“A potato! A potato! My kingdom for a potato!” at Thanksgiving 1863

In autumn 1863, the United States Sanitary Commission appealed to Mainers to donate fresh vegetables to feed the boys in blue. Potatoes were No. 1 on the list of preferred vegetables. (Brian Swartz Photo)

In autumn 1863, the United States Sanitary Commission appealed to Mainers to donate fresh vegetables to feed the boys in blue. Potatoes were No. 1 on the list of preferred vegetables. (Brian Swartz Photo)

Which food would an Army cook want to serve a Maine regiment at Thanksgiving? Hardtack so old that Noah had served it on his ark — or apples and potatoes shipped directly from Maine?

By Thanksgiving Day 1863, Maine soldiers longed for “real” food: apple pie like mom made, beans prepared with real molasses, bread so soft it melted in a man’s mouth, anything than the food deemed appropriate by War Department bureaucrats.

Maine soldiers wrote home about eating tooth-breaking hard tack, rancid bacon, and wormy beef. The “old folks at home” could not believe what they read. Living in a predominantly agrarian state, many Mainers grew or raised their own food; how could the government not properly feed the boys in blue?

Perhaps a Maine soldier home on leave cold-conked a doubting Thomas with rock-hard hard tack or sickened the entire town by sharing Army bacon pulled from a greasy haversack. Whatever happened, the home-front folks got the message.

And as Mainers are wont to do, they responded magnificently.

Whether on the march or in winter camp, soldiers always took time to boil their coffee. At a Union re-enactors' camp set up in Gettysburg, soldiers installed two in-ground stoves and set coffee pots atop one kept hot with a smouldering fire. (Brian Swartz Photo)

Whether on the march or in winter camp, soldiers always took time to boil their coffee. At a Union re-enactors’ camp set up in Gettysburg, soldiers installed two in-ground stoves and set coffee pots atop one kept hot with a smouldering fire. (Brian Swartz Photo)

A Confederate re-enactor stirs the homemade hash cooking on a makeshift stove in a re-enactors' camp at Gettysburg. Each infantry company would usually designate one soldier (hopefully with some experience) as the company cook. Soldiers ate food prepared in their field; the War Department's version of the modern MRE was a piece of hard tack and rancid bacon. Food shipped from home was always welcomed by soldiers. (Brian Swartz Photo)

A Confederate re-enactor stirs the homemade hash cooking on a makeshift stove in a re-enactors’ camp at Gettysburg. Each infantry company would usually designate one soldier (hopefully with some experience) as the company cook. Soldiers ate food prepared in their field; the War Department’s version of the modern MRE was a piece of hard tack and rancid bacon. Food shipped from home was always welcomed by soldiers. (Brian Swartz Photo)

“To the People of Maine!”

So went up the hue and cry as published in newspapers and posters across the state. “An appeal has been made to us from the [U.S.] Sanitary Commission to furnish a cargo of vegetables for the army.

“The winter is upon us, and our men in the field, unless supplied with an occasional allowance of vegetables, will suffer untold miseries from the ravages of the scurvy,” warned the message as read in Portland.

The reference to scurvy was not propaganda; at various times, regimental surgeons had noted the presence of scurvy in some patients. Fresh vegetables helped prevent scurvy — and fresh food was always preferable to Army fare.

Referring to the need for anti-scorbutic vegetables (and a fruit or two), the USSC appeal continued: “In anticipation of this, a special agent (William H. Hadley) has been sent to the State to solicit the contributions of the people, in kind: Potatoes, Onions, Turnips, Cabbages, Apples.”

The USSC timed its appeal perfectly for fall, when farmers were busy harvesting crops. Food was in abundance at this time of year, and a bushel of spuds here and a peck of apples there would not be missed in the root cellar.

“Can we not send to the army five thousand bushels of Potatoes, and other products of the soil in proportion, freighting a ship with the free gifts of the people?” the USSC appeal asked.

