Ten years ago, while archiving a collection of Civil War diaries and letters, Smithsonian curator Jon Grisban uncovered a surprising fact: one word appeared more frequently than rifle or Lincoln or slavery or even war in soldiers’ in these thousands of primary sources.
In the 1800s, coffee had evolved into one of the few comforts available to most Americans. They needed it, because life, uh, life was hard then. Infant mortality hovered around 20%. Stepping on a nail could result in an agonizing death. Refrigeration didn’t exist. Sepsis. Cholera. Typhoid. Surgical anesthetic was an indulgence. Green gobs of horseshit littered America’s roads.
Worst of all, 13% of our fellow Americans toiled under the cancerous banner of slavery. Despite all that, if a historian judged us by our archived correspondence in the 1860s, it would seem Americans were most concerned with getting a hot cup of coffee. How good must that coffee be if it’s more important than the bullets whizzing overhead? Here’s the recipe (in four parts).
Coffee in the 1800s was made only one way. There were no percolators. No pour-overs. No drip brewing. No French press. No coffee bags or sacks or pods or freeze-dried crystals. Until the 1920s, Americans enjoyed a single style of brewed coffee: Civil War coffee, aka cowboy coffee, aka mud coffee.
It’s important to recognize another feature of the mid-1800s that made coffee (or beer or wine or liquor) appealing: they were safer than ordinary water. The modern germ theory of disease wouldn’t be fully embraced until the turn of the century (some fools still reject it). Doctors wouldn’t start using the most basic surgical antiseptics until the 1870s. Municipal water purification through filtration and chlorination was decades away, despite warnings by doctors as early as 1849. Water was dangerous.
Campfire coffee was a fairly safe beverage. Water could be taken from virtually anywhere and the archived correspondence hints that it was. Soldiers gathered drinking water from muddy rivers, ditches, ponds, even from roadway puddles sprinkled with horseshit. Filling canteens was a bacteria-laced gamble, unless that water went into a coffee pot. Food or water heated to 140º F kills off all bacteria, and 150º F takes care of viruses. Even the gritty mud and waterborne bugs become non-toxic when simmered for a few minutes. Drinking coffee kept soldiers both awake and alive.
Rebel soldiers were not as well-provisioned when it came to coffee rations. While the Confederate organizers had a surplus of ideological arrogance and bombast, they had few trade goods, coin, or routes of import to restock their supply. Rebel soldiers created odd substitutions instead. They’d boil edible plants like dandelions, chicory, peas, or rye into a dark, thick mess and pretend it was good.
Before collecting weapons, ammunition, or money, rebels would scour battlefields and US Army campsites looking for loose coffee beans or piles of tossed dregs. By the time Southern soldiers learned the “Cause” had become the “Lost Cause” (after 1863), rebel quartermasters stopped pretending coffee was coming. It was a heavy blow to morale and one cavalry soldier famously decided “Nobody can soldier without coffee.”
The US Army supplied their soldiers with almost a pound of coffee per man per week, throughout the duration. Six cups of coffee daily, twice what Americans average now. The US Army also tried out a kind of super-coffee that legend has produced the single worst cup of coffee ever made since humans ground the first bean.
This abomination, called Essence of Coffee, was a muddy mixture of sugar, evaporated milk, and coffee with both the consistency and taste of taffy fried in old motor oil. Union soldiers cursed the mixture, cursed its creator, and cursed its creator’s mother. Once this rude consensus reached the US Army quartermasters, Essence of Coffee vanished. It was so hated that empty cans of Essence are a much-sought-after Civil War relic today.
Our love for coffee remains as strong as it did 160+ years ago. According to the International Coffee Organization, the average American only drinks three cups of coffee per day, but we consumed 1.6 billion lbs. of coffee in 2016, three times more than Germany, our closest coffee-buying competitor.
Want to Know More?
Check out this brief but informative video from the American Battlefield Trust, which offers a succinct history of Civil War-style coffee.