War and Peace and Coffee

  • Harrison Suarez and Michael Haft of Compass Coffee

Hidden Kitchens: Story #2 / War and Peace and Coffee

A look at 3 American wars through the lens of coffee
The Civil War / Vietnam / Afghanistan

In April 1865, at the bloody, bitter end of the Civil War, Ebenezer Nelson Gilpin, a Union soldier wrote in his diary, “Everything is chaos here. The suspense is almost unbearable.  We are reduced to quarter rations and no coffee. And nobody can soldier without coffee.”

If war is hell, then for many soldiers throughout American history, it is coffee that has offered some small salvation. Hidden Kitchens: War and Peace and Coffee looks at three American wars through the lens of coffee: The Civil War, Vietnam and Afghanistan.

The Civil War

War, freedom, slavery, secession, union – these are some of the big themes you might expect to find in the diaries of Civil War soldiers. At least, that’s what Jon Grinspan, a curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, assumed when he began digging through war journals in the nation’s Civil War archives.

“I went looking for the big stories,” Grinspan says. “And all they kept talking about was the coffee they had for breakfast, or the coffee they wanted to have for breakfast.”

CM_Hopper_Letter-18650327_02

CM Hopper letter. Southern Historical Collection Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

The word coffee was more present in these diaries than the words war, bullet, cannon, slavery mother or even Lincoln. “You can only ignore what they’re talking about for so long before you realize that’s the story,” Grinspan says.

Union soldiers were given 36 pounds of coffee a year by the government, and they made their daily brew everywhere and with everything, with water from canteens and puddles, brackish bays and Mississippi mud – liquid their horses would not drink. “Soldiers would drink it before marches, after marches, on patrol, during combat,” Grinspan tells us.

The Confederacy, on the other hand, was decidedly less caffeinated. As soon as the war began, the Union blockaded Southern ports and cut off the South’s access to coffee.

“The Confederates had access to tobacco and Southern foods; Northern soldiers had access to coffee,” explains Andrew F. Smith, a professor of food studies at the New School in New York, and author of Starving the South: How the North Won the Civil War. “When there was not a battle going on, Confederate soldiers and Union soldiers met in the middle of fields and exchanged goods.” Smith says. The Confederates had access to tobacco and Southern foods; Northern soldiers had access to coffee.

Desperate Confederate soldiers would invent makeshift coffees, Grinspan tells us, roasting rye, rice, sweet potatoes or beets until they were dark, chocolatey and caramelized.The resulting brew contained no caffeine, but at least it was something warm and brown and consoling.

Perhaps the North’s access to caffeine gave them a strategic advantage. At least that’s what one Union officer, Gen. Benjamin Butler, thought. He ordered his men to carry coffee in their canteens and planned attacks based on when his men would be most wired. His advice to other generals was: “If your men get their coffee early in the morning, you can hold.”

The-Coffee-Call-Library-of-Congress

Campaign Sketches, The Coffee Call by Winslow Homer. Library of Congress.

Over the course of the war, as the Union army grew, its camps became makeshift cities, housing hundreds of thousands of men. “They were in battle maybe one or two weeks of the whole year,”  Grinspan says. Most of the time, he adds, “they weren’t shooting their rifles at enemies, being chased or fired upon, but every day they made coffee.”

In 1859 Sharps Rifle Company began to manufacture a carbine with a hand-cranked grinder built into the butt stock – or handle – of the rifle. Union soldiers would fill the stock with beans, grind them up, dump them out and use the grounds to cook the coffee. As the morning began, one Civil War diarist described a scene of “little campfires rapidly increasing to hundreds in numbers that would shoot up along the hills and plains.” The encampment would buzz with the sound of thousands of grinders simultaneously crushing beans. Soon, tens of thousands of muckets [coffee pots] gurgled with fresh brew.

“Here’s an irony,” says Grinspan. “These soldiers who were fighting ostensibly to end slavery are fueled by this coffee from slave fields in Brazil.”