“It can be done. Let us do it! Let every one of us give something that he has raised on his own lands by the labor of his own hands,” the USSC implored patriotic Mainers.

In fall 1863, the United States Sanitary Commission issued an appeal to Mainers to donate apples and fresh vegetables to the soldiers serving far from home. The appeal referred to the "good fellows walking back and forth all night, guarding the lines of war." Fulfilling such a duty, a Union re-enactor walks his lonely guard post at Gettysburg. (Brian Swartz Photo)

In fall 1863, the United States Sanitary Commission issued an appeal to Mainers to donate apples and fresh vegetables to the soldiers serving far from home. The appeal referred to the “good fellows walking back and forth all night, guarding the lines of war.” Fulfilling such a duty, a Union re-enactor walks his lonely guard post at Gettysburg. (Brian Swartz Photo)

Three civilians sell cookies and other pastries to Union soldiers during a re-enactment at Sharpsburg, Md. in September 2012. When soldiers went into long-term camps, local civilians often made money by selling food to the boys. (Brian Swartz Photo)

Three civilians sell cookies and other pastries to Union soldiers during a re-enactment at Sharpsburg, Md. in September 2012. When soldiers went into long-term camps, local civilians often made money by selling food to the boys. (Brian Swartz Photo)

Then, as is wont with all wartime appeals, came the guilt trip. “Let us remember while we are at home, and consider it no distinguished blessing to have potatoes enough, that there are good fellows walking back and forth all night, guarding the lines of war, who would give a dollar for a single one if they could get it for the money.”

This 50-word sentence tugged hard at the heart strings. Rare was the Mainer who lacked a relative or friend among the “good fellows”; by golly, if the people of Maine could not fight, they could harvest and pack spuds for shipment to the boys!

Agent Hadley would make the rounds statewide to collect the cornucopia of apples and vegetables for the boys. “Can you not in your town, parish, school district, neighborhood, get together and make up a contribution of such things as each can bring”? the USSC asked.

And if Hadley wasn’t in the area, could the harvest be shipped to him in Portland? USSC agents H. Stebbins and George R. Davis signed the appeal. Both men were well known in Maine, as was Bill Hadley.

Mainers responded overwhelmingly to the autumn 1863 appeal. Maine Adjutant General John Hodsdon soon reported that “about fifty towns” participated “in the contribution of money and potatoes.

Several towns (unidentified by Hodsdon) “sent in over 100 barrels of potatoes and apples each, so that in the short space of ten days a brig was chartered for New Orleans of the capacity of two thousand barrels.” Loaded within that 10-day period, the brig “is now on her way to New Orleans.”

The ship carried 1,675 barrels of potatoes, 217 barrels of apples, 182 barrels of turnips and cabbages, 14 barrels of dried apples, and two casks of pickled cabbages. Somewhere in the Deep South, Maine boys would eat well soon after the brig docked in New Orleans.

And the donated spuds and veggies and apples kept pouring in. Another 300 barrels awaited shipment “to our soldiers at and near Charleston,” Davis later noted. “A small vessel will be sent to that Department in a few days.”

*Source: Maine Adjutant General’s Report 1863, pp. 47-48

Brian Swartz can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net. He loves hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.

Brian Swartz

About Brian Swartz

Welcome to "Maine at War," the blog about the roles played by Maine and her sons and daughters in the Civil War. I am a Civil War buff and a newspaper editor recently retired from the Bangor Daily News. Maine sent hero upon hero — soldiers, nurses, sailors, chaplains, physicians — south to preserve their country in the 1860s. “Maine at War” introduces these heroes and heroines, who, for the most part, upheld the state's honor during that terrible conflict. We tour the battlefields where they fought, and we learn about the Civil War by focusing on Maine’s involvement with it. Be prepared: As I discover to this very day, the facts taught in American classrooms don’t always jibe with Civil War reality. I can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.