Hard tack was a thick cracker used by the Union Army in the Civil War. Easily stored and requiring no preparation before eating, it was distributed to soldiers on campaign to fill the bread component to their ration. Otherwise called “Army bread,” it was the object of much derision among the troops, but it served its function well and with some ingenuity, it could be made reasonably palatable.
Made from flour and water, with some salt but without any yeast, hard tack resembled modern soup crackers. Approximately square, they averaged three inches on each side, half again as large as a saltine cracker. They were roughly four times as thick, however, measuring a half inch. This thickness, combined with the composition of the flour, resulted in a very hard cracker. Soldiers were given a pound of these every day, amounting to about ten.
In addition to its hardness and almost total absence of flavor, mold and infestation were perennial challenges. Salt was the only preservative used, and of that only a little; moreover, their storage was quite basic and did nothing to protect them from humidity or extremes in temperature. As a result, mold frequently set in. Similarly, the soldiers had to contend with competition for their hard tack from what they called “worms”: mainly maggots and weevils. A soldier’s life has never been for the squeamish, but no one much cares to unexpectedly take a bite of maggot with one’s bread, and many of the methods developed to prepare hard tack were devised as much to clear out or disguise these pests as they were to bring some flavor to this very plain ration.
Hard tack could be eaten in unmodified form, of course, and this was often done to allow the men to maintain their strength while marching or otherwise in action. When permitted to settle down with a fire, however, soldiers liked to crush them into pieces (often needing the aid of their musket butts to do so) and cook them in some kind of liquid, which had the benefit of drowning or boiling the pests and permitting the soldiers to scoop them out before proceeding with dinner. This might mean cooking in a kind of soup, even as many people crush crackers into soup or chili today; it might also become part of a stew. Another common alternative was to prepare it in coffee, and to drink it rather than eating it.
Still other options are also known. Hard tack could be toasted, usually by spitting it upon the musket’s ramrod and holding it over the fire. It could be made into skillygallee by breaking it apart, soaking it, and then frying it. It could be cooked with milk (which was distributed in condensed form). Finally, hard tack in its original form could be enjoyed if some kind of spread, such as molasses, were available.
Grumbling has long been something of an art form among soldiers, and hard tack inspired more than its fair share of it. At the same time, it also inspired a great deal of ingenuity, and a few of the expedients used then have endured to this day as common uses for crackers. In any event, it was successful in its role, providing soldiers with a rugged, easily carried and versatile source of bread.
Flagel, Thomas R. The History Buff’s Guide to the Civil War. Cumberland House, 2003.
Katcher, Philip. The Complete Civil War. Cassell, 1992.
© 2011, 2013. All rights reserved.