Pa. Museum Curator To Bake Bread Civil War-style
HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) – An army is said to march on its stomach, and a central Pennsylvania museum official is planning to show people how those stomachs got filled during the Civil War.
Brett Kelley, curator of the Civil War Museum, will take on the role of a Union soldier on commissary duty to recreate how bread was baked for the troops.
Kelley is building a masonry oven behind the Harrisburg museum, where he will don a private’s uniform and live in a wooden hut, The (Harrisburg) Patriot-News said. From April 21 to May 5, he plans to bake about 1,400 loaves of bread in two ovens which will be donated to the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank for distribution at soup kitchens and rescue missions.
The role that bread played in the war was seen at City Point, Va., the Union Army’s main supply base on the James River, Kelley said. In the summer of 1864, as the Union army prepared to lay siege on Petersburg, Va., Lt. Gen. U.S. Grant ordered that bread ovens be built to feed the thousands of troops in the Army of the Potomac.
More than 100,000 loaves of bread were baked daily, with rail lines delivering sometimes still-warm bread to troops in their camps. Southern fields, however, were planted with a cash crop – cotton.
“ They really came up short. They were thinking of the financial investment of feeding the troops and the population,” rather than the specifics of actually growing and transporting the food to the troops, Kelley said.
On a much smaller scale, Kelley will replicate the bread baking as it occurred during the Civil War, using the masonry wood-burning oven he is building.
“I’ve never done anything like this before,” said Kelley, referring both to masonry work and baking. He said he hopes to have the oven finished a week before baking begins so he can prepare for the next challenge – learning how to bake bread, possibly with some assistance from his brother, who lives in Vermont.
The recipe for “no-knead bread” is coming from Daisy Organic Flours, which is produced at a 250-year-old mill in Lebanon County’s Annville Township.
“It’s a fairly easy recipe, but it takes time,” Kelley said, citing a rising time of 12 to 18 hours.
The dough will be handmixed in the kitchen of the museum, rather than outside in a tent, as during the Civil War – a concession to 21st century health standards, Kelley said. He estimates that perhaps 20 loaves could be baked at a time in each oven, and hopes to make about 100 loaves per day.
Hard tack, made from flour and water, was another common food of soldiers, but soft bread was something they only got when they were in camp for a while, Kelley said.
“ Brett will not only demonstrate how difficult it was to provide bread to soldiers of the era, but will also assist those currently struggling to provide for themselves,” said Kendall Hanna, executive director of Central Pennsylvania Food Bank.
Kelley hopes the oven also can be used by the public in the future for “community baking” activities on designated weekends. Community ovens, which were common in the 18th and 19th centuries, are making a comeback in other areas of the country, he said.
The effort is part of the “In Their Footsteps” program conceived by Kelley in 2010 as a way to raise money for the museum’s education department and increase its visibility. That year, he built a cabin behind the museum and lived the life of a Union soldier in winter quarters for two weeks, during a period when nearly four feet of snow fell.
Last year, Kelley marched 230 miles as a Confederate soldier from Fredericksburg, Va., to Harrisburg, through tornado warnings and unseasonably hot and rainy weather.
“We’re always looking for things that soldiers did that we can replicate, other than actual combat,” Kelley said.