Wherein combatants in the American Civil War know nothing keeps a soldier in fighting trim like a wad of compressed vegetables.
“Avast, ye scurvy dogs” kids playing pirate will shriek before making their friends walk the plank. While we might chuckle at a little bit of elementary school keelhauling, scurvy itself was a serious concern for sailors into the mid 18th-century. “The problem was so common,” Catherine Price writes,
that shipowners and governments assumed a 50% death rate from scurvy for their sailors on any major voyage. According to historian Stephen Bown scurvy was responsible for more deaths at sea than storms, shipwrecks, combat, and all other diseases combined.
While accessing and transporting the fresh fruits and vegetables needed to prevent scurvy was a particularly pressing problem for ships on transoceanic voyages, it also presented a problem for travelers on land. Large groups—like armies—often found insufficient produce through foraging to provide for the health needs of their members, leading to such conditions as diarrhea and dysentery. In the American Civil War (1861–65), it is estimated that 1.6 million soldiers in the Union army alone suffered from this disease, with approximately 50,000 people in both armies dying from the effects of malnutrition and poor sanitation.
Desperate to combat scorbutus, Union officials employed the latest in Crimean War (1853–56) technology: the world’s greatest superfood, desiccated vegetables.
It’s the Latest, It’s the Greatest
“Desiccation” means removing moisture from an object, and this very clearly describes desiccated vegetables: veggies completely void of any natural juices, imparting nutrients in all their withered, gritty glory. An 1852 journal described both the produce and process by saying,
It is applicable to a great variety of vegetable substances, and amongst others to cabbages, cauliflowers, spinach, sorrel, and green vegetables generally, carrots, turnips, beet-root, asparagus, French beans, peas, potatoes, apples, pears, cucumbers, melons, mushrooms, truffles, and many others…The general method of proceeding consists in drying the substances, at a moderate temperature, and compressing them into hard solid masses or cakes; in which state they may be preserved for a great length of time, enclosed in suitable cases; and, when required for use, they are moistened or soaked in water, and then cooked in the ordinary manner, or used without cooking, according to their nature.
A photo of Civil War-era desiccated vegetables shows a paper bag of gray grit with a few cubes that might once have resembled something natural. Soldiers boiled this for one to three hours into a type of soup that was ladled out with hardtack (bread that was, well, dry and hard) for meals.
Get Up On Your Tail Now
Looking at the bag of vegetal grit, you might ask two questions: how did it taste, and did it actually work in promoting good health? The answers, in short, are terrible and somewhat.
Soldiers are legendary for renaming food they hate (and thus the still-used WWII name of “sh@t on a shingle” for creamed chipped beef on toast), and this is certainly the case for the Civil War’s “desecrated vegetables.” One member of the Iowa cavalry claimed, “We have boiled, baked, fried, stewed, pickled, sweetened, salted it, and tried it in puddings, cakes and pies; but it sets all modes of cooking at defiance, so the boys break it up and smoke it in their pipes!”
While some tests before the war indicated the effectiveness of desiccated vegetables in preventing scurvy, other signs are less convincing. For example, the assistant surgeon at a fort in modern-day Wyoming claimed an 1858 outbreak of scurvy was caused by a lack of nutrients in dried produce (to which the Commissary Department relied that this was impossible because they were giving the soldiers heaping helpings of the grit). A few years later, an Iowa soldier simply wrote in his diary, “I ate a lot of desiccated vegetables yesterday and they made me the sickest of my life. I shall never want any more such fodder.” And, as I noted above, 1.6 million Union soldiers suffered from “the trots” despite being provided with what once were crisp and tasty veggies.
Well, They Got with More and More
An interest in some circles in preparing for disasters has led to massive growth in the long-term shelf-stable produce industry. There are some ways in which improvements in technology have led to improvements in dried food—one off-the-grid writer notes freeze-dried foods both last longer and taste better than older-style dehydrated foods. Companies selling bulk quantities of free-dried veggies even claim they make perfect snacks straight from the big plastic pail (although notably they simply show photos of the food itself, and not of smiling kids happily gnawing on a fistful of dried cauliflower).
Perhaps the clearest review of modern dried vegetables simply says, “It was what we would expect from freeze-dried broccoli.”
Image: Thomas Nast, “The Army of the Potomac — Drawing Rations” (1863) (Source).