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Did civil war soldiers cook their own food?

Cooking and food preparation was an important part of a civil war soldier’s daily life. Soldiers had to eat well to maintain strength and morale during long marches and harsh battles. But with thousands of men in massive armies on the move, individual soldiers did not do all their own cooking.

Did Enlisted Men Do Their Own Cooking?

For common soldiers, cooking duties were shared within their small units. Typically 10-12 enlisted men served together in a squad. Soldiers divided up cooking responsibilities, with 2-3 men from the squad designated as cooks on a rotating basis.

Enlisted soldiers did not have the time or facilities to cook elaborate meals. They prepared basic dishes like stews, beans, hardtack, coffee, etc over open campfires. Cooking equipment was limited to basic pots and pans carried in their packs.

When on the march, there was rarely time or opportunity for enlisted men to cook hot meals. They subsisted on cold rations like hardtack, jerky, and foraged foods.

Food Preparation in Camp

In camp, soldiers had more time and resources for cooking. They set up large open fire pits lined with iron grates or griddles. Squads took turns using these to prepare hot meals when possible.

While in camp, some regiments set up traveling bake ovens to make fresh bread for the troops. Regimental cooks also prepared stews and soups in large cauldrons and distributed rations to the companies.


Soldiers often supplemented their rations by foraging food from the countryside while on the march. Some men became quite skilled at living off the land – hunting, fishing, gathering wild edibles, and finding fresh produce on farms.

Any extras from foraging were usually shared with comrades back in camp to improve the whole unit’s diet when possible.

Did Officers Have Personal Cooks?

Commissioned officers typically came from privileged backgrounds and were unused to menial tasks like cooking for themselves.

Junior officers were assigned an orderly who took care of tasks like cooking, laundry, and horse care. The orderly was an enlisted man temporarily assigned to serve the officer.

Senior officers had more extensive household staff including a personal cook or cooks. The cooking was done over an open fire near the officer’s large wall tent.

General officers and their staffs had traveling kitchen wagons prepare hot meals. Tents served as dining spaces for the officers and specialized cooks prepared more elaborate meals.

Officer Food

Officer food was far superior to typical enlisted rations. Their personal cooks procured fresh meat and produce locally when possible. They served dishes like roasted chicken, beefsteaks, stews, puddings, pies, fruits, jams, jellies, pickled vegetables, cheese, eggs, etc.

Officers also received priority shipments of luxury food items from home including preserves, wines, liquors, spices, coffee, tea, etc. to improve their dining experience.

Regimental Cooks and Bakers

Each regiment had a staff of cooks and bakers assigned to help feed the troops. These men were often exempt from other duties due to their important role.

The regimental cooks prepared stews and soups in large pots and kettles over open fires. They also operated the traveling bake ovens for fresh bread.

These foods supplemented the basic cooking done by the soldiers themselves in their squads and companies. The regimental cooks improved both the quality and quantity of the soldier’s daily diet.

Cooking for Sick and Wounded

Regimental cooks also prepared special foods for men in the hospital or medical tents. Soups and stews were served to sick and wounded soldiers to help them regain strength.

Cooks had to be creative in finding ingredients for invalid foods. Eggs, milk, fresh meats and produce were hard to obtain. Dried and canned products helped vary the limited hospital diet.

Did Slaves Serve as Army Cooks?

In the Confederate Army, officers often brought personal slaves with them to war to serve as cooks, waiters, laundry workers, etc. These enslaved men performed essential domestic labor in the military camps.

African Americans also worked as cooks and servants for some Union regimental and brigade headquarters. They typically worked for pay or to earn freedom for themselves and their families.

Camp Cooks

Both armies used slaves and freedmen as cooks on a wider scale later in the war. As the massive Union and Confederate armies occupied territory, commanders forced slaves to provide labor in camps.

African Americans built fortifications and trenches, drove wagons, tended livestock, chopped wood, and served as cooks and kitchen workers. Their labor helped feed the thousands of troops on both sides.

Many slaves escaped and fled to Union lines for freedom when the opportunity arose. Some returned as paid cooks and laborers, often for the same army units that previously held them enslaved.

Foraging – A Vital Cooking Supplement

Foraging provided a vital supplement to military rations and helped improve camp cooking and nutrition.

Types of Foraged Foods

Type Examples
Produce Fruits, vegetables, berries, corn, wheat, tubers
Livestock Chickens, hogs, cattle
Wild Game Deer, rabbits, squirrels, birds
Fish River fish, shellfish
Edibles Nuts, wild onions/garlic, eggs, honey

When occupying an area, soldiers often took farm animals, crops, and foodstuffs from local residents to provision themselves. This foraging and requisitioning supplemented army rations.

Fresh meat like poultry and pork greatly improved the limited diet of salted beef and crackers when cooking in camp. Foraged vegetables and fruit also provided variety and nutrition.

Skills and Risks

Good foragers developed excellent hunting, fishing, and gathering skills. They knew how to spot wild edibles, quietly stalk game, set snares, spear fish, etc.

Foraging involved risks too. Men could be captured if they strayed too far while hunting. Enemy patrols or hostile locals might shoot opportunistic foragers. And inexperienced men ran the risk of accidentally poisoning themselves by eating toxic plants, herbs, or mushrooms in the wild.


Civil war soldiers at all ranks needed food to sustain them through demanding campaigns. Enlisted men shared cooking duties within their small units using basic equipment and rations.

Officers enjoyed better meals prepared by enlisted orderlies, personal servants, or hired cooks. Cooks at the regimental level helped feed all the soldiers by preparing stews and baked goods.

Slaves and paid African Americans also served as cooks and kitchen workers, often against their will. Soldiers supplemented their diet by foraging locally for fresh meat, produce, and wild foods when possible.

Food preparation was a vital daily task for both Union and Confederate armies. Soldiers relied on their own cooking skills and efforts, despite modest equipment, to sustain themselves in the field.