The Coffee Wagon

Our support to the military started as YMCA volunteers formed the U.S. Christian Commission and brought aid and comfort near the battlefields of the Civil War. The now iconic coffee wagon became a beacon of comfort that drew soldiers together for moments of comfort amid the horrors or war.

From the "Annals of the U.S. Christian Commission"

CoffeeWagon.jpgThe Coffee Wagon was invented, built, and presented to the Commission, by Mr. Jacob Dunton, of Philadelphia.

The following description of the wagon and its use is by Rev. C. H. Richards, one of the Delegates who rendered timely service in the Ninth and Eighteenth Corps, July 30, 1864,— the day of the mine explosion and bloody repulse before Petersburg:

— "I must refer particularly to one prominent feature of their work for weary, wounded bodies on this day, which, for its novelty and usefulness, deserves especial mention. Some of the newspapers have mentioned a now Cooking Wagon, presented by the inventor to the Christian Commission, which is thoroughly sui generis.

It is constructed somewhat like a battery caisson, so that the parts can he unlimbered and separated from each other. The 'limber,' or forward part, bears a large chest which is divided into compartments to contain coffee, tea, sugar, and cornstarch, with a place, also, for two gridirons and an axe. From the rear portion rise three tall smoke-pipes above three large boilers, under which there is a place for the fire, and under the fire a box for the fuel. Each boiler will hold fourteen gallons, and it is estimated that in each one, on the march, ten gallons of tea, or coffee, or chocolate, could be made in twenty minutes, thus giving ninety gallons of nourishing drink every hour!

It is truly a most ingenious and beneficent invention. "There was a call for coffee. A party of Delegates at once volunteered to respond to the call. The fires were lighted, the water boiled, the coffee made, and soon the vehicle, drawn by two powerful horses, and attended by half a score of willing laborers, was on its way from division to division.

Up the hospital avenue it rumbled and rolled, past the long rows of white tents, stopping at this cluster and that, giving to all from its generous supply. You should have seen the wondering look of the men as it passed by. They rolled themselves over to get a glimpse of it. They stretched their necks for a sight of it. The wounded heads forgot to ache, and the wounded limbs almost forgot to cry for nursing in that moment of eager curiosity. Was it a new sort of ambulance? It didn't look like one. What did those three black pipes mean, and those three glowing fires? Is it a steam fire-engine, and are they going to give us a shower-bath?

But the savory odor that saluted their nostrils, and the delicious beverage the engine poured into their little cups, soon put the matter beyond all doubt. They soon found that there was no necromancy about it, for it had a substantial blessing for each one of them, and they gave it their blessings in return. One by one, such as were able, crowded about it with curious faces, and the wagon, as it stood steaming and glowing in the midst, was the theme of many affectionate comments. 'I say, Bill, ain't that a bully machine?' 'Yes, sir; it's the greatest institution I ever saw.' 'That 's what you might call the Christian Light Artillery,' says a third. 'Good deal pleasanter ammunition in it than the Rebs sent us this morning.' ' Well, doctor,' said a Delegate to a surgeon, 'what do you think of this?' 'I thank the Lord for it. That's all I can say,' was his reply.

And so, on a sudden, the new invention was crowned with the praises and benediction's of the admiring crowd. It was a marked feature in the work of the day, and must be set down as one of the 'peculiar institutions' of the Commission."


A Cooking Wagon for the Army of the Potomac

From the Daily Times, Leavanworth, KS, July 30, 1864, p. 2, c. 4

The Philadelphia Inquirer says: "A novel invention passed up Chestnut street yesterday morning, attracting much attention. It was a cooking wagon, presented to the United States Christian Commission by a patriotic gentleman of this city. It was drawn up by two fine horses. The cooking wagon consists of three boilers for making tea, coffee and soup. From the furnace of each of these boilers a smoke pipe rises, giving the machine the resemblance of a steam fire engine. Each boiler holds fourteen gallons, and is capable, while on the march, with good fuel, of boiling ten gallons each every twenty minutes, and when stationary they will boil twelve gallons each in the same time, which would be from ninety to one hundred and eight gallons per hour. The machine is coupled together like a piece of artillery, and can be unlimbered and part of it sent after more provisions or wood, if necessary.

"The provision chest, which is on the front part of the wagon, is fitted with japanned cans for holding respectively one hundred pounds of sugar, thirty pounds of ground coffee, twelve pounds of tea, twenty pounds of corn starch, and thirty pounds of extract of beef.

"Two tin buckets accompany the machine, for the purpose of carrying water soup, or coffee, to any distant portion of the field; also two gridirons, for tasting bread or broiling meats; and an axe, with which to cut wood for the furnaces. Under the wagon is a box in which fuel is carried.

"The boilers in which tea and coffee are made, contain a perforated strainer on top into which the tea or coffee is put, and which prevents the leaves and sediment from being drawn off with the liquid.

"It is said that enough food can be cooked in this wagon to feed four hundred men at one time. It will prove of real use to the Commission's extensive operations in the army of the Potomac."