Cooking During The Civil War

Frying Pan

Pre-Civil War Food - Wartime Cooking - Food During the War - Preparation - Food Substitutions - Food Storage - Recipes

Pre-Civil War Food

A typical southern farm would produce fruits, vegetables and game or pork. Most families did not have meat at every meal, and when they did, it would consist of one of their farm produce. Meatless meals were substantiated with vegetables and bread that were seasoned with fat and herbs. Baked or fried bread, usually cornbread or load bread, would help satisfy hunger. Desserts and sweets were not common; typically these were prepared at harvest times of berries, peaches and apples, and at Christmas.

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Wartime Cooking

Cooking during the Civil War differed substantially from everyday cooking, for those on the field and families at home. Because the war drove up inflation, and food prices skyrocketed, families often had to find substitutes for conveniences to which they were accustomed.

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Food During the War

As the war continued, Southerners began to feel the pinch of food shortages, especially in the cities, where residents did not produce their own food and had large concentrated populations. As the Union established more and more blockades, farmers were less able to transport food into the cities. While rural areas felt the shortages as well, most rural residents were farmers and were used to hunting or growing their own food.

Some popular dishes in the South included fried ham with red-eye gravy and biscuits, Hopping John (a stew made with bacon, peas or beans, and red pepper). Vegetables included tomatoes (Ruffled Yellow), lettuce (head, leaf, and romaine), beans (Great Northern Yellow Eye, Jacob's Cattle) and snap beans, sweet corn (Black Aztec), cabbage, potato (Early Rose and Irish potatoes), cucumbers, pumpkins, melons and beets.

Men on the field often ate canned food, as storage was more difficult since soldiers would travel from camp to camp every day. Some of the labels are surprisingly familiar:

· Underwood Deviled Ham
· Lea and Perrins Worcestershire Sauce
· Borden's Condensed Milk
· Van Camp's Pork and Beans
· McIlhenny Company's Tabasco Sauce

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Indoor cooking was done over a wood stove, typically filled with hickory or other hardwoods because of the long burning potential. The fire had to be started several hours ahead of meal preparation to ensure a hot bed of coals.

The fireplace sat in the kitchen, usually a separate building from the rest of the house to prevent the heat and fire from consuming the main living quarters. The kitchen fireplace was quite large, with a fixed horizontal iron bar across the top or an iron bar that hinged to one side of the fireplace that the cook could swing in and out of the fire. The cook would hang a pot or kettle from an S-hook attached to one of these bars.

The cook prepared the food in either a Dutch oven or a frying pan. The Dutch oven of the 19th century, unlike those of today, more closely resembled a cauldron, a deep, round pot with three legs that sat directly over the coals. Cooks could make several items in the Dutch oven, including cakes, breads, vegetables, meats, soups and stews. If the cook was frying the food, she would rake some coals onto the hearth and place the frying pan directly on them. The fire itself was used only when boiling water or making coffee.

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Food Substitutions

Before secession, a typical Southern family's grocery bill was $6.65 per month. By 1864, it was $400 per month. In fact. Confederate dollars were so devalued that many families could not afford to buy food staples. As produce became more and more scarce or expensive, people had to find substitutes for common foods. Many residents were quite creative, and although most of the substitutes did not survive until modern times, satisfied southern appetites to some degree. Here are some examples:

Meat (at least $20 for one meal):
Domestic animals, crows, frogs, locusts, snails, snakes and worms

Okra seeds that were browned, dried sweet potatoes or carrots, roasted acorns, wheat berries

Herbs, sumac berries, sassafras roots, raspberry, blackberry, huckleberry and holly leaves

Water and corn and molasses, fermented in an old barrel

Milk or cream:
Beat an egg white to a froth and add a small lump of butter, mix well.

Molasses, sorghum, dried, ground figs, honey, watermelon syrup
Vinegar (apple): molasses, honey, beets, figs, persimmon, may-apples and sorghum

Rice, rice flour, cornmeal, and rye flour.

Boiled sea water, or taking dirt from the smokehouse, adding water and boiling it. Skim off the scum on the top and drop in cold water, and the salt sinks to the bottom. The impurities could be boiled off. Wood ashes or gunpowder could substitute for salt as a seasoning.

Source: Varhole, Michael J. Everyday Life During the Civil War.

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Food Storage

Most nineteenth century families used salt to preserve meat, but during the war, it was not only scarce but prohibitively expensive. Louisiana and Virginia produced salt, but as Union forces captured more ports, transporting the salt became impossible. To cope with the shortage, North Carolinians used the dirt from the smokehouses, mixed it with water and boiled it. When a scum rose to the top, the cook would skim it off and plunge it into cold water. The salt would sink to the bottom. Coastal residents used seawater that they would allow to evaporate.

To preserve meat, southern cooks would slice it very thinly and smoke it. They would found fish flat and dry it in the sun, often without the addition of salt. Unfortunately these did not last long, so often southerners would use preservatives such as a solution of salt, water, sugar (or other sweetener), and a small amount of potassium nitrate.

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Indian Bread

1 quart buttermilk
1 quart cornmeal
1 quart coarse flour
1 cup molasses
a pinch baking soda
a pinch salt

Mix ingredients together and bake over a wood fire.

"Apple-less" Apple Pie

1 bowl crackers
1 t tartaric acid

Take a small bowl of crackers and soak the crackers in water until no hard parts remain. Add one teaspoon of tartaric acid, sweeten to taste, add some butter and a little nutmeg. Bake.


Take flour, a little sugar and water, mix with or without a little yeast, the latter better if at hand. Mix into a paste and fry as you would fritters in clean fat.

A Cheap and Quick Pudding

4 eggs
1 pint milk
dash salt
4 large spoonfuls of flour
nutmeg and sugar

Beat the eggs, add the milk and a little salt, and stir in the four spoonfuls of flour. Add a little nutmeg and sugar to taste. Beat well and pour into buttered teacups, filling them rather more than half full. They will bake in a stove or Dutch oven in fifteen minutes.

Indian Sagamite

Three parts of Indian meal and one of brown sugar, mixed and browned over the fire, will make the food known as "Sagamite." Used in small quantities, it not only appeases hunger but allays thirst, and is therefore useful to soldiers on a scout.

Source: Confederate Cookbook, Bennett Place

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