How Coffee Helped the Union Caffeinate Their Way to Victory in the Civil War

The North’s fruitful partnership with Liberian farmers fueled a steady supply of an essential beverage

Union soldiers sit will coffee and bread in a portrait
For Union soldiers, a cup of coffee made hardtack biscuits more palatable.  Heritage Auctions

Ten months into the Civil War, the Union was short on a crucial supply, the absence of which threatened to sap the fighting strength of the Northern army: coffee. This critical source of energy and morale was considered almost as vital as gunpowder; Union General Benjamin Butler ordered his soldiers to carry coffee with them always, saying it guaranteed success: “If your men get their coffee early in the morning, you can hold” your position.

But by 1862, imports of coffee were down by 40 percent since the start of the war. Though coffee was cultivated around the world from Java to Ethiopia to Haiti, Brazil had been the main supplier to the United States. The Union blockade of Southern ports, including New Orleans, had slowed coffee imports from Brazil to a trickle—and Union merchants and military contractors were able to reroute only a portion of that Brazilian coffee northward; even with Union port cities trying to pick up the slack, the U.S. imported 50 percent less by value from Brazil in 1863 than it did in 1860. Demand, meanwhile, had quadrupled since the fighting began, fueled by a commitment to provide each Union soldier with a generous 36 pounds of coffee per year. Finding a new source of coffee had become a matter of survival.

Luckily for the Union, Stephen Allen Benson, president of the relatively young Republic of Liberia, had a plan. In February 1862, he sent a message to Americans in the North: “In Liberia there are about 500,000 coffee trees planted … [and] there is now more coffee exported from Liberia than in any previous period.” Born in Maryland to free Black American parents, Benson had emigrated with his family to the West African colony at the age of 6. By the outbreak of the Civil War, in April 1861, he was one of the largest coffee farmers in Liberia—and he hoped that this new country, to which several thousand Black Americans had fled to escape American racial animus, could provide an essential fuel in the Union’s own fight against slavery. A ship that left the port at Monrovia in August 1862 carried 6,000 pounds of premium African coffee. It was the first major shipment to the Union—and would prove vital in the North’s victory.

Coffee replaced tea as the U.S. drink of choice around the time of the American Revolution. From the moment patriots tossed chests of tea into Boston Harbor in December 1773, drinking coffee—and boycotting tea—became a sure sign of loyalty to the cause of independence. Pretty soon, the country was obsessed: By the 1830s, coffee consumption was outstripping tea by five to one. In 1832, Andrew Jackson replaced army alcohol rations with coffee, in hopes of energizing the troops and reducing instances of drunken insubordination. By 1860, the U.S. was importing six pounds of the stuff each year for every man, woman and child in the country—and at the outbreak of the Civil War, Americans were drinking twice as much coffee as they were 30 years before.

But the war introduced a problem for the Union’s coffee drinkers. The sudden demand for more coffee as a crucial army provision combined with the blockade of the Southern ports created a crisis. What the Union could import was hardly enough to keep its army supplied, let alone to caffeinate Northern civilians in the manner to which they’d become accustomed.

a tintype portrait of a man
Born in Maryland, Stephen Allen Benson emigrated to Liberia, where he later became the nation’s president—and a major coffee grower.  Library of Congress

Yet there was a promising workaround: An early alliance between Northern abolitionists and the Liberian people had begun to bring small quantities of Liberian coffee to the North before the war. In 1848, before his presidency, Benson had formed a partnership with the Quaker merchant and activist George W. Taylor, whose “Free Labor Warehouse” in Philadelphia exclusively sold goods, food and clothes made without enslaved labor. Benson shipped roughly 1,500 pounds of coffee to Taylor that first year, and their partnership continued fruitfully throughout the next decade as they supplied coffee drinkers who were looking for slavery-free alternatives.

Just as some consumers today boycott brands that trouble them, buy fair trade products and otherwise vote with their wallets, some abolitionists used commerce to fight slavery. Liberian coffee was especially attractive to the American Free Produce movement, with its explicit mandate of using ethical commerce to undermine the global slave trade. Coffee had long been championed by Quakers and other Free Produce advocates like Taylor. It was a product that free laborers could grow and that consumers could support with their purchases, even if it cost a little more to pay the farmers.

