Civil War Cookin’: Want A Doughnut?

Doughnuts! Right now, I can’t imagine a better food to discuss on a Saturday morning.

I usually associate doughnuts with World War I history, so imagine my surprise when I found an account about civilian ladies during the Civil War giving doughnuts to a regiment on its way to war. We’ll start the discussion with the primary source that started it all:


The ladies of Augusta, Me [Maine], distributed over fifty bushels of doughnuts to the Third Volunteer regiment of Maine, previous to their departure for the seat of war in 1861. A procession of ladies, headed by music, passed between double lines of troops, who presented arms, and were afterwards drawn up in hollow square to receive the welcome dough-nation.

Never before was seen such an aggregate of doughnuts since the war began. The circumambient air was redolent with doughnuts. Every breeze sighed doughnuts – everybody talked doughnuts. The display of doughnuts beggared description. There was the molasses doughnut and the sugar doughnut – the long doughnut and the square doughnut – the rectangle doughnut and the triangular doughnut – the single twisted doughnut and the double twisted doughnut – the “light riz” doughnut and third kneaded doughnut – the straight solid doughnut and the circular doughnut, with a hole in the center. There were doughnuts of all imaginary kinds, qualities, shapes, and dimensions. It was emphatically a feast of doughnuts, if not a flow of the soul.[i]

First observation from the primary source: people ate doughnuts in the 1860’s. Second: there apparently wasn’t a standard recipe or shape for doughnuts. Both thoughts lead to the question: were their doughnuts similar to the ones we enjoy today?

Mrs. Child’s American Frugal Housewife seemed like a good starting point for recipe investigation. Published in 1833, it’s recipes can provide a foundational knowledge for some 19th Century recipes and cooking practices in America. Sure enough, “Dough-Nuts” are listed in her book.

For dough-nuts, take one pint of flour, half a pint of sugar, three eggs, a piece of butter as big as an egg, and tea-spoonful of dissolved pearlash… Cinnamon, rose-water, or lemon-brandy, if you have it. If you use part lard instead of butter, add a little salt. Not put in till the fat is very hot. The more fat they are fried in, the less they will soak fat.[ii]

Some further research reveals it’s said that Mrs. Lincoln regularly made cookies and doughnuts for her little boys and their friends during the Springfield years.[iii]

Clearly, there were a variety of flavors for doughnuts. What about the shape? Well, the “inspirational” primary source gives hints, and there are details in mid-19th Century recipes. Many recipes direct the cook to cut the dough into diamonds. The name suggests they might have started out more like the modern-day “doughnut hole” – literally fried sweet dough that looked like a nut in the shell. [iv]

Twists are mentioned at the “feast of doughnuts” and that reminded me of some historical cooking notes in the sort of fiction but most biographical story Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Set around the end of the 1860’s or beginning of the 1870’s, the housewife prefers to make twisted doughnuts because they were less labor intensive during the cooking process, literally twisting themselves over and saving her the trouble of turning them.[v]

My conclusions on Civil War doughnuts? Most probably weren’t yeast-raised, glazed sugary treats. They were probably like “cake doughnuts” made with a variety of flavors. I’m thinking 1860’s doughnuts were probably similar to the ones I used to make with my grandfather – and if that’s correct, the Third Maine Regiment certainly got a treat!

Aside from the doughnuts, another detail stands out in the account. Bringing doughnuts to the regiment was a relatively simple and patriotic mission for the ladies of Augusta, Maine. Food is a necessity for life and special foods – like doughnuts – could be used to celebrate a special occasion or send a special message. Each lady who helped prepare the doughnut feast had likely used her favorite recipe, cut those doughnuts into some specific shape that she preferred, and showed up at the gathering with a plate or basketful of treats. The homefront was sending a supporting message to that regiment – directly from the kitchen.

And with that thought in mind – who’s ready to get a dozen doughnuts or whip up a batch in the kitchen and share some with family, friends, or neighbors?


[i] F. Moore (collector), The Civil War in Song and Story, 1860-1865, (1887 edition), pages 72-73.

[ii] Mrs. Childs, The American Frugal Housewife, 1833, (reprinted by Applewood Books), page 73.

[iii] R. K. Eighmey, Abraham Lincoln In The Kitchen: A Culinary View of Lincoln’s Life and Times, 2013, page 125.

[iv] Ibid, page 125.

[v] L. I. Wilder, Farmer Boy, pages 75-76.