Tea Drinking During the Civil War

There is no shortage of legends about our sixteenth president, Mr. Abraham Lincoln. You probably heard a few of them in school when you were growing up. One persistent tea-related legend is the notion that he once said, “If this is coffee, please bring me some tea; but if this is tea, please bring me some coffee.” It would take a better researcher than I to determine whether Lincoln actually said this, though I’m a bit dubious.

Civil War era Small tin tea or coffee pot (From Yahoo! Images)
Civil War era Small tin tea or coffee pot (From Yahoo! Images)

But it’s a witty thing to say, regardless of who said it first, and it’s as good a way as any to introduce an article about tea drinking in the United States during the Civil War. Which was still going fairly strong at that time, mind you. Some people seem to have the perception that after the Boston Tea Party Americans abandoned tea drinking, never again to touch a teacup to their collective lips. But that’s not so.

Tea drinking was affected during the Revolutionary War, however, as I noticed recently when writing about a tea-related book that was published just as the Civil War was getting started. It recalls that during that previous conflict those who preferred not to drink tea for political or other reasons turned to something called Liberty Tea, which was made from the leaves of a plant called loose strife.

While there’s a popular notion that the old American favorite – iced tea – didn’t appear until the early twentieth century, it was a tradition that was actually in place by the time of the Civil War and probably had been for at least several decades. Though for an army on the march in the 1860s the availability of ice could be a bit spotty, to say the least.

Also, depending on which side you were on, the availability of tea itself might have been a bit spotty as well. While this list (PDF) of Civil War foods lists coffee and tea as staples for both sides it indicates that supplies of coffee for the Southerners were affected by Union blockades, which suggests that tea might have been similarly affected. Coffee substitutes were common during this time and here’s a recipe for Blueberry Tea that’s said to date from the Civil War era.

If you’d like to get some idea of what type of tea might have been consumed in the United States during the Civil War era you might want to try a commemorative tea (American Civil War Gunpowder Tea) offered by noted tea person Bruce Richardson, who was profiled at this site previously. His tea would have been similar to the tea that might have been consumed by some of the masses of troops who occupied the area around Richardson’s Elmwood Inn, in Kentucky. Gunpowder is a type of green tea of strongly flavored green tea that’s shaped into small pellet shapes.

See more of William I. Lengeman’s articles here.

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