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Coffee home - Coffee articles - Group used 'coffee wagon' to perk up Civil War troops

Group used 'coffee wagon' to perk up Civil War troops

Group used 'coffee wagon' to perk up Civil War troops
A Gettysburg museum owner has heard plenty of guesses about the large contraption parked outside the U.S. Christian Commission Museum on Baltimore Street this week.

Visitors walking by gaze at the wagon equipped with three iron smokestacks towering up and guess a music machine, a cooking appliance or a soup kitchen.

So far, no one's guessed correctly. It's a coffee wagon, museum owner John Wega says proudly.

He's brought in the jolt-giving replica wagon for this year's Civil War battle re-enactment, and the apparatus soldiers once called the "Christian Light Artillery" will be the centerpiece of the Christian Commission display.

The civilian volunteer group was once a division of the YMCA and more than 5,000 volunteers throughout the war helped the Northern troops, giving them food, medical care, Bibles, and, of course, coffee.

The ubiquitous bean had been popular with Americans since their anti-tea colonial days, but during the Civil War it was considered paramount for Union soldiers, raising the cost of beans and spurring the coffee industry into prominence.

"What a Godsend it seemed to us at times! How often after being completely jaded by a night march ... have I had a wash, if there was water to be had, made and drunk my pint or so of coffee and felt as fresh and invigorated as if just arisen from a night's sound sleep!" former Civil War soldier John Billings raved in his 1888 book "Hard Tack and Coffee."

In those days, soldiers had to roast their own coffee beans, and ground them as needed. Company cooks carried coffee grinders and some Sharps carbine rifles were made with coffee mills in the buttstock of the gun so soldiers would have the grinder on hand.

It was only after the war that American companies would develop and mass-produce roasted beans like the ones we drink today.

 Daryl Koehn, of Gettysburg, tries the first cup of coffee out of the coffee wagon as John Wega, director of the U.S. Christian Commission Museum, pours another cup behind him. Koehn commented that the brew tasted like Army coffee.

Union troops were given one-tenth of a pound of green coffee beans in their daily rations. Soldiers drank it while on watch, on the march and even in battle.
Confederates, on the other hand, were out of luck. Union blockades meant the Rebel troops instead drank poor substitutes made from acorns, beans, chickory, corn, cotton seed, dandelion roots, sugarcane, parched rice, wheat, peanuts, sweet potatoes, rye or okra.

The Union-affiliated Christian Commission also carried and prepared coffee for the soldiers, but it was the development of the coffee wagon that allowed them to serve large quanities on the march.

The coffee wagon was patented March 24, 1863, by Jacob Dunton, a Philadelphia pill maker, and was toted by the commission through Virginia during the last campaigns of the war.

It is a modified artillery caisson and gun carriage that holds a large chest and three 14-gallon boilers instead of a cannon and ammunition.

"This is a neat, shining example of service to the soldiers," Wega said.

Wega doesn't know how many wagons were made, but he does know there was one at Appomattox when Lee surrendered.

The first act of reconciliation after the surrender was sharing a cup of coffee at the wagon - the first cup Confederates had probably had in years, Wega said.

But Wega doubts it was ever at Gettysburg, since there are no reports of it, and the coffee wagon was generally a heralded arrival by the men.

Today, though, when Gettysburg symbolized the heart of the Civil War, Wega thinks the coffee wagon should be here as a reminder of the men who developed and marched with it.

 The commissary soldiers who supply the troops on the front lines don't often get much glory, but the monument to William McKinley at the Antietam Battlefield near Sharpsburg, Md., is a monument to hot coffee on the front lines. Located just off the parking lot south of Burnside Bridge, the monument notes how Sgt. McKinley, later president of the United States, "personally and without orders served hot coffee and warm food to every man in the Regiment, on this spot and in doing so had to pass under fire." A bas-relief on the side of the monument depicts McKinley, hot cup of coffee in hand, as shells burst around him. The monument underlines the importance of hot coffee to Civil War soldiers, and the incident was used by McKinley's presidential campaign.

Commission chairman George H. Stewart called the wagon "a most ingenious and beneficial invention" in his book and reported that in each one on a march, 10 gallons of coffee, tea or cocoa could be made in 20 minutes, or 90 gallons an hour.

The replica is being loaned to Wega by the YMCA - Chase and Sanburn Coffee made and donated it to the YMCA during the centennial of the war.

Chase and Sanburn was one of several companies that popped up right around the time of the Civil War. Caleb Chase went into business roasting coffee in 1864. In 1878, he and James Sanborn united and started the company.

Companies like Chase and Sanburn, Arbucklesâ and J.A. Folger & Co. were dependent on two inventions created during the war to take advantage of the war economy - the durable paper bag, originally created for peanuts in 1862, and the self-emptying roaster invented by Jabez Burns in 1864. The first instant coffees, in the form of liquid concentrate, were also developed during the war, presumably to be marketed to the Army.

By the 1870s, Americans drank six times more coffee than Europeans and earned the coffee-maker a permanent place in office break rooms.

The connection between the Civil War and the development of coffee is not lost on Wega. Outside his museum, an Arbuckle crate sits as part of a display.

But to him, coffee represents something much more simple: comfort and enjoyment to soldiers enduring some of the worst times of their lives.

"Many times, it's the simple things that matter," Wega said.

 Faith Wega, 7, of Littlestown, sips on her cup of coffee from the coffee wagon outside the U.S. Christian Commission Museum on Baltimore Street in Gettysburg. Faith's father, John, is director of the museum.

Coffee home - Coffee articles - Group used 'coffee wagon' to perk up Civil War troops

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