Camp Coffee, Civil War style

Camp Coffee

Excerpt from They Met at Shiloh:

Scenes from Army life (library of Congress)

Revile shook Philip from his slumber in the morning chill. Huddling his arms to his chest, he lay motionless. Grunts, groans, and coughs multiplied as his comrades awoke to the fading darkness of early morning. The crackling of cook fires and smell of char replaced the once quiet of the morning fields. Resigned to being awake, Philip rubbed his eyes and sat up in his bed roll. Pushing his night cap back from his eyes and forehead, he sat for a few moments more as the clouds of sleep slowly lifted. The flickering fires cast momentary flashes of orange and red upon the tree line a few rods away, making the figures in the distance look like demons.

Philip curled his legs Indian style and drew the blanket up to his chest. Next to him, Sammy crawled out of his blanket and stood, his face drawn and eyes but mere slivers behind squinted eye lids. To his left, Mule lay motionless and huddled under his blanket.

“Mule, wake up,” Sammy croaked softly.

Philip stared at the heap for a moment and marveled at Mule’s ability to sleep through the growing clamor.

“Mule, get up,” Sammy repeated louder. “Philip, nudge him.”

Philip turned to the Mule’s form and said, “Hey, Mule. Up.”

“You know that never works. Ya’ gotta nudge ’em,” Johnny said as he sat up in his bed roll next to Mule.

“C’mon, Mule. Revile, wake up. Time to get up, Mule.” Philip shook what he thought was a shoulder, and a grunt sounded from the lump of blanket.

Mule suddenly swept the blanket off and sat up with a dumbfounded expression painted on his features. “Mornin’ already?”

“Better get moving. We probably got an hour afore we got to form,” Sammy said while he stretched and sat down to pull his brogans on.

“Who’s makin’ Kaffe?” Mule grunted and ran his thick stubby fingers through a matted lump of hair.

“It’s Philip’s turn for mess. Better get him a-goin’,” Johnny said. He brought out his tin cup.

“Ja, Kaffe.” Mule thrust his cup into Philip’s face, shaking it.

“Ok, I’m going.” Philip grabbed the cup and let it drop on the ground as he struggled out of the blanket and to his feet. “Give me the cups.”

Johnny’s cup landed by Philip’s foot. Quickly slipping his brogans on, he made his way to the company cook fire and filled the cups with water. Philip dug through his haversack to retrieve a muslin bag and loosed the string enough to form a spout. After sprinkling the crushed coffee beans onto the surface of each cup, he set them in a row around the coals. The fire pit was ringed with cups and soldiers chatting. Philip settled down at the fire’s edge and nibbled on a brick of hardtack. Staring into the fire, he imagined they were perdition’s flames, and the suddenness of the thought caused him to wonder at the irony of using them to heat the coffee.

On occasion, he had tried to teach a lesson on Hell, of its flames, pain, and thirst. Those were his worst sermons for he lacked the oratory passion to make Hell seem like Hell and not some fantastic place of the imagination. The dance of the flames also brought to his mind thoughts of war and the fires of passion that burned in the early days. Each flame flickered for a moment, and then shrank back into the coals, only to birth another.

The parishioners in his circuit had little interest in Hell and Satan and anything else that had to do with the mysteries of the spiritual realms. He couldn’t help but to teach on those topics, regardless. He knew that if he did not ponder their effects, he, too, would become complacent in his faith.

The growing sectional conflict brought out questions of war and what was the pious, spiritual response. These were questions that he could not answer even for himself. Instead, he taught respect for authority as given by God and prayed for wisdom. Leaving this all behind was a relief, for he no longer needed wrestle with answers that met ecclesiastical requirements. The flames consumed him as they did the wood that slowly disintegrated into glowing coals of red and white. In the same way, flames consumed the nation and families that composed his circuit. Their hearts burned with indignation at the affronts caused by the rebel states and against the administration for its excesses in wielding power. Few, if any, that he was specifically aware of worried about the darkies or even mentioned the issue in conversation. His own thoughts were just as vague, and he had given little thought toward it until the regiment encountered the first sad columns of contrabands in Kentucky. Seeing only ignorant and pathetic forms under ill-fitting clothing, Philip tried to move himself to the righteous indignation he thought he should feel.
He pitied their plight and the sometimes dumb and numb expressions of the oppressed. Yet, he also saw smiles and expectation in them, a reverie in camp and a willingness to show graciousness for any small kindness shown them. They carried their world upon their backs and followed the army, hoping for protection and salvation. Often, they were turned back and looked upon as a nuisance. Starving and penniless, the runaways and liberated slaves presented a reality that shook Philip to the core. For good or for ill, the status of the black man was in the balance, and no one realized that more than the slave himself.

The eastern horizon brightened slowly and cast its lightening shades of blue westward. Slowly the surface of the cups stirred with bubbles rising to the surface. Soon, they were ready to drink. Deftly pulling each one from the coals, he set them down on the fire’s edge and doused the surface with cold water to settle the coffee grounds to the bottom.

“Ah, coffee,” Sammy walked to the fire and said. He bent down to grasp his cup.
“Are we ready?” Philip asked.

“Yeah, I rolled your blanket and put it on your straps. You just need to pack your things into the sack. Your traps are set by the pack.”

Johnny grunted as he set himself next to Philip and grabbed his cup. “You got any more apricots?”
Philip dug into his haversack and tossed Johnny the bag. Mule was the last to join them, and soon each was cooling the surface of his cup and chewing hardtack. Philip handed around a bag of cooked salt pork he had prepared the evening before. The strips were greasy and chewy but would suffice for a little intake of meat until they could cook again that evening.

His mess duties finished, Philip grabbed his cup and went back to his pack. Sammy had rolled his blanket up, and it fit onto the top of his pack properly. He always had trouble getting it rolled right himself. After exchanging his night cap for his forage cap, he grabbed his testament and quickly thumbed the pages to the Book of Isaiah. He hadn’t read much in that book before the war, nor had he taught on it. Reading it now gave him comfort as he compared Judah and her call to repentance with the rebellion. Who was the guilty party? Who was the faithless? He had no idea, only a faint hope that the North was not.

Not just for reenacting, though this can serve as a nice recipe for early war scenarios before the blessed advent of Essence of Coffee (condensed coffee sludge invented as a means of getting coffee to Union armies, packaged in tin containers and easily prepared by adding a spoonful to hot water) but also for hikers, campers, wilderness survival (coffee is a necessity).20111229-090925.jpg

For the truly adventurous, take green coffee beans. They can be stored indefinitely and will not sour. Roasting them over a griddle produces a strong coffee, but it takes practice to get the beans roasted evenly and produces a unique flavorful brew.


If you are roasting them yourself, have something handy to crush and grind them with. I’ve tried it with a rifle butt before, it can be done but takes awhile. A muslin bag can also be bounded with something blunt, keeps the grains from spilling everywhere and can be transported easily.

2 tablespoons full of ground coffee (handful if you like)
1 tin cup with water
1 fire with hot coals

Simply put the cup next to or on some coals and sprinkle your coffee on top and allow water to come to a boil. Beans will steep nicely. Once hot enough, remove from fire and add some cold water to surface. This will settle the grounds to the bottom and you will have a nice, rich cup of coffee. Add sugar to taste and use a brick of Hardtack to skim the surface of any grounds that refused to sink.

No grinder, no heavy or large coffee pot, no electricity required and one authentic cup of coffee, a soldier’s best friend!

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