The Flying Dutchman

The Campaigner's Coffee
from discussions found on
Civil War Campaigner's Discussions,
Lee's Authentic Reenactor Board Forum, and
Szabo's Forum on Topics in Clothing, Equipment and How To

From: Pvt Jim of The Huckleberry Mess
Product: Field Rations & Cooking
Date: 5/9/99

Our mess has done some experimenting with making coffee in the field and I would like to hear what other campaigners may suggest. Usually, we heat some water in our cup and then dump some grounds in the hot water. This of course tends to give you a mouthful of grounds with each sip. We have also even tried to make an impromptu "tea-bag" from a piece of cloth with the grounds wrapped in it and a piece of twine tied to it. This tended to make a weak cup of coffee. What suggestions do others have regarding making a good, fast, cup of coffee in the field?

Thanks Pvt Jim of The Huckleberry Mess

From: Charles Heath, The Rowdy Pards
Product: Soldier on Campaign
Date: 5/12/99


The coffee making question bodes well for both the loquacious reenacting philosopher, and the famished inner man. Making coffee goes far beyond the simple act of boiling something in a cup, and it begins with building a fire.

Coffee in a mess cup will usually be made while in camp, or at a halt while on the march. Many picket posts are ordered to be "cold," therefore, there is no fire. There is a difference in fire-building technique between a roadside cup of coffee and making one in camp. For the fire on the march, you'll want a "hot fire" and not the delightful bed of coals we normally associate with a "camp" or "cooking fire." Combustibles such as dry twigs, pine cones, gum balls, dried dung, lighterwood, pine straw, dry leaves, and softwoods will produce a hot fire. (Now, some wag usually asks if all fires are hot. Yes, some fires are hotter than others. Take, for example, the difference between a fire utilized for forge welding and a fire for barbequeing a pig.) This small fire need not be much larger than the diameter of the mess cup, but remember 3-4 other pards will in all likelyhood be right there with ready cup. Many small fires work better than one big fire in this instance. With a 10-15 minute halt, and some teamwork, a good cup of coffee can be had. Moving out while the coffee is half boiled is a period experience, so it straggling to "cool" your coffee.

In camp, the mess fire will normally be larger, and coffee preparation can be accomplished at a more leisurely pace. This fire affords coals by which to bring the water to a rolling boil slowly. Remember, the fastest cup of coffee is not necessarily the best.

Over time, you'll discover how different woods provide different fires. Yellow pine provides heat, but little or no coals. Hickory cranks out the BTUs. Oak coals well, but green oak is tough to burn. Walnut burns fast, but provides little heat. Poplar and soft maples acting in a similar fashion, but they produce a little more heat. Sweet gum is a world unto itself. A big piece of beech, persimmon, rock maple, or elm can be a good nightcap for the fire. Ironwood makes a nice "cook set," if you are so inclined. The boys of '61 knew more about wood than most of us ever will. Learning the local wood can be a blessing.

So much for fire philosophy.

The coffee itself creates a debate from time to time. As a rule of thumb, for federals, green coffee beans were early war, roasted coffee whole and ground begin to show up in mid-war, and in late war roasted ground coffee is common. Take these time spans loosely, as there was a lot of overlap.

While it has been rightly suggested ground coffee from the contractor is subject to adulteration, the reason for the conversion from green coffee beans to roasted ground can be attributed to a federal doctor who noticed how much coffee was wasted by soldiers roasting and grinding their own. The story of this process was reprinted in CWTI a few years ago. (Sidenote: The doctor believed coffee was akin to a miracle drug, and was fighting hard to make sure soldiers received their fair share in a useable form.)

If you haven't had the pleasure of working with green coffee beans, I suggest a simple search at for "green coffee" or "green coffee beans." Prices were hovering around $3 per pound shipped a few months ago when I bought my last batch. Go in with a pard on the coffee, as 5 pounds of beans is a bit much for one fellow.

This roasting and grinding of green coffee is a great vignette builder for those laid-back living history event ration issues. It takes time to develop the roasting skill, and the pards seem to enjoy fooling with the beans as an activity.

Roasting the beans is a slow task. If you like nasty coffee, burn those beans quickly over a hot fire. You'll know when they are done, as the sweet coffee smell is overpowering. Test a few beans first before making coffee.

For those interested in roasted beans at a moderate price, check near the bulk coffee beans in the local supermarket for pre-bagged house brand coffee beans. The local grocery store has them less than $3 per bag, and it is surprisingly good coffee.

To grind or not to grind? I've tried it both ways, and the ground coffee appears to release more coffee flavor in a shorter amount of time. On the other hand, if I'm too much of a sad sack to crush the beans, in they go whole as can be. Whole beans can be used several times before crushing, too.

Having a very small period reproduction coffee grinder at an early war event might be fun, but for the most part grinding is in the mess cup with a bayonet, or in the plate with a musket butt (cover the beans in cloth first to prevent flying bean projectiles), or some other means. Grinding beans can be more fun than it sounds, so give it a try sometime.

What about the ground coffee? It works fine, and will go just as stale in the haversack as anywhere else. Ground coffee also has the ability to pick up flavors, so when my favorite coffee-stealing-pard filches my coffee, he usually complains it tastes like salt-pork, slab bacon, or salt-fish. Um, don't put the lye soap next to the ground coffee, either.

Coffee makers generally fall into to camps. The boil-then-add camp, and the add-then-boil camp. The latter works well enough for me, but some folks do like to get the water boiling before adding their coffee. I'm sure the boys of '61 argued the same thing with the same enthusiasm as any Liliputian egg-end debator.

