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The Flying Dutchman


The value of a little research

edited by Mark (Silas) Tackitt


Sometimes, an obvious reenacting question begets an obvious answer which is entirely incorrect. The below real correspondence from recent postings on Szabo's Civil War Reenactor Forums shows the value of a little research.

For brevity, the writings have been edited but the substance of the responses have not been effected.

The Question:

Pards, I have never seen a period reference to the eating of beef jerky by the soldiers and I know it was not issued, but still some authentics eat it. Is this strictly a reenactorisim or do they have evidence that some soldiers got this food item?

Answer #1 "Like Peking Duck ..."

... you order jerked beef early. Jerked beef is actually sun-dried strips of meat. It takes a long time to jerk beef -- by and large, soldiers had neither the time nor the skill to do it properly (it also required some seasoning, like corned beef or pemmican, to prevent spoilage while it was drying.

It had to be made from fresh beef, which was issued on what we now call a "just in time" schedule; it was instantly consumed. You jerked beef if you were travelling beyond normal food sources (like Lewis and Clark). Soldiers, by and large, had a steady ration supply, and didn't need to dry their meat any more than they needed to salt it. Meriwether Lewis and his pard had time and reason to jerk beef; Si Klegg and his pard didn't.

Answer #2 "BEEF JERKY, well, yes and no, but mostly no, heres' why.."

Beef Jerky, oh boy. This is definitely a touchy subject, but it's a good topic for discussion. First, you hit the nail on the head, it is most certainly a reenactorism, like the A-frame, speckleware, and other things. Beef jerky from first glance certainly seems to "fit" into reenacting, it is a ration-like food, and does travel well. But that is pretty much where the "fitting" ends.

For most reenactors it's an easy way to say that they are carrying "rations" without the bother of having to cook saltpork or bound hardtack biscuits into flour to make mush. It ranks up there with things like bringing Slim Jims and trail mix, granola, and Hickory Farms sausage, which are all poor cop-outs for rations. This also goes for the hardcores who have no excuse to eat such food if they are trying to portray an authentic federal soldier.

The thing reenactors are trying to simulate when it comes to beef jerky, is the dried beef ration. The problem is that the dried or salted beef ration was not beef jerky, and it certainly was not eaten as beef jerky is eaten.

Look in Hardtack and Coffee, the beef ration is described as one which was infused with enough salt to make it last for up to two or three years, and was often so salty as to make the tongue blister. When it was issued, it was not fit to eat as is. It had to be soaked to get enough salt out of it to make it tolerable to cook with and eat. And this ration was certainly not pleasantly smoked and flavored like beef jerky is today, it was simply salted, THAT'S IT, and it was horrendous.

Soldiers greatly preferred the saltpork ration over the pickled beef ration, it was fortunate for them that they got saltpork most of the time. The only references I have come across when it comes to federal army rations have been saltpork, fresh beef, pickled beef as described above, and some references to dried fish and fresh pork. But the overwhelmingly winning ration of all these was saltpork, it was THE marching meat ration of the war for the federal army, with fresh and pickled beef coming in second.

Now if one wants to get into what soldiers got their hands on from the folks at home or what they ate when on furlough, or what they got from sutlers, and how often they could get it, well that opens up an entirely new topic, but if we are speaking of rations and how they were issued during the Civil War, beef jerky as we know it has no place in any federal army impression if it is being used as a "ration", because it resembles none of the meat rations as they were issued during the war.

Answer # 3: "Jerked Beef in the ORs" posted by Mike Murley.

Actually, as with most things, saying 'never' or 'always' gets one the exceptions.

"Jerked beef" - which is "beef jerky" - is mentioned in 9 topics in the ORs. It was a period item, and appears to have been produced and issued in some circumstances by the Confederacy and the Union.

Three of the topics (with multiple occurances) concerned operations on the Pacific coast by the 1st California which I have only copied one of (Davis's letter).

O.R.-- SERIES I--VOLUME XXII/1 [S# 32] DECEMBER 9-15, 1862.

--Expedition from Ozark, Mo., into Marion County, Ark. No. 1.--Report of Brig. Gen. Egbert B. Brown, U. S. Army.

