An army may march on its stomach, as Napoleon is reputed to have said, but what filled that collective stomach might well turn our modern ones:
The origin of Hardtack’s name itself is a source of some disagreement. Many argue that it stems from the texture of the item combined with British sailor slang for food, or “tack.” Others say the term originated during the American Civil War. Some maintain that the name derives from the biscuit being “hard as tacks” – somewhat uninspired.
In a time before refrigeration, pasteurization, canning, or preservation through chemical additives there were only so many ways a food could be kept without spoilage. Salting and dehydrating foods was a relatively easy way to make them last. Baking cereal grains into a dense biscuit made for easy transport and a reduced risk of spoilage (although, as we will learn, vermin were a different story). Most importantly (especially for operational planning), it was cheap. A form of hardtack was given as rations to Roman armies under the name bucellatum and during the 16th Century, British sailors could expect a daily ration of 1 gallon of beer and 1 lb. of hardtack.
While hardtack was issued right up until World War I, the most recent and descriptive accounts of the food come from the American Civil War. Soldiers often referred to the biscuits as “worm castles” because all too often they would become home to maggots and weevils. One soldier recalled the sorry state of hardtack that he and his comrades were to consume:
A brigade officer of the day called out sharply to some of our men as he passed along the line: “Throw that hard tack out of the trenches. Don’t you know, men, you’ve been told not to throw your rations in the trenches” Prompt to obey, the men threw out the hard tack, saying as they did, “We’ve thrown it out several times, sir, but it will crawl back.”
When the hardtack wasn’t infested with insects, soldiers needed to soften the biscuits for consumption in a variety of ways, including whacking them with the butt of their rifles, soaking them in coffee, or softening them in water to then be fried in pork fat. Delicious.