Greensburg Daily News, Greensburg, IN

July 31, 2013

How to fry a muskrat

By Pat Smith
Daily News

---- — Maybe I’m wrong, but I have a feeling that you’d really like to know how to pan fry a muskrat.

I can’t tell you where to find one, but I’ll tell you how to go about cooking it when you do catch one. I can tell you that Civil War soldiers were often happy to eat muskrat when they hadn’t much else to eat. I doubt if the public did, though.

Tom Imel, service officer for the American Legion Post # 129, received a Military Times issue about Gettysburg.

July 1, 1865, marked the day 150 years ago when that battle started. Contrary to what I had believed, the first day at Gettysburg was one of the bloodiest days in that war. I’m grateful that Tom is letting me use it as a way to honor all of those who fought in the Civil War. Off and on for the rest of the year I’ll tell you something in this column from the issue. It’s a comparison between things as used and done in the Civil War and today.

Muskrat anyone? First, you need to find and slay four muskrats. clean and quarter them making sure that the musk are cleanly removed. One small hunk of salt pork, fatback or bacon grease (if lucky enough to have some). Onions chopped up, salt and pepper.

Parboil the muskrat sections in water. Save water to use later for cooking any greens or other vegetables as may be procured. Heat the salt pork or fatback in skillet over medium fire. Add muskrat quarters and chopped onions, with a vigorous dash of salt and pepper. Cook on both sides until nice and browned.

During the Civil War, military surgeons advised against eating spoiled meat, drinking water from puddles or eating green, unripe corn, apples, peaches, or other fruit and vegetables. Hardtack was popular then. It was made from flour, water and sometimes salt and was a staple of the armies on the move because it was cheap and had a long shelf life. Adding potatoes, onions and other fresh foods helped relieve the bloody dysentery. Once in prison camps, however, dysentery killed many soldiers.

Today, states the Military Times issue, “compared with the eats most enlisted men endured in the Civil War, battlefield rations of today are like eating in Michelin-starred restaurants.” I think that some veterans could say otherwise though. On Guadalcanal for more than four months, I know that when ships couldn’t get close enough into the island to leave field rations the men ate many things that they wouldn’t talk about later. Of course that was 70 years ago.

Thank goodness the medical treatment of then and now has changed. Confederate Dr. John Chisolm wrote that doctors for both sides had been faced with a “staggering and confusing array of wounds, injuries and disease.” The practice had been to halt bleeding and stem infection to save lives. But he thought the most effective treatment for severe injuries – amputation – “has earned surgeons an unpopular reputation as butchers or sawbones.” When amputations were delayed more than 48 hours, the threat of infections – the cause of gangrene and blood poisoning – more than doubled.

Three of every five Union soldier deaths were from disease; two of every three Confederate deaths were from disease. The diseases they were fighting were yellow fever, malaria, respiratory illnesses, cholera, typhoid, dysentery, syphilis and gonorrhea. Doctors used opium, morphine, chloroform, bromine, creosote, quinine, ether, iodine, lead acetate, mercury-based drugs and whiskey. Native plants were often used when possible and included some that are still used today; ginger for stomach ailments, horseradish for sinus and respiratory illnesses.

Today medical personnel and regular troops carry and are trained to use advanced equipment for reducing blood flow, improving breathing and replacing vital fluids in injured troops.

There are stories about “Camp Wives or Do women belong on the battlefield?” The pay men from the Civil War received compared to today’s pay. The top generals are compared of the North and South. The uniforms of yesterday compared to today and the weapons used by those veterans 150 years ago are also compared to today.

I found the whole issue fascinating. One story that I found most interesting was how to pick the best campsite for the Civil War troops.

I got real educated by that one. I definitely want to write about the enlistment scams that went on as soon as the Enrollment Act was passed March 3, 1863. November 19 will be the 150th anniversary of President Lincoln’s short speech at Gettysburg.

I love hearing from readers but am seldom at the news office. Email or write at 122 W. Sheridan, Greensburg.