We don't know just when people first began to make hardtack, but it's quite probable that its history began in prehistory. Prehistoric people boiled grains; they cooked grains and added vegetables and herbs to the mixture; and sometimes they ground it into a powder, mixed it with water, and dried it on a hot stone. 6,000 year old unleavened biscuits have been found in Switzerland.
Even after yeast was discovered by the Egyptians, there was a purpose for unleavened breads. Hunters could take some with them when they traveled in search of something tastier. With hardtack to keep them alive, warriors found that they could travel further and take fewer breaks. Centuries later, Christopher Columbus took unleavened bread with him on his journies.
Hardtack remained a staple in the New World. During the early settlement
of North America, the exploration of the continent, the American Revolution,
and on through the American Civil War, armies were kept alive with hardtack.
A basic concept in war is that the side that can keep its soldiers from
going hungry will probably win.
No one has determined just when, or how, during the American Civil War, hard bread began to be referred to as hardtack, but it was probably during the second year of the conflict. It appears that it was first called hardtack by the Union Army of the Potomac; although the name spread to other units, it was generally referred to as hard bread by the armies of the West.
Union and Confederate soldiers were usually issued a half pound of beans or peas, bacon, pickled beef, compressed mixed vegetables and a pound of hardtack. Most common of all was the hard tack. Too hard to be eaten whole, it was sometimes broken up with a rock or rifle butt, placed in the cheek and softened with saliva until it was soft enough to be chewed and swallowed. It was more often soaked in water and fried in bacon grease. Hardtack was also called "sheet iron crackers", "teeth dullers", or "worm castles", a reference to the weevils and maggots that were all too often found in the boxes of hardtack.
Let us close our game of poker, take our
tin cups in our hand
CHORUS: 'Tis the song, the sigh of the
'Tis a hungry, thirsty soldier who wears
his life away
'Tis the wail that is heard in camp both
night and day,
But to all these cries and murmurs, there
comes a sudden hush
'Tis the dying wail of the starving: