The battle of Antietam was raging, and the boys from Ohio had been fighting since morning. Their spirits and their energy were waning. But then a 19-year-old private named William McKinley appeared, hauling a bucket of hot coffee. He ladled the steaming brew into the men’s tin cups. They gulped it down and resumed firing.
“It was like putting a new regiment in the fight,” their officer recalled.
When McKinley ran for president three decades late, people remembered this act of culinary heroism and voted him into office.
Coffee was such an important staple in the Union soldiers’ diet that the Army issued about 35 pounds of it to each soldier every year. They drank their hefty ration before marches and after marches, while on patrol, and, as McKinley proved, even during combat. Men ground the beans themselves, often by using their rifle butts to smash them in their tin cups, then brewed it using any water that was available to them. “Settling” the coffee, getting the grounds to sink to the bottom of the vats in which it was boiled, was so important that escaped slaves who were good at it found work as cooks in Union Army camps.
The Union blockade assured that most Confederates soldiers were not so lucky. The wide variety of attempts at creating substitutes speak to how desperately they wanted a cup of joe. Southerners tried making coffee substitutes from roasted corn, rye, chopped beets, sweet potatoes, chicory, and all sorts of other things. Although none of these brews were good, enjoying them was a source of patriotic pride. Gen. George Pickett, whose failed charge at Gettysburg is also a source of Southern pride, thanked his wife for the delicious “coffee” she had sent by saying that “no Mocha or Java ever tasted half so good as this rye-sweet-potato blend!”
Coffee may not have won the war nor earned McKinley his presidency, but it certainly was one of the small determining factors in both endeavors.
The soldiers in Jennifer Bohnhoff's newest book, Valverde, drink a lot of coffee. A recipe for Union Camp coffee and Confederate acorn coffee will be included in Salt Horse and Rio, a companion cookbook of Civil War recipes that will come out next month.