 The Vietnam War

Coffee may have powered the Union army during the Civil War, but during the Vietnam War, it fueled the GI anti-war movement.

In the late 1960s and early ‘70s, as soldiers returning from Vietnam began to question the U.S. role in the war, GI coffeehouses sprung up in military towns outside bases across the country. They became a vital gathering place.

gi_coffeehouses-Molly_Fair

By Molly Fair

David Zeiger helped run the Oleo Strut, a GI coffeehouse outside Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas, for three years in the early 1970s.  “An oleo strut,” he explains, “is the vertical shock absorber on a helicopter. The concept of the GI coffeehouse was as a shock absorber, a place where GIs could get away from the military and say what they really felt,” Zeiger says. In 2005, Zeiger, now a filmmaker, made Sir, No Sir, a documentary about the GI anti-war movement and the story of the Oleo Strut.   

The first GI coffeehouse – called UFO (a play on USO) –­­ opened in 1967, near Fort Jackson in Columbia, S.C. It was founded as a “hangout for GIs” by Fred Gardner.

The  UFO became a place where soldiers could gather and talk openly about their worries and frustrations, without the military brass around.” Gardner recalls. And in Columbia, says Gardner, UFO was a rarity ­­– a place that “not just black and white but students and soldiers” could share.

Other GI coffeehouses followed – around two dozen by 1971, by some accounts. They included the Shelter Half in Tacoma, Wash., near Fort Lewis, the Green Machine outside Camp Pendleton in San Diego; and Mad Anthony Wayne’s in Waynesville, Mo., outside Fort Leonard, to name a few. As the anti-war movement heated up, these coffeehouses became places where GIs could get legal counseling on issues like going AWOL and obtaining conscientious objector status, and learn about ways to protest the war.

Many coffeehouses also began publishing newspapers, with exposés on poor conditions within military prisons, op-eds from disillusioned soldiers and information about rallies and demonstrations.

GI coffeehouses caught the eye of those leading the antiwar movement in Hollywood. Film director Mike Nichols helped fund the GI coffeehouse movement. And actress Jane Fonda’s anti-war road show, the FTA – an alternative to the USO shows that she created with Donald Sutherland – frequented the GI coffeehouses. The first time Fonda visited the Oleo Strut, the local newspaper had a big headline: “Barbarella comes to Killeen, Texas” (a reference to Fonda’s role in a 1960s sci-fi cult film.)

Jane Fonda at Oleo Strut Coffee House Killeen Texas circa May 1970 Photo by Thorne Dreyer/ Space City

Jane Fonda at Oleo Strut Coffee House Killeen Texas circa May 1970 Photo by Thorne Dreyer/ Space City!

The coffeehouses also drew the attention of President Lyndon B. Johnson’ administration, which monitored their “subversive activities.” In August 1968, Army Chief of Staff Gen. William Westmoreland sent LBJ a secret memo noting that “consensus is that coffeehouses are not yet effectively interfering with significant military interests, and, consequently, suppressive action may be counter-productive,” as sociologist Tom Wells details in his book The War Within. The next month, however, Westmoreland reported to Johnson that several Oleo Strut frequenters had been arrested.


Afghanistan

The military runs on coffee,” says Harrison Suarez, co-founder of Compass Coffee in Washington DC. “The Marines especially. It’s this ritual.”

Suarez and Michael Haft, who started Compass together, “first became friends in the Marines over coffee,” Suarez says, “learning how to navigate with a map and compass.” On their first day of training in North Carolina, it was “Hey Gunny, want to get together for a cup of coffee?” recalls Suarez. “That’s how pretty much every new relationship in the Marines is formed.

As the war in Afghanistan intensified, both Suarez and Haft deployed there with the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines. One of their missions was to help develop the local police force and army. The two men tried to bond with their new Afghan partners over coffee, Suarez recalls, but the Afghans weren’t having it.

