Sunday, May 30, 2010

Hard Tack Come Again No More

Let us close our game of poker, take our tin cups in our hand
As we all stand by the cook’s tent door
As dried mummies of hard crackers are handed to each man.
O, hard tack, come again no more

‘Tis the song, the sigh of the hungry:
“Hard tack, hard tack, come again no more.”
Many days you have lingered upon our stomachs sore.
O, hard tack, come again no more!

Well into the 19th century, soldiers were expected to provide at least some of their daily rations by foraging, ie “living off the land.” The problem with even the most bountiful countryside, obviously, was that after a very short time it had been stripped bare. An army that did not keep moving, starved.

Improvements in transportation technology went some way towards solving this problem. However, then as now, soldiers fought on carbohydrates (or starches as they were then referred to). Armies needed bread and lots of it.

Not just any bread; bread that could withstand days (or weeks, or months) of transport were a necessity to an army. Hardtack was the answer; a bricklike confection of flour, salt and water that could probably have doubled as a weapon, were the need to arise.*

(*as a staff sergeant once remarked to me during a formal battalion dinner as I was urging him to try a pumpernickel roll, claiming that the Germans had conquered most of Europe on them, “How? By using it as ammunition?”)

‘Tis a hungry, thirsty soldier who wears his life away
In torn clothes—his better days are o’er.
And he’s sighing now for whiskey in a voice as dry as hay,
“O, hard tack, come again no more!

In it’s original form, hardtack was not edible unless you no regard for your teeth. Soldiers soaked it before adding it into a variety of dishes, most of them called by the unaffectionate nicknames of skillygallee or slumgullion (slum for short).

‘Tis the wail that is heard in camp both night and day,
‘Tis the murmur that’s mingled with each snore.
‘Tis the sighing of the soul for spring chickens far away,
“O, hard tack, come again no more!”

If the soldier was in a hurry, or had lost his mess-tin, he dunked his hardtack in hot coffee or soaked it in water and then in salt pork fat. It was then slapped onto the blade of a bayonet and toasted over an open fire.

The soaking in hot liquid also drove out the weevils and maggots with which hardtack was commonly infested. More on hardtack, weevils, rations, and other details of Billy Yank's life at Hardtack and Coffee.


Denise said...

well now that just makes you want to go out and try some hardtack doesnt it? :) Amazing they had any stomach left at all...

Packrat said...

Aren't we squeamish and wasteful now?