During the Civil War, soldiers loved to eat and to sing. One of their favorite songs was about food they hated: “Hardtack, Come Again No More!” It was a parody of composer Stephen Foster’s popular 1854 tune “Hard Times Come Again No More.”
Hardtack was a thick cracker that formed the men's basic ration. Nearly every soldier received nine or ten every day. Hardtack lived up to the “hard” part of its name. Soldiers often had trouble crunching the rock-like crackers and gave them nicknames such as “teeth dullers,” “sheet-iron crackers,” “jawbreakers,” and so on.
According to a popular joke, a soldier bit into a piece of hardtack.
“I found something soft!” he told his comrades.
“What is it?” they asked.
“A nail!” he replied.
To make hardtack easier to eat, soldiers often bashed the crackers with the butt end of their rifles. They scooped up the crumbs and mixed them with bacon grease and salt pork to make a kind of mush called skillygalee.
Hardtack had another nickname: “worm castles.” Worms frequently burrowed into the crackers. To get rid of those little wrigglers, soldiers dunked the crackers in hot coffee. The hardtack fell apart and the worms floated to the surface. Sometimes the men had contests to see whose hardtack had the most worms. Reportedly, the record was 32!
Not everyone threw the little creatures away, though. One soldier explained that “They eat better than they look, and are so much clear gain in the way of fresh meat.”
If hardtack had all these problems, why was it such an important part of the soldiers’ daily diet? First, it was easy and inexpensive to make. Every day 3 or 4 million crackers popped out of bakers’ ovens and were shipped to the armies in the field.
Second, hardtack hardly ever spoiled. In 1898, U.S. Navy sailors in the Spanish-American War chowed down on hardtack baked more than 30 years earlier during the Civil War.
Third, the crackers didn’t weigh very much. Soldiers could carry enough hardtack in their backpacks to eat for several days.
Soldiers joked that they could stitch together crackers to make a bulletproof vest, though it’s doubtful that anyone actually did. Maybe they should have. In 2010, college students performed an experiment by firing pistol shots into chunks of hardtack. They were astonished to find that the crackers stopped the bullets!
© Jim Whiting, 2014
Jim Whiting has written 250 nonfiction books. He's known as Washington State's most prolific children's book author.
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