Norris: Hard times and The Civil War

Norris: Hard times and The Civil War

January 5th, 2014 by By Mary Scott Norris in Opinion Columns

In Tennessee, a "border state" located between northern and southern states, supporters of opposing sides often lived close to one another. Leonard Raulston and James Livingood in their book "Sequatchie" describe how people in Marion and Sequatchie counties survived during the Civil War.

"From their frontier heritage, most folks had learned to improvise in providing for daily necessities. During the war years and those that followed, they not only had experienced the foraging expertise of both armies, but also were unable to get goods from outside the area. They had nothing for sweetening, for example, except sorghum molasses, but the tedious process of preparing this took much of the pleasure out of its use. Cooks tried to make substitutes for coffee from parched rye, sweet potatoes, acorns, and okra, but according to Jane Lloyd Bates, who remembered well, all failed except corn meal moistened with sorghum molasses and browned. Sassafras tea became the usual beverage.

"Salt, a necessity as a meat preservative, became almost impossible to get. The country people dug up the ground under the floors of their smokehouses in search for salt. Soil was put in hoppers and water added to it. After water was allowed to seep through, the soil was caught in a trough and boiled down to recapture the salt which had been leached out. This recycled salt, dark brown in color, was very dirty, but it could be used, and no smokehouse failed to give up its treasure."

In "The Civil War for Kids", Janis Herbert described the quality of meat. "The preserved meat they were given was so bad the soldiers called it 'embalmed beef'. Pretending it was a dead body, they give it a funeral! Other rations included salt pork, dried apples, beans and rice. Union soldiers got something (they) called "desiccated" vegetables. There were cubes of dried vegetables that had to be soaked for hours until they became sort of edible." The Confederate soldiers' rations were corn meal, bacon, field peas and rice. "As the War went on, it became more difficult to find supplies for the troops."

A recipe was included in the 1862 U.S. Army Book of Recipes for "Hardtack", a bread-like cracker that soldiers could carry on long marches. It was soft enough to be edible for a day, but after two days had to be soaked in milk, coffee, water or added to soups or stews to chew it.


Combine five cups flour, one tablespoon baking powder, one tablespoon salt, one and one-fourth cups water to form stiff dough. Flatten on greased baking sheet. Divide into squares. Make holes with a 10 penny nail through dough. Bake 20 minutes 'til lightly browned. Let cool. (

Raulston and Livingood continue, "Everything not already on hand had to be homemade. Buttons, nails, needles, thread, pins, matches, dishes, writing materials, tools, plows, buckets, medicine, and many other things were simply not available.

Needles were prewar reserves that were borrowed throughout a community and kept busy day and night. A broken needle was virtually a public calamity. Thread was spun by hand, and dyes were made from indigo, the bark of trees or walnut hulls. Everyone dressed in homespun; buttons and fastenings were made from leather, pieces of gourd, thorns, wood and persimmon seeds."

"In the South, suffering from the trade blockade (as the War progressed), goods were becoming scarce," Herbert states. "Everything had to be made at home, from soap to candles to clothing. Old curtains and flour sacks provided material for clothes." (Remember Scarlett O'Hara's green velvet dress from draperies at Tara?) Women made rope from moss, needles from thorns and used blackberry leaves for tea.

Most Confederate soldiers, called Graybacks because of their gray uniforms, wore clothes dyed butternut tan by acorns or walnuts. "There was a shortage of ink and paper. Confederate soldiers made ink from the juice of berries and used goose quills or cornstalks as pens. They wrote replies (on) the letters they received from home, writing between the lines of the old letter. They made makeshift envelopes from old letters, too."

Battles were rarely fought within northern boundaries, and everyday life was less difficult than in the South. Deprivations and memories of hard times continued in the Southern states, long after the last shot was fired.

Mary Scott Norris is a retired librarian and archivist for the Signal Mountain Library and a member of the Town of Signal Mountain Historical Committee. For more, visit or call LaVonne Jolley at 423-886-2090.