A brief history of coffee in the US military
Americans throwing tea in Boston Harbor was the start of our national movement toward the dark and bitter nectar of the gods. This is why tea time is gone and why we Americans take coffee breaks now.
Coffee houses were the center of political discussion during the American Revolution. These days, few things are as inextricably linked with the United States and its military as coffee.
In the Civil War, coffee was the only fresh food troops on the battlefield could get. It might even have been the difference maker in the outcome of the war, if morale means anything at all.
In the South , a pound of coffee could run you upwards of $1000 in today’s dollars. Confederate troops desperately used things like roasted corn, rye, okra seeds, sweet potatoes, acorns, and peanuts as substitutes. One substitute, Chicory, is still popular in New Orleans.
Still, if you’ve ever had a “coffee” made from one of these, you know it’s just not the same.
When future-President William McKinley was 19, he served in the Civil War, hauling vats of hot coffee so front line soldiers could get a cup and soldier on. This story was retold several times during his presidential campaign and proved how everyone in the war felt about coffee.
There is even a William McKinley Coffee Break monument in Maryland.
Back then, troops had to roast and grind their own beans. To make coffee easier to make, the Army introduced the first instant coffee. Called “Essence of Coffee,” it was basically a coffee reduction with sugar and milk added at the factory. All the troops had to do was pop a can open and add hot water.
Unfortunately, crooked entrepreneurs often sold the government spoiled milk, so the Essence not only tasted terrible, it caused a lot of bowel problems to boot. The government quickly switched back to the real stuff.
Coffee even earned its nickname via the military. President Woodrow Wilson’s U.S. Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels banned alcohol on ships in the U.S. Navy from the outset of World War I.
Coffee filled the void left by the outgoing rum and wine. Sailors were not pleased with the change and referred to the replacement as a “Cup of Joseph,” which soon became a Cup o’ Joe.
Coffee even helped win World War II. U.S. troops created one of the world’s most popular coffee beverages, the Caffé Americano, by watering down their Italian espresso shots – which was too strong for their taste palate.
The Korean War saw coffee being brewed just as much as any other conflict.
In Vietnam, G.I.s made coffee in the field using C-4 explosives as a heat source, as they did with all their c-ration cooking.
You might have noticed women with the Red Cross serving coffee at the front throughout the 20th century.
These days, coffee is one of the most popular things civilians send U.S. troops deployed to war zones.
If you’re the first one at your unit in the morning and you didn’t brew coffee, everyone hates you. No one wants to walk all the way to Green Beans.
September 29th is National Coffee Day (as if coffee only deserved one day of recognition).
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