Thursday, March 28, 2013

18th Century Military Rations, and the lack thereof...

Foraging:  Washington called it thievery until he used his expanded powers
granted by the Congress during the winter of 1777-1778.  Officially and
unofficially smokehouses and barns were liberated throughout the war.

        "According to the saying of Solomon, hunger will break thro' a Stone Wall. It is therefore a very pleasing Circumstance to the Division under my Command, that there is a probability of their marching. Three Days successively we have been destitute of Bread. Two Days we have been intirely without Meat. It is not to be had from the Commissaries. Whenever we procure Beef, it is of such a vile Quality, as to render it a poor Succerdernium for Food. The Men must be supplied, or they cannot be commanded. … The Complaints are too urgent to pass unnoticed. It is with Pain, that I mention this Distress. I know it will make your Excellency unhappy; But, if you expect the Exertions of virtuous Principles, while your Troops are deprived of the essential Necessaries of Life, your final Disappointment will be great, in Proportion to the Patience, which now astonishes every Man of human Feeling." [1]

                                    -Ltr. of Genl Varnum to Genl Washington, 22 Dec 1777.

        In 1775, the best of intentions were made to adequately supply the soldier and militiman that marched against the Crown forces.  The road to Valley Forge, however, is "paved with good intentions".  Understanding that what was authorized was significantly different from what was issued, it nevertheless gives us a good picture of what was available to the soldier in the most ideally plentiful of conditions.  Furthermore, authorized rations generally seemed to follow similar lines throughout provincial and Continental forces.


         "The Order and Direction from the General Assembly of the Colony of CONNECTICUT to their Commissary, for issuing Provisions to the Troops by them raised for the defence of their rights and privileges. — MAY, 1775.           Three-quarters of a pound of Pork, or one pound of Beef, per diem; Fish three times per week.         One pound of Bread or Flour per diem.         Three pints of Beer per diem, or Spruce sufficient, and nine gallons of Molasses to a Company per week.         Half a pint of Rice, or one pint of Meal; six ounces of Butter; three pints of Peas, or Beans, per week.         One pint of Milk per diem.         Three pounds of Candles to a Company per week.         Twenty-four pounds of Soap, or four Shillings' worth, to a Company per week.        Vinegar, two gallons per Company per week.        Chocolate, six pounds per Company per week.        Sugar, three pounds per Company per week.        One gill of Rum per man, on fatigue days only.   Provision made for the Hospital at discretion of the Physicians and Surgeons. The Rations will cost — when Pork is issued, eleven pence per diem; when fresh Beef, ten pence."[2] 


       "In Provincial Congress, Watertown, June 10, 1775.   Resolved, That each Soldier in the Massachusetts Army shall have the following allowance per day, viz:         Article 1. One pound of Bread.         Article 2. Half a pound of Beef, and half a pound of Pork, and if Pork cannot be had, one pound and  a quarter of Beef; and one day in seven, they shall have one pound and one-quarter of salt Fish, instead of one day' s allowance of meat.         Article 3. One pint of Milk, or, if Milk cannot be had, one gill of Rice.         Article 4. One quart of good spruce or malt Beer.         Article 5. One gill of Peas, or Beans, or other sauce equivalent.         Article 6. Six ounces of good Butter per week.         Article 7. One pound of good common Soap for six men per week.         Article 8. Half a pint of Vinegar per week per man, if it can be had".[3]

        Finally, the Congressional Continental Ration:

        "1 lb. of beef, or ¾ lb. pork, or 1 lb. salt fish, per day.
        1 lb. of bread or flour per day.
        3 pints of pease, or beans per week, or vegitables equivalent, at one dollar per
       bushel   for pease or beans.
        1 pint of milk per man per day, or at the rate of 1/72 of a dollar.
        1 half pint of Rice, or 1 pint of indian meal per man per week.        
        1 quart of spruce beer or cyder per man per day, or nine gallons of Molasses per    
        company of 100 men per week.
        3 lb. candles to 100 Men per week for guards.        
       24 lb. of soft or 8 lb. of hard soap  for 100 men per week."[4]
          So, the private soldier's individual daily ration, according to the U.S. Army quartermaster's Museum, amounted to:  16 oz. beef, 6.8 oz. peas, 18 oz. flour, 1.4 oz. rice/meal, 16 oz. milk, .1830 oz. Soap, 1 qt. spruce beer and .0686 oz. candle, providing him (albeit theoretically) "...more calories, twice as much protein, an adequate supply of all minerals and vitamins with the exception of vitamins A and C, " than the diet of the WWII infantryman.  [5]

A private's daily ration in the portions noted above,
an ideal rarely realized until the end of the war.
(l-r) salt pork, lye soap, candle stub, pint of hard cider, peas, rice, corn meal

           In reality, the prescribed ration was rarely followed to the letter, whether by design, duplicity, or want.

