Saturday, January 23, 2021

Beef on the Hoof


More often than not Civil War soldiers received rations that experienced an extended period of “shelf life.” Items such as salted pork, corn meal, flour, or hardtack crackers were all common foods due partly to their ability to keep for weeks, and perhaps months. However, soldiers sometimes also received rations of fresh meat.

John Billings, who served in the 10th Massachusetts Light Artillery, in the Army of the Potomac, shared some thoughts about what the soldiers often called “beef on the hoof” in his famous book, Hardtack and Coffee. Billings wrote: “When a hold was made for the night, some of the steers would be slaughtered, and the meat furnished to the troops upon presentation of the proper requisitions by the quartermasters.”

Billings relates that the cattle “were sent by the hundreds and thousands on rail and shipboard to the various armies. On their arrival they were put in a corral.” Soldiers detailed from regular regiments drove, tended, and slaughtered the sometimes massive cattle herds that followed the armies. These men were excused from all of their frontline duties while detailed as such.

In order to avoid clogging the roads, and to leave the byways open for marching men, supply wagons, ambulances, and artillery, when on campaign the army’s cattle herds traditionally traveled overland, through the fields and forests. Billings explained that to keep the herds contained, and to get them to follow in a group, a lead steer came in handy. “Every herd had a steer that was used both as a pack animal and a leader. As a pack animal he bore the equipments and cooking utensils of the drovers. He was docile as an old cow or horse, and could be led or called fully as readily. By day he was preceded in his lead by the herdsman in charge, on horseback, while other herdsmen brought up the rear,” Billings noted. 

Shot and slaughtered when needed to supplement the soldiers’ rations, thousands of beeves filled their stomachs and provided the necessary energy to fight the Civil War. Each animal provided approximately 500 one-pound meat rations.

Billing also explained the army’s herd categories: “The fresh meat to accompany the other three days’ rations, which [soldiers] stowed in their knapsacks, was driven along in division herds.” There were corps herds, too, which provided meat for up to 16 days if the corps expected to be absent from a central base of supply for an extended period. “In addition, to these there was a general or army herd to fall back upon when necessary to supply the corps herds, but this was always at the base of supplies,” Billings added.

The saying that an army marches on its stomach is attributed to earlier conflicts in Europe, but the American Civil War proved that it was applicable on this side of the Atlantic, too. However, sometimes the meat did not come in barrels, often it marched with the soldiers.

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