A Guide to Period Rations, Mess Gear, Food Preparation, and Ration Issues for Living Historians Portraying a Cavalryman on Campaign


Authentic food and correct food preparation enhances any living history and becomes quite an enjoyable activity for a mess around the campfire. Still, for many members of the reenactment community, authentic cooking is viewed as quite daunting and many are discouraged from even trying to cook while in the field. Fortunately, once the basics are mastered, campaign cooking is easy and the benefits are great. Correct rations are simple to prepare, affordable to purchase, and make life much easier - and hey, it could even become fun. In addition, utilization of period rations in our haversacks and preparing them correctly (and safely) is critical to accurately portraying a trooper on campaign. With practice, each living historian can become self-sufficient in the field with respect to period cooking, and combined efforts of messmates can result in tasty, enjoyable meals at events, while being authentic to the time period.

Mess Gear:

You will need the proper utensils, implements, and storage containers.

Individual Mess equipment - Everyone should have the following items at a minimum:

  • Poke Bags of different sizes

  • Tin Cup

  • Tin Plate or Canteen Half

  • Spoon and/or fork

  • Pocket Knife

  • Match Safe

  • Haversack

  • Canteen

Optional Individual Items and Extra Necessities for Dog Robbers/Foragers:

  • Linen, muslin, or cotton rags

  • Muck bucket with bail

  • Small skillet

  • Small hatchet

  • Forage Bags (for dog robbers/foragers)

  • Extra Haversack (for dog robbers/foragers)

  • Small burlap sacks (for dog robbers/foragers)

By way of background, "dog robber" is a period term for the member of a mess most often charged with cooking and/or foraging.

Mess Equipment:

When portraying a cavalryman on the march, it's important to remember that less is more. If a static camp or winter quarters is used for an event, then more leeway is available. If we are going to March and fight for the entire weekend, then only bring what you and your messmates can easily carry. Mess items include such things as:

·         Hot Tin Dipped Camp Kettle (one quart "nesting" variety that can be carried on march)

·         Skillet (small or medium sized to fit in haversack)

·         Tripod or above ground fire pit (for static or winter camp impressions)

·         Small coffee pot

·         Medium or large size Wooden Spoon

Food Storage:

The most important aspect of proper use of period rations is correct storage. Nothing can kill a period scene for a spectator (or other event participants) and ruin the atmosphere of a living history/event if an otherwise period looking living historian reaches into his haversack and suddenly pulls out a food item wrapped in plastic, or other modern food items.

All food items should be stored in poke sacks, or otherwise stored with period wrappings, such as muslin. Brown paper is sometimes used by re-enactors, but given that paper was in such short supply during the war, paper wrappings should be kept to the minimum.


Preparing and eating foods that were most commonly issued during the war is relatively simple. Most foods that were issued back then are still available for purchase today. These items do not require refrigeration in order to keep from spoiling. Even slab bacon can keep in your haversack for a two or three day event without spoiling or causing health/safety concerns. Food rarities to the common soldier in the field, such as cheeses or fresh foods that require special care in warm weather, should be avoided. In addition to not being very accessible for most soldiers on the march in a campaign during the Civil War, such items require special handling and storage that are not available at events (i.e. access to a cooler with ice, need for plastic wrapping etc), particularly living history programs or events where there is no access to vehicles.

List of Period Ration Items:

It is important to remember that rations varied depending on the time of year (summer, winter, spring, and fall) and campaign scenario. These factors impact the availability and selection of food (i.e. seasonal foods and accessibility depending upon wagon transportation, etc.).

The following list of rations represents what Commissaries most generally issued to Union soldiers:


Meat:          12 ounces of pork or bacon, or
                   1 pound and 4 ounces of salt or fresh beef

Bread:         1 pound and 6 ounces of soft bread or flour, or
                   1 pound of hard bread [hardtack] or
                   1 pound and 4 ounces of corn meal

To every 100 rations:
                    15 pounds of beans or peas, and
                    10 pounds of rice or hominy
                    10 pounds of green coffee, or
                     8 pounds of roasted (Or roasted and ground) coffee, o
                    1 pound and 8 ounces of tea
                    15 pounds of sugar
                    4 quarts of vinegar
                    1 pound and 4 ounces of adamantine, or star candles
                    4 pounds of soap
                    3 pounds and 12 ounces of salt
                    4 ounces of pepper
                    30 pounds of potatoes
                    1 quart of molasses

 The following list of rations represents what Commissaries most generally issued to Confederate soldiers:

      • Salt pork/slab bacon

      • Navy or White beans

      • Long grain rice (unprocessed)

      • Corn Pone
      • Corn Meal

      • Dried Peas

      • Corn (in husk) and other seasonal appropriate vegetables

      • Goober Peas/Peanuts

      • Salt

      • Coffee substitute (i.e. sweet potato coffee)

      • Cone sugar, molasses or sorghum

Hardtack, another basic part of the soldiers ration had a forbidding appearance and a consistency that belied its usefulness. Although it could be eaten as issued, alternative methods for dealing with hardtack were preferred. If broken up and soaked in the water left from boiling meat, then fried in pork grease, it produced a dish Billy Yanks called "skillygalee", a type of tasty crouton. Unfortunately most methods of dealing with hardtack were based on necessity, not on taste..