At the time, the United States had not yet officially recognized the Republic of Liberia, and no formal trade treaties existed between the two countries. Southern states had stood in the way of recognizing Liberia since its independence in 1847, arguing that it would be inappropriate for the U.S. to host a Black diplomatic representative in Washington. But secession created an opening, and right away, Benson began lobbying the U.S. government to extend “treaties of friendship and commerce” that would allow Liberian farmers to bring in coffee on equal terms with other coffee-producing countries.

By the start of 1862, Benson was not alone in his conviction that the farmers of Liberia could bolster the Union war effort. Mercifully for Union generals, President Abraham Lincoln officially recognized the republic that year and raised the tariff on coffee imports to 4 cents a pound as a war-funding effort. That created an opening for imports of Liberia’s more expensive, but also more ethical, coffee—now not so different in price from more established coffees like those from Java. Taylor’s Philadelphia Free Produce store expanded its network in Liberia, bringing new coffee to market from Liberian farmers like Othello Richards and Thomas Moore.

The Union also sent advisers to Liberia, including Edward Morris, a Philadelphia merchant, who visited in 1862 to give free lectures to farmers about best practices for planting coffee—and to ask farmers what support they needed to increase the scale of this new coffee economy. His success was conspicuous. One Liberian settler, William C. Burke, who had been manumitted to emigrate to Liberia by Confederate General Robert E. Lee, wrote to his American contacts that after Morris’ visit, “the attention of almost every [Liberian] farmer has been lately turned towards raising coffee” for the U.S. market.   

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This article is a selection from the July/August 2024 issue of Smithsonian magazine

a tintype of man sitting at a table for a portrait
Philadelphia merchant Edward Morris traveled to Liberia in 1862, urging farmers there to grow coffee for the U.S. market. Library of Congress

Newspapers from Maine to Ohio to California reported encouragingly on the supplies of Liberian coffee. On the ground, meanwhile, the Union’s ability to purchase and distribute coffee from Liberia, alongside other sources, was helping the army’s morale. In December 1862, one soldier wrote that “what keeps me alive must be the coffee.” The North was gaining a powerful caffeinated edge over the Confederacy, where importers, stymied by the Union’s ongoing blockade, were having far less success. Indeed, by 1863, coffee had become ludicrously scarce throughout the Confederacy. A Vermont soldier, marching through Louisiana, noted: “The richest planters have had no tea or coffe [sic] for over a year—when any poor coffe has been brought here it sold for $8 a pound.” In contrast, a receipt issued by Taylor’s Free Produce shop in Philadelphia in 1863 shows that he charged just 40 cents per pound for his prime Liberian beans, described by one arbiter to be of “superior” quality compared with non-Liberian coffee; one longtime Philadelphia customer extolled Liberian coffee’s “strength, flavor and aroma.”

Confederate soldiers, huddled over their campfires in the predawn light, had to make do with unpalatable coffee substitutes brewed from acorn grounds, sweet potatoes and other dubious ingredients. Military discipline was reportedly difficult to maintain in the Confederate Army, where, one Union soldier noted, “they get no tea or coffee but plenty of whiskey.” One desperate Confederate soldier wrote a hastily scrawled, undated note to Union troops across the line in Fredericksburg, Virginia: “I send you some tobacco and expect some coffee in return … yours, Rebel.” The lack of coffee was fast eroding Confederate morale.

a coffee label with depiction of Uncle Sam
An 1863 coffee package featured a nonchalant Uncle Sam seated on a cannon, whittling, with a torn Confederate flag under his foot.  Library of Congress

The Union Army acted decisively to press its caffeine advantage. At the end of August 1864, the Alexandria Gazette in Virginia lamented that the Union troops in Sherman’s siege of Atlanta had “destroyed 500 sacks of genuine Rio coffee” intended for Confederate consumption—about 55,000 pounds in all. At this point in the war, Union supplies of coffee, including those from Liberia, were so assured that Northern soldiers could even afford to destroy the Confederate stock rather than confiscate or consume it themselves. An article on the same front page of the Gazette noted that a ship had recently arrived in New York with “40,000 pounds of ‘Liberia-Mocha’ coffee.” Benson’s small individual contribution in 1864, around 220 pounds of coffee sold through Taylor’s Free Produce Warehouse that same year, would have been enough to supply six soldiers for the full final year of the war.