“Any time we shared coffee with our Afghan partners, it was just a train wreck,” Haft says. The Afghan culture is much more about tea.” It was important to the friends to embrace local culture, so they quickly learned to stop pushing the java. Regardless of what was in the cups, the experience of gathering together over a hot drink and “taking time to develop a rapport with your partners that you are fighting alongside holds the same,” says Suarez.

But it was coffee that fueled the American troops stationed there, with Marines sharing morning brew with their platoon commanders as they all gathered to discuss the day’s plans. As it was a century earlier, coffee became a ritual of war.

On_Patrol

On patrol. Photo from Harrison Suarez and Michael Haft of Compass Coffee

When Haft and Suarez returned home after their deployment, their coffee obsession deepened. “Everybody gets into something when they return home from the war. For us, it was coffee,” says Haft. A quest to learn how to brew the perfect cup first led them to write a book, and eventually to open Compass Coffee, a roastery and a community gathering place in northwest Washington, D.C.

And they haven’t forgotten their time with the Marines, where their passion for coffee first took root. “We’ve sent coffee to Marines on aircraft carriers, to Afghanistan,” Haft says. “Basically any time any soldier requested some crazy coffee delivery, we’ve done our best to accommodate getting it out to them.”

The business has started to expand quickly – there are now several branches of Compass throughout the city, and tins of Compass’ signature roasts are available at several local grocery stores.

When we visited them at their flagship coffee shop in northwest, D.C., the roaster was going strong and new equipment was being installed in the cupping room. The weekly schedule was posted in the staff room designed using organizing strategies the two friends learned in the Marines.

Over a cup of Compass brew, Suarez summed things up. “Going back all the way to the Civil War and up to our experience in Afghanistan, you’ve got this common thread of people coming together, sharing their experience, their stories over coffee.”


Special Thanks: War and Peace and Coffee was inspired by a story by Jon Grinspan that we first read on Nedslist, Ned Sublette’s mighty newsletter. Thanks to Ned and Jon. The Civil War: Jon Grinspan, Andrew F. Smith. Vietnam: Fred Gardner, David Zeiger, Donna Mickelson, Deborah Rossman, Jane Fonda. Afghanistan: Harrison Suarez, Michael Haft, Compass Coffee, Washington DC, Anastacia Marx de Salcedo, Lisa Gilman Photos: Thorne Dreyer, Alan Pogue, Molly Fair, Alexander MacKenzie and the Springfield Armory National Historic Site. And: Radiotopia

Hidden Kitchens: War & Peace & Food is made possible in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities


 


Civil War Era Recipes

Yankee “Instant” Coffee Syrup

Take a 1/2 pound of ground coffee, and boil in 3 quarts of water until the quantity is reduced to 1 quart. 

Strain until all of the grounds are removed, and then put in a clean pan and boil again, gradually adding granulated sugar until it forms a thick syrup the consistency of molasses. 

Allow to cool, and then seal tightly in bottles.  To make “instant” coffee, place 2 teaspoons of the syrup in a coffee cup and fill with boiling water.

apportioning-coffee-charles-w-reed

Blockade Sweet Potato Coffee

“Peel your potatoes and slice them rather thin, dry them in the air or on a stove, then cut into pieces small enough to go into the coffee mil, then grind it. Two tablespoons full of ground coffee and three or four of ground potatoes will make eight or nine cups of coffee, clear, pure and well tasted.”
Albany Ga. Patriot, December 12, 1861.

Ingredients:

-Sweet Potatoes
-Coffee

Instructions:

Peel your sweet potatoes. Using a peeler or knife, peel the sweet potatoes into thin strips and lay on a plate or cookie sheet and lay in the sun. Depending on weather it can take 5-10 hours of direct sunlight. Once dry, you should be able to crush the potatoes with your fingers. Break the pieces small enough to grind in a mill or coffee grinder. Grind it up and put into a dry container for storage. When you are ready to make the coffee, use 3 Tablespoons of Sweet potato mixed with 2 Tablespoons of Coffee.

