Hardtack, salt pork, cornmeal, and coffee are the four foods we associate with the average Civil War soldier’s ration. Much of what we learned about the rations comes from Hardtack and Coffee, the famous book written by John Billings of the Army of the Potomac. Though an excellent primary source into the life of a Union soldier, it is in the eyes of a soldier who fought in the best-equipped and organized Federal army of the war. In the Trans-Mississippi, particularly in Missouri, the life of a soldier was unique – especially in regard to what they ate and drank.
During the 1861 Missouri Campaign, which was decisively fast-paced, rations were especially difficult, particularly for the Federals of the Army of the West. The 200-mile-long supply line from St. Louis to Springfield was particularly rough. The first 100 miles between St. Louis and Rolla was by train via the Southwestern Branch of the Pacific Railroad; the next journey from Rolla to Springfield (the base of the Army of the West in southwestern Missouri) was by the dirt Wire Road. It took over a week to receive supplies from St. Louis. A soldier in the First Iowa Infantry described the ration situation perfectly:
Nothing all day but mush and coffee. We hear more of the battles at Manassas Gap and Bull Run. Here we are, camped on a flat prairie, and the miserable rations have given everyone the diarrhea.
This scene from Belle Plain, Virginia taken in 1862, depicts the arrival of supplies and munitions for the Federal army. This was a common sight in the Western armies, as well, even though photographs were much less common. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
In the late summer of 1861, Maj. Gen. John C. Fremont authorized the establishment of the Western Sanitary Commission, the western counterpart to the United States Sanitary Commission (USSC), based in St. Louis, Missouri via the General Order No. 159. Fremont and many other pro-Union Missouri leaders argued that the USSC was too concerned with the East and its main Federal army, the Army of the Potomac. Between the instability, bloodshed, mass mobilization of armies across the Union-occupied river towns, and the extensive riverine transportation networks, the West needed a sanitary commission that could provide medical services and help to care for the Federal troops mobilized in the region. Fremont, along with St. Louis leaders like banker and philanthropist James Yeatman, educator and civic leader William Eliot, entrepreneur Carlos S. Greeley, philanthropist George Partridge, and businessman John B. Johnson formed the leadership of the Western Sanitary Commission, an organization that rivaled the USSC and saved the lives of thousands of Federal troops in the Western and Trans-Mississippi Theaters. Continue reading