The Civil War: Lack of Coffee Lead to Many Ersatz Substitutes

Traumatic times led to many substitutes for missing foods, such as an ersatz coffee made from parched corn.

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Grandmother was a young lady of 16 in 1861. She passed along memories of those traumatic times to her youngest son. Grandmother told about the many things they experimented with as coffee substitutes. Coffee was scarce, and when it was available, it was too expensive. They parched corn or other grains and baked them until nearly black before the grains were ground and boiled for ersatz coffee. They even tried roasted acorns, but those needed much soaking and leaching to remove the bitter acids from the final drink.

She mentioned the lack of good flour. The best flour was sent to the Army. They struggled to make edible breads from less desirable grains. Corn pones or journey cake made with coarse cornmeal, water and no leavening was a mainstay in their daily fare.

She told of a star formation that appeared as a great "W" in the sky. In those days, people were very superstitious. It is likely they saw what they wanted to see. Everyone took it as a sign that a great war threat hung over the land.

Many community young men were leaving to join the Union forces. Their young friends decided to have a last "play party" to honor them. The girls made great preparations, combining all the goodies they could manage to hoard for gingerbreads, corn cakes, molasses and sugar cookies, and vinegar sling to drink.

They held their party at the largest home available, where they sang and danced to old-time folk tunes and sing-song games. A zealous minister heard about the party and broke it up with exhortations against their sinful playing. Because of that, Great-Grandfather vowed never to attend that church again.

Grandmother was an expert stocking and mitten knitter. She made countless pairs to send to friends and relatives in the Army. Her clothing was all stitched by hand, and all worn garments were taken apart, turned wrong side out and re-sewn to look newer.

The best parts of worn clothing were cut up and stitched again into children's clothes or into quilts. New fabrics were so scarce and very expensive during the Civil War, so Grandmother learned to save the smallest scraps and piece them together to finish one tiny quilt patch.

A young man from the neighborhood was badly wounded on the Chickamauga battlefield. He found shelter in a brush patch and waited for several days to be found and given medical attention.

A treasured memento of those agonizing days was a ring he had whittled from a root to while away the long painful hours of dreary waiting.

Jean Kristiansen
Nashua, Iowa


Back in 1955 a call went out from the editors of the then CAPPER’s Weekly asking for readers to send in articles on true pioneers. Hundreds of letters came pouring in from early settlers and their children, many now in their 80s and 90s, and from grandchildren of settlers, all with tales to tell. So many articles were received that a decision was made to create a book, and in 1956, the first My Folks title – My Folks Came in a Covered Wagon – hit the shelves. Nine other books have since been published in the My Folks series, all filled to the brim with true tales from CAPPER’s readers, and we are proud to make those stories available to our growing online community.