Beyond  /  Retrieval

How Coffee Helped the Union Caffeinate Their Way to Victory in the Civil War

The North’s fruitful partnership with Liberian farmers fueled a steady supply of an essential beverage.

Coffee replaced tea as the U.S. drink of choice around the time of the American Revolution. From the moment patriots tossed chests of tea into Boston Harbor in December 1773, drinking coffee—and boycotting tea—became a sure sign of loyalty to the cause of independence. Pretty soon, the country was obsessed: By the 1830s, coffee consumption was outstripping tea by five to one. In 1832, Andrew Jackson replaced army alcohol rations with coffee, in hopes of energizing the troops and reducing instances of drunken insubordination. By 1860, the U.S. was importing six pounds of the stuff each year for every man, woman and child in the country—and at the outbreak of the Civil War, Americans were drinking twice as much coffee as they were 30 years before.

But the war introduced a problem for the Union’s coffee drinkers. The sudden demand for more coffee as a crucial army provision combined with the blockade of the Southern ports created a crisis. What the Union could import was hardly enough to keep its army supplied, let alone to caffeinate Northern civilians in the manner to which they’d become accustomed.

Yet there was a promising workaround: An early alliance between Northern abolitionists and the Liberian people had begun to bring small quantities of Liberian coffee to the North before the war. In 1848, before his presidency, Benson had formed a partnership with the Quaker merchant and activist George W. Taylor, whose “Free Labor Warehouse” in Philadelphia exclusively sold goods, food and clothes made without enslaved labor. Benson shipped roughly 1,500 pounds of coffee to Taylor that first year, and their partnership continued fruitfully throughout the next decade as they supplied coffee drinkers who were looking for slavery-free alternatives.

Just as some consumers today boycott brands that trouble them, buy fair trade products and otherwise vote with their wallets, some abolitionists used commerce to fight slavery. Liberian coffee was especially attractive to the American Free Produce movement, with its explicit mandate of using ethical commerce to undermine the global slave trade. Coffee had long been championed by Quakers and other Free Produce advocates like Taylor. It was a product that free laborers could grow and that consumers could support with their purchases, even if it cost a little more to pay the farmers.

At the time, the United States had not yet officially recognized the Republic of Liberia, and no formal trade treaties existed between the two countries. Southern states had stood in the way of recognizing Liberia since its independence in 1847, arguing that it would be inappropriate for the U.S. to host a Black diplomatic representative in Washington. But secession created an opening, and right away, Benson began lobbying the U.S. government to extend “treaties of friendship and commerce” that would allow Liberian farmers to bring in coffee on equal terms with other coffee-producing countries.