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Getting back to hardtack

Mass. company sells crackers for Civil War battles — once again

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MILTON, Mass. (AP) — Hardtack crackers, once a staple for hungry Union soldiers in the Civil War, are dry as a bone, hard as a brick — and all of a sudden selling like hot cakes over the Internet.

G.H. Bent Co., a 199-year-old crackermaker in this Boston suburb, and its only hardtack competitor, an Illinois company, wouldn't sell much of the stuff at all if it weren't for Civil War re-enactors — who spend their weekends re-creating battle scenes in meticulous detail. Thousands of them go online to stock up on boxes of the biscuits.

"Since this Internet thing, it's exploded," said Gene Pierotti, 71, the retired former owner of Bent, whose son runs the company now. "It's amazing because it keeps the history alive."

When Pierotti bought the company in 1944, the company had stopped making hardtack. Instead, it made its sister cracker, the Bent's Cold Water Cracker, which has sold on trains and ships since 1801. It also supplied American troops in the war of 1812 and fed the Navy in the 1940s and '50s.

Then, about 40 years ago, an employee at Old Sturbridge Village, a replica of a 19th century village in central Massachusetts, called Pierotti and asked if he knew that Bent was one of the Union army's top suppliers of hardtack rations during the Civil War.

Pierotti didn't know that, but his company started making the flour-and-water biscuits again anyway. It was far from a top-shelf item, selling only about 140 boxes each year through 1999.

Last December, an enthusiastic Civil War re-enactor named Mike Thorson found out about the cracker, and gave it a rave review on the Internet site for his re-enactment unit, the 33rd Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry.

Word spread among roughly 50,000 Civil War buffs, and business boomed. Sales are projected at 4,000 boxes this year. Still, hardtack accounts for only about 2 percent of Bent's business.

The other company that makes hardtack is Mechanical Baking Co., in Pekin, Ill. And each year, the 33rd Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry uses industrial size ovens to make its own large batch of hardtack.

The ovens at the G.H. Bent Co. are roaring to fill hardtack orders for re-enactors like Ken Callaway, who tries to replicate every detail of the battlefield — down to the food in his pockets.

When the 30-year-old social studies teacher from Chesterton, Ind., joined the 19th Indiana Volunteer Infantry three years ago, he had no difficulty finding an authentic uniform for the company. Filling his stomach was a different story.

He tried making the hardtack biscuits that soldiers kept in their pockets for weeks a time. They "didn't turn out so good," he said. A commercial biscuit was too hard, he said.

But he found Bent's hardtack authentic enough to get him — and his audience — closer to the battlefield history he tries to recreate.

"If I try on a small level to replicate the experiences they had, I feel better about talking about it," Callaway said. "It's the only hardtack I use now."