January 3, 2010

Hard Tack and Coffee

As a jovial nod to our Civil War ancestors, and to my chosen avocation, I thought it might be humorous to celebrate the New Year with some hardtack and coffee, rather than hors d’oeuvres and bubbly. My wife was not amused nor impressed. So I decided the next best thing was to post about the famous book titled Hard Tack and Coffee; or, The Unwritten Story of Army Life.

Few titles are better known or cited more often than John Billings’ 1887 standard work about day-to-day life in the Union army as experienced by the common private. With so much ink and paper devoted to the ramblings and recollections of high ranking officers, this book stands as a wonderful comparison as to what life was like at the other end of the ladder. In a writing style that is homespun and conversational, Billings describes to the reader the more mundane aspects of camp life, such as how fireplaces were made, types of tents used, what picket duty and marches were like, as well as the ingenuity of the common soldier.

According to findagrave.com, Billings was born in Canton, Massachusetts [in 1842], a few miles outside Boston, where he was trained as a mechanic in his father's workshop. He was eighteen years old when war broke out in 1861, however his father refused to let him enlist until the summer of 1862, when he was given permission to join the 10th Massachusetts Artillery. Joining as a private, he was promoted to corporal in 1864. After he mustered out in 1865, Billings taught school in small towns around Boston for over 60 years before retiring in 1926. Though teaching was his formal profession, the Civil War became his avocation. He joined several veterans organizations after the end of the war, and in the 1870s began writing a comprehensive history of his unit, relying on his diary and close to three hundred letters that he had written to his parents during the war. The resulting book, The History of the Tenth Massachusetts Battery is considered one of the best sources of information about what life was like in the Army of the Potomac.

In 1881, while vacationing in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, he spent the evenings at his hotel with several other Union veterans telling a group of boys about the mundane details of military life. Realizing that there was no book about these minor details of life in the Army during the Civil War, he decided to write his own book on the subject. The subsequent work became Hard Tack and Coffee, and recorded the daily routine and common experience of the soldiers, often thought to be of no interest by the veterans themselves. Many historians consider this book one of the most important books written about the war, since it captured the routine and minor facts of daily life during the war, providing a detailed look of the ordinary soldier. Hard Tack and Coffee proved to be a best seller and has been reprinted eight times, continuing to be one of the best books about the common soldier on that war. Billings died in Belmont, Massachusetts in 1933 at the age of ninety. The rank of Colonel on his grave marker is an honorary rank bestowed on him for his books and contributions to veterans after the war.

Reviews and criticism were universally positive. Nevins described the work as “The best source for the army life and feelings of a Federal soldier; this delightfully written and humorously illustrated work has rightfully become a classic.”

The first edition was published in 1887 by George M. Smith and Co. of Boston and featured six color plates along with over 200 drawings. Bound in brown cloth, it offered gilt lettering on the spine and cover though the cover image was printed in black. It is not a rare book in the first edition though, of course, condition will play the biggest role in the asking price. It has also been reprinted many times making reading copies plentiful. Regardless of one’s budget, this is a classic that belongs in every Civil War library.

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