Hard tack, a term believed to have been originated by the Union Army of the Potomac, is terminology from the Civil War era for a form of unleavened bread, made from flour and a bit of water.
Various forms of unleavened bread have been around for more than 6,000 years and are still in use today. From sailors to soldiers to hunters, hard tack maintained its popularity (before preservatives were utilized) due to the fact that it is inexpensive, lightweight, and has an obscenely long shelf life (rumor has it that hard tack made during the Civil War was later reissued in the Spanish-American War almost 35 years later). Also, wheat flour contains 10% protein and also has vitamin B, allowing a person to live for quite a while eating nothing else.
In Civil War times, a Union or Confederate soldier was usually issued half a pound of dried beans, bacon, pickled beef, compressed mixed vegetables, and a pound of hard tack. At times when there wasn't much money, hard tack was all they had.
Hard tack during the Civil War was very hard, too hard to chew on its own. Due to this, the soldiers became quite creative in finding ways to soften and prepare it. One of the most popular was to soak it in water, then fry it in leftover bacon grease. Another dish called 'skillygallee' consisted of salted pork fried with crumbled hard tack. Other times, it would be broken into pieces by placing a biscuit on a rock and hitting it with the rifle butt, then placed in the mouth and softened with saliva until it was chewable. Hard tack was so hard it was given many nicknames by the soldiers, including 'angel cakes', 'teeth dullers', 'sheet iron crackers', and 'ammo reserves'.
Due to the fact that the soldiers' provisions took so long to ship, and often times the hard tack was improperly baked and stored, provisions were often spoiled, stale or infested with insects by the time they reached the units. As such, hard tack also took on the common nickname of 'worm castles'.
Although hard tack came to be despised by many soldiers Union and Confederate alike, it probaby kept many of them from starving and was therefore an essential part of the Civil War.
Today, many people purchase hard tack, mostly for Civil War reenactments, but some people keep it on hand for hunting and long-distance hiking.
*BONUS*BONUS*BONUS* don't you just love those?
Recipe for Hard Tack
6 cups of flour
1 cup of water
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Dust cookie sheets with flour.
In a large bowl, mix the water and flour together with your hands in a kneading motion. Knead this mixture until it no longer sticks to your hands (use extra flour if needed). Do not put any form of shortening on your hands to keep the flour from sticking, it ruins the mixture.
After the dough is thoroughly mixed, roll it out on the counter to about 1/2 inch thick. Cut into squares 3"x3". Using a fork, make hole patterns in each square (some tin sutlers also sell a hard tack cutter with nails in place). Place on the cookie sheets and bake in the oven for 30 minutes, flip the squares over, and cook them on the other side for 30 more minutes.
Let the hard tack cool overnight so that it dries out completely, then store in airtight containers until needed. Finished hard tack will look pale in color.
Note: This is the traditional recipe. A tablespoon or so of salt, sugar, or molasses can be added for some flavor. The finished hard tack will not have as long of a shelf life.