          "It being represented to the General, that many Regiments would at this season chuse to lessen their Rations of Meat and supply it with Vegetables, if they could be permitted:  His Concern for the health of the troops, and desire to gratify them in every reasonable request, induces him to direct, that the Colonels of such Regiments, as choose to adopt this plan, signify it to the Commissary General, and in two days afterwards the Quarter Master of such Regiment, be allowed to draw one quarter part of the usual Rations in Money to be laid out in Vegetables for his Regiment." [6]

        Diet also changed with proximity to towns and farms that had not yet been picked over by both sides.  Lieut. Jabez Fitch (Jewett's Co., 8th Conn.) had quite a varied diet during the New York campaign of 1776 consisting of varying amounts of milk, rice, cheese, pork, quahogs (clams), turnips, salt beef, biscuit, mutton, chocolate, sugar, rum, tea and toast [7].   Some of this was foraged for, some paid for, and some supplied by the British commissariat (after his capture on Long Island).

Rations drawn by the 10th Virginia , November 1777 [8]

        Due to the challenges of 18th century logistics, in-kind substitutions were often made,  as was the case in baked bread and whiskey for flour and rum.  The entries for the 10th Virginia Regiment (Fig. 8) are characteristic of vagaries and inconsistencies in supply found throughout Assisitant-Commissary McAllister's records.

        Washington even went so far as to order the troops to glean the woods and fields of French Sorrel (similar to spinach), watercress (related to cabbage), and goosefoot (also similar to spinach in taste) to make "sallad" as an anti-scorbutic.[9]

Foraging for "Sallad":  Sprigs of dandelion and wild violet leaves, shown here, 
could be brewed into a bitter tea high in vitamins A, B, C, D
-a reasonably effective remedy for scurvy.

         Rations were also not distributed equally, as in April and May of 1778, were Virginia units on detached duty received soap, but no candles, and the Barracks and Commissary at York received candles, but no soap.[10]  This was probably a function of shortage in general or perhaps their duties during that period.  Nevertheless, Washington continually bemoaned the lack of soap and "sour crout" to Congress, citing their collective abilities to prevent disease.
          Sadly, the omission of various portions of a ration was largely due to want, which Joseph Plumb Martin's memoirs jadedly recapitulate,

            "When we engaged in the service we promised the following articles for a ration: one pound of good and wholesome fresh or salt beef, or three quarters of a pound of good salt pork, a pound of good flour, soft or hard bread, a quart of salt to every hundred pounds of fresh beef, a quart of vinegar to a hundred rations, a gill of run, brandy, or whiskey per day, some little soap and candles, I have forgot how much, for I had so little of these two articles that I never knew the quantity.  And as to the article of vinegar, I do not recollect of ever having any except a spoonful at the famous rice and vinegar Thanksgiving in Pennsylvania, in the year 1777.  But we never received what was allowed us.  Oftentimes have I gone one, two, three, and even four days without a morsel, unless the fields or forests might chance to afford enough to prevent absolute starvation. Often, when I have picked the last grain from the bones of my scanty morsel, have I eat the very bones, as much of them as possibly could be eaten, and then have had to perform some hard and fatiguing duty, when my stomach has been as craving as it was before I had eaten anything at all.

Closer to reality:  tough beef and ash cake.  

            If we had got our full allowance regularly, what was it?  A bare pound of fresh beef and a bare pound of bread or flour.  The beef, when it had gone through all its divisions and subdivisions, would not be much over three quarters of a pound, and that nearly or quite half bones. The beef that we got in the army was, generally, not many degrees above carrion;  it was much like the old Negro's rabbit, it had not much fat upon it and very little lean.  When we drew flour, which was much of the time we were in the field or on marches, it was of small value, being eaten half-cooked, besides a deal of it being unavoidably wasted in the cookery.

