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Desert Storm Recalls Civil War Food Woes

By Patricia B. Mitchell, 1991.

Ulysses S. Grant

“I will not move my army without onions!” threatened General Ulysses S. Grant in 1864.

“I will not move my army without onions!” General Ulysses S. Grant declared in an 1864 advisory to the federal government. General Robert E. Lee commented, “I have been up to see the Congress and they do not seem to be able to do anything except eat peanuts and chew tobacco, while my army is starving….” One of Lee's colonels stated in 1863, “I cannot fight more until I get something to cook in!”

The onions which Grant demanded (he immediately was sent three traincar-loads of the tasty bulbs) were appreciated by soldiers for both their flavor and antiseptic properties when used to treat powder burns.

It was Napoleon who stated that an army marches on its stomach, an assertion that has been much quoted in the media as U.S. officers in Saudi Arabia report on the ravenous hunger of captured and deserting Iraqis.

Napoleon so firmly believed his own adage that he offered the equivalent of a modern $250,000 prize for the discovery of a way to get better food to the French army. Nicholas Appert, a confectioner, won the prize in 1795 by discovering the process of hermetically sealing food. In 1810 a patent was taken out in England for Appert's method, and soon the idea spread to America, where lobster and salmon were the first foods canned.

Robert E. Lee

General Robert E. Lee complained that the Confederate congress was unable “to do anything except eat peanuts and chew tobacco, while my army is starving….”

In 1823 an American, Thomas Kensett, invented the tin can. By the 1860's many foods were being canned, and the Northern army utilized this advantage militarily. The South, however, suffered drastic food shortages as the Civil War oozed on.

The Northern blockade, less food being grown in the South, poor transportation and distribution systems, and a lack of food containers such as cans, barrels, and crates caused this food crisis.

Salt, sugar, wheat flour, coffee, tea, and many other staple foods were quite scarce. Ingenious substitutes were being tried: parched wheat, rye, corn, peanuts, acorns, sweet potatoes, and persimmon, okra, and watermelon seeds were being made into fake coffee. Sassafras roots and holly, orange, sage, and blackberry leaves masqueraded as tea. Maypops and pomegranates turned into "lemonade." Vinegar was made into apple cider, molasses, honey, and persimmons, figs, Mayapples, and beets. Beer was brewed using corn, potatoes, sassafras, persimmons, and spruce or pine needles.

The diet of the average Southerner went from a pre-war variety of adequate foods to a near-starvation sustenance. Those at home suffered, and the enlisted men perhaps even more so. Parched corn, wormy hardtack, "blue" beef and "sowbelly" jerky, goober peas, and perhaps beans and corn bread were typical soldier fare. At Port Hudson and Vicksburg the beleaguered troops ate the meat of rats, dogs, mules, horses, and cane roots, and even grass.

One tired-out Mississippian wrote home about his longing for a pleasant house, a carriage, and other niceties after the war, but he added “having plenty of good things to eat…is…worth all the rest.”

It took months for the North to hobble the food supply system of the largely self-sufficient agricultural South, and years to weaken and ensnare the Southern army. Desert Storm planners are apparently betting that Iraq's huge army in Kuwait, if severed from its food supply in Iraq, can be pounded and starved into submission in a fraction of that time.