Military History: “Nobody Can Soldier Without Coffee…”

coffee and war

In April 1865, at the bloody, bitter end of the Civil War, Ebenezer Nelson Gilpin, a Union cavalryman, wrote in his diary, “Everything is chaos here. The suspense is almost unbearable.”

“We are reduced to quarter rations and no coffee,” he continued. “And nobody can soldier without coffee.”

If war is hell, then for many soldiers throughout American history, it is coffee that has offered some small salvation. Hidden Kitchens looks at three American wars through the lens of coffee: the Civil War, Vietnam and Afghanistan.

The Civil War

War, freedom, slavery, secession, union — these are some of the big themes you might expect to find in the diaries of Civil War soldiers. At least, that’s what Jon Grinspan, a curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, assumed when he began digging through war journals in the nation’s Civil War archives.

“I went looking for the big stories,” Grinspan says. “And all they kept talking about was the coffee they had for breakfast, or the coffee they wanted to have for breakfast.”

The word coffee was more present in these diaries than the words “war,” “bullet,” “cannon,” “slavery,” “mother” or even “Lincoln.” “You can only ignore what they’re talking about for so long before you realize that’s the story,” Grinspan says.

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 — liquid their horses would not drink. “Soldiers would drink it before marches, after marches, on patrol, during combat,” Grinspan tells us.

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.

“The Confederates had access to tobacco and Southern foods; Northern soldiers had access to coffee,” explains Andrew F. Smith, a professor of food studies at the New School in New York, and author of Starving the South: How the North Won the Civil War. “When there was not a battle going on, Confederate soldiers and Union soldiers met in the middle of fields and exchanged goods,” Smith says.

Desperate Confederate soldiers would invent makeshift coffees, Grinspan tells us, 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.

Perhaps the North’s access to caffeine gave its soldiers a strategic advantage. At least that’s what one Union officer, Gen. Benjamin Butler, thought. He ordered his men to carry coffee in their canteens and planned attacks based on when his men would be most wired. His advice to other generals was: “If your men get their coffee early in the morning, you can hold.”

Over the course of the war, as the Union army grew, its camps became makeshift cities, housing hundreds of thousands of men. “They were in battle maybe one or two weeks of the whole year,” Grinspan says. Most of the time, he adds, “they weren’t shooting their rifles at enemies, being chased or fired upon, but every day they made coffee.”

In 1859 Sharps Rifle Co. began to manufacture a carbine with a hand-cranked grinder built into the butt stock — or handle — of the rifle. Union soldiers would fill the stock with beans, grind them up, dump them out and use the grounds to cook the coffee. As the morning began, one Civil War diarist described a scene of “little campfires rapidly increasing to hundreds in numbers that would shoot up along the hills and plains.” The encampment would buzz with the sound of thousands of grinders simultaneously crushing beans. Soon, tens of thousands of muckets (coffee pots) gurgled with fresh brew.

“Here’s an irony,” says Grinspan. “These soldiers who were fighting ostensibly to end slavery are fueled by this coffee from slave fields in Brazil.”

Read the Remainder at NPR



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