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The U.S. Army and Coffee: A Brief History by David Ford

If there is one drink that keeps the U.S. Army moving, it’s coffee. In 1832, President Andrew Jackson introduced sugar and coffee into the U.S. Army diet, replacing the customary allotments of rum, whiskey, or brandy.

When the Civil War rolled around, coffee quickly became the staple ration for the U.S. Army. Coffee shortages were rare in the Federal ranks throughout the war and Union soldiers generally received enough coffee beans to brew themselves six strong cups a day. One soldier recalled, “Coffee was the mainstay; without it was misery.” As a rule, the longer a soldier served, the darker he preferred his coffee.


In contrast to the general abundance of coffee in the Union Army, the dark drink became dangerously scarce throughout the Confederate army by early 1862. Of all the goods secured from Union troops, no other commodity was favored more highly by Rebel soldiers than coffee. In was not uncommon to hear of Rebel soldiers hazarding picket lines to trade their good southern tobacco for federal brew. After the Civil War, U.S. Army troops serving in the west still found themselves drinking coffee with every meal of the day.

World War I made coffee a national drink. Doughboys received 1.12 ounces of roasted and ground coffee daily as part of their ration. Instant coffee, which had been invented at the turn of the century, was being produced at a rate of 1,400 pounds a day prior to the war. By November 1918, the national output of instant coffee increased to 42,500 pounds a day for both civilian and military use. In 1932, President Herbert Hoover increased the Army’s coffee ration to two ounces a day for each man.

The individually packaged meals provided to the GIs of World War II came equipped with instant coffee packets. Separately packaged dry cream and sugar were also provided to GIs. In the field, GIs could ready their coffee in their mess cups or steel helmets on portable stoves.

During the War, the U.S. Army operated five coffee processing plants that provided for the troops in the field. The Army continued to produce coffee throughout the Cold War. In the midst of the Korean War, the private coffee industry began to protest the competition created by the Army and Navy coffee mills which were producing a yearly aggregate of 70 million pounds of roasted coffee. By 1956, all military coffee plants were shut down.

Now, almost 175 years after coffee officially became part of the Army ration, the Combat Feeding program of the Soldier System Center in Natick, Massachusetts, has developed a Hot Beverage Bag (HBB) in which instant coffee can be made within minutes by placing the HBB with the coffee and water mix into a flameless ration heater bag.

These HBB are now being included in MRE, making preparation of coffee easier for our troops. During the Battle of Antietam in the Civil War, the future
President of the United States, Sergeant William McKinley, was cited for bravery during the battle for delivering “hot coffee” and “warm food” to the men in his unit, the 23rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment.


He performed this action without orders and placed his personal safety at risk to ensure the soldiers of the Regiment received their food and coffee. This monument stands on the site where Sergeant McKinley carried out his act on 17 September, 1862.


Courtesy of the Army Historical Foundation

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