3rd Vermont Volunteer Infantry Regimental Colors
3rd VT Volunteer Infantry
Regimental Colors

Updated: October 2014

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Rations and How to Cook Them

Just as the correct uniform and accoutrements are important to our impression, so are rations, cooking methods and camp life in general. Remember - the goal here is to live as they lived!

All modern (post war) foods, wrappings or containers, storage containers, coolers, etc. are strictly prohibited. The existence of fresh vegetables, fruits and "foraged items" are over represented in the hobby. The staple of the Civil War soldiers diet was issued military rations. On rare occasion the soldiers may have gotten a box from home, made a purchase from a sutler or have done some foraging. This was then, and thus should now be, the exception. Also, when a soldier does wish to supplement his army rations care must be taken to make sure the item is period correct and is appropriate for the time of the year, the scenario, etc. Soldiers would not have had fresh vegetables (potatoes, onions, carrots), ripe fruit, etc. in spring or early summer. Some of those items would be appropriate for late summer or early fall. For almost all of the events we do, soft bread and canned goods are inappropriate. Generally soldiers would only have had those in a fixed (e.g. winter) camp, not on campaign.

Okay - so what do I have in my haversack? The regular army issue ration usually consisted of a meat ration of bacon, salt pork, salt beef, salt horse or fresh beef. The salt pork had more actual meat then today's salt pork does. The soldier actually preferred bacon or salt pork to anything else. It was better than salt beef or horse and much easier to keep than fresh beef. The beef that was issued was not always the best, the butchers were not professionals and you were more likely to get a tough, grizzly chunk as not. The standard issue of salt or fresh beef was 1-1/4 pounds per man per day. Of salt pork or bacon - 3/4 lb per day. As with all rations, the men did not always get the meat ration and when they did, it wasn't always a full ration. Most members carry bacon for a meat ration but salt pork is acceptable as well.  Do not slice the bacon or salt pork before going into the field, leave it in slab form, wrap in correct paper or cloth and slice as needed. The other rations normally issued were hardtack, coffee (usually whole beans - green or roasted) and sugar (use dark brown sugar). The normal issue of hardtack was 10 per day. Experience has shown that 10 is probably more than you will consume in a day. These items are carried in pokes, tins or wrapped in cloth, newspaper (must be period) or brown paper. Most soldiers had salt and/or pepper and maybe some molasses.

It would not be unusual for Vermont soldiers to carry maple sugar (not syrup) from May into mid (possibly late) summer. It was considered a precious commodity and was generally used up quickly, lest some of the pesky vermin (critters or his mess mates) get it. In addition to the above, the army occasionally issued (as they were available and generally in a more permanent camp - not on campaign): beans or rice or peas or baled hay (desicated vegetables). It would be incorrect to have more than one or possibly two of these items at any one time. The soldier on rare occasion would have received goodies from home, the sanitary commission or made a purchase from the sutler. There was generally little if any difference between rations for the infantry and artillery. However, the artillery may have had more fresh horse than the infantry!

All of the infantry soldier's rations that needed cooking were generally fried in the tin plate or canteen half, boiled in the boiler or cup, or roasted on a stick, bayonet or ramrod over the fire. Interestingly, Customs of Service states that since frying meat is unhealthy, the recommended method was boiling. We do know however that it was often fried. Sometimes a soldier would cook his entire three day meat ration upon issue. They would do this to prevent spoilage or when they expected to be on the march, not knowing if they would be able to stop long enough to cook. There are many accounts of soldiers eating their meat rations without cooking at all (and many died from disease and sickness)! We do not recommend this - eating your bacon raw may have an entirely too realistic effect! You can whittle out a piece of green branch for a dandy handle for your plate. Adding a wire bail to your cup makes it much more useful as a boiler. In a fixed camp there would more likely be small messes or cooks preparing food for the company or entire regiment. As with anything else, if you have questions watch how a veteran does it or ask. You will soon learn the knack of quickly preparing your army rations.

When it comes to cooking methods, the artillery impression will often vary from that of the infantry. Artillery wagons carried skillets (dutch ovens), grilling racks and pots that were generally not available to the infantry while on campaign. Therefore, communal messes were more common. The ranking artillery NCO will decide what the cooking impression shall be (individual, or a section or battery mess) and will advise his men accordingly.

Read more about rations and cooking in Billing's Hardtack and Coffee or Bull's Soldiering. These are available in paperback and are "must haves" for any serious living historian wanting to do an accurate impression!

Revised April 2001

Once again, we stress that in order to preserve authenticity and help ensure you will receive a quality product, ALL items must be purchased through, or with the approval of, the Quartermaster.

ITEMS NOT APPROVED PRIOR TO PURCHASE MAY NOT BE ALLOWED ON THE FIELD!!!

If you have any questions PLEASE contact: Doug Grout, Henry Wakefield or Eric Hector
(see member list for phone numbers, etc.)

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