Covering the bottom of the cup with 1/8"-1/2" of grounds to start (I like coffee that walks and talks), but secret is in the slow boil. For me, filling the cup 1/2-2/3 full with water after the grounds are delivered, and letting the coffee come to a rolling boil makes a good cup of coffee. The only time I stir the coffee is when I add the water. If the coffee appears to be more akin to a spewing volcano of Guiness Stout than a gently bubbling cup of Java, then the fire is too hot.

Resist temptation, and don't stir the dang coffee at this point, Jonah. Let the coffee boil gently over some nice coals for 4-5 minutes. The longer it boils, the better the elixir, but don't let it become a foul tar-like substance. Watch the coffee carefully at the 3.5-4 minute point, as that's when bigfooted Jonah is most likely to knock over your coffee.

Remove the cup with the mess rag, add a few ounces of cool water to settle the grounds, and let the cup sit for a moment on the ground so the cup cools. Sometimes a canteen without a cover makes a good heat sink to cool the rim of the cup. For those who don't mind carrying an extra piece of tin, the classic peach can boiler works well for making coffee and then shifting it into the mess cup. My favorite coffee-stealing-pard (he knows who he is) does this, and it works just fine. The boiler comes in handy for other things as well.

Some folks strain their coffee with an old tea strainer. Some folks have elaborate boil, lift, boil, schemes. Well, I'd lose the dang tea strainer the first time I fiddled around in the knapsack at 2:30 a.m., and I'm lucky not to spill the coffee handling it just twice. What works for you works for you.

Haven't said much about confederate coffee. Cargo documents indicate coffee came into Wilmington up until the capture of that fine port. Just about every account of the Appomattox Campaign mentions Lee and Longstreet's encounter with the first "real" coffee they had enjoyed in ages while dining with a civilian family, so coffee was certainly around. It was available through the supply system in some quantity, available through trading with the yanks, and available via foraging. All of this is nice, but in my humble opinion we should be using more coffee substitutes as the war progresses, and be very happy when a CS pard shows up with a rare quantity real coffee. Of course, all of this depends on the event scenario.

So, what's a substitute? Ready to use chicory can be found in grocery stores, and it beats digging, grating, roasting, etc. just to get an ersatz coffee. Sweet potatoes thinly sliced and baked in the oven make an interesting brew that's not half bad. Roasted barley or rye is a good drink, and Postum brand coffee substitute is not that far away from that. I have tired ground roasted okra seeds (hey, a great use for those woody end-of-the-season-pods), and it has an interesting taste. Avoid those pink/treated seeds found in the stores this time of year, as they are poison. Roasted peanut hulls make good coffee. I have not tried acorns yet, but they were used. Probably the worst cup of coffee I've ever had is from dry roasted corn meal. Part of the confederate reenactor's experience should be trying these substitutes and appreciating the experience. While I can find no documentation for it, with the exception of chicory, ground coffee could be adulterated with these "coffee stretchers" for effect. If sawdust is used as a filler, avoid walnut, oak, exotic woods, and any CCA-treated lumber.

Raw sugar can be had in the form of "Sugar in the Raw" in 2lb boxes from Cumberland Packing Corp., 2 Cumberland Street, Brooklyn, NY 11205 or Cone sugar is available from the Hispanic section of many markets (even Wal-Mart). These are small cones. Larger cones and nippers are available from James Townsend and Sons, and elsewhere. Molasses is a dandy sweetnener, but it begs a tight container.

That is probably more than you wanted to know, and then some. Don't take my word for it, instead take some quality time to reread what the usual first person accounts say about coffee.

What about a coffee pot? Depending on the scenario, they can be just fine. Just remember who has to tote the thing.

Your Pard, Charles The Rowdy Pards

Simple Techniques
from Mike Murley at 

Making coffee is simple, but its never going to be fast (you have to boil the water).

Using a peach can boiler, put about an inch of coffee in the bottom and fill with cold water. Put it on the coals and bring it to a rolling boil (not boiling over) for a minute or three (I lift it off the coals, let it settle, then place it back until it rolls again; repeating three times).

To settle the grounds, pour a bit of cold water in. Pour it off into your tin cup (leave the grounds in the boiler) - and sugar if you want to and enjoy.

If you make it in your cup, add the sugar with the coffee before you boil it. After it boils up, pour in some cold water. Do not stir, as this will raise the grounds again.

It doesn't take much of a fire to boil coffee (a few pine cones will do it).

Mike Murley

Campaigner's Coffee
 by Joe Loehle 

The easiest way to make a cup of coffe is to NOT crush the beans the first few times. Leave them whole and boil with a few more than you normally would. Then when your done drinking it, strain them back out so you can reuse them. You can do this a few times and then crush them up and use them once more.

Joe Loehle
High Privates

"Coffee Bean Crushing Tip"
Posted by Irish155NY on Jun-03-99 at 09:35 PM (EST)

So many folks think you HAVE to use the rifle to crush the coffee beans.

Easier tip: Use your bayonet, socket-end down, and put the beans in your dipper (i.e. tin cup). Helluva lot easier than using the unwieldy 10-lb. Enfield on a measy coffee bean.

Kevin O'Beirne

"Recipe for Essence of Coffee"
Posted by Western Federal on Jun-04-99 at 06:17 PM (EST)


I got this from an article in the CCG a while back. Add a teaspoon of instant coffee, powdered cream, and sugar untill have your desired amount. Then, carefully, add teaspoons of water untill you stir it into a THICK paste. If it gets too runny, add more amounts of the prediscribed ingredients. You can buy period containers to put this paste in from various makers. I hope this helps you all.

Your Pard
Western Federal (J. Gillett)

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Last updated 5 June 1999 at 0915 hrs.

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