Salisbury Steak Was Supposed to Be a Cure-All for Union Troops in the Civil War

Sorry, this is not the salisbury steak seen in your local DFAC. (Robert Loescher)

James H. Salisbury was both the doctor you want and the doctor you should definitely not listen to, but in his day, he was as good as they came. A student of natural sciences and chemistry in the mid-1800s, he became a doctor in 1852 and offered his service to the Union cause during the Civil War.

As a surgeon in the Union Army, Salisbury believed that the most prevalent ailment among the troops wasn't acute bullet wounds; it was diarrhea and dysentery. He was right. More than 1.6 million cases of the ailments were reported by the Union Army, and an estimated 50,000 died of the disease on both sides of the war. Altogether, disease was the cause of two-thirds of all Civil War deaths.

Salisbury came to believe that the soldiers' diet was to blame for the illness, and the key to good health came from the food we eat. He also believed certain foods were capable of curing certain illnesses. Salibury may have been right about good eating, but the food-based cures he came up with turned out to be less than optimal.

Read: 6 Bygone Chow Hall Classics That Helped Shape the US Military

He hated the Army's ubiquitous biscuit diet. Based on the shape of human teeth, Salisbury reasoned, humans were meant to chew lean meats and that vegetables, particularly starches like potatoes, would ferment in the stomach. After fermenting, the vegetable matter would create toxins that affected other parts of the body. He believed fruits and vegetables should be limited to small amounts.

The good doctor got a chance to test out one of his cures on Union soldiers. He created what he believed to be the optimal dish, based on his findings. When he treated a sick soldier, he fed them a diet of chopped-up beef, formed into patties and then broiled. The optimal beverage to accompany his new dish was black coffee or hot water.

"I need 4,000 ccs of lean beef, stat!"

Readers, especially older readers, probably have a pretty good idea of what happens to one's digestive system on a diet of all protein and no fiber. It might have taken care of the diarrhea unrelated to dysentery, but it was definitely not the cure-all Salisbury and his now-widespread steak intended.

His research on food began before the Civil War and continued afterward, even if he didn't have thousands of willing test subjects. He experimented with baked beans, mutton and others, but his chopped beef recipe was the clear standout. When he published a book about his findings in 1888, it created what might be the first food fad in America, one that lasted for at least 20 years.

The faddish Salisbury steak was the same patty of chopped beef, but instead of being seasoned with thoughts and prayers (as it was on the Civil War battlefields), it instead got a flavor boost from salt, pepper, butter, Worcestershire sauce and gravy. Though Salisbury steak's star faded as a fad, it has remained on American menus and kitchen tables ever since, though Dr. Salisbury might be disheartened to discover it paired with green beans and mashed potatoes.

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on Facebook.

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