"Thoughts on John Brown and Gail Borden"
By Dr. Milt Sernett
The new business enterprise struggled to be profitable until 1861 when the Civil War began. It is said that an army marches on its stomach. Union troops fighting on battlefields in the hot South had little access to fresh milk. If milk could be obtained, it rapidly spoiled. The United States Army turned to Borden and his tins of condensed milk. By 1863 the New York Condensed Milk Company was producing nearly 14,000 quarts of milk daily to keep the Yankee troops happy but still could not meet the demand by the United States Government.
It would be idle speculation to suggest that without Borden’s condensed milk General Ulysses S. Grant would not have been able to sit down with General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox as the symbolic leader of victorious Union troops. Such historical ruminations are akin to the notion that John Brown “caused” the Civil War by his abortive raid upon Harpers Ferry. Nevertheless, Gail Borden might at least deserve an “honorable mention” in the National Abolition Hall of Fame.
Union soldiers who survived the rigors of combat in those hot southern battlefields came home after the Civil War favorably impressed with the virtues of condensed milk. Gail Borden died of January 11, 1874 having established himself not only as the milkman of the world but also as a great humanitarian. He funded several African American schools in the South during Reconstruction and left a worthy philanthropic legacy.
The New York Condensed Milk Company became the Borden Company in 1899. The Borden Company owned dozens of milk stations and processing plants in rural areas throughout the nation as the 20th century dawned. Elsie the Cow, Borden Dairy’s famous symbol (a Jersey), was introduced at the New York World’s Fair in 1939.
Think of Gail Borden the next time that you buy a can of condensed milk. If you ruminate hard enough, you will eventually get back to Torrington, Connecticut, John Brown, and those thirsty Yankee troops who survived the Civil War in part because they drank condensed milk. Condensed milk may not have won the Civil War, but it made that Yankee hardtack palatable.