At the Confederate surrender at Appomattox in April 1865, Michigan soldier William Smith noted that the Confederate soldiers present were licking their lips hopefully, with “a keen relish for a cup of Yankee coffee.” The end of the war and Benson’s much-mourned death in 1865—an Ohio newspaper noted his passing as a “great loss”—did not put a damper on Liberian coffee exports to the U.S., where, after the war, coffee from the republic was increasingly available far beyond Free Produce shops.

For their part, Liberian farmers counted their trading partnership with the Union a success. The war had created a new and durable market for their coffee, thanks in part to cooperation with the Free Produce Movement. As more people tried Liberian coffee, they tended to become devoted to it. As one Yale University chemistry professor recorded at the time, “Its quality was so much superior to most coffee in common use in this country that I at once ordered a sample.” Coffea liberica, as it was officially dubbed in 1876, was not only delicious, but also resistant to diseases that affected other varieties, and it won Liberia plenty of new trading partners: By 1885, its annual exports to countries including Britain and Germany reached an impressive 800,000 pounds—and then, only seven years later, a whopping 1.8 million.

The U.S. coffee market, in turn, was forever changed by the war. Indeed, Smithsonian curator of political history Jon Grinspan says that drinking coffee three times a day had hooked America’s soldiers, with the enlisted men “developing lifelong peacetime habits while camped at Shiloh or Petersburg.” By 1885, the U.S. was importing 11 pounds of coffee per person, per year—nearly double prewar levels. Some news reports from this period—written, perhaps, after a third or fourth cup of Liberian brew—sometimes described coffee as a universal remedy, even touting its alleged benefits as a disinfectant.

And in 1880, after the end of Reconstruction, with many reformers turning their attention from racial justice to temperance, the Philadelphia Times expressed the hope that “coffee houses would yet win the victory over gin palaces.” With the help of the prolific Liberian coffee plant, nothing seemed out of reach.

Coffee Talk

Manic birds, excitable goats and other invigorating tales behind the birth of our java addiction

By Sonja Anderson

an illustration of the shrub Coffea arabica
Originating in Ethiopia, the shrub Coffea arabica is believed to be the first coffee plant cultivated. It is now grown in high-elevation tropical climates around the world.  Alamy

Get your goat

According to legend, a ninth-century Ethiopian shepherd named Kaldi noticed his goats acting hyper after eating berries from a strange tree. He harvested some for himself and, upon consuming them, enjoyed a similarly energizing effect. Kaldi shared his zippy discovery with some nearby monks, who disapprovingly threw the berries into a fire—accidentally roasting their seeds, which we call beans. The fragrant beans were scooped from the coals, crushed, and soaked in water—creating the first cup of joe.

Sea fare

Ethiopians took nourishment from the coffee shrub in various ways: brewing its leaves and berries into tea, grinding and mixing the seeds with animal fat, or simply chewing on them. Some say that enslaved Northeast Africans—captured and forced across the Red Sea during a 1,300-year period of slave trade that began in the seventh century—may have carried such sustaining snacks onto ships, accidentally transporting the crop to another region that calls itself the birthplace of coffee: Yemen.

Early birds

In a different account, a 13th-century Moroccan mystic named Sheikh al-Shadhili saw a flock of amped-up birds soaring overhead, chewing unfamiliar-looking berries as they flew. After munching on some of the morsels the birds had dropped, Shadhili felt strangely alert—and he formed a habit.

Energy for days

Yemen’s coffee origin story credits one of Shadhili’s disciples: Omar, a healing priest once exiled from the town of Mocha for moral transgressions. Stranded in the hills, nearly starving, Omar plucked some red berries from a shrub. Finding the raw fruits’ seeds inedibly bitter, he opted to cook them over a fire, which hardened them beyond edibility. To correct this mistake, Omar boiled the roasted seeds, watching while the water turned brown and sweetly fragrant. Omar drank the dark liquid and, it is said, enjoyed days of sustained energy.

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