             When in the field, and often while in winter quarters, our usual mode of drawing our provisions, when we did draw any, was as follows:---a return being made out for all the officers and men, for seven days, we drew four days of meat and the whole seven days of flour.  At the expiration of the four days, the other three days allowance of beef. Now, dear reader, pray consider a moment, how were five men in a mess, five hearty, hungry young men, to subsist four days on twenty pounds of fresh beef (and I might say twelve or fifteen pounds) without any vegetables or any other kind of sauce to eke it out.  In the hottest season of the year it was the same. Though there was not much danger of our provisions putrefying, we had none on hand long enough for that, if it did, we obliged to eat it, or go without anything.  When General Washington told Congress, 'the soldiers eat every kind of horse fodder but hay' he might have gone a little farther and told them that they eat considerable hog's fodder and not a trifle of dog's---when they could get it to eat." [11]

          These problems appear to manifest themselves as a result of the byzantine nature of the Continental supply corps, the failure to grant the army the authority to requisition supplies, and the devaluation of the Continental dollar.  Were it not that Washington was given increasing authority which resulted in the practice of requisition during the winter of 1777-78, tactical supply (Division and below) would not have been able to meet the most basic needs of the army.

          The new supply system began to take shape in 1778, with the shame of mass graves and Valley Forge and the Conway Cabal behind it.  As reported by the Board of War to Congress,

Rations drawn by Col Hartley's Reg't, Apr-July 1779 [12]

           "That the commissaries general of purchases and issues have represented to them, that from the moving state of the army, many parts of the ration, as established by Congress, cannot frequently be obtained, and, from the peculiar circumstances attending the supplies, there is sometimes an over-quantity of one article while others are extremely scarce, some of the states affording greater quantities of meat, while others abound more in flour; and that hence great embarrassments arise in the delivery of the stated ration; and that under such fluctuating circumstances, which change with the motions of the army, it is impracticable and troublesome to apply to Congress on every alteration of situation;'

           Resolved, That the Commander in Chief of the armies of the United States shall, in the army under his immediate command, and the commander of a separate department shall, in the army under his command, settle and determine according to circumstances, the ration to be issued to the troops, from time to time, giving an over proportion of a plentiful article in lieu and in full satisfaction of such as are scarce or not to be had, and which have been heretofore deemed part of the ration, reporting, from time to time, to the Board of War, the alterations and regulations by them respectively made in this respect..." [13]

            Then as ever, doctrine had to catch up with reality.   The manner in which the soldier was clothed and fed would undergo metamorphosis from tactical logistics to departmental quartermasters, to purchasing agents and back throughout the war.   According to Risch (1981), "It was 1780 before Congress, in the interest of economy, sharply curtailed departmental units of the supply agencies in the military departments.  This reduction was linked to congressional action making the states responsible for providing specific supplies-beef, pork, flour, rum, salt, and forage-to the Continental Army.  Reduction of departmental personnel was increased when Congress later resorted to the use of contracts for such supplies." [14]


                "Better is a dinner of herbs where love is than a fattened ox and hatred with it."

                                                                     -Proverbs 15:17

 [1] Letter from Brigadier General Varnum to General George Washington, 22 Dec 1777., retrieved from, 10 Jan 2013.

[2] Connecticut Authorized Ration, American Archives Series 4, Volume 3, Page 0031., retrieved from, accessed 11 Jan 13.

[3]  Massachussetts Authorized Ration,  American Archives Series 4, Volume 3, Page 0030., retrieved from, 11 Jan 13.

[4] January 4 1775, Journals of the Continental Congress, p. 322., retrieved from,  9 Jan 2013.

[5] Retrieved from, 9 Jan 2013.

[6] General Orders, Head Quarters, New York, July 22, 1776. Letterbook, Papers of George Washington., retrieved from,  10 Jan 2012.

[7] Sabine, W.H.W. (Ed.) (1954).  The New York Diary of Lieutenant Jabez Fitch (NY Public Library manuscript with historical notes), Colburn and Tegg, New York. 27-70.

[8] George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799: Series 6.
Military Papers. 1755-1798 John McAlister, Assistant Commissary, Provision Returns, October 27,
[9] John McAlister, Assistant Commissary, Records, April-May 1778., George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress., retrieved from, 16 Jan 13.

[10] General Orders, Middle-Brook, 9 Jul 1777., retrieved from,, 16 Jan 13.

[11] Martin, Joseph Plumb. Private Yankee Doodle,  p. 238.

[12] George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799: Series 6.
Military Papers. 1755-1798, John McAlister, Provision Returns, 1777; 1778; 1779,. retrieved from,

[13] August 26, 1778, Journals of the Continental Congress, p. 838., retrieved from, 9 Jan 2013.

[14] Risch, Erna. "Supplying Washington's Army", U.S. Army Center of Military History Special Study, 1981., p 16.


  1. Most excellent!

  2. Nice work! Here is more grist for your mill.
    Soldiers' Foodways and Cooking Gear (War for American Independence)