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Brewing up before battle: How coffee fueled the soldiers of the Civil War

Guest writer Matthew A. Perry’s look at a logistical issue important to soldiers on both sides.

Coffee has long been a popular drink for soldiers in the field, and was consumed in large amounts by troops during the Civil War. The drink was popular in the 19th century for the jolt of energy it provided.  As an added bonus, being made with boiled water it usually did not make the soldiers sick. Germ theory was not well developed at that time, but people realized that boiled water did not seem to carry diseases as regular water did. Soldiers during the Civil War were issued nearly 40 pounds of coffee per year, underscoring their leaders’ understanding of the psychological importance of the drink to soldiers who enjoyed few comforts in the field.

Unfortunately for the southern soldiers, their country was struggling to feed their citizens and coffee became an unobtainable luxury item. These men were desperate for anything that even remotely resembled coffee. They took drastic steps to get their dark liquid fix. Southern soldiers used chicory, peanuts, sassafras, cottonseed, dandelions, and countless other natural items that may sound disgusting to the modern reader. This desperation showed just how far soldiers would go for that refreshing cup of joe.

During the war, it was not uncommon for soldiers from both sides to meet informally and trade items. Such commodities as pipe tobacco, local newspapers, and other items were popular, but Rebel soldiers were most eager to trade for their Union counterparts’ coffee. Union soldiers would often bring back quite the ransom for just the smallest amounts of coffee traded to the caffeine-starved Rebels.

Matthew A. Perry is a middle school history teacher, author, and basketball coach from West Virginia. When he is not teaching and coaching, he writes and has published three books about military history. You can find Matthew’s work at and his blog at

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Introducing MILFEED guest writer Matthew A. Perry

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