Local history series: What soldiers ate during the Civil War

The Westport Historical Society’s Second Saturday speaker series this Saturday, Nov. 10 at 2 p.m. looks at how the Northern and Southern armies of the Civil War kept their troops fed.

Historian and re-enactor Greg Higginbotham will use excerpts from Civil War letters and diaries to explain the daily diet of the men in both armies. He’ll detail how the armies were able to feed thousands as supply lines stretched thin.

In the press release about the event, the details of how complex this was are evident:

During the Civil War, a time before modern refrigeration and preservation techniques, the North and South struggled to keep their soldiers fed. When foraging failed to provide fresh meat, bread, and produce, the common soldier was faced with consuming official rations.

The most common field ration was salt pork and hardtack, the latter being a biscuit of compressed baked wheat or other grain. Hardtack usually had to be soaked in liquid or even boiled to be palatable, but if kept dry it might retain its nutritional value for years.

Southern troops usually ate poorer than their foes because the Confederacy lacked the industrial base for widespread food production and preservation. But the rebels had no shortage of tobacco, and it was not uncommon for Southern pickets to trade tobacco to their Northern counterparts for Yankee food.

The Confederates, in particular, were hit hard by the Union naval blockade and the lack of resources for a continual source and supply of food. Considering the amount of marching by both armies, and the daily rigors of living in the elements, the average Civil War soldier from both the North and the South was malnourished and at times close to starvation.

The event is co-sponsored by the Westport Historical Society and the Westport Library. It will be held at the Westport Branch of the Kansas City Public Library at 118 Westport Road. A reception follows at the nearby Harris-Kearney House, 4000 Baltimore.

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