Camp Kettles

and Other Cooking Equipment

by Mike Thorson
1992, Michael E. Thorson
All Rights Reserved

Excerpts from John D. Billings Hardtack & Coffee and Col. Wilbur F. Hinman's Si Klegg and His Pard

"...Then other wagons came with a supply of camp-equipment--axes, shovels, camp-kettles and other articles necessary to a company outfit. The word "necessary" is here used because all these things were so considered at that time ( 1861 ). The camp-kettle, as indicated by its name, was a good and useful article of furniture when the troops were lying in camp, but did not figure largely in the long, active campaigns of the later years of the war. It was chiefly used for making coffee and bean soup, and for laundry purposes.

They rapidly fell victims to the casualties of active service. Wagons ran over them, and the boys, in their mirthful moods, kicked them about the camp. On the whole, the camp-kettles had a hard time of it. During the last year of the war thousands of the soldiers did not so much as see one for months together. When the army was in settled camp, company cooks generally prepared the rations. These cooks were men selected from the company, who had a taste or an ambition for the business. If there were none such, turns were taken at it; but this did not often happen, as the office excused men from all other duty.

When company cooks prepared the food, the soldiers, at the bugle signal, formed single file at the cook-house door, in winter, or the cook's open fire, in summer, where, with a long-handled dipper, he filled each man's tin with coffee from the mess kettles, and dispensed to him such other food as was given out at that meal. For various reasons, some of which I have previously hinted at, the coffee made by these cooks was of a very inferior quality and unpleasantness to taste at times. It was not to be compared in excellence with what the men made for themselves. (Most soldiers boiled their coffee using a) pint or quart preserve can, its improvised wire bail held on the end of a stick.

Salt pork was the principal meat ration. Company cooks boiled it. There was little else they could do with it, but it was an extremely useful ration to the men when served out raw. They almost never boiled it, much of it was used for frying purposes. On the march it was broiled and eaten with hard bread, while much of it was eaten raw, sandwiched between hardtack. ( To broil meat, a soldier) impaled (the meat) on a ramrod or forked stick; it was then salted and peppered and broiled in the flames; or it may have been thrown in the coals. To fry it ( beef and pork) necessitated the taking along of a frying-pan with which not many of the men cared to burden themselves. There was another fry-pan which distanced (the frying pan) both in respect of lightness and space. (The men could be seen by scores frying the food in their tin plate, held in the jaws of a split stick, or fully as often an old canteen was unsoldered and its concave sides mustered into active duty as fry pans.
(If the fresh meat ration) fell into the hands of the company cooks, it was fated to be boiled twenty-four times out of twenty-five. When the meat ration was served out raw to the men, to prepare after their own taste, although the variety of its cooking may not perhaps have been much greater, yet it gave more general satisfaction. The growls most commonly heard were that the cooks kept the largest or choices portions for themselves, or else that they sent them to the company officers, who were not entitled to them. Sometimes there was foundation for these complaints. Broiling was, I think, the favorite style (of cooking a meat ration) with the oldest campaigners. It certainly was more healthful and palatable cooked in this wise, and was the most convenient in active service, for any of the men could prepare it thus at short notice."

The following is a passage from Corporal Si Klegg and his Pard written by Lt. Colonel Wilbur F. Hinman who served with the 65th Ohio Veteran Volunteer Infantry.

A peculiarity of the canteen was that its usefulness did not end when it was no longer fit to serve in its legitimate sphere. When a lot of them became battered and leaky, and the company commander wanted to drop them from his monthly return of government property for which he was responsible, he would have them duly condemned by a board of officers appointed to hold a solemn inquest upon them. These regulation forms having been complied with, the old canteens were eagerly sought after by the soldiers, who were now at liberty to make such use of them as their ingenuity might suggest.

The necessities and deprivations of active campaigning developed among the veterans a wonderful fertility of resource. Under such circumstances men became intensely practical. Everything that could in any way contribute to human welfare and comfort was brought into play, and the makeshifts resorted to were often startling and ludicrous.

The old canteen was thrown into the fire and the heat soon melted the solder by which the halves were joined, and the soldier found himself in possession of two tin basins eight or ten inches across and in the center about two inches deep. One of these he carried day after day in his haversack. It was not often that the latter was so full of provisions that there was not plenty of room for it. Its weight was nothing, and he found it useful in ways that the man who made it never thought of.

The government forgot to supply the soldiers with washbasins, and the half-canteen made a convenient substitute. It was a trifle small, it is true, but by being frequently replenished it answered the purpose admirably. After the man had finished his ablutions he would rinse it out with a dash of water-or if he was too hungry to do this it was a matter of small moment-split the end of a stick for a handle, and he had a frying-pan--a prime article. Tons and tons of the flesh of swine were fried in the half-canteen, not to mention the pieces of chicken and the succulent vegetables that were in this way prepared for eating. If he drew coffee in a "raw" state, the half-canteen was an excellent roaster.

Now and then it came handy for cooking "flapjacks", when he chanced to get hold of something of which to make them. In the fall, when the corn in the fields was hardening, he took a half-canteen, stabbed it full of holes with his bayonet, from the inside, and the convex surface made an excellent grater, and a dish of "samp" relieved the everlasting monotony of regulation diet. Even ripe corn was thus grated into a sort of meal from which mush and indescribable cakes were fearfully and wonderfully made.

Indeed, for months at a time, a half-canteen and an old fruit-can, in which to boil coffee, comprised his entire culinary "kit". They were simple but they were enough, and in their possession he was happy. The nice coffee-pot and frying pan that he once owned had long since succumbed to the vicissitudes of army life.

Sometimes the veteran found himself suddenly placed in a position where he wanted something between himself and the muskets of the enemy, and he wanted it right off. There was no time to send back to the rear for picks and shovels. With a bayonet to loosen the dirt he scratched out a hole with his half-canteen, and, with the aid of a log or two or three rails or a few stones, against which he threw the earth, he had a safe protection from bullets. In this way a line of experienced skirmishers would burrow into the ground and almost disappear from sight with a quickness that was amazing.


So don't throw out those old, leaky canteens! Canteen halves can be purchased from C & D Jarnigan for $4.50 apiece. An authentic looking "old fruit can" can be had for $8.  And is one of the cans sold a set of "nesting cans" by Jarnigan. Just attach wire!


A little more on coffee from Hardtack and Coffee.

"I think that when the soldiers were first thrown upon their own resources to prepare their own food, they almost invariably cooked their coffee in the tin dipper with which all were provided, holding from a pint to a quart, perhaps. But it was an unfortunate dish for the purpose, forever tipping over and spilling the coffee into the fire, either because the coals burned away beneath, or because the Jonah upset it. Then if the fire was new and blazing, it sometimes needed a hand that could stand heat like a steam safe to get it when it was wanted, with the chance in favor of more than half of the coffee boiling out before it was rescued, all of which was conducive to ill-temper, so that such utensils would soon disappear, and a recruit would afterwards be seen with his pint or quart preserve can, its improvised wire bail held on the end of a stick, boiling his coffee at the camp-fire, happy in the security of his ration from Jonahs and other casualties. His can soon became as black as the blackest, inside and out. This was the typical coffee-boiler of the private soldier, and had the advantage of being easily replaced when lost, as canned goods were in very general use by commissioned officers and hospitals. Besides this, each man was generally supplied with a small tin cup as a drinking -cup for his coffee and water."