This Week in the Civil War, Illustrated: “Cash or curses” as payment for foraged food

There has been much interest in the Civil War of late.  The increased coverage makes sense given that next few years mark 150 years since the conflict that divided our United States.  Here at Past is Present, we would like to highlight another side of the war years.  Rather than focusing on the battles or military or diplomatic events, we wondered: what were the average citizens seeing in their papers every week during the war?

Here is one example from this week during the Civil War.

Hunger is a universal human experience, and this article in the New-York Illustrated News on June 21, 1862, used hunger to connect their readers to the Union soldiers fighting far afield:

“Hard biscuit and salt-beef are nourishing, no doubt, but incontestably, they are not delicate, and when one has dined, and supped, and breakfasted and lunched, and munched between meals on these two delightful articles of provender for weeks and months, a slight variation in the food, and a few toothsome additions to the bill of fare are by no means to be despised.  The human mind is so constituted as to dislike monotony; and the human stomach is in such close sympathy with the human mind aforesaid, that it not only dislikes monotony, but wont [sic] have it at any price.

Hence: Foraging.”

But was this behavior sanctioned by the Union army, or undertaken surreptitiously by soldiers whose taste buds and stomachs drove them to steal?  According to the paper:

“The kind of foraging parties represented in our pictures are the regular orthodox thing, authorized by officers, and generally under command of a commissioned officer.  They use a large discretion about paying for what they take, and as the owner of the property is a Unionist or a Rebel so does he get, or is supposed to get, cash or curses.”

However they acquired the food, a forager like “Jack Tar on a Spree,” as depicted in this illustration by the newspaper’s “special artist,” looks quite satisfied with himself and his catch.

Click on the newspaper article below to read more.  (Sorry about the wrinkle disrupting the text, but think of it this way: you can tell you’re reading from a real 3D newspaper, right?  And you didn’t even need to put on those silly glasses.)
image of forager

Published by

Elizabeth Watts Pope

Curator of Books, American Antiquarian Society

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