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.
MLA 8 Citation
Whiting, Jim. "Hard Crackers in Hard Times." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 12 Sept. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/hard-crackers-in-hard-times.
Until 1800, the U.S. capital had been Philadelphia, a big city. Then the capital moved to Washington, DC, a small town with dirt roads, lots of trees, and the not-quite-finished Capitol and presidential mansion, known to some as the “White House.” In the winter of 1809, when Abe Lincoln (future President No. 16 – the tallest) was still a baby, James Madison, the new president (No. 4 – the shortest), gave a party. It happened that James’s wife, Dolley, was excellent at bringing all sorts of people together and making sure they had a jolly time. This was her way of making Mr. Madison popular.
So, one Wednesday evening, the Madisons’ servants (enslaved African Americans, some of them) welcomed party goers to the White House. The large East Room, where Abigail Adams (wife of President No. 2) hung up her laundry, was closed off. Now the politicians, government workers, foreign diplomats, and their wives exchanged smiles with rosy Dolley Madison. (She used blusher – very daring then!) Imagine people in the oval-shaped Blue Room (cream-colored then, with red velvet curtains), laughing with the First Lady, all fancy in her Paris gown.
Next door was the sunny gold parlor (the Red Room now), where you might visit with shy, brainy President Madison. (Did you know he helped to write the U.S. Constitution? Well he did!) Best of all was the big State Dining Room. It had been an office for Thomas Jefferson (President No. 3). Now it was full of FOOD: Savory snacks, tea and other drinks, little cakes and a rare delicacy: ice cream. Imagine guests with their mouths full and eyes wide, staring up at Gilbert Stuart’s great portrait of President No. 1. Some of the guests had met George Washington, but they all knew how much he’d done to make the United States possible.
Everyone had such a good time, that there was another party the next Wednesday and the next. LOTS of people came – even the most disagreeable politicians! The popular weekly party, with its crowds of mashed together party goers, was a White House tradition for a while. It even got a name: Mrs. Madison’s Crush.
Cheryl Harness's latest book is Flags Over America, a picture book history of flags, especially America's. It was published for the 200 YEARS anniversary since Francis Scott Key wrote his poem about the Star Spangled Banner. For more information, click here.
MLA 8 Citation
Harness, Cheryl. "The Wednesday Night Crush." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 28 Nov. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/ the-Wednesday-Night-Crush.
For Vicki Cobb's BLOG (nonfiction book reviews, info on education, more), click here: Vicki's Blog
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