Fresh beef would be appropriate for rations on rare occasion. Make sure it's a poor cut of meat, like rump roast or shoulder roast, no T bones or tender sirloins. Unlike slab bacon which is smoked /cured and will not spoil for up to 3 days before cooking, fresh beef needs to be issued and cooked immediately for health safety reasons.

Corn pone is authentic. Corn bread generally is not. The difference is that corn pone does not rise, while corn bread does. Corn pone, when cooked properly, is harder in substance and will not crumble as easily if stored in a haversack. A corn pone recipe is included below.

Corn meal should be coarse ground - not the fine ground meal sold in supermarkets. Most international food sections of supermarkets have coarse ground.

Partial List of Period Foraged Items:

Availability of "foraged" items depends upon the season and campaign. These items could be sent in a box from home, foraged from the country side, taken from a dead soldier’s haversack on the battlefield, or purchased from a sutler if the army was in winter quarters or otherwise stationary. It is important to remember that forage items would be rare and in small quantities, since an army of 20,000 to 80,000 soldiers on the march would strip countryside clean of food items. Foraged items would include:

  • Corn on the cob (in husk)

  • Apples (in the fall)

  • Peaches, Cherries (summer)

  • Dried Fruit (sent from home)

  • Spring Onions (in the spring)

  • Potatoes (sweet/yam; red or white)

  • Eggs (boiled eggs will keep for a week w/o refrigeration)

  • Coffee beans (green coffee beans were most common, requiring toasting before grinding)

  • Turnips

  • Baked biscuits/round loaves of soft bread



Soldiers in receipt of rations issue and storage:

Rations can be received in a canteen half, in a cup, in poke bags, or in a piece of cloth - it's just a matter of a soldier's ingenuity. Each person should always have at least 4-5 poke sacks or pieces of cloth in their haversack for rations. Foragers can also store rations for transportation in larger forage bags or small or medium sized burlap sacks. These bags can be tied to a knapsack, tied and hung off of a belt, or even tied to the haversack strap to hang down by the forager's side while on the march. Again, food storage and transportation on the march is just a matter of ingenuity and creativity in the field. As long as period items are used, just do whatever you come up with that works.


Salt Pork/Slab Bacon:

Salt pork was often called 'sow belly' by soldiers in blue and grey. Salt pork was the most common meat issued soldiers in both armies - a rations staple no matter what time of year. Avoid modern 'salt pork' sold in supermarkets - it's mostly fat and tastes absolutely terrible. Period salt pork is not readily available. The best substitute is slab bacon (which is also better to eat, tastier, and not nearly as salty).

Slab bacon does not need to be refrigerated and can keep in your haversack for up to three days before cooking. Just use common sense if you have raw slab bacon in your haversack (i.e. don't leave it sitting out in the sun during the summer). You can also cook your slab bacon at home and then store in your haversack for up to three days without a problem.

Slab bacon is generally sold in 4-5 pound slabs. Upon receipt, simply take the slab out of its plastic wrapper and cut into one half pound or pound pieces. For storage in your haversack, the easiest method is to simply place in a larger sized poke bag. Extra slab pieces can be stored in larger sized forage bags.

Slab bacon can be boiled, roasted, or fried.

For boiling: place a piece in a tin cup or muck bucket, add water, and place on the fire. After the meat is cooked through, the remaining water can be used as a base for a broth or stew.

For roasting: you can simply place the slab bacon on the end of a stick or bayonet and place over the fire. For cooking for a large group, simply take the slab bacon pieces and put onto a ramrod; next, rest the ramrod on the backside of socket ends of two bayonets stuck in the ground on either side of a fire.

For frying: place a piece of slab bacon in a canteen half or small skillet, after a small amount of grease cooks off the bacon into the cooking container, add a bit of water to avoid burning the meat; continue to add water as needed to avoid burning until cooked through.

Beans or Field Peas: The most important thing to remember when issued beans in the field is to soak them overnight or through the day (at least 8 hours) in a cup or boiler to facilitate cooking. When preparing beans, simply boil until soft enough to eat. Beans can be combined with rice, or added with other items for a stew or soup.

Rice: Make sure to use only natural, unprocessed rice. Most stores that sell "organic" foods will have a variety of rice available to buy in bulk. In addition for use with stews, beans, and soups, rice can also be used as a breakfast item. Simple boil the rice until ready, and then add brown sugar and/or molasses. This provides a tasty cereal and plenty of carbohydrates for a long day.

