Coffee in the Army

In the United States coffee has been a coveted substance since the American Revolution and became a staple in military life. After throwing tea into the sea Americans chose coffee as the preferred drink, symbolizing yet another step away from England. During the Revolution coffee houses were the center of political discussion. Political or diplomatic discussions over coffee was a common occurrence. Coffee houses in Boston and New York served as areas for tradesmen, merchants, and businessmen to discuss the arrival and departure of ships and make plans for commerce. When people moved toward the frontier, such as traveling the Oregon Trail, they moved coffee with them. Some travelers brought as much as five pounds of coffee with them. Many women mention making coffee as part of their morning routines while on their trek west. War spread the popularity of the drink, especially during the Civil War, into army life. For soldiers coffee served as a morale booster, a source of energy, and a comfort drink. Coffee was greatly esteemed and coveted during the Civil War. In 1887, soldier John D. Billings reminisced about coffee, “How often, after being completely jaded by a night march…have I had a wash, if there was water to be had, made and drunk my pint or so of coffee, and felt as fresh and invigorated as if just arisen from a night’s sound sleep!” Union and Confederate troops both had coffee rations, but coffee rations were very limited in the south. Confederate soldiers tried to duplicate the strong, warm drink by using chicory, corn, rye, okra seeds, sweet potatoes, acorns, and peanuts with disappointing results. Coffee rations during the Civil War were brought to camps in oat sacks by the quartermaster department. To divide the portions of coffee evenly throughout the companies a blanket was laid out on the ground and individual piles of coffee were laid out on the blanket. Each soldier would take a pile. Soldiers generally made their own coffee to their taste, rather than the company cook making it in a large mess kettle and serving it to them.

Instant coffee became popular for soldiers during WWI. It was easier to make in the trenches because it was water soluble. It was also great for morale, providing a comforting warm drink and a reminder of home. During both WWI and WWII the Red Cross dispersed wagons with coffee and donuts to troops. 

Coffee continues to fuel our military today. Companies like Starbucks can be found on almost every Army installation. Coffee brands such as William III, Death Wish Coffee, Lock N Load Java, and Ranger Coffee, and many more ship coffee to troops overseas and support the military in some form. Many local coffee shops in towns near military posts support soldiers by providing them with various types of coffee to fuel their days and usually offer a discount. 

Coffee Ration Distribution
Coffee Ration Bag, ca. 1900
Coffee Ration Bag, 1904
Coffee Pot (1864) and Cup (1874)

Soldiers used coffee pots like this during and after the Civil War to hold their brewed coffee. It is made from tinned sheet iron.

This tinned steel cup was standard issue for the late 19th Century. “U.S.” is stamped on the handle. 

Frontier Army Museum Collection

In 1941 the Reception Center at Fort Leavenworth had an area with large carafes of coffee to offer draft inductees who processed here before going to other posts. By 1954 there were three main locations for CGSC staff, faculty and students and soldiers to get coffee on post. One was in the basement of Sheridan Hall. Another was in a small temporary wooden frame building adjacent from Gruber Hall, now Gruber Gym. The last was in the entrance lobby of Andrews Hall, an educational building used for CGSC wartime classes (1942-1959). The building is now the Frontier Army Museum. 

Post Card: Hot Coffee All the Time
Temporary Wooden Structure Coffee Shop At Fort Leavenworth, 1954
Interior of Wooden Structure Coffee Shop At Fort Leavenworth, 1954
Interior of Andrews Hall Coffee Shop Area, 1940s-50s

Below are images of early 20th century coffee advertisements from local Leavenworth newspapers. These advertisements informed soldiers and the community where to find coffee and coffee accessories in Leavenworth. Images courtesy of CARL Special Collections and Archives.

Model Commissary, ca. 1900

Used in kitchens for storage of staples, condiments, and spices commissary bins like this could be purchased from Sears and Roebuck Company catalogues. On the right side of the bin is a canister designated to hold coffee to keep the grounds fresh. This is a civilian piece. Frontier Army Museum Collection