­fee-drink­ing Yan­kee’s habits in more detail. “If there was an ear­ly morn­ing march, the first order of busi­ness was to boil water and make cof­fee,” says actor-his­to­ri­an Dou­glas Ull­man Jr. “If there was a halt along the march, the first order of busi­ness when the march stopped was to get that hot water going to drink more cof­fee.” Sol­diers would keep their cof­fee and mea­ger sug­ar rations in the same bag in order to ensure “the tini­est hint of sug­ar in every drop. Think about that the next time you order your caramel soy mac­chi­a­to.” But such bev­er­ages were still a long way off after the Civ­il War, which gave way to the era of what we now call the Wild West — and with it, the hey­day of cow­boy cof­fee.

via Smith­son­ian Mag­a­zine

Relat­ed con­tent:

How Human­i­ty Got Hooked on Cof­fee: An Ani­mat­ed His­to­ry

Watch an Exquis­ite 19th Cen­tu­ry Cof­fee Mak­er in Action

The His­to­ry of Cof­fee and How It Trans­formed Our World

Philoso­phers Drink­ing Cof­fee: The Exces­sive Habits of Kant, Voltaire & Kierkegaard

The His­to­ry of the U.S. Civ­il War Visu­al­ized Month by Month and State by State, in an Info­graph­ic from 1897

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities and the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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