In April 1865, at the bloody, bitter end of the Civil War, Ebenezer Nelson Gilpin, a Union cavalryman, wrote in his diary, "Everything is chaos here. The suspense is almost unbearable."
"We are reduced to quarter rations and no coffee," he continued. "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 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."
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.
Desperate Confederate soldiers would invent makeshift coffees, Grinspan tells us, roasting rye, rice, sweet potatoes or beets until they were dark, chocolaty 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 its soldiers 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."
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 Co. 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.
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, a Harvard grad who joined the Army Reserves in 1963.
"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 anti-war movement in Hollywood. 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).
The coffeehouses also drew the attention of President Lyndon B. Johnson's administration, which monitored their "subversive activities." In August 1968, Army Chief of Staff Gen. William Westmoreland sent LBJ a secret memo noting, "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.
"The military runs on coffee," says Harrison Suarez, co-founder of Compass Coffee in Washington, D.C. "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.
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 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."
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Time now for the next story in our new season of Hidden Kitchens, stories about the role food plays in conflicts around the world. Today, the Kitchen Sisters, producers Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva, bring us "War and Peace and Coffee," a look at coffee in the lives of American soldiers.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
JON GRINSPAN: Reading through the diaries of Civil War soldiers, nurses and people on the home front, I went looking for big stories about war and freedom and slavery, secession and union. And all they kept talking about was the coffee they had for breakfast or the coffee they wanted to have for breakfast. They wrote the word coffee more than they wrote the word mother or war or cannon, slavery or Lincoln, even.
My name is Jon Grinspan. I'm a curator at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History. I wrote an article called, "How Coffee Fueled The Civil War." As these armies grow over the course of the war, they'd become makeshift cities with hundreds of thousands of people in them, some bigger than Atlanta, with no infrastructure.
As the morning starts, you could hear the sound of tens of thousands of people grinding coffee at exactly the same time. They're in battle between one or two weeks of the whole year. They're not shooting their muskets at enemies that much. They're not being chased or fired upon that much. But every day they make coffee.
ANDREW F. SMITH: As soon as the war began, The Union put a blockade on Southern ports, so coffee could not be exported into the American South. I am Andrew F. Smith, author of "Starving The South: How The North Won The Civil War."
The Confederates had access to tobacco and Southern foods. Northern soldiers had access to coffee. When there was not a battle going on, Confederate soldiers and Union soldiers met in the middle of fields and exchanged goods. By far, the most important was coffee from the North to the South.
GRINSPAN: People in the Confederacy are dying for coffee, and they're being blockaded from having it. They invent all these makeshift coffees - roasting rye, rice, sweet potatoes or beets until they're caramelize and grinding them up. It's not the same as coffee, but it's a cup of something warm and brown to drink and console them.
Some Union soldiers got rifles with a mechanical grinder with a hand crank built into the buttstock. They'd fill a hallowed space within the carbines stock with coffee beans, grind it up, dump it out and cook coffee that way. Here's an irony - these soldiers, who are fighting ostensibly to end slavery, are fueled by this coffee coming from slave fields in Brazil.
DAVID ZEIGER: Oleo strut is the vertical shock absorber on a helicopter. During the Vietnam War, the concept of the GI coffeehouses that were established around several bases was as a shock absorber. It's a place where GIs could get away from the military and say what they really felt.
My name's David Zeiger. I am a documentary filmmaker. In the 1960s, I was an anti-war activist. I spent about three years at a GI coffeehouse name the Oleo Strut.
In the 1960s, the idea of a coffeehouse was subversive. The coffee houses were where the beats read their poetry. It's where people, traditionally, had gone to plan revolution. The town of Killeen, just outside of Fort Hood, is a dry town. We couldn't have had beer if we'd wanted to. GIs didn't have anywhere to go. There was no place to go and just talk.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
FRED GARDNER: The Shelter Half in Tacoma near Fort Lewis and the Oleo Strut in Killeen. There was Fort Ord coffeehouse in the old Greyhound terminal. My name's Fred Gardner. In 1967, I founded the UFO coffeehouse in Columbia, S.C.
The coffeehouse in Fort Leonard Wood was the first really integrated place in Columbia - not just black and white, but students and soldiers. The war was heating up, and the peace movement was trying to figure out how to end U.S. involvement.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JANE FONDA: You know, I grew up believing that if our flag was flying over a battlefield that we were on the side of the angels. My father...
GARDNER: Jane Fonda would come visit the Oleo Strut. The first time she came, the local newspaper had a big headline, Barbarella Comes To Killeen, Texas.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
FONDA: (Singing) I went down to that base...
GARDNER: Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland created an anti-war cabaret called the FTA show. She was very much involved with supporting soldiers who were opposed to the war in particular. The coffee houses were the starting point for that movement.
HARRISON SUAREZ: The military runs on coffee. the Marines especially. It's this ritual, part of the experience. All the way through, it's hey, let's get coffee. Let's figure out what's going on and what we want to do. Michael and I became friends in the Marines over coffee, learning how to navigate with a map and compass.
MICHAEL HAFT: I'm Michael Haft.
SUAREZ: I'm Harrison Suarez.
HAFT: Co-Founders of Compass Coffee...
SUAREZ: In Washington, D.C. The first day down in North Carolina with our platoon sergeants, it's, hey, gunny, you want to get together for a cup of coffee? That's how every new relationship in the Marines is formed.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
TOM BROKAW: Good evening. American-led military attacks against targets throughout Afghanistan continue tonight, even as the first emergency...
SUAREZ: One of our missions was to develop the Afghan police and army.
HAFT: Any time that we shared coffee with our Afghan partners, it was just a train wreck.
SUAREZ: The Afghan culture is much more about tea. What was very important was embracing the local culture. Michael's having tea with Ali Shah (ph), with Captain Ali Mohammad (ph). It's not coffee, but the experience of taking time to develop a rapport with your partner that you're fighting alongside holds the same.
When people get back from deployment, there's all sorts of things they get into. Coffee had that allure to capture our attention.
HAFT: We've sent coffee to Marines on aircraft carriers, to Afghanistan. Basically, any time somebody's requested some crazy coffee delivery, we've done our best to accommodate getting it out to them.
SUAREZ: Going back during the Civil War to our experience in Afghanistan, you've got this common thread of people coming together, sharing their experience, their stories, over coffee.
HAFT: Ebenezer Nelson Gilpin, Civil War soldier, writing in April 1865, the very end of the war, says, everything is chaos here. The suspense is almost unbearable. We are reduced to a quarter rations and no coffee, and nobody can soldier without coffee.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MONTAGNE: "War and Peace and Coffee" was produced by The Kitchen Sisters with Sam Robinson and mixed by Jim McKee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.