Hard Tack: Diet of Frontier Soldiers
This article material appeared in the Teachers Guide that accompanies the Oklahoma Historical Society’s education trunk on forts in Oklahoma. Schools throughout Oklahoma can access trunks on subjects containing a wide range of items related to the trunk's subject.
The chief diet for U.S. soldiers on the march in 1860s and 1870s Indian Territory was a hard bread known as hard tack or hard crackers. Lack of refrigeration and other proper food storage during the 1800s made spoilage common. Hard tack produced from unleavened flour proved the logical solution, since it had an infinite shelf life. In fact, American troops received hard tack baked during the War Between the States as late as 1898 during the Spanish-American War—33 years after the end of the earlier fight!
The American government issued hard tack in tremendous quantities, making it a staple in the soldier's larder. In 1864, Napoleon Bartlett wrote: “For breakfast we have coffee & hardtack for Dinner we sometimes have beans & sometimes Peas & hardtack for supper we have coffee & meat with the hardtack.” In letters home, soldier often discussed their food; they almost always listed hard tack first.
Despite the emphasis on hard in hard tack, bugs and worms often infested it. The soldiers gave colorful names to the cracker-like food based on these unappetizing attributes. To break up the hard tack, they often had to deliver a well-placed blow to it with fist or musket.
Trooper John Billings wrote, "They could not be soaked soft, but after a time took on the elasticity of gutta-percha." Gutta-percha was a hard rubber used in small cases or picture frames. Federals and Confederates alike during the War Between the States also referred to hard tack as sheet-iron crackers, breastplates, and bullet stoppers.
A second problem with hard tack concerned the presence of bugs like weevils and maggots. One soldier wrote to his brother that, “our diet has been principally bacon and crackers or as the boys say sow belly and maggots. Some say the crackers have maggots in them, but I don't look for them.” The name “worm castle” reflected the amount of maggots found in hard tack. The blue coats dedicated a popular song to the worms, sung to the tune of John Brown’s Body:
Worms eat hardy in the commissary store. Worms eat hardy in the commissary store. Worms eat hardy in the commissary store. As we go starving on.
Soldiers often enjoyed better and more varied food in territorial forts than while out on the trail. The latter required food easily carried as well as easily prepared. Many forts possessed ovens that baked fresh bread, a welcome respite from hardtack eaten on the march. Fort Gibson in eastern Oklahoma still holds a bake day each spring and fall.
In January 1869, a young officer stationed at that fort threw a dinner for the other officers at the post, aiming to grow more familiar with them and show his hospitality. The menu ranged from stuffed turkey and apple sauce to “green” ham and roast opossum. A letter he wrote describing the affair and revealing the esteem in which such a frontier meal was held, features a diagram of the table, with labels for the dishes.