Quick! Who became President of the United States because of coffee? You can check your answer a little later.
Andy Jackson did not owe his presidency to coffee, but he was certainly a man who enjoyed an occasional drink—and I don’t mean coffee. He understood alcohol and what it could do to the men who drank it. So, it is not all that surprising that in 1832, as President and Commander in Chief of the Army, he ended the daily liquor ration for the troops. Instead of whiskey, the men were to get coffee—a tradition that lasts to this day.
This simple step probably saved more lives than you think, not just because it lessened risk for—but by no means protected all—intoxicated men with weapons from the occasional accident. It was the boiling of the liquid that saved the most lives. The simple process of making hot water helped eliminate some of the dangers of dysentery and cholera, either of which killed more soldiers in the 19th century than bullets.
Without knowing about germ theory, people noticed the healthful quality of a morning cup of coffee. A US Army field manual from 1861 even included the helpful advice: “Coffee tastes better if the latrines are dug downstream from an encampment.”
During the Civil War, the standard Northern coffee daily ration was ten pounds of green coffee per 100 men. A supply sufficient for two to three days was apportioned into small piles, each issued to a single soldier, who would wrap it in paper, oiled cloth, or rubber bag to protect the valuable commodity. When possible, each man would bring water to a boil in his tin dipper or a special tiny pot called a ‘mucket’ and add enough of the ground coffee to the hot water to make a single cup of coffee. How much to add was a constant battle between the availability of a coffee ration and the demands of hunger.
According to long established military tradition, there are five grades of coffee; Coffee, Java, Joe, Jamoke, and Carbon Remover. The bottom two can only be made by true coffee illiterates; tea drinkers, the US Army, and Mormons. If you are making your coffee in a tin cup, held with baling wire over a camp fire, using pathogen-laden water, darkened with stale coffee and moldy sugar….you should probably make the coffee strong enough to float a horseshoe. When the coffee was strong enough, a splash of cold water would be added to the pot to settle the grounds to the bottom of the pot and a cup of coffee could be gently poured into a tin cup.
The standard practice when the coffee was ready, was for the soldier to pour a little onto his tin plate to help clean it, dump it out, and then add hardtack to what remained in the cup. These brick-hard crackers could not be eaten until moistened in something, and submerging them in hot coffee was probably as beneficial to the soldier’s health as it was to his teeth. There was a reason the soldiers called hardtack ‘worm castles’.
Try to visualize the scene. During the war, wherever the Army of the Potomac stopped for the night, it was suddenly the second largest town in the Confederacy. Hundreds of tiny fires would be lit from scavenged sticks and repurposed fence posts. Then a strange buzzing noise would fill the air as shared coffee grinders were put to work for the evening meal.
During the Civil War, the army tried to simplify the distribution of coffee by dispensing a form of ‘instant coffee that was a dehydrated essence of coffee and sugar that looked and tasted like petroleum. Distributed in quart cans, a teaspoon mixed with hot water produced a cup of ‘instant coffee’ that no soldier would touch. The army rather quickly withdrew this product from distribution.
Coffee was absolutely necessary to the men. A recent study of Civil War diaries revealed that solders mentioned coffee more often than ‘rifle’, ‘cannon’, or ‘bullet’.
By the end of the war, the average Union soldier consumed 36 pounds of it a year! Most of it was issued green, with the soldiers roasting and grinding the beans themselves, using makeshift tools and improvised methods. One rifle was even manufactured with a coffee grinder built into the stock!
One Union general even timed his army’s attacks based on when his men had consumed their morning coffee. As General Benjamin Butler assured another general, “If your men get their coffee early in the morning you can hold.”
In the South, things were not quite so cheery. After President Lincoln ordered a naval blockade of Southern ports, coffee and tea became increasingly difficult to obtain and the price per pound skyrocketed. Starting at about $3.00 a pound, by the close of the war, coffee was almost impossible to obtain even at the escalated price of $60 per pound.
This shortage led to the South's inventing a variety of what came to be called ‘Lincoln Coffee’. The list of coffee substitutes is almost endless. If it was green and could be grown, then somebody, somewhere used it to make "coffee" by drying, roasting, grinding, and percolating it. Peanuts, barley, okra seeds, acorns, barley, beans, beets, bran, chestnuts, chicory, corn meal, cotton seeds, dandelion, sweet potatoes, peas, persimmons, rice, rye sorghum molasses, sugar cane seeds, watermelon seeds and wheat berries were just a few of the things tried. Local newspapers would even publish recipes on how to brew something that just might—kind of—look like coffee. The most desperate for coffee have to have been the Union prisoners of war in Andersonville, who tried to brew coffee with scorched slivers of wood.
It is safe to say that none of this tasted like coffee unless you had the type of imagination that was brought on by severe deprivation. A few of these recipes would surface again in the Great Depression of the 1930’s, but today the reminder of this ersatz coffee can be found in Louisiana where chicory is still routinely added to coffee.
And the president who owes his start to coffee? During the Battle of Antietam, a nineteen year-old Sergeant McKinley was mentioned in dispatches when he braved enemy fire by taking coffee and food to the men at the front line. His bravery under fire earned him the personal friendship of Rutherford B. Hayes and a promotion to the rank of Lieutenant.
For decades after the war, every politician running for office used his war record, a practice known as 'waving the bloody flag'. The last veteran of the Civil War to live in the White House, McKinley ended the war with the rank of Brevet Major, and for the next thirty years campaigned on the basis of a 'bloody coffee cup'. If you visit Antietam, there is a monument—thirty-three feet tall—to McKinley and his coffee run.