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Bids taken for beef cattle for the US government’s military use: Part 1

Beef for the Union Army Cross the Long Bridge at Washington. Harper's Weekly, November 16, 1861.
Beef for the Union Army Cross the Long Bridge at Washington. Harper’s Weekly, November 16, 1861.

As the Civil War moved into its second year, the Federal government found itself with a shortage of beef cattle to feed the seemingly ever-expanding Union armies. Ads were taken out in various newspapers across the North to seek bids from contractors to supply cows. Among the collection points for the cattle secured by this government bid process was York, Pennsylvania.

Here is a typical advertisement from the January 4, 1862, edition of the Pittsburgh Gazette.

“Sealed proposals are invited till the 10th day of January 1862, at 12 o’clock, M., for supplying the Government with BEEF CATTLE. The cattle to be delivered at Harrisburgh, Chambersburg, or York, Pa. as soon as the 15th day of March, 1862, as the Government may direct. The Government will receive under this contract 4,000 head, and reserve the right to call for any additional number up to 10,000.

“Each lot of Cattle delivered shall average at least 1,300 pounds gross weight; and no animal will be received which weighs less than 1,000 pounds gross weight.

“Government reserves the right to pay in Treasury notes, and to reject any bid for any cause. No bid will be entertained unless the bidder to be present to respond.

“The bids must be directed to Major A. BECKWITH, C. S., U. S. A., Washington, D. C., and endorsed “Proposals for Beef.”


“I, A B, do hereby propose to deliver to the Government good Beef Cattle for —– per hundred pounds gross weight. The Cattle to be delivered at —–, according to the terms of the enclosed advertisement. The Cattle to be weighed on the scales and the weight so determined to be the purchase weight. I hereby agree to give a good and sufficient bond for the fulfillment of the contract, and to receive Treasury notes or other Government funds in payment for the Cattle.”

As the war progressed and the need for cattle continued to increase, this bid process repeated, with larger quantities of cows needed. By 1863-64, the largest need in York was to supply beef for the patients, staff, and guards at the sprawling U. S. Army Hospital complex on Penn Common. That would lead to considerable acrimony between some of the bidders, including charges of graft and corruption, as well as accusations that one of the leading contractors was in reality a Southern sympathizer (or “Copperhead” as the Republicans deemed them).

Several of York’s leading butchers would become implicated. The instigator was another local butcher, John F. Erwin, who believed he was being cheated out of an opportunity to bid by the dishonesty of his competitors.

Stay tuned for part 2.



The York Daily Record‘s award-winning team of history bloggers will present a free forum and open discussion  at 7 p.m., Wednesday, Dec. 9, at Wyndridge Farm near Dallastown. Jim McClure, June Lloyd, Joan Concilio, Stephen H. Smith and I will present, listen and field questions from the audience.  Topics will include “Is York Fair America’s First?” “Myths and Mysteries surrounding the Hex Murder,” “Was York’s surrender to the Confederates justified?” and “Is York the First Capital of the United States?” Joan Concilio will explore: “York County Food Controversies: Potpie, filling and chips?”

This is free to the public, and promises to be a lot of fun. The Dallastown High School history students will also be present. Come on out and participate in this free-flowing event. Several bloggers will also have copies of their books on various aspects of York County history for sale and signature that evening.


Pick up Civil War books as Christmas gifts, or for your own reading pleasure.

  • Saturday, December 5, 10 a.m. to noon, York Emporium, 343 W. Market St, York, (717) 846-2866
  • Wednesday, December 9, 7 p.m., Wyndridge Farm, Dallastown (see above).
  • Saturday, December 19, with fellow Savas Beatie Civil War author Dr. Chris Mackowski (of the “Emerging Civil War” series), TG Books, 2107 Industrial Hwy, East York, (717) 843-2947

Feel free to call ahead and reserve copies if you so desire.