Flying Dutchman - The Campaigner's Coffee (2024)

The Campaigner's Coffee
from discussions found on
Civil War Campaigner's Discussions,
Lee's Authentic Reenactor Board Forum, and
Szabo's Forum on Topics in Clothing, Equipment and HowTo

From: Pvt Jim of The Huckleberry Mess
Product: Field Rations & Cooking
Date: 5/9/99

Our mess has done some experimenting with making coffee in thefield and I would like to hear what other campaigners maysuggest. Usually, we heat some water in our cup and then dumpsome grounds in the hot water. This of course tends to give you amouthful of grounds with each sip. We have also even tried tomake an impromptu "tea-bag" from a piece of cloth withthe grounds wrapped in it and a piece of twine tied to it. Thistended to make a weak cup of coffee. What suggestions do othershave regarding making a good, fast, cup of coffee in the field?

Thanks Pvt Jim of The Huckleberry Mess

From: Charles Heath, The Rowdy Pards
Product: Soldier on Campaign
Date: 5/12/99


The coffee making question bodes well for both the loquaciousreenacting philosopher, and the famished inner man. Making coffeegoes far beyond the simple act of boiling something in a cup, andit begins with building a fire.

Coffee in a mess cup will usually be made while in camp, or ata halt while on the march. Many picket posts are ordered to be"cold," therefore, there is no fire. There is adifference in fire-building technique between a roadside cup ofcoffee and making one in camp. For the fire on the march, you'llwant a "hot fire" and not the delightful bed of coalswe normally associate with a "camp" or "cookingfire." Combustibles such as dry twigs, pine cones, gumballs, dried dung, lighterwood, pine straw, dry leaves, andsoftwoods will produce a hot fire. (Now, some wag usually asks ifall fires are hot. Yes, some fires are hotter than others. Take,for example, the difference between a fire utilized for forgewelding and a fire for barbequeing a pig.) This small fire neednot be much larger than the diameter of the mess cup, butremember 3-4 other pards will in all likelyhood be right therewith ready cup. Many small fires work better than one big fire inthis instance. With a 10-15 minute halt, and some teamwork, agood cup of coffee can be had. Moving out while the coffee ishalf boiled is a period experience, so it straggling to"cool" your coffee.

In camp, the mess fire will normally be larger, and coffeepreparation can be accomplished at a more leisurely pace. Thisfire affords coals by which to bring the water to a rolling boilslowly. Remember, the fastest cup of coffee is not necessarilythe best.

Over time, you'll discover how different woods providedifferent fires. Yellow pine provides heat, but little or nocoals. Hickory cranks out the BTUs. Oak coals well, but green oakis tough to burn. Walnut burns fast, but provides little heat.Poplar and soft maples acting in a similar fashion, but theyproduce a little more heat. Sweet gum is a world unto itself. Abig piece of beech, persimmon, rock maple, or elm can be a goodnightcap for the fire. Ironwood makes a nice "cookset," if you are so inclined. The boys of '61 knew moreabout wood than most of us ever will. Learning the local wood canbe a blessing.

So much for fire philosophy.

The coffee itself creates a debate from time to time. As arule of thumb, for federals, green coffee beans were early war,roasted coffee whole and ground begin to show up in mid-war, andin late war roasted ground coffee is common. Take these timespans loosely, as there was a lot of overlap.

While it has been rightly suggested ground coffee from thecontractor is subject to adulteration, the reason for theconversion from green coffee beans to roasted ground can beattributed to a federal doctor who noticed how much coffee waswasted by soldiers roasting and grinding their own. The story ofthis process was reprinted in CWTI a few years ago. (Sidenote:The doctor believed coffee was akin to a miracle drug, and wasfighting hard to make sure soldiers received their fair share ina useable form.)

