March 27, 2013

When General Lee Instructed his Men to Find Their Own Food

In 1863, the men and women of the Confederacy had already sustained two years living on reduced provisions. Early on, the war had disrupted a well-established food trade between the north and south. The north supplied grains, meat, fruits and cheese to the south in exchange for tobacco, rice, sugar and cotton.

The Union blockade of 1861 decreased imports significantly but the people of the south did not immediately feel the effects of the blockade. Delicacies like coffee, wine and spices disappeared quickly. By 1862, even staples dissipated aided by foraging armies, drought and the destruction of farmlands.

1863 was the year that the south really felt the effects of the war. Wheat, butter and milk prices were more than three times what they were prior to the war. The shortage of provisions and hoarding of provisions by those who were afraid to sell and those who intended to sell at a significant profit led to extremely inflated prices. Many poor could not afford to buy food, even if it was available. Rioters took to the streets in the south, breaking into bakeries and stealing food.

Library of Congress

With the dismal food situation in the south, the leaders were constantly worried about procuring enough food for the armies. It was on this day 150 years ago that General Robert E. Lee instructed his men, who were subsiding on reduced rations of 18 ounces of flour and 4 ounces of bacon daily, to send out foraging details to procure "sassafras buds, wild onions, garlic, lamb's quarter, and poke sprouts" to supplement the meager rations and help prevent scurvy.

 His orders are below:

Headquarters Army Of Northern Virginia,
March 27, 1863.

Hon. James A. Seddon, Secretary of War: 

Sir: About the last of January I directed General W. E. Jones to send an escort of. cavalry with Maj. W. J. Johnson, commissary of the cavalry division, into Hardy County, for the purpose of collecting beefcattle, &c. General Jones was also directed to send parties into the counties west for the same purpose. Major Johnson has returned from his expedition, and reports that he obtained in Hardy County 500 beefcattle, 200 sheep, and 4,200 pounds of bacon. He also obtained from Loudoun and Culpeper 200 head of cattle, and from Rockingham 3,000 pounds of bacon. I have not yet learned what amount of subsistence the parties sent by General Jones obtained. I have endeavored during the past campaign to draw subsistence from the country occupied by the troops, wherever it was possible, and I believe by that means much relief has been afforded to the Commissary Department. At this time but few supplies can be procured from the country we now occupy.

General Longstreet has been directed to employ the troops south of James River, when not required for military operations, to collect supplies in that quarter, and penetrate, if practicable, the district held by the enemy. The troops of this portion of the army have for some time been confined to reduced rations, consisting of 18 ounces of flour, 4 ounces of bacon of indifferent quality, with occasionally supplies of rice, sugar, or molasses. The men are cheerful, and I receive but few complaints; still, I do not think it is enough to continue them in health and vigor, and I fear they will be unable to endure the hardships of the approaching campaign. Symptoms of scurvy are appearing among them, and to supply the place of vegetables each regiment is directed to send a daily detail to gather sassafras buds, wild onions, garlic, lamb's quarter, and poke sprouts, but for so large an army the supply obtained is very small. I have understood, I do not know with what truth, that the Army of the West and that in the Department of South Carolina and Georgia are more bountifully supplied with provisions. I have also heard that the troops in North Carolina receive one-half pound of bacon per day. I think this army deserves as much consideration as either of those named, and, if it can be supplied, respectfully ask that it be similarly provided.

I have the honor to be, with great respect, your obedient servant,

R. E. LEE,


A soldier in the 4th North Carolina State Troops mentioned gathering plants in April of 1864, "My Dear Sister...The boys when not on duty amused themselves at various sports, some fishing, some digging ground hogs out of their holes (an animal that I never saw until I came to Virginia), while nearly the whole regiment amused themselves gathering wild onions...Gen. Ransom had a kettle for each company brought down the line, for the purpose of cooking them." He later mentions that his company has plenty of food, but that they lacked meat.

Anyone up for a groundhog fricassee seasoned with wild onions over rice?

Gen. Lee's orders: United States. War Dept, The War of the Rebellion: v.1-53 [serial no. 1-111],(Washington:Government Printing Office, 1889),686-687.

4th NC Letter excerpt: Laura Elizabeth Lee "Forget-Me-Nots of the Civil War"(St. Louis: A.R. Fleming Printing Co., 1909), 111.   



  1. Yes! I can finally put my woods foraging skills to use!

    1. I hope everyone does during the coming reenactments. :)

  2. Comment to come once I get the book. :)

  3. I have to admit, I was not aware of the difficulty the Confederacy had in feeding itself and its forces during the Civil War. It does makes sense, however, given that I remember reading about heavy fighting taking place in the South and the Union having a resource advantage.

    This is a fine piece; good work, Stephanie.

    1. The Confederacy really tried to hide it from the British in hopes Britain would recognize them as an independent country.


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