Monday, June 14, 2010

We Are Always Hungry

Macon, Richmond & Washington, D.C.

During the Civil War, hunger was the dominant note of everyday life in the South for soldiers and civilians alike.1  Food shortages began soon after the men departed for military service, as the farms and plantations gradually became neglected. As the war dragged on, other factors came into play, such as the blockade of Confederate ports, the disruption of railroad lines, and the Union occupation of key agricultural areas. Two daily menus from Southern hotels reflect the war-time scarcity of food, especially when compared to a Northern menu from the same period.

Lanier House - 1862
Macon, Georgia
When Sterling Lanier, grandfather of poet Sidney Lanier, opened the Lanier House in Macon in 1850, it boasted the largest dining room in Georgia. The menu below is dated February 26, 1862, marking the end of the first year of war. This daily bill of fare offers regional foods like ham hocks and greens, fried oysters, and peach pie, along with a wine list and railroad timetable on the back. (The ink has bled through, burning several holes in the thin paper over time.)

Macon was the location of an important military arsenal and later served as the state capital during the final months of the war. Reinforcing the city's importance, Confederate president Jefferson Davis attended a gala dinner at the Lanier House in the fall of 1863. By then, the lack of adequate food supplies had become a chronic problem for those living in the South; Julia Johnson Fisher of Camden County, Georgia wrote in her diary that year, “We are always hungry—hungry the year round, but do not grow fat.”

Willards’ Hotel - 1862
Washington, D.C. 
The menu below features a wide variety of foods and wines, providing a typical example of the table d'hote dinner served at Willards’ Hotel in Washington during the war. It is dated September 4, 1862, the same day that General Robert E. Lee led Confederate forces into Maryland for the first time. Splashing across the Potomac River only twenty-five miles upstream from the hotel, the Confederate Army ignited a wave of panic throughout the North, culminating at the Battle of Antietam thirteen days later.

American Hotel - 1864
Richmond, Virginia
The menu below is a rare survivor from the American House on Main Street in Richmond. Dated March 13, 1864, this bill of fare includes ham and sallet, a boiled ham-and-greens dish made with poke sallet weed, a local plant whose tender young leaves appeared in the early spring. "Cornfield peas" were named after the local custom of planting peas between rows of corn and could be any one of the many legumes grown in the area, such as black-eyed peas, cowpeas, green-eye white peas, Bass peas, Shinney peas, and Tory peas.2 Typical foods like tea, coffee, and pastries are not found on this menu. Sugar was particularly scarce in the South at this time.

The American Hotel was destroyed by fire during the fall of Richmond on April 3, 1865, just six days before General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox. The Lanier House was also in the news during the final hours of the war, when on May 12, former Confederate president Jefferson Davis was brought to the hotel in Macon as a prisoner, having been captured by Union cavalry two days earlier.

1. Basil Gildersleeve (1831-1924), soldier-professor at the University of Virginia
2. Charles Vancouver Piper, Agricultural Varieties of the Cowpea, 1912.

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