Corn Meal:

Corn Cakes ("Corn Dodgers") - To the corn meal and flour mix add bacon grease and enough hot water to make stiff dough. Pinch or spoon off from the dough enough to pat out into a patty the size of an old silver dollar and fry it in a canteen half (make sure you use plenty of bacon grease) until golden brown and a little crunchy.

Ash cakes - When no mess gear is available the ash cake is another option for using corn meal. Prepare your dough as you would for corn cakes. Once prepared wrap up the dough in corn husks, tie the husks closed and bury in ashes and coals of a fire. Allow to bake for about 30 minutes.

Dried Peas: Follow the same general process as for cooking beans (soaking over night or most of the day before putting the kettle or cup on the fire). You do not need to add sugar or salt pork fat as dried peas actually keep their flavor.

Potatoes: Potatoes can be baked in coals; sliced and fried in bacon grease (make sure to add a bit of water to avoid burning); or boiled. Potatoes can be combined with other items for soup or basic stew.

Sweet Potato Coffee Substitute: Put about two heaping tablespoons of coffee substitute in a tin cup, add water and boil. The recipe on how to make sweet potato coffee substitute is included below.

Unprocessed Sugar Cone: Can be purchased in one pound cones. Easiest method is to shatter the cone and divide among your mess mates for storage in a poke sack.


All mess activities revolve around the Dog Robber and Assistant Dog Robber. They take the lead in food preparation and cooking, but everyone in the mess and/or unit needs to participate. For example, two people should gather firewood, another charged with prepping/cutting the meat or veggies, another messmate in charge of maintaining adequate water supply, and one or two in charge of actual cooking and supervision of the food preparation.

Mess equipment (and you don't really need very much) should be divided among the messmates while on the march.



Union Hardtack:

2 cups of flour
1/2 to 3/4 cup water
1 tablespoon of Crisco or vegetable fat

Mix the ingredients together into a stiff batter, knead several times, and spread the dough out flat to a thickness of 1/2 inch on a non-greased cookie sheet. Bake for 30 minutes at 400 degrees. Remove from oven, cut dough into 3-inch squares, and punch four rows of holes, four holes per row into the dough. Turn dough over, return to the oven and bake another 30 minutes. Turn oven off and leave the door closed. Leave the hardtack in the oven until cool. Remove and enjoy!

Confederate Johnnie Cake:

two cups of cornmeal
2/3 cup of milk
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon of salt

Mix ingredients into a stiff batter and form eight biscuit-sized "dodgers". Bake on a lightly greased sheet at 350 degrees for twenty to twenty five minutes or until brown. Or, spoon the batter into hot cooking oil in a frying pan over a low flame. Remove the corn dodgers and let cool on a paper towel, spread with a little butter or molasses, and you have a real southern treat!


Sweet Potato Coffee Substitute:

Peel and cube the sweet potatoes. Dry in an oven on low heat (about 150 degrees) for several hours. Afterwards, you can brown the dried cubes in a skillet (do not use oil, just place on skillet). Next, finely grate/ground the dried cubes using a cheese grater or food processor. You can use these grounds for brewing coffee or, for some caffeine content, you can make a mix of three parts sweet potato grounds, and one part coffee grounds.

Corn Pone or Indian Bread


1 quart Butter Milk
1 quart Corn Meal
1 quart Coarse Flour
1 cup Molasses
a little Soda (baking soda) & Salt
Mix and Bake

 Mix ingredients together, let batter sit for an hour. Pour batter in greased cake pans and bake in 425 degree preheated oven for 35-45 minutes (though baking in greased cast iron skillet is best - if using skillet bake a bit longer).

You can add more molasses to make it a bit tastier. Note that if properly cooked, this will be harder and more ornery looking than regular cornbread.

Corn Pone in the Field:

You can also make corn pone in the field - simply take left-over bacon grease and add to corn meal and a bit of water. Make a dough and place on a skillet on camp fire coals (low heat) and then cover the skillet with another plate or some sort of lid.

Irish Mashed Potatoes

Boil Irish potatoes and green apples together, then mash together, season with salt, pepper, onions, and/or garlic.

Cone Sugar:

The sugar cane is first pressed and the liquid is boiled down and poured off into molds allowing it to drain off and dry. What you get is a great irregular yellow/tan colored cone of PURE sugar. This is a wonderful tasting sugar that is great in cooked goods, coffee, and even by itself. One pound of this stuff goes a long way. This is not like the commercially available 'sugar cones' or other brown sugars that have had the molasses removed and then returned and mixed up.

These are just a few in an endless list of rations. Each living historian is encouraged to conduct their own research on food sources, and cooking techniques.



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