SPRINGFIELD, Mo., December 18, 1862. I have the honor to report a successful scout of Captain Burch, Fourteenth Missouri State Militia, with 40 men of his regiment and company Enrolled Missouri Militia, into Arkansas, burning and destroying the saltpeter works of the Confederate Government, including 5 bulldings, 1 engine, 26 large kettles, 6 tanks, blacksmiths' and carpenters' shops and tools; $6,000 worth of saltpeter, packed, which was to have been moved in two days; capturing 500 barrels of jerked beef, together with a full supply of other provisions for the winter, and returning, without a casualty, with 42 prisoners, their arms, horses, and equipments.

The affair is the more creditable, as a large force of the enemy was encamped within a few miles of the works; but so rapid and secret were the movements of Captain Burch that they were unapprised of them until he had accomplished the duty assigned him, and returned in safety.

This is the fourth equally important and successful scout of Captain Burch in the past few mouths, besides numbers of smaller affairs. These are the same works reported to have been destroyed by Colonel Wickersham about a month since. The destruction was not complete, as they were again in full operation. The works cost the Confederate Government $30,000. They are now destroyed. The engine, tanks; and kettles were broken with sledges, and buildings burned. The cave is sufficently roomy to work 100 men.

E. B. BROWN, Brigadier-General.

O.R.-- SERIES I--VOLUME XXX/4 [S# 53] CORRESPONDENCE, ORDERS, AND RETURNS RELATING TO OPERATIONS IN KENTUCKY, SOUTHWEST VIRGINIA, TENNESSEE, MISSISSIPPI, NORTH ALABAMA, AND NORTH GEORGIA, FROM AUGUST 11, 1863, TO OCTOBER 19, 1863.--UNION CORRESPONDENCE, ETC.(*)--#2

Major-General HURLBUT:

The following dispatch just received:

LA GRANGE, October 2. Brig. Gen. E. A. CARR, Commanding:

I have received reliable information that General Joseph E. Johnston and General Stephen D. Lee arrived at Oxford, Miss., on Wednesday last, and are organizing a force to attack this place and Corinth within next ten days. Troops are pouring in to them from the south, and they had ten days' rations of jerked beef. At that time they were also arming all their troops, who had shotguns, with new Austrian rifles.

If more troops could be spared for this place it would be well enough to send them here without delay. The four pieces of artillery now here are nearly useless. Effective strength of infantry now here, 800; of cavalry, 500; the force at Grand Junction consists of the Sixth Tennessee Cavalry, about 600.

I have appointed Capt. F. Welker chief of artillery for this division. Request that he may be ordered to report here with his battery. Respectfully, T. W. SWEENY, Brigadier-General, Commanding.

O.R.-- SERIES I--VOLUME XXXIV/2 [S# 62] CONFEDERATE CORRESPONDENCE, ORDERS, AND RETURNS RELATING TO OPERATIONS IN LOUISIANA AND THE TRANS-MISSISSIPPI STATES AND TERRITORIES, FROM JANUARY 1, 1864, TO MARCH 31, 1864.--#9 CIRCULAR.]

HDQRS. TRANS-MISSISSIPPI DEPARTMENT, Shreveport, La., March 7, 1864.

From the 1st of January to the 31st of May, 1864, lard will be issued to the troops in this department, when practicable, at the rate of 10 pounds per 100 rations, in addition to the ration of fresh beef. The following articles may be issued in lieu of fresh beef or bacon: Jerked beef, half pound per ration. Fresh pork, three-quarters of a pound per ration. Mutton, 1 pounds per ration.

By command of Lieut. Gen. E. Kirby Smith:

S. S. ANDERSON, Assistant Adjutant-General.

O.R.-- SERIES I--VOLUME XXXIV/2 [S# 62] UNION CORRESPONDENCE, ORDERS, AND RETURNS RELATING TO OPERATIONS IN LOUISIANA AND THE TRANS-MISSISSIPPI STATES AND TERRITORIES, FROM JANUARY 1, 1864, TO MARCH 31, 1864.--#24 TUCSON, ARIZ. TER., March 2, 1864.

DEAR GENERAL: I found upon my arrival here a bad state of things with regard to supplies, and a condition of things, I judge, not anticipated by yourself. My official communications will more fully explain matters and my action. Whether right or wrong, I have done what, under the circumstances, was best, in my judgment. The route via Guaymas will be the cheapest and quickest at present. [cut] I hope to leave here on the 4th instant, with preparations to pack a part of the distance. We have secured a little jerked beef of the commissary, just purchased at 60 cents per pound. No other meat to be had unless we can get some sheep, [cut] Yours, truly, N. H. DAVIS.

