Thursday, July 13, 2006
Baked Beans Win Favor With Soldiers in the Civil War
By ROGER M. GRACE
Soldiers in the Union Army during the Civil War relished baked beans (long associated with New England) notwithstanding the great frequency with which that food was presented to them. The rebels, it seems, also enjoyed the dish, consuming it themselves multiple times a week.
The army bean (or white bean) was soaked for hours to soften it, then cooked with salt pork or other meats, generally sweetened with molasses. A Civil War ballad began:
“There’s a spot that the soldiers all love,
“The cook tents the place that we mean,
“And the dish we love best to find there,
“Is the old fashioned white army bean.”
Bruce Catton wrote in the 1962 edition of his book “The Army of the Potomac: Mr. Lincoln’s Army”:
“The favorite ration of all was the army bean. It was no go, of course, on the march, but in settled camps it was one food the men never tired of. Even the most inexpert cook knew how to dig a pit, build a wood fire, rake out the coals, lower a covered kettle full of salt pork and soaked beans, heap the coals back on and around it, cover the whole with earth, and leave it to cook overnight. The mess kettle, incidentally, was simply a heavy sheet-iron cylinder, flat-bottomed, some fifteen inches tall by a foot wide, with a heavy iron cover….
“As a general thing, even though the coffee was good and the baked beans were palatable, the food the Civil War soldier lived on ranged from mediocre to downright awful.”
Where beans were cooked in a pot surrounded by heat, though not placed in an oven, it might well be said that they were “baked.” Where slow-cooked in a pot, however, as they often were…well, perhaps they could be denominated faux baked beans.
In any event, beans actually baked in ovens were not altogether unknown to troops in the Civil War. A private in the Union Army, according to a New York Times article of Nov. 3, 1861, “extemporized a range for the use of his company which has been so successful that others are being put up elsewhere.” The article says:
“From the ruins of an old building he secured tile necessary brick; for mortar he used clay and sand….”
The National Park Service website also mentions the popularity of baked beans with soldiers. (Why does the National Park Service get into the subject of beans? It’s in connection with the military park at Gettysburg.) The website observes: “Baked beans were a northern [troops’] favorite when the time could be taken to prepare them and a cooking pot with a lid could be obtained.”
The North Collins [New York] Historical Society provides this information on a website:
“Civil War soldiers on both sides had baked beans for breakfast when the opportunity arose. They were cooked over or in the campfire all night. It was not often, except during winter, that an army unit could plan to be in the same camp long enough to cook beans fresh during the day, nor would they have been likely to have the saleratus (baking soda) to soften the beans while on the march.”
In the April 27, 1861 edition of the Wisconsin Daily Patriot, the quarter-master of the Second Regiment of Wisconsin Volunteers advertised for bids on a contract to supply “articles of Subsistence” to the troops. Every day at noon, the contractor was to provide:
“1 Quart Baked Beans to every ten men.
“Every other day, in lieu of baked beans, rice, bean or vegetable soup must, be furnished, at the rate of one pint per man.”
On Oct. 3, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed a proclamation designating “the last Thursday of November next as a day of Thanksgiving.” One would not think today that Thanksgiving would conjure up images of baked beans…but then, it did.
An editorial on Oct. 17, 1863 in Harper’s Weekly scoffed:
“[T]he final damning proof of the utter subserviency of the present imbecile Administration to the rankest Puritan fanaticism is the proclamation for Thanksgiving! What is Thanksgiving? It is a Yankee, Puritan, Roundhead, sniveling, snuffling, canting, hypocritical institution. It smells of baked beans, roast turkey, and Indian pudding, not to say pumpkin-pies and soft custards. Pah!”
Diaries of Leonard C. Ferguson, a private in the Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, recited repeatedly partaking of a breakfast of beans and corn bread—though sometimes the beans were cold, sometimes boiled, at other times broiled.
A soldier in the Maine Volunteers named H. B. Butler wrote to his wife, Mary, on New Year’s Day, 1865:
“We had some very nice baked beans this morning. We have a hole in the bottom of our fireplace where we bake beans as nice as they can be. We bake them in a pail with a cover to it. We put hot coals around the pail then cover them up with dirt. We put them in at night and in the morning they are nice and warm.”
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