Independence Week | Chow Time! How Soldiers Ate During the American Revolution

No refrigerators, very few preservatives–and certainly no little bottles of Tabasco (well we don’t latter anymore in our rations because of Communism). Have you thought about what fighting men ate during the Revolution? In today’s Independence Week piece, John Marrs breaks it down for us.

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You think your MRE sucks? How do you think the first U.S. Soldiers ate? Think about how it must have been when our country was first born. We had no real government and had to make one from scratch. We had no Army, and as such no way to equip, train, and supply them. You could say our Founding Fathers had a lot on their plate. (See what I did there? I made a food reference while talking about…never mind.)

 Luckily, these brave men were up to the task. One of the sub-tasks of building an army is determining how to feed it. According to the Smithsonian, the Massachusetts Provincial Council set the daily allowance or “ration” for its troops in Boston on June 10, 1775, as:

  1. One pound of bread
  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
  3. One pint of milk, or if milk cannot be had, one gill [half a cup] of rice
  4. One quart of good spruce or malt beer
  5. One gill of peas or beans, or other sauce equivalent
  6. Six ounces of good butter per week
  7. One pound of good common soap for six men per week
  8. Half a pint of vinegar per week per man, if it can be had.

Yes, it said beer. Get over yourself. We were forming an Army of volunteers in an attempt to defeat what was, at the time, the most experienced and professional Army on the planet. Denying soldiers beer would not have been a good recruiting tool. At the time, alcohol was also used for some medicinal purposes.

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The above ration list was nearly the same as the list later adopted by the Continental Army (with a few changes, like “Spirits” or “Cider” replacing beer). The beef and pork issue was usually salted. That was due to the logistics of transporting it to the field. It traveled by wagon and the salt preserved the meat to keep it from spoiling.

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Camp Wife

The mention of soap for six men is also significant. Soldiers were divided into groups of six; that group was referred to as a “Mess”. They shared a tent and camped as a group. Their rations would be issued to the group and distributed as stated above. We can assume this was handled by the equivalent of a Squad Leader and was probably a good test of ethics when times got tough. Don’t you think a fat squad leader would have gotten fragged by skinny troops?

The rations would be issued to the Mess and the soldiers would cook their own meals in that six-man group. This was usually done by combining items in a pot and boiling them into a stew or goulash. On occasion, a soldier’s wife, sister or even mother would travel with the Army on campaign. When that occurred, she would be included in the mess as far as rations went and would often serve as the cook for that Mess. (Insert your jokes here about barracks whores, Jodie, or any other insanity you can envision with this arrangement.)

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Revolutionary War Re-Enactment. Photo by Lee Wright.

You may be wondering about the need to have vinegar rationed. While eating flavorless bread and salted meat was vinegar really the best way to season it? No, it was not primarily for that purpose. Vinegar was an old way to purify water. Remember, there was no convoy of 5-ton trucks or Hummers towing water buffalos following an infantry battalion, they had to get their water from creeks and rivers. To avoid illness, they purified it with vinegar.

That brings up the next point. How did the food get to the troops? You may have noticed in the allowance ration, the term “if it can be had” appears a few times. The Army had very limited ability to set up supply lines. That being the case, most of the rations had to be obtained along the route of march. The entire Revolution was based on the cooperation of farmers, ranchers, dairymen, brewers, distillers, and hunters to provide sustenance to our Army. Commissary Officers (think S-4) would coordinate supply trains and purchase from locals whatever was needed to complete daily rations.

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Army chow, 1776.

Along with the issued rations, soldiers then as now had great initiative and were very capable of foraging for themselves.  Anything that could be found by individual soldiers, like maybe fresh eggs or produce from a farm, or a trapped rabbit, would be added to the rations for their Mess. An entry in the Pennsylvania Trail of History Cookbook relates this story: 

“One sergeant recorded that when his patrol happened upon a sheep and two large turkeys “…not being able to give the Countersign,” they were “tried by fire and executed by the whole (unit)….”

As the war drug on, feeding the troops became increasingly difficult. The British continued to send more and more troops to the fight and racked up victory after victory on the battlefield. That kept our Army on the move, which ruined any chance the already inadequate supply system could keep up. On top of that, many felt the Revolution was lost. With that mindset, the cooperation of locals began to wain. Not as a loss of faith in the cause, but the Army was paying for rations in U. S. currency; if the country failed, that money was worthless.

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Tree and Tomahawk.

Then it got worse: in December 1777 General Washington’s Army was encamped at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. That inhospitable environment nearly broke us. It was bitter cold and our supply lines were completely cut by the British. Snow covered the landscape and there was no wild game to be had. No vegetables at all were available and very little meat. At some points, the only meat source was the occasional death of one of the horses. Most of the men survived on “Firecakes”. What is a Firecake you ask? It’s a tasteless mixture of flour and water, cooked over an open fire (I suspect the same recipe might be used for MRE crackers, but cannot confirm that). There came points during that campaign where the Army nearly crumbled due to threatened mutiny over lack of supplies. Soldiers chanted “No meat, no soldier”. Fortunately, they got enough to fight on. 

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Ironically, our lack of ability to resupply contributed greatly to our winning the war. As the Army had its supply lines cut by the British, it became completely dependent on its area of operations to provide food. While the Continental Army was able to continue functioning like this, the British could not. The British had long-standing military SOPs, one of which covered supply trains. When they could not maintain re-supply, they lacked the skill to forage or resources to press on. This was partly due to their lack of initiative at the individual soldier level, and partly because they got no help from the local population.

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1st Pennsylvania.

However bad it got, the Soldiers of the American Revolution adapted and overcame the many obstacles in their path, including bad or non-existent chow. Think of all the advantages we have now. MRE’s suck, for sure, but consider that it has been scientifically designed to offer the proper nutrition for warfighting. Consider the evolution of combat food over the years. Next time you are unlucky enough to draw the Veggie & Cheese Omelet MRE, just know it could be worse; you could be eating Firecakes. 

Want to cook some fire-cakes for your 4th of July BBQ?

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4 thoughts on “Independence Week | Chow Time! How Soldiers Ate During the American Revolution

  • July 4, 2015 at 10:18 pm
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    You can see full time re-enactors cooking daily at Ft. Ticonderoga, NY. They give good explanations as to how and why cooking was done by certain methods IAW Continental Army Rules so that the greatest amount of nutrition could be had from the food. Basically some form of soup was preferred over other methods such as broiling. Broiling and grilling were punishable offenses in the northern command.

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  • July 1, 2015 at 11:12 pm
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    +1 on the above comment on the beer rations. Does anyone else get a little chaffed when people say “Happy 4th” vice “Happy Independence Day”. I know it’s kinda the same droll argument of happy holidays vs merry christmas.. just wondering if I’m the only one. Happy Independence Week, thank you to all that keep Us free

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  • July 1, 2015 at 4:32 pm
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    Hell yes, looks like some ash cakes will be on the menu this weekend. These Independence Week articles have been great so far, keep it up yall.

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  • July 1, 2015 at 2:13 pm
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    Regarding the beer: Back then, water was one of the most dangerous things you could put in your body. Brewing beer killed all the bacteria, algae, tapeworm eggs, and other yuck that lurked in almost all drinking water. Of course, back then, they didn’t know that. They only knew that drinking water killed people, and drinking beer didn’t.

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