Answer #4: "Dried versus salt beef" Also posted by Mike Murley.

[Another writer] mentioned that reenactors using beef jerky may be try to replicate the dried beef ration. He mentioned salt beef. Salt or pickled (or blue) beef is packed in brine. Dried beef (according to my ready references) appears to have been dried beef. Below I have copied a report that refers to both dried and salt (pickled) beef.

Just a quick search of the ORs under 'dried beef' finds 13 topics. One appears below:

O.R.-- SERIES I--VOLUME 1 [S# 1] CHAPTER I. CORRESPONDENCE AND ORDERS RELATING SPECIALLY TO THE OPERATIONS IN CHARLESTON HARBOR FROM OCTOBER 31, 1860, TO APRIL 14, 1861. CONFEDERATE CORRESPONDENCE. ETC.,(*)--#3 APRIL 12, 1861--afternoon.

The Pawnee, Harriet Lane (certain), and the Baltic (conjectured, "from my knowledge of her build) are at anchor close at the North Channel; Illinois (conjectured)at anchor at the main bar. The wind and sea strong from the southeast; heavy surf. Troops are posted for the night. As many more as you can send will be welcome, No casualties whatever. Troops in good spirits. With your re-enforcements send, if possible, crackers and dried beef, or other provisions, in their haver-sacks. [cut]

By order of General Simons: W. H. C. WHITING, Adjutant and Inspector General.

Here is a Federal example:

O.R.-- SERIES I--VOLUME 9 [S# 9] APRIL 13-SEPTEMBER 20, 1862.- Expedition from Southern California, through Arizona, to Northwestern Texas and New Mexico. No. 1. -- Reports of Brig. Gen. James H. Carleton, U.S. Army, commanding expedition. Lieut. Col. EDWARD E. EYRE, First Cavalry, California Volunteers, Present:

COLONEL:

It is important that a forced reconnaissance be made in advance of the column from the Rio Grande, and you are selected for this delicate and at the same time hazardous duty.

You will take with you for this purpose a squadron of your regiment, to be composed of all the effective officers and men of Companies B and C now here. For transportation you will have three six-mule teams.

Take six aparejos in the wagons for packing purposes when necessary. Take, say, four days pork, and dried beef and pemmican, and flour, coffee, sugar, salt, and vinegar for thirty days. Take 70 rounds of ammunition for the Sharp's carbines per man, and 30 rounds per man of navy-revolver ammunition. You should have at least 6 pick-axes and 12 long-handled shovels as intrenching tools. [cut]

Now, in other correspondence concerning US operations in the Southwest, they refer to 'jerked beef'. Now, is dried beef the same as salt beef? Not in at least one incidence:

O.R.-- SERIES I--VOLUME XXIII/2 [S# 35] Correspondence, Orders, And Returns Relating To Operations In Kentucky, Middle And East Tennessee, North Alabama, And Southwest Virginia, From January 21 To August 10, 1863. CONFEDERATE CORRESPONDENCE. ETC.--#6 RICHMOND, VA., April 15, 1863.

His Excellency JEFFERSON DAVIS, President:

SIR:

In obedience to your orders, dated March 12, 1863, which are filed herewith (marked Exhibit A), I proceeded to Montgomery, Ala., to Atlanta, Ga., and to Tullahoma, Tenn., the headquarters of the army, and returned by the same route. I have the honor to submit the following report:[cut]

The communication of Maj. J. F. Cummings, purchasing commissary at large, is filed herewith, marked Exhibit H. It shows on hand, in reserve, 162,000 pounds dried beef, 247,500 pounds pickled beef, 5,267,855 pounds bacon and bulk pork, 600,000 pounds lard, 1,700 barrels of flour, and 3,000 beef-cattle. He discusses the modes of obtaining supplies. Whatever is resolved on in regard to subsistence, must be done with promptness and decision. The question will not brook delay or indecision. [cut]

These are the results of my observations in the Army of Tennessee. **********

Very respectfully, your obedient servant, WM. PRESTON JOHNSTON,

Colonel and Aide-de-Camp.

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The bottom line from this interesting correspondence is that reenactors may consume jerked or dried beef at events. The caveat is that it is not an excuse to only consume jerked or dried beef under the well used question, "well, they had it, didn't they?" Jerked or dried beef is the exception, rather than the rule. It certainly existed, but not anywhere near the quantities consumed by reenactors. But please, leave the Slim Jims at home. - Silas.


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