Hardtack. The Ancient Romans had them. Nelson’s troops kept barrels of them in their naval vessels. And these cracker-like squares were a staple ration for American soldiers on both sides of the Civil War.
Though they’re called different things in different cultures, this basic recipe has been a staple for militaries around the world for centuries. Made of flour and water, and sometimes a bit of salt or sugar, they are sturdy, filling and will last a long time if kept dry. Indeed, some soldiers kept a few as souvenirs after the war, and they are commonly on display in Civil War museums over 150 years later.
A naval blockade kept wheat imports from reaching Confederate states, and so much of the hardtack rationed to soldiers earlier in the war was leftover from the Mexican-American War (1846-1848). Meanwhile, government bakeries in the north were supplying hardtacks to Union troops, who were rationed nine to ten each, per day.
Eating one will make it difficult to imagine how any human being could consume that many hardtacks each day. The dryness sucks out any moisture from your mouth. The heavy wafer in your hand feels just as heavy in the stomach. They are so dense, soldiers used to use them as small plates. And, of course, the flavor is incredibly uninteresting – you’re basically just eating flour. And that, of course, is the point of making them. Where other food blogs often just post old recipes, I’ve always insisted on making whatever I post – firmly believing that much about what you can learn about the history of the food comes from the actual making and eating of it.
Thanks to John Billings’ memoir of his life as a Union soldier, Hardtack and Coffee (1887), we have a very accurate description of what Civil War hardtack rations were like:
What was hardtack? It was a plain flour-and-water biscuit. Two which I have in my possession as mementos measure three and one-eighth by two and seven-eighths inches, and are nearly half an inch thick. Although these biscuits were furnished to organizations by weight, they were dealt out to the men by number, nine constituting a ration in some regiments, and ten in others; but there were usually enough for those who wanted more, as some men would not draw them. While hardtack was nutritious, yet a hungry man could eat his ten in a short time and still be hungry. When they were poor and fit objects for the soldiers’ wrath, it was due to one of three conditions: first, they may have been so hard that they could not be bitten; it then required a very strong blow of the fist to break them; the second condition was when they were moldy or wet, as sometimes happened, and should not have been given to the soldiers: the third condition was when from storage they had become infested with maggots.
When the bread was moldy or moist, it was thrown away and made good at the next drawing, so that the men were not the losers; but in the case of its being infested with the weevils, they had to stand it as a rule ; but hardtack was not so bad an article of food, even when traversed by insects, as may be supposed. Eaten in the dark, no one could tell the difference between it and hardtack that was untenanted. It was no uncommon occurrence for a man to find the surface of his pot of coffee swimming with weevils, after breaking up hardtack in it, which had come out of the fragments only to drown; but they were easily skimmed off, and left no distinctive flavor behind.
Having gone so far, I know the reader will be interested to learn of the styles in which this particular article was served up by the soldiers. Of course, many of them were eaten just as they were received — hardtack plain; then I have already spoken of their being crumbed in coffee, giving the “hardtack and coffee.”
Probably more were eaten in this way than in any other, for they thus frequently furnished the soldier his breakfast and supper. But there were other and more appetizing ways of preparing them. Many of the soldiers, partly through a slight taste for the business but more from force of circumstances, became in their way and opinion experts in the art of cooking the greatest variety of dishes with the smallest amount of capital.
Some of these crumbed them in soups for want of other thickening. For this purpose they served very well. Some crumbed them in cold water, then fried the crumbs in the juice and fat of meat. A dish akin to this one which was said to make the hair curl, and certainly was indigestible enough to satisfy the cravings of the most ambitious dyspeptic, was prepared by soaking hardtack in cold water, then frying them brown in pork fat, salting to taste. Another name for this dish was skillygalee. Some liked them toasted, either to crumb in coffee, or if a sutler was at hand whom they could patronize, to butter. The toasting generally took place from the end of a split stick.
Then they worked into milk-toast made of condensed milk at seventy-five cents a can; but only a recruit with a big bounty, or an old vet, the child of wealthy parents, or a reenlisted man did much in that way. A few who succeeded by hook or by crook in saving up a portion of their sugar ration spread it upon hardtack. And so in various ways the ingenuity of the men was taxed to make this plainest and commonest, yet most serviceable of army food, to do duty in every conceivable combination.
The holes in crackers are made by a process called “docking.” These help the cracker to bake evenly and prevent them from rising like a bread. Historically, this was accomplished using ominous looking hand-held tools, but by the Civil War, there were mechanical tools that accomplished the task. I used a plastic chopstick, but you could also use a pen cap. Dig around your kitchen drawers and see what you’ve got.
The entire premise of hardtack is that you add a bit of water to flour so that you can create a dough just pliable enough to shape, and then bake as much of the moisture out as possible. So be conservative when you’re adding water – stop just when the dough comes together. It should be the consistency of a slightly dry play dough. If you had too much water by accident, just add a bit more flour until it comes back together.
You don’t want the hardtack to darken much by baking, and you certainly don’t want it to burn. It benefits from a long baking in a low-temp oven. If it isn’t too humid where you’re at, you can also leave them out after baking to further dry out on the cooling rack.
The recipe below makes roughly fifteen 3×3 hardtacks. They will last quite a long time if you keep them in a dry, sealed area where they can’t be reached by insects.
This recipe certainly sheds light on the monotonous palate afforded to soldiers in the Civil War. When properly baked, they are quite tough, which explains why soldiers would often soak them in coffee or soup prior to eating. Another option at the time was to fry salt pork, soak the hardtack in cold water, and then fry the softened hardtack in the pork grease.
Hardtack reminds me of a bread described in a novel I was recently reading. Bakers made a particular kind of bread for survival, but it was completely inedible and contained rocks and sticks. You didn’t eat the bread. The idea was that if you stared at the bread long enough, you could think of dozens of other things you could eat besides that and you’d never go hungry.
But such were the conditions – particularly for the blockaded South – that hardtack could be seen as a treat. Today, there is still an original supplier of the Union army that makes and sells hardtack, mostly to Civil War re-enactors.** Outside this market and the gastronomically-inclined historian, a kind of hardtack can be found on supermarket shelves in Hawaii and modern-day doomsdayers are rediscovering it as the perfect survivalist food.
Whatever your reason for making them, do watch your teeth.
** Update (March 19, 2017): G. H. Bent & Co. has operated in Milton, MA since 1801. A gas explosion in 2006 damaged the building significantly, but re-opened later that year. The company was sold in 2013 and, as of writing, the bakery has re-opened with a new website but the online shop is still closed.
Preheat oven to 250 degrees F. Combine flour with salt in a mixing bowl. Add water and mix with hands until the dough comes together. Roll out on a table to about 1/3 inch thickness. Use a knife to cut 3×3 squares from the dough. Place on baking sheet, and use a dowel (see note above) to make 16 evenly-spaced holes in each square. Bake for at least four hours, turning over once half-way through baking. Cool on a rack in a dry room.