How Coffee Helped Win The Civil War

Coffee, alone among beverages, holds a unique place in our lives. It's arguably the last remaining socially acceptable addiction and is something most of us consider an indispensable part of our routines. Our day isn't truly underway until we have that cup in our hand and the first few sips of this magical elixir is inside of us.

What few coffee imbibers realize, however, is just how great of an impact coffee has had on United States history. In short, the US may have been considerably less indivisible and no longer "one nation under God" (or any other authority, spiritual or secular) had it not been for this bitter brew. It's fair to say that, without the intervention of coffee, the American Civil War may have had a very different outcome. Our nation's history would have run an entirely different (and for the millions of enslaved Americans at the time, a far more tragic) course.

Coffee fueled the troops

If coffee is absolutely necessary to fire you up for another day, imagine how much more crucial it would be if you had to power through another day of miserable living conditions that were only trumped by the ever-looming threat of even more miserable dying conditions? As part of a series commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, the New York Times explored all aspects of life behind the lines during the Civil War, including the crucial nature of the soldiers' favorite beverage. 

According to the New York Times, troops drank coffee while bivouacking, marching, patrolling, and even fighting. One anecdote tells of a 19-year-old private, one William McKinley, who literally dodged bullets during the Battle of Antietam to serve up hot coffee to his fellow Union Army soldiers. According to McKinley's commanding officer, after the troops got their java jive on, "It was like putting a new regiment in the fight." 

Does the private's moniker seem familiar? Just check out who was occupying the White House 35 years after that crucial Antietam coffee break.

The Union had a coffee advantage

The importance of coffee to the fighting men (and nursing women) of the Civil War cannot be overestimated. As per the New York Times, if you read through the soldiers' diaries, you'll encounter the word "coffee" more frequently than you will "cannon," "rifle," or "bullet." In one combatant's words, "Nobody can 'soldier' without coffee." Here's hoping that diarist was lucky enough to serve on the Union side, as those troops received a ration of about 36 pounds of coffee each year. For the Confederates, it was an entirely different story.

As food writer and historian Michael Pollan told the Arizona Republic, "Basically the North had caffeine and the South didn't." The Union Navy had the capacity to block a number of goods from being shipped to the South, among them coffee and tea. Confederates just didn't have the same access to caffeine as Union troops. 

Pollan also pointed out that the Union generals used coffee to their advantage, ordering the troops to drink lots of the brew before battle, getting them hyped up to fight. "That gave them an edge, it gave them more energy, it gave them more focus," he said. "I wouldn't go so far as to say caffeine won the Civil War, but it sure helped."