KEEDYSVILLE — At the Pry House Field Hospital Museum this winter, visitors learned one way 19th-century people stayed warm in pre-central heating days.

Hot chocolate, coffee, tea and cider, all popular mid-19th century warm beverages, were served on various Saturdays throughout January. The museum, part of Antietam National Battlefield and sponsored by Frederick's National Museum of Civil War Medicine, tells the story of medicine in that era. But it also tells the personal stories of the civilians and soldiers who lived during that time.

Refreshments of the Civil War told the story of the beverages soldiers and civilians drank at that time. Coffee was not only the most popular beverage of the Civil War, it was the most popular beverage of the 19th century, said Kyle Wichtendahl, director of interpretation and programming at the Pry House.

Coffee not only warmed soldiers and civilians, it kept them awake throughout battle and the hard chores of daily life.

Tea was a staple of Southern genteel society, a holdover from the British roots. Northerners mostly drank tea to cure ills and heal wounds.

"Both were avid coffee drinkers," Wichtendahl said. It was cheap, and by then there were Brazilian coffee plantations producing coffee for Americans, he said. Coffee could be grown on plantations with slave labor.


Tea came from China and India and was available to most Americans by the middle of the 19th century. Tea in America was as likely to be green tea as black tea, Wichtendahl said. The tea that colonials dumped into Boston Harbor during the Boston Tea Party likely included lots of green tea. Green tea and black tea are both made with leaves from the camellia sinensis plant, which originated in China. Green tea is less processed than black tea, however.

Tea in 19th-century America came in a loose leaf form. Early tea bags, usually made of silk, came out around the turn of the 20th century.

Tea was more expensive than coffee. A fancy tea could run $100 a pound, although a pound of tea would make a lot of cups. Tea would have become scarce in the South as the Civil War marched on, although blockade runners got staples to soldiers and civilians, for a price.

The 1865 Customs Service said of tea: "Tea may be issued in lieu of coffee, but is not so much preferred, although equally valuable to the soldier in its qualities. On a long and fatiguing march a canteen of cold tea is invaluable, greatly relieving exhaustion."

Iced tea came about in the South almost immediately after the Civil War, and quickly became very popular, Wichtendahl said. Hot tea was usually served as the British served it, with milk and sugar. When iced tea came out, the sweetened version was sought after.

Soldiers would have had some sugar available to them. It was being grown on Caribbean sugar plantations, which had slave labor, again making it cheap. Sugar wasn't the white, refined sugar we think of today, however. Wichtendahl had a plate full of crumbled brown chunks of sugar to show what the soldiers likely would have used. Sugar in the 19th century was mostly unrefined, except in wealthy homes.


Coffee originated in North Africa and spread throughout the Middle East, then Europe. Coffee was expensive until 19th-century Brazilian plantations were established with slave labor. Coffee then became cheap and accessible. Most people brewed and drank it at home. People bought coffee beans, which were green. They roasted and ground the beans as needed. It was difficult to preserve roasted beans before 1865, when a preservative was developed.

Soldiers would roast their own coffee beans during the war, but they often lacked a grinder. They would grind the beans with whatever crude means they could devise.

Instant coffee was available, Wichtendahl said, but not very popular. In 1862, the U.S. Army replaced coffee beans with a concoction known as essence of coffee, which was a syrup of coffee extract, milk and sugar, packed in half-gallon tins. Most soldiers found it revolting, Wichtendahl said. "Soldiers boycotted it," he said. Soon, whole beans returned to the rations.

Southerners drank coffee as well, but blockades made coffee hard to get. Wichtendahl found that Southerners had many substitutes for coffee, some better than others. Acorns, beets, cotton seeds, chicory, persimmon seeds, dried garden peas, even sun-dried sweet potatoes cut into tiny pieces. Okra seeds were another substitute, but okra was quite expensive. Soldiers sometimes took a bit of hay from their horse's rations and made coffee with it, and it apparently wasn't bad. Many of these ersatz coffee recipes that Wichtendahl dug up were said to work best when combined with actual coffee grounds. Printed recipes claimed the substitutes weren't too bad, but these may have been a case of Southerners trying to bluff Yankees.

Hot chocolate

"Hot chocolate was more accessible than you might imagine," Wichtendahl said. Again, cocoa production on South American plantations made it easy to get and affordable. Cocoa beans originated in South America. The Mayans ground them and used them to brown drinks. They drank the cocoa cold, with no sugar or milk, adding only spices and chili peppers.

By the 17th century, Europeans added sugar and milk to cocoa, and served it hot in chocolate houses, which were much like the coffee houses of today. Hot cocoa is actually what we think of today as hot chocolate. Cocoa powder is a process of removing cocoa butter from cocoa solids. Nineteenth-century hot chocolate was made by melting solid chocolate and mixing it with milk and other ingredients.

Hot chocolate was often given to hospitalized soldiers. It was believed to have healthful and restorative qualities. It was consumed winter and summer. Chocolate was hard for Southerners to obtain during the blockades. Unlike coffee, there was no substitute for chocolate, and people simply went without.


Fresh cider was popular in the fall, winter and early spring, as it is now. It was served mulled, with nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves. Hard cider lasted longer, but the popularity of fresh and hard cider was declining by the Civil War. Hard cider, or fermented apple cider, was a popular 18th-century drink, at all times of the day. Apples were easy to grow and were very available.

The alcohol content of the hard cider was usually quite low, Wichtendahl said. The main benefit was to provide liquid refreshment in a time when the cleanliness of water was in question.

By the Civil War, modern beer and lagers were beginning to take the place of cider in the taste buds of Americans. Immigrants helped to change the taste of Americans. Hard cider is only now, 150 years later, beginning to make a resurgence.



From the (Bellville) Texas Countryman, Oct. 9, 1861

Substitute for Coffee: Scrape clean three or four good parsnips, cut them into thin slices, bake till well-brown, grind or crush, and use in the same manner as coffee, from which it is scarcely distinguishable. This is not only a beverage equally as good as coffee, but it is likewise a cure for asthma.

From the Cook's Own Book, 1832, A Boston Housekeeper:

Chocolate. According as you wish to make this beverage, either with milk or water, put a cup of one or other of these liquids into a chocolate-pot, with 1 ounce of cake chocolate. Some persons dissolve the chocolate in a little water before they put it into the milk. As soon as the milk or water begins to boil, mill it. When the chocolate begins to bubble, take it off the fire, letting it stand near it for a quarter of an hour; then mill it again to make it frothy; afterwards serve it out in cups. The chocolate must not be milled, unless it is prepared with cream.

To prepare black tea (for modern tea drinkers) (From the English Tea Store): Boil water, either in an electric tea kettle or a tea kettle on the stove top. Microwaved water doesn't properly boil, which does not allow the tea to brew properly. Use freshly drawn water. Water that has stood loses oxygen, which prevents the full flavor of the tea from being released. Pour the boiling water into a teapot, which has been prepared with 1 teaspoon of loose tea per person, plus one for the pot. Put the loose tea into a strainer to prevent getting leaves in your cup (If you use tea bags, British style tea bags have 3.1 grams of tea, compared to U.S.-style string and tag tea bags, which have 2.1 grams of tea). Brew for 3 to 5 minutes. In the 19th century, tea was always served with sugar and cream, if available. Do not save leftover tea.

The Pry House Field Hospital Museum is open Saturdays and Sundays in winter, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. It is located at 18906 Shepherdstown Pike (Md. 34), Keedysville. For information, call 301-416-2395, or go to the National Museum of Civil War Medicine's website,

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