Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Thursday, August 3, 2006


Page 15



Did Gilbert Van Camp Sell Beans to Union Army?




Did the United States enter into a contract with Gilbert Van Camp for purchases of cans of pork and beans for use of Union troops during the Civil War?

ConAgra, owner of Van Camp’s Pork and Beans since 1995, claims the answer is “yes”—but when asked for proof, can’t provide it.

It’s conceivable the tale is true…but highly unlikely.

Lending the claim plausibility is that canned goods did exist then. Michaela Reaves, an assistant professor of history at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, tells me in e-mail correspondence that “canned goods or box tins were invented before the Civil War  (1809 actually and first tried with limited success in the Napoleonic conflicts) and canned meats, sweetened condensed milk, fruits and vegetables were issued to the soldiers during the Civil War.”

She notes that Laura Ingalls Wilder—whose books inspired the television series “Little House on the Prairie”—“extols the glories of the canned peach in about 1879” in “On the Shores of Silver Lake.

Reaves adds: “They even had can openers right before the Civil War.”

However, Sean M. Heuvel, an instructor at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia, an expert on the Civil War, has referred me to a section on the Cornell University website which he characterizes as “the finest online collection of CW primary sources around.” What is found there are the 128 volumes of Civil War documents, in both graphic and text form, originally published between 1880 and 1901 under the title, “The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies.”

Hundreds of documents make reference to beans—but dry beans, cooked in camp. Beans are referred to in terms of “bushels,” not “cans.”

Canned goods were made available to soldiers—but by “sutlers” who followed the troops as their camps moved and sold goods out of tents. They peddled supplies directly to soldiers, not to the Army.

Among the documents on the website are a Feb. 25, 1863 letter from the provost-marshal of a prison camp in Ohio to the commanding general of the troops in that state giving assurance that “prisoners of war in this camp have been and are allowed to purchase from the sutler such articles as…canned fruits.” A Dec. 7, 1863 report by a brigadier general to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton on the condition of prison camps says of a facility in Illinois that “[t]here is a sutler’s shop, containing nearly everything (except liquors), including…canned fruits….”

And there are references to canned goods, such as canned milk, being available to patients at Army hospitals.

There are no references whatever in the searchable 128 volumes to canned beans or to Van Camp. Assuming any union soldiers partook of his canned beans (and I’ve found no evidence that he did can beans before the 1880s), it would seem that those cans were procured by sutlers, not by the Army, and re-sold to the soldiers. While the Army no doubt did have contracts with vendors of canned goods for provisions used in hospitals, it is doubtful that canned beans would have been among those goods given the immobility of most of the injured and the propensities of beans.

Aside from information on the Cornell website, accounts by Civil War soldiers of cooking beans overnight can readily be located…but not recitations of opening cans of beans.

It simply does not seem reasonable to suppose that clanking cans of ready-to-eat beans would have been purchased when dry beans would have far less weight, swelling as they do when soaked in water.

The 10th Texas Infantry Living History Group seeks absolute accuracy in its Civil War reenactments and has fashioned exacting rules, including:

“Only period-correct foods should be eaten in the campaign camp. Military-issue rations should make up the bulk of these items….

“Use of canned goods is improper for campaign scenarios as these items were expensive, heavy, and usually unavailable because sutlers normally disappeared during active campaigning.”

An article on the Civil War appearing last year in U.S. News & World Report recited that “many a soldier did receive care packages from home, and those packages often included canned goods like vegetables or condensed milk,” but noted that canned goods were “too heavy to ever become a regular part of Army rations.”

They did become a part of rations...but later. The Decatur (Ill.) Daily Review reported on Jan. 1, 1880:

“It is announced in army circles that Boston baked beans, in cans, are now issued an part of the army ration to troops in the field.”

Can it be said with certainty that Gilbert Van Camp did not supply canned beans to the Union Army pursuant to a contract? No. But absent any proof that he did, how can ConAgra, in good faith, assert that such sales were made?


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