Hardtack History

and Recipe


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Hardtack is the most famous American Civil War staple food.  Hard as a rock, this cracker was easily made by large contract baking companies to the bane of many a Civil War soldier.  As Mike Bilbo states, it is more aptly called "digestible leather".  It was also affectionately known by the men as "angel cakes, teeth dullers or ammo reserves".  But it was also issued, and stored by the men for marching.  Carrying a piece of hardtack around in your haversack would serves as a good living history discussion piece for the public.  Rumor is, some hardtack made during the Civil War was re-issued and used during the Spanish American war almost 35 years later!


Hardtack Recipe by Kathy Kleiman (MCHA Co. E)


6 parts flour
1 part water

Knead dough until thoroughly mixed. Roll out on a floured surface until about 1/8 inch thick (or there abouts). Cut into squares--there is an actual size piece of hardtack pictured in Hard Tack & Coffee by Billings (p. 114 in my edition), seems to be about 2 3/4 by 3 1/2 inches. His piece of hardtack was small and I've seen larger ones. Probably due to whatever
contractor made the hard tack.

Pierce the hard tack 13 times with the tip of a knife, making sure hole goes all the way through the dough. The Tinsmiths sutler makes a hardtack "cookie" mold that is just great for this. They advertise in the CW News.

Bake at 325 for at least an hour, turning over the hard tack once. Check to see that it is cooked through completely. Take out & let cool overnight to get that real hard & dry feeling. Some people bake at 300 for a couple of hours, just to get it real dry. The finished hard tack will still look pale.


Alternative Hardtack Recipe by Mike Bilbo


Mike got this from an original Indian Wars source, but modified for a contemporary oven:


Wash your hands before starting.  Dust how many ever cookie sheets will fit in your oven and place them next to a table where you'll do the work. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.


With hands mix flour and water in a large bowl until the gooey mass doesn't

stick to your hands (have a separate bowl of flour handy to add for this

purpose).  Do not coat your hands with Crisco to prevent sticking as this

causes problems with the final product.  Just deal with it.


Dust flour on a table surface and take the dough and knead it there until

leathery stiff (and your wrists begin to ache).  Do the next parts steadily and without letup to prevent rising.  Form dough into a rounded shape.


With rolling pin roll it out to 1/2-inch thick.  Cut into 3-inch squares and place on the cookie sheets.  With 3-tined fork, make hole patterns on one side.  (I use a hard tack cutter with nails already in pattern - some tin sutlers

sell these - ask around the membership because maybe someone has one)


Place sheets in oven and bake each side of hard tack for 30 minutes at 350

degrees.  Stack finished tack into a box and let set up for one day at which time they will gain the consistency of a brick.


Some people add a little salt to the dough but there is no historical

evidence for this. The salt makes it even harder but also attracts

moisture which will eventually ruin tack stored for a few months (and a lot

of mine is stored for a year).


You are going to get hot, sweaty and tired but that's historically correct.

Historically, soldiers assigned bakery detail at all the posts, like Ft.

Laramie where the oven is still in use, didn't wash hands and allowed sweat

to drip into the dough bins where it was mixed in large masses.


Hardtack History


Civil War Biscuits Still Produced (sent by Mike Bilbo on 8/21/2000 to our unit)


ASSOCIATED PRESS MILTON, Mass. (AP) -- Hardtack crackers, once a staple for hungry Union soldiers in the Civil War, are dry as a bone, hard as a brick - and all of a sudden

selling like hot cakes over the Internet.  G.H. Bent Co., a 199-year-old cracker-maker in this Boston suburb, wouldn't sell much of the stuff at all if it weren't for Civil War re-enactors -- who spend their weekends re-creating battle scenes in meticulous detail and go online to

stock up on boxes of the biscuits.


"Since this Internet thing, it's exploded," said Gene Pierotti, 71, the retired former owner of Bent, whose son runs the company now. "It's amazing because it keeps the history alive."


When Pierotti bought the company in 1944, the company had stopped making hardtack. Instead, it made its sister cracker, the Bent's Cold Water Cracker, which has sold on trains and ships since 1801. It also supplied American troops in the war of 1812 and fed the Navy in the 1940s and '50s.


Then, about 40 years ago, an employee at Old Sturbridge Village, a replica of a 19th century village in central Massachusetts, called Pierotti and asked if he knew that Bent was one of the Union army's top suppliers of hardtack rations during the Civil War.


Pierotti didn't know that, but his company started making the flour-and-water biscuits again anyway. It was far from a top-shelf item, selling only about 140 boxes each year through 1999.


Last December, an enthusiastic Civil War re-enactor named Mike Thorson found out about the cracker, and gave it a rave review on the Internet site for his re-enactment unit, the 33rd Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry. Word spread among roughly 50,000 Civil War buffs, and business boomed. Sales are projected at 4,000 boxes this year. Still, hardtack accounts for only about 2 percent of Bent's business.


Bent is not the only company that makes hardtack. Nabisco also sells the biscuits in the Northeast under the name Crown Pilot Crackers, and Mechanical Baking Co., in Pekin, Ill., makes the biscuits as well. And each year, the 33rd Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry uses industrial size ovens to make its own large batch.


The ovens at the G.H. Bent Co. are roaring to fill hardtack orders for re-enactors like Ken Callaway, who tries to replicate every detail of the battlefield -- down to the food in his pockets. When the 30- year-old social studies teacher from Chesterton, Ind., joined the 19th Indiana Volunteer Infantry three years ago, he had no difficulty finding an authentic uniform for

the company. Filling his stomach was a different story.


He tried making the hardtack biscuits that soldiers kept in their pockets for weeks a time. They "didn't turn out so good," he said. A commercial biscuit was too hard, he said. But he found Bent's hardtack authentic enough to get him -- and his audience -- closer to the battlefield history he tries to recreate.  "If I try on a small level to replicate the experiences they had, I feel better about talking about it," Callaway said. "It's the only hardtack I use now."


Contents copyright 2000 Las Vegas Sun, Inc.


G.H. Bent Co.: http://www.bentscookiefactory.com

Mechanical Baking Co.: http://www.mechanical-bakery.com

33rd Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry: http://www.amtma.com/33dwis.html