Cornmeal – the Staff of Life – for the Southern Soldier

Sloosh Sluice fried

 Sloosh Sluice fried

Corn has been a staple of life in the South since Captain John Smith traded with the Powhatan Indians for corn – back in 1607. When the Powhatans refused to trade corn for trinkets, the English seized it – stole it – because it was so essential initially to the English survival in the New World.

During the Civil War, cornmeal and salt pork became critical essentials in the rations of the southern soldier. Often there was little else.  Southern soldiers depended upon cornmeal for their survival in the field.

Tim McCown does living history programs at Fort Frederick in Maryland. He’s been doing Civil War living history for 30 years.

McCown re-enacts with the 5th Virginia Company K because he had an ancestor who served in the unit during the War Between the States. His ancestor’s diary – according to McCown – is “down in Winchester.” The diary was used to help write the regimental history of the unit.

James Larue McCown – Tim McCown’s ancestor – was a saddle maker in Lexington, Virginia, before the war. Following the war, James McCown was a photographer’s assistant. He is buried in Stonewall Jackson Cemetery in Lexington. His diary according to Tim McCown found its way to the Stonewall Jackson’s Headquarters Museum in Winchester.

“I thought one of the things that would make this event [One Fort Three Wars] more interesting would be to do something on the culinary history of the Civil War,” said McCown. “It also gave me the chance to do Civil War interpretation – which I love to do,” he said. “I know far more about the Civil War than either the French and Indian or American Revolutionary War.”

The Union army had a lot of salt pork and salt beef throughout the war. In 1861, the Confederate rations would have included hardtack, salt pork, and salt beef. By 1862 and 1863, Confederate soldiers, according to McCown, were living on green apples, dried vegetables, peanuts, and a lot of cornmeal unless they captured Union provisions.

On this occasion, McCown portrayed a Confederate soldier with the 2nd Virginia Infantry Regiment, a unit connected to Jackson’s Stonewall Brigade. For McCown outfitted in a Virginia frock with a wreath and spoon belt, the impression is very similar to his regular unit.

“Today, we’ll be describing the whole process of feeding an army,” said McCown. “We’ll be describing garrison rations as opposed to field rations, and the difference in rations between the Union and the Confederate armies.”

Jackson’s corps came through the area near Fort Frederick on Christmas Day in 1861. They were planning on tearing up the B & O Railroad and the C & O Canal. They thought no one would be paying attention on Christmas Day.

The 1st Maryland Regiment was occupying Fort Frederick and using its walls as protection from the wind. They were posted at Fort Frederick to keep a watchful eye on the bend in the Potomac River nearby. When the Marylanders spotted the Confederate forces, a skirmish ensued.

“There’s a skirmish somewhere straight down from here at McCoy’s Ferry,” said McCown. “We’re not sure exactly where, but there was a skirmish on Christmas Day.”

Inside Fort Frederick McCown has set up a campfire to demonstrate how Confederate soldiers would have prepared a typical meal in the field. He has the rations that would have been available to southern soldiers as the war progressed – if they were lucky.

McCown fried some smoke cured bacon in an iron skillet. He mixed cornmeal with water and some bacon grease until it was the consistency of pancake batter. He ladled out the mixture into the skillet in cookie-sized portions.

“You fry the grease / cornmeal cakes until they’re brown on both sides, and you eat it that way – with the bacon flavoring,” said McCown. “It’s good southern cooking,” he noted. “All I need is a frying pan.”

Originally McCown considered making a stew. The cauldron with the ingredients would sit on the fire for three and a half hours. By the time the stew was done, the event would almost be over and most of the visitors gone. Few people would be around to see the finished product.

“I wanted to get something that takes minutes to do, and that we can describe very quickly,” said McCown. “The provisions that the 1st Texas was getting ready to whip up before they were run into the corn field were very common at Antietam,” he said. “They never got to eat their rations.”

Outfitted as a typical Confederate infantryman with a soft pack on his back, McCown would’ve carried a shelter half, blankets, and extra clothing.  He would have also carried extra rounds and food that wouldn’t fit in his haversack.

“Haversacks were where you carried your food. The haversacks were grubby and dirty because of the salt pork and salt beef you put in there,” said McCown. “They stunk to high heaven. There’s a reason both armies smelled when they marched anywhere. That’s one of them.”

McCown participated in the cooking demonstration as well as a firing demonstration. Soldiers would march out, drop their packs before the battle, and go out and fight. After the battle – if they survived – they’d return the way they came and pick up their packs.

At the beginning of the war, according to McCown, standard Union and Confederate rations included 10 ounces of beef, 10 ounces of bread, and about 6 ounces of vegetables.

Soldiers would pool their rations and cook in a big pot. By ’62 and ’63, the Federal rations were basically the same noted McCown. By ’62 and ’63, the diet of the Confederate soldier consisted mainly of a cup of cornmeal, green apples, dried fruit, and peanuts. Confederates had very little meat unless they foraged or purchased it from sutlers at exorbitant prices.

“I’m making bacon with cornbread the way the Confederates did – sluice – fried cake. When I add water it’ll become like pancake batter,” said McCown. “You take a spoonful and throw it into the pan.  You get two or three going and flip ‘em like pancakes.”

Sluice – also called couche or sloosh – was essentially a fried cornmeal mush. It required few ingredients and minimum preparation. The concept had its origins in hoecakes prepared by early colonists and slaves on the flat edge of a hoe and cooked over an open fire. Southern soldiers modified the preparation, wrapped the concoction around their ramrods, and cooked it over a campfire. A well-seasoned iron skillet was the device preferred by soldiers when a fry pan was available.

“Sluice. It’s a southern thing,” said McCown. “Cook salt pork or bacon and pour the cornmeal in the grease and make sluice out of it.”

By Bob Ruegsegger