Coffee Substitutes in the Civil War

on April 11, 2013 in American Civil War, Biscuits and Bullets

(Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

My first lesson in how describing food and drink can add a particularly vivid character to a narrative was when I read Bruce Catton’s The Civil War. One of my favorite parts of that three volume compendium of Mr. Lincoln’s Army, Glory Road, and A Stillness at Appomattox is the section where he describes “biscuits and bullets,” and his personal revulsion at what he thought of as the “intestine-destroying” iron rations eaten by Union soldiers cuts right into the reader’s belly. Whether it be fiction or non-fiction, I think any narrative that addresses how people lived and neglects to include this very elementary issue of eating and drinking is missing out on not just a very important aspect of life, but also a way to illustrate and emphasize a wide variety of points.

So it is with coffee and the Confederacy in Stonewall Goes West. By the middle of the war, coffee was becoming scarce throughout the South, and the image of Billies and Johnnies trading tobacco for coffee is a staple of Civil War fraternization. Southerners resorted to all manner of substitutes for coffee during the war, and I mentioned several in the novel:

    • Acorn Coffee: This coffee substitute made a reappearance in the Second World War when coffee became scarce, especially in the UK, and survivalists continue to teach its preparation today. The acorns were boiled, dried, ground, roasted, and then brewed up as if they were normal coffee grinds.
    • Kentucky Coffee: I’ve never read of anyone referring to Kentucky Coffee in any Civil War books or personal papers, but I know that the stuff was consumed as a coffee substitute by frontiersmen, so it’s easy to imagine some thirsty Southrons resorting to it when the genuine article wasn’t available. The Kentucky Coffeetree produces seed pods that can be roasted and turned into a coffee substitute, hence the name. Ironically, the tree is more widespread in the Mid-West these days, and relatively rare in Kentucky itself. The pods and leaves are also somewhat toxic and capable of repelling hungry insects, so thoroughly roasting them is necessary to break down the toxins and make them safe for consumption.
    • Spruce Needle Tea: This stuff appears regularly on the modern survival programs broadcast on the Discovery Channel, and anyone who has spent time in the Boy Scouts should be familiar with it. It creates a pleasant herbal tea packed with Vitamin C. Like Kentucky Coffee, I’ve never seen a reference to someone using it during the Civil War, but I know that woodsmen and frontiersmen were drinking the Spruce Needle Tea in colonial times, so it is again easy to see people short of real coffee and tea resorting to it. That is especially the case if those people are in a place where spruce trees are on hand, such as the mountains of northern Georgia.

Yaupon Holly
(Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

  • Yaupon Coffee: People still drink the Indian “black drink,” or yaupon coffee/tea today, and I have read references to its use in the Civil War. It’s not widespread, but I’ve seen the odd cafe or tea room in the South offering the stuff, and some health food types have caught on to its benefits. It comes from the leaves of the Yaupon Holly. The leaves are dried and then either brewed from the leaf (tea) or powdered, brewed, and filtered (coffee). I’ve had both and don’t think the style changes how it tastes, but powdered Yaupon is easier to transport.

2 Responses to “Coffee Substitutes in the Civil War”

  1. Johnny says:

    What about parched corn and other forms of substitutional coffees? Try listing other substitutes

  2. R.E. Thomas says:

    As the blog describes, I wrote specifically about four substitutes dealt with in the novel. Those four were chosen for use in the novel because I was personally familiar with them, and they were appropriate to the place in which they were used.

    Other substitutes, like sweet potato, will appear in Part II and Part III. I may blog about them when the time comes.

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