and no time was more so than 1861 to 1865 when we were engaged in a
great Civil War. From New York to Texas, and beyond, the The Union Army
marched, and feeding the troops was a difficult task. In a time before
refrigeration was in use, foods had to either be fresh or be preserved.
Cattle “on the hoof” kept fresh and the men surely appreciated food that
transported itself. But this blog is all about coffee, and the same for
Coffee was a staple cherished by the northern troops. It was fairly
plentiful to the North where the soldiers received regular rations of
staple foods that included coffee. A quick pick-me-up was afforded by a
hot cup of coffee even when time was short. When out of camp and on the
march, when a rest period was called, the men would immediately gather
some twigs and sticks, light small fires, and begin boiling water for
The preparation method was quite simple and readied ahead of time.
Ground coffee was mixed with their sugar ration, and once the water was
hot, a measure of this prepared coffee mixture was scooped into the
water. This practice was so ubiquitous that the Confederate soldiers
often referred to the Union soldiers as “the Coffee Boilers.” There was
a bit of jealousy in that since the South had very little coffee
available to them, particularly once the naval blockade of the South was
But as with all things, necessity gives way to solutions.When there was
a sustained break in the fighting, Union and Confederate soldiers would
communicate across the lines in remote areas. The young men set up
personal cease-fire zones and traded goods across the lines. Two items
regularly crossed the lines. The South, being predominantly agrarian
meant that the Confederate soldiers had regular rations of tobacco and
this was happily traded to the Union soldiers for coffee.
But coffee wasn’t always coffee. There were times when the Union
soldiers received their coffee ration pre-ground and this was not
preferred. There was a lot of underhanded dealing in the supply chain
and pre-ground coffee could be adulterated with filler such as cheaper,
easily-sourced, roasted grains. This increased profits to the suppliers
and lessened the caffeine level in the coffee. Carrying a coffee grinder
was pretty much out of the question to individual soldiers so they
improvised. A rifle butt against a flat rock was often found to work
Whenever the subject off coffee and the Civil War comes up, the
Sharps Carbine Model 1859 Coffee Mill is often mentioned. This firearm had a hand mill built into the stock. These came into use late in the war and were not widely distributed.
Likely, less than one hundred of these were made and only about a dozen
are known to still exist. It is said by some that they were for coffee,
and some experts who have tested them with grains and coffee have stated
it seems they were intended for grain. Both are likely correct. The
coarse burrs in these grinders are reminiscent of bulk grinders today.
Many hand grain mills on farms well into the 20th century were used for
grain as well as coffee.
Thankfully, things haven’t changed much in the most important way
concerning coffee (this is a coffee blog, after all). Those who look for
the very best from their coffee would never consider pre-ground as a
substitute for whole bean. Roasted coffee beans, if stored properly,
will keep for as long as two to three weeks. Commercially packaged in
nitrogen under pressure can be good for a bit longer until opened. And
much like those soldiers of over one hundred fifty years ago, you pretty
much know what you are getting. So next time you measure out your
“morning ration” of coffee beans and are running them through your
grinder in preparation for the day’s march to the office, remember the
boys back in the 1860’s who did much the same.