[Recipe from:  http://worldturndupsidedown.blogspot.com/2016/03/civil-war-era-blockade-coffee-recipe.html]

Hardtack

Recipe adapted from The Civil War Cookbook by William C. Davis

Mix 5 cups of flour to 1 cup of water containing a 1/2-tablespoon of salt.
Knead into a dough and roll out to 3/8-inch thickness.
Cut into approximately 3-inch squares and pierce each with a fork or ice pick several times.
Bake in a 400-degree oven for 30 minutes or until slightly brown.

frying hardtack copy

 

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Humanists & Scholars

Jon-Grinspan_web
Jon Grinspan, PhD
Museum Curator & Jefferson Fellow
Division of Political History
National Museum of American History
Smithsonian Institution

Excerpt from Jon Grinspan interview

The Civil War brought a huge volume of diaries written by ordinary people, those who never would’ve written down their feelings except for the fact that they were recruited into this big world-changing event. I went looking for big stories about the meaning of the war, slavery or democracy and all they kept talking about was the coffee they wanted to have for breakfast. [Coffee] is more present in the diaries than keywords you would search for, like war, bullet, cannon, slavery, or even Lincoln.  You can only ignore what they are talking about for so long before you realize that that’s the story – when they wake up, all they want is a cup of coffee. So, I turned my focus towards the coffee itself.

The soldiers are teetering between savagery and a civilized lifestyle. They are fighting in these wars; they all have some form of dysentery or another, they are watching their friends die, they are involved in this horrible barbaric situation and often the one thing that can lift them out of that is a hot cup of coffee. There are standards – coffee is the first, you drink coffee after you get out of the battlefield. They didn’t have filtered coffee pots, so they would put coffee into a tin. They called it a mucket because of that the muck that developed at the bottom. If you can get sugar for your coffee, you know you are doing slightly better.  If you can have cream in coffee, you know you’ve made it to some kind of safety or civilization again. Soldiers used the expression “sugar in my coffee” to mean a good thing, a moment of grace in a difficult situation.

Read more

 


 

Andrew-Smith_web
Andrew F. Smith, PhD
Assistant Professor
New School University


 Articles

This story was inspired by Jon Grinspan’s  How Coffee Fueled the Civil War

The Story of the GI Coffeehouses by Eric Ruder

For additional references, please see the following publications:
starving the south uncommon ground

 

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Music

Sandy Bull – Gospel Tune
Neu- Seeland
The Electric Prunes- I Had Too Much To Dream (Last Night)
Marvin Gaye – Ain’t That Peculiar
Lucky Dragons – Typical Hippies
Afghan National Institute of Music – Bolero

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Extras

GI Coffeehouses in Film

Sir! No Sir!

A film about the GI Movement against the war in Vietnam.  Directed by David Zeiger.

FTA

This documentary follows the 1972 tour of theatrical troupe Free Theater Associates as they perform in various locations around the Pacific Islands. Led by a handful of socially conscious performers that includes actors Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland, comedian Paul Mooney and folksinger Len Chandler, the group collectively protests the Vietnam War via humorous skits, sing-alongs, dramatic readings and first-person testimonials from a number of military veterans.  Directed by Francine Parker.  

Grounds for Resistance

Inspired by the Vietnam-era G.I. coffeehouse movement, young American veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars opened Coffee Strong 300 meters from Joint Lewis-McChord Base in November 2008. This non-profit cafe is a space where soldiers, veterans, and military families discuss politics and the impact of war. It also provides G.I. counseling, as well as resources for those struggling with combat stress, military sexual trauma, difficulties with veteran benefits, or legal mazes. At the center of this documentary are the veterans who run Coffee Strong. The film explores their decisions to join the military, memories of deployment, relationships with one another, and how their efforts to make a more peaceful and just world help them cope with their own experiences of war.  Directed by Lisa Gilman.

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Links

compass logo  coffee strong under the hood
Compass Coffee
1535 7th St. NW
Washington, DC  
Coffee Strong
203 4th Ave E, suite 207
Olympia, WA 98501
Under the Hood
Fort Hood Support Network
P.O. Box 388
Killeen, TX 76540

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