That Wonderful Black Bean

By Jeff Hendershott

Coffee was the staple beverage of the Civil War soldier. This ration was almost always met with unanimous approval by Union
troops. It was issued, as with the sugar which accompanied it, in pre-measured allotments. It was usually brewed over an open
fire in tin cups or cans, and the men took great pleasure in consuming it. Milk was almost never used, it being a luxury in the army.
However, sometimes condensed milk of the Borden or Lewis brands was made available from the sutler.

An illustration of the importance that coffee meant to the soldier can be found in Billing's book:

"In no more time than it takes to tell the story, the little camp-fires, rapidly increasing to hundreds in number, would shoot up along
the hills and plains... Soon they would be surrounded by soldiers, who made it an almost invariable rule to cook their coffee first,
after which a large number, tired out with the toils of the day, would make their supper of hardtack and coffee, and roll up in their
blankets for the night...It was coffee at meals and between meals."

From The Union Soldier, His Life and Times

With that introduction from a website I "brewed up," this veteran of many a morning campfire can offer a resounding "Amen!"  Of the many things I miss about Civil War reenacting, I can cite some of the little things that made the experience nice.  As strange as it may sound to you, I have REALLY missed that campfire coffee brewed-up 19th Century Style!

As Larry the Cable Guy would say, "That's good stuff right there, I don't care who you are!"

So, no, this is not a treatise on the Civil War soldier's coffee making and drinking habits.  It's just my own little trip down Nostalgia Avenue.  It was once said that "Coffee was the oil that greased the army" during the Civil War.  And it was coffee that brought this former reenactor back from the dead more than one morning (although my former pards may differ on this opinion).

I just like the stuff, you know?  Some coffee simply sucks.  Some coffee is wonderful.  My oldest daughter works for Starbucks - that new trendy haven for designer coffee.  She's given me "samples" for free and most of it is pretty good (but certainly not worth the obscene prices they charge for a cup).  I once got a pound of it, some dark blend that brewed up blacker than a cannon ball.  And the effects were about the same!  One cup of that gave me a REAL Civil War magic moment - a case of the "Old Soldier's disease" for about 2 days!

Back to the campfire.  OK, I admit, I cheated here and there once Folger's came out with those neat coffee "tea bags."  I'd feel guilty about it, you know, because certainly Johnny Reb and Billy Yank didn't have them.  Yet, neither Johnny Reb or Billy Yank had women in their camps cooking hotdogs and serving potato chips and Boston Baked Beans, either.  So I justified it occasionally by simply saying to myself I fell lower on the "Farb Scale" compared to some of the things I had seen.

Anyhow, I'd crush those beans up with a stick inside my tin cup, add the water, and in just a couple minutes I had myself a nice cup of java.  It took a few tries before I mastered it.  I can vividly recall the first attempt, not knowing that a virgin tin cup had to shed some lead (and the results looked like something that came out of a junkyard car radiator).  In case you are worried, I didn't drink it.

The highlight of the process was removing the boiling cup from the fire (another art that must be mastered) and hitting those floating beans with some cold water from my canteen to knock them to the bottom.  Ahhhhhhhhhhh...  morning coffee time!

And being one to experiment, I remember reading that when the soldier of the Civil War didn't have time to brew his coffee, he simply chewed on the whole bean.  So I did that too, against the warnings of my dentist.

I didn't consume massive quantities of coffee in the camp, but enough to earn me a lasting nickname from my pards not suitable for print here.  Let's just say I had "one up" on them, for my morning routine kept me "regular," if you feel what I'm saying!  And that's no small accomplishment when dealing with a weekend of 120 degree porta-pots, or worse!

There was one time, however, where my love of period coffee sort of got the best of me.  130th Gettysburg, which probably still stands (if anyone keeps track of such things) as the hottest Civil War reenactment on the books.  I ate lunch, and just before falling in for the afternoon battle, I brewed coffee.  I can still see the astonished look on an Ohio captain's face when he saw me brewing up my cup of black magic - "Coffee?!?!?!?!"

Yep, the captain was right.  What an idiot I was!  I slugged the mug back, fell in, and distinctly recall marching to battle because the long line of blue soldiers in the columns of fours in front of me spun like a top!  Lesson learned!  No coffee before the afternoon battle when it's over 100 degrees!  And there's the dehydration factor to consider.  Coffee dehydrates.  Remember that.

Hey, to my left (of my computer station in my basement) hangs my "relics" from my days in the hobby:  Frock Coat, pants (what's left of them), vest, canteen, haversack and best of all, my fire-blackened tin mug.  Sounds like a good day for building a fire and brewing up a cup of crushed beans (don't worry, I'm out of Folger's coffee bags).