If you haven't had the pleasure of working with green coffeebeans, I suggest a simple search at for"green coffee" or "green coffee beans."Prices were hovering around $3 per pound shipped a few months agowhen I bought my last batch. Go in with a pard on the coffee, as5 pounds of beans is a bit much for one fellow.

This roasting and grinding of green coffee is a great vignettebuilder for those laid-back living history event ration issues.It takes time to develop the roasting skill, and the pards seemto enjoy fooling with the beans as an activity.

Roasting the beans is a slow task. If you like nasty coffee,burn those beans quickly over a hot fire. You'll know when theyare done, as the sweet coffee smell is overpowering. Test a fewbeans first before making coffee.

For those interested in roasted beans at a moderate price,check near the bulk coffee beans in the local supermarket forpre-bagged house brand coffee beans. The local grocery store hasthem less than $3 per bag, and it is surprisingly good coffee.

To grind or not to grind? I've tried it both ways, and theground coffee appears to release more coffee flavor in a shorteramount of time. On the other hand, if I'm too much of a sad sackto crush the beans, in they go whole as can be. Whole beans canbe used several times before crushing, too.

Having a very small period reproduction coffee grinder at anearly war event might be fun, but for the most part grinding isin the mess cup with a bayonet, or in the plate with a musketbutt (cover the beans in cloth first to prevent flying beanprojectiles), or some other means. Grinding beans can be more funthan it sounds, so give it a try sometime.

What about the ground coffee? It works fine, and will go justas stale in the haversack as anywhere else. Ground coffee alsohas the ability to pick up flavors, so when my favoritecoffee-stealing-pard filches my coffee, he usually complains ittastes like salt-pork, slab bacon, or salt-fish. Um, don't putthe lye soap next to the ground coffee, either.

Coffee makers generally fall into to camps. The boil-then-addcamp, and the add-then-boil camp. The latter works well enoughfor me, but some folks do like to get the water boiling beforeadding their coffee. I'm sure the boys of '61 argued the samething with the same enthusiasm as any Liliputian egg-end debator.

Covering the bottom of the cup with 1/8"-1/2" ofgrounds to start (I like coffee that walks and talks), but secretis in the slow boil. For me, filling the cup 1/2-2/3 full withwater after the grounds are delivered, and letting the coffeecome to a rolling boil makes a good cup of coffee. The only timeI stir the coffee is when I add the water. If the coffee appearsto be more akin to a spewing volcano of Guiness Stout than agently bubbling cup of Java, then the fire is too hot.

Resist temptation, and don't stir the dang coffee at thispoint, Jonah. Let the coffee boil gently over some nice coals for4-5 minutes. The longer it boils, the better the elixir, butdon't let it become a foul tar-like substance. Watch the coffeecarefully at the 3.5-4 minute point, as that's when bigfootedJonah is most likely to knock over your coffee.

Remove the cup with the mess rag, add a few ounces of coolwater to settle the grounds, and let the cup sit for a moment onthe ground so the cup cools. Sometimes a canteen without a covermakes a good heat sink to cool the rim of the cup. For those whodon't mind carrying an extra piece of tin, the classic peach canboiler works well for making coffee and then shifting it into themess cup. My favorite coffee-stealing-pard (he knows who he is)does this, and it works just fine. The boiler comes in handy forother things as well.

Some folks strain their coffee with an old tea strainer. Somefolks have elaborate boil, lift, boil, schemes. Well, I'd losethe dang tea strainer the first time I fiddled around in theknapsack at 2:30 a.m., and I'm lucky not to spill the coffeehandling it just twice. What works for you works for you.

Haven't said much about confederate coffee. Cargo documentsindicate coffee came into Wilmington up until the capture of thatfine port. Just about every account of the Appomattox Campaignmentions Lee and Longstreet's encounter with the first"real" coffee they had enjoyed in ages while diningwith a civilian family, so coffee was certainly around. It wasavailable through the supply system in some quantity, availablethrough trading with the yanks, and available via foraging. Allof this is nice, but in my humble opinion we should be using morecoffee substitutes as the war progresses, and be very happy whena CS pard shows up with a rare quantity real coffee. Of course,all of this depends on the event scenario.

