Coffee: Helping People Get Up and Go to War Since (at Least) 1861

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Jul 27 2016

Coffee: Helping People Get Up and Go to War Since (at Least) 1861

July 27th, 2016

Coffee and war have a long history, according to an NPR audio segment.

“Everything is chaos here. The suspense is almost unbearable… we are reduced to quarter rations and no coffee… and nobody can soldier without coffee,” reads an understandably panicked letter written by Union cavalryman Ebenezer Nelson Gilpin in April 1865. Coffee was apparently of great import during the Civil War.

Jon Grinspan, a curator at the Smithsonian Museum of American History, points out that the word “coffee” is more common in soldiers’ diaries from the conflict than the words “war,” “Lincoln,” “mother,” “slavery” or “bullet.” But did the black stuff also help to determine the outcome?

Coffee was a Northern advantage, says historian Andrew F. Smith. “The Confederates had access to tobacco and Southern foods; Northern soldiers had access to coffee…when there was not a battle going on, Confederate soldiers met in the middle of the fields and exchanged goods,” he explains.

Flash forward to the Vietnam War. So-called GI coffeehouses were safe havens where soldiers could openly discuss their concerns—while enjoying their coffee, of course.

And coffee remains an important part of soldiers’ lives today.

The NPR segment features an interview with Harrison Suarez, a US veteran of the Afghan War who described cross-cultural issues among allied Afghan and US troops. Although Afghans tend to prefer tea over coffee, it was still good for US soldiers to drink coffee while their counterparts drank tea, as “taking the time to develop a rapport with your partners that you are fighting alongside holds the same.” 

Along with his business partner Michael Haft, also a veteran, Suarez has started a company called Compass Coffee, which specializes in delivering coffee to US military personnel across the world.

“We’ve sent coffee to Marines on aircraft carriers, to Afghanistan… basically any time any soldier requested some crazy coffee delivery, we’ve done our best to accommodate getting it out to them,” Haft says.