Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Civil War Reenacting: Hardtack and Johnny Cakes

By Matthew Pizzolato

Preserved hardtack from U.S. Civil War,
Wentworth Museum, Pensacola, Florida.
Hardtack has been around for several thousand years. The ancient Romans ate it and it has been a common form of sustenance on ships. Sometimes its referred to as sea biscuit or ship's bread. It is made of flour and water, sometimes with a little salt or sugar added. An added benefit is that it lasts for a really long time. At the onset of the Civil War, hardtack rationed to the soldiers was left over from the Mexican-American War, fifteen years earlier. In fact, hardtack from the Civil War still exists today.

Soldiers of the American Civil War had more colorful names for the cracker, such as: sheet iron, worm castles, teeth dullers and molar breakers. None of them were very fond of it, but in a lot of cases it was all that kept them from starving. 

Johnny Cakes were the Confederate equivalent of hardtack. Because of the Union blockade, flour was not readily available in the South and corn meal was substituted. 

This first hand account of the delicacy known as hardtack was taken from HARDTACK AND COFFEE published in 1887 by John D. Billings, a Union veteran who served in the 10th Massachusetts Volunteer Artillery Battery of the Army of the Potomac.

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.

Out of the goodness of my heart, I've provided a modern recipe for hardtack that I got from the Arkansas History Hub website should you like to try this exquisite Civil War cuisine. There's also a recipe there for making Johnny Cakes, if'n you're interested.

2 cups flour
½ to ¾ cup water
Salt (5-6 pinches)
Mixing bowl
Rolling pin
Cookie Sheet
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
2. Add all dry ingredients into the mixing bowl, and then add wet ingredients. Mix all ingredients together. Use extra flour if necessary to make sure the dough is no longer sticky. However, be careful not to make the dough too dry. If you add too much flour, add slightly more water.
3. Knead the dough until it is easy to work with.
4. Spread the dough onto the ungreased cookie sheet.
5. Use the rolling pin to roll the dough into a rectangular shape. Hardtack was around a half inch thick, so don’t worry about making the dough thin.
6. Bake the dough for 30 minutes.
7. Take the dough out of the oven and cut it into large squares (around 3 inches by 3 inches). Use a fork to poke 16 to 20 holes into each square.
8. Flip the squares and return to the oven for 30 more minutes.
9. Allow the hardtack to completely cool inside the oven. Be careful when biting into a cracker, as they do get very hard when completely cool.

I have tried some homemade hardtack at the reenactments and it is every bit as hard as described. It's much easier to eat by breaking it up into pieces first, using the butt of a gun or an axe. Proceed at your own risk.

Matthew Pizzolato's short stories have been published online and in print. He is a member of Western Fictioneers and his work can be found in the Wolf Creek series as well as his own publications, THE WANTED MAN, OUTLAW and TWO OF A KIND. 

He is the Editor-in-Chief of The Western Online, a magazine dedicated to everything Western. He can be contacted through Twitter @mattpizzolato or via his website: 


  1. My grandson just got done studying the Civil War section and wanted me to make some hardtack for the class. I should've emailed you! It's not something I ordinarily make--have never even seen it, in fact. Sounds easier to make than to eat. Also, I could do without the maggots.

    1. I've never made it either, but it doesn't sound too difficult. I could without the maggots too.

  2. I think I had some of that War For Southern Independence leftover hardtack back when I was in the Army.

  3. Very cool article.

    I bet the maggots improved the nutrition!

    Frank, you're a card!

    Yup! I had some of it in Boot Camp too!


  4. We got the weevils with our "bread" in the Navy.

  5. Oh my, but so informative. We complain today, but...
    Thank you. Doris

    1. You're welcome, Doris. We do take a lot of this for granted today.

  6. Oh, Matt! That is just simply awful. You know, I'm glad you posted this. Today, we take for granted that our men who fight don't have to eat weevily, moldy hardtack, but when I think of the hardships those men who fought in the Civil War were enduring anyhow, with this kind of food to subsist on, how did they manage? How in the world did they have the strength and wherewithal to keep marching and fighting, with hunger on top of everything else? That's amazing to me, and although I knew it --I guess I needed this detailed description to jog me into truly thinking about it. Thanks for such a good post, and for making me consider what they were going through, on top of everything else.

    1. You're welcome, Cheryl. It was a very difficult time and its easy to forget that with all of the modern conveniences that we have now.

  7. "...not so bad an article of food, even when traversed by insects." Yikes. Thanks for the enlightenment!

  8. So basically play dough. Without the color. ;-D

  9. Hardtack was still used in World War II. The Japanese called it kanpan and it was eaten with tinned fish or pork. The Germans called it Hartkeks, but nicknamed it Panzerplatte (armor plate) and described it as tasting like sweetened dog biscuits. The US Army used it into the late 1930s and replaced it with none other than K rations.

  10. Celebrated in song and story...