So, what's a substitute? Ready to use chicory can be found ingrocery stores, and it beats digging, grating, roasting, etc.just to get an ersatz coffee. Sweet potatoes thinly sliced andbaked in the oven make an interesting brew that's not half bad.Roasted barley or rye is a good drink, and Postum brand coffeesubstitute is not that far away from that. I have tired groundroasted okra seeds (hey, a great use for those woodyend-of-the-season-pods), and it has an interesting taste. Avoidthose pink/treated seeds found in the stores this time of year,as they are poison. Roasted peanut hulls make good coffee. I havenot tried acorns yet, but they were used. Probably the worst cupof coffee I've ever had is from dry roasted corn meal. Part ofthe confederate reenactor's experience should be trying thesesubstitutes and appreciating the experience. While I can find nodocumentation for it, with the exception of chicory, groundcoffee could be adulterated with these "coffeestretchers" for effect. If sawdust is used as a filler,avoid walnut, oak, exotic woods, and any CCA-treated lumber.

Raw sugar can be had in the form of "Sugar in theRaw" in 2lb boxes from Cumberland Packing Corp., 2Cumberland Street, Brooklyn, NY 11205 or www.sugarintheraw.comCone sugar is available from the Hispanic section of many markets(even Wal-Mart). These are small cones. Larger cones and nippersare available from James Townsend and Sons, and elsewhere.Molasses is a dandy sweetnener, but it begs a tight container.

That is probably more than you wanted to know, and then some.Don't take my word for it, instead take some quality time toreread what the usual first person accounts say about coffee.

What about a coffee pot? Depending on the scenario, they canbe just fine. Just remember who has to tote the thing.

Your Pard, Charles The Rowdy Pards

Simple Techniques
from Mike Murley at

Making coffee is simple, but its never going to be fast (youhave to boil the water).

Using a peach can boiler, put about an inch of coffee in thebottom and fill with cold water. Put it on the coals and bring itto a rolling boil (not boiling over) for a minute or three (Ilift it off the coals, let it settle, then place it back until itrolls again; repeating three times).

To settle the grounds, pour a bit of cold water in. Pour it offinto your tin cup (leave the grounds in the boiler) - and sugarif you want to and enjoy.

If you make it in your cup, add the sugar with the coffee beforeyou boil it. After it boils up, pour in some cold water. Donot stir, as this will raise the grounds again.

It doesn't take much of a fire to boil coffee (a few pine coneswill do it).

Mike Murley

Campaigner's Coffee
by Joe Loehle

The easiest way tomake a cup of coffe is to NOT crush the beans the first fewtimes. Leave them whole and boil with a few more than younormally would. Then when your done drinking it, strain them backout so you can reuse them. You can do this a few times and thencrush them up and use them once more.

Joe Loehle
High Privates

"CoffeeBean Crushing Tip"
Posted by Irish155NY on Jun-03-99 at 09:35PM (EST)

So many folksthink you HAVE to use the rifle to crush the coffee beans.

Easier tip: Useyour bayonet, socket-end down, and put the beans in your dipper(i.e. tin cup). Helluva lot easier than using the unwieldy 10-lb.Enfield on a measy coffee bean.

Kevin O'Beirne

"Recipefor Essence of Coffee"
Posted by Western Federal on Jun-04-99 at 06:17PM(EST)


I got this from an article in the CCG a while back. Add ateaspoon of instant coffee, powdered cream, and sugar untill haveyour desired amount. Then, carefully, add teaspoons of wateruntill you stir it into a THICK paste. If it gets too runny, addmore amounts of the prediscribed ingredients. You can buy periodcontainers to put this paste in from various makers. I hope thishelps you all.

Your Pard
Western Federal (J. Gillett)

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