Civil War: Hardtack and Salt Horse


John D. Billings, a Union Army soldier, served as a private in the Tenth Massachusetts Battery for three years. He taught school after the war. He also wrote Hardtack & Coffee, a book originally published in 1887.

Billings talks about food rations. As a soldier in the Army of the Potomac, he did not remember being without rations more than a day or so. Wagon trains were often several hours behind when on the march or in battle. Soldiers generally had advance notice of a delay in receiving their rations and ate sparingly of food they still had in their haversack.

The quality of the food left something to be desired. Armies served quantities of stale beef or salted beef (soldiers referred to salted meat as “salt horse”) or unwholesome pork.

Hardtack, a plain flour-and-water biscuit, was often so hard that soldiers couldn’t bite it. A strong fist blow could break them. According to Billings, soaking hardtack didn’t soften it. Instead the soaked cracker eventually turned elastic like gutta-percha, a tough plastic material resembling rubber. Yuck!

Another problem with hardtack is that they were sometimes moldy and wet when privates received them. Billings believed the crackers had been packaged too soon, perhaps still warm from the oven. Hardtack also got damp in wet weather when stacked at railroad depots awaiting trains to take them to army camps. Billings blamed inspectors’ negligence for food, ruined by rain or sleet, reaching the army camps.

It gets worse. You may want to skip the next paragraph.

Hardtack sometimes became infested with weevils and maggots in storage. This problem wasn’t usually enough to keep them from being distributed. Soldiers still drew the infested crackers as rations.

Nine pieces of hardtack were a single ration for some regiments while ten pieces were given in others. It was usually not a problem either way; there was enough for those who wanted a larger number because some soldiers refused to accept them at all.

-Sandra Merville Hart


Billings, John D. Hardtack & Coffee, University of Nebraska Press, 1993.

“Gutta-Percha,” Merriam-Webster, Incorporated, 2017/02/08

“Salt Horse,” Merriam-Webster, Incorporated, 2017/02/08