Pay, Bounties, and Rations

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Pay, Bounties, and Rations

PAY, BOUNTIES, AND RATIONS. Raising armies and making war were the costliest activities that societies in the eighteenth century could undertake. Governments of every description invariably tried to keep their expenses as low as possible, even to the extent of placing cost-cutting ahead of fielding effective forces. Feeding, clothing, equipping, and transporting troops were the biggest ongoing expenses, but the costs of procuring and paying soldiers were also substantial. A society's willingness to pay bounties to procure the services of some of its members, the rates of pay society's leaders thought were appropriate for different war-related activities, and even the fact that the amount of rations varied according to rank all provide insight into how a society thought about making war, over and above the actual amounts involved. Pay, bounties, and rations are related and are therefore considered together.


Everyone understood that soldiers had to be paid for their service. Historically, rates of pay were low in both the British and American armies. In the British army, soldiers were recruited from the bottom of the social hierarchy and so were believed by most of the elite to be worth only the lowest possible amount of pay. During the Revolution, the pay of a British private amounted, nominally, to eight shillings a day, from which were deducted the costs of food, clothing, repair of equipment, and various fees. The net amount paid in specie to the private often hovered around zero, a reality that did nothing to promote recruiting in an age when the standard of living was rising.

In the colonies, low pay reflected both the lack of financial resources and the fact that military service still retained some aspects of the early days of settlement, when men had to serve if their community was to survive. There were variations in the rates of pay among the colonies—higher in the northern colonies, lower in the South—reflecting each colony's historical experience, most recently in the French and Indian War.

Massachusetts set the pace for rates of pay at the start of the war. A private in the militia who turned out for the Lexington alarm or who enlisted in the eight-months' army received two pounds per calendar month. The Continental Congress on 14 June gave privates in the new rifle companies from Pennsylvania and Virginia $6.67 per calendar month, an amount roughly equivalent to the Massachusetts pay. A captain in the 1775 army received three times as much per month as a private (twenty dollars), while a colonel received two-and-a-half times as much as a captain (fifty dollars). (Captains in the artillery got more, $26.67 per month.) Delegates from the southern colonies objected that the pay of officers was too low and that of privates too high, and perhaps too that most of the pay was going to New Englanders. They forced a three-member congressional committee sent to Cambridge in October 1775 to ask Washington what he thought the rates of pay ought to be for the new 1776 army. A conference of Washington, the committee, and seven senior leaders from Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island "unanimously agreed" that the pay of the privates "cannot be reduced, and agreed by a majority that raising the pay of the officers would be inconvenient and improper" (Chase, ed., Papers, vol. 1, p. 191). Explaining its opposition to reducing pay, the conference stated, "It [appeared] on a full discussion and consideration of all circumstances that any attempt to reduce the present pay would probably prevent the soldiers [from] re-enlisting." Congress accepted the recommendations about privates but on 4 November raised the pay of an infantry captain to $26.67 per month, the existing artillery captain's rate. A British captain drew about twice as much as an American captain, but a more significant difference was that he could buy almost anything he needed at moderate rates.

Continental pay rates remained at these levels for over two and one-half years, even as the currency began to inflate. Congress next revised pay rates on 27 May 1778, when it raised the pay for an infantry colonel to $75 dollars per month and an infantry captain to $40 per month but amazingly left a private's pay at $6.67 per month. (Privates in the artillery, cavalry, and military police received $8.33 per month.) There the rates remained for the rest of the war. Inequities in the pay scales between the Continental army and the militia, constant arrears in pay, and rampant inflation plagued American commanders, including Washington, and created serious morale problems. When Congress proved unable to pay even these sums, the long-suffering Continentals mutinied. When, after Yorktown, the regiments were first consolidated and then disbanded, Continental soldiers left the service with little more than Congress's promise to pay their wages in the future. Many soldiers sold those chits to brokers in return for some immediate funds to get home or to a place they thought offered a better economic opportunity.


The colonies frequently used enlistment bounties during the wars against the French, especially during the French and Indian War, and continued the practice when they undertook to raise troops to oppose the British. Bounties were offered for a man's enlistment, but also if he came equipped with a gun and a blanket, a useful way of accumulating civilian items for war service in the absence of a well-developed supply network. Because bounties fostered voluntary enlistment, they also allowed leaders to avoid straining their authority by trying to draft men for military service.

Congress took up the issue of bounties when it came time to enlist a new army for 1776. Influenced by delegates from the southern colonies, it initially refused to offer any bounty but agreed to an advance payment of forty shillings, equal to one month's pay. According to John Adams (in a letter of 25 November 1775 to a fellow New Englander), the southerners' opposition to bounties, and higher wages, was a cultural phenomenon: "These gentlemen are accustomed, habituated to higher notions of themselves and the distinctions between them and the common people, than we are."

Congress tried to hold the line against rising expenses but grudgingly came to realize that money was the key to raising and keeping an army. On 19 January 1776 it advised the states to offer a bounty of $6.33 (one month's pay) to all men who would enlist with a good firearm, a bayonet, and other accoutrements and to offer $4 to those who enlisted without these items. On 26 June the delegates resolved to offer ten dollars to all men who would enlist for three years. A few weeks later they extended this offer to all regulars who would continue their service in the Continental army for three years after expiration of their current tour. On 16 September, when it voted to raise an army of eighty-eight battalions for 1777, Congress increased the bounty to twenty dollars plus one hundred acres to all enlisted men who would agree to serve "during the war." Two days later it extended this offer to all "who are enlisted or shall enlist for during the war" in the Continental army. Any of these veteran enlistees who had already received a Continental bounty of ten dollars for a former enlistment would, however, receive only ten dollars more under the new offer. On 8 October, Congress agreed to give a twenty-dollar suit of clothes each year (or the same amount in cash if the man's captain would certify that he had procured such a suit himself) to all men enlisted for the duration. Officers were authorized recruiting expenses at the rate of $1.33 per new man.

Washington, a taxpayer as well as the commander in chief, disliked bounties but soon realized that the system was a necessary evil. Writing to John Hancock, president of Congress, from the "Heights of Harlem" on 25 September 1776 as his army was about to be kicked out of New York, Washington offered some of his most candid comments on the character of the American army:

With respect to the men, nothing but a good bounty can obtain them upon a permanent establishment, and for no shorter time than the continuance of the war, ought they to be engaged, as facts incontestibly prove, that the difficulty and cost of inlistments increase with time. When the army was first raised at Cambridge, I am perswaded the men might have been got without a bounty for the war; after this, they began to see that the contest was not likely to end so speedily as was immagined, and to feel their consequence by remarking that to get the militia in, in the course of the last year, many towns were induced to give them a bounty…. [I]f the present opportunity is slip'd, I am perswaded that twelve months more will increase our difficulties four fold. I shall therefore take the freedom of giving it as my opinion that a good bounty be immediately offered, aided by the proffer of at least 100 or 150 acres of land and a suit of cloaths and blanket to each non-com[missione]d officer and soldier, as I have good authority for saying, that however high the mens pay may appear, it is barely sufficient in the present scarcity and dearness of all kinds of goods, to keep them in cloaths, much less afford support to their families. (Chase, ed., Papers, vol. 6, pp. 395-396)

The states, also faced with the problem of raising men, undertook to compete for recruits by increasing their bounties. Early in 1777 some of the New England states agreed to offer $33.33 in addition to the $20 set by Congress. When Massachusetts then doubled this ante, offering $86.67, other states fell in line and some went higher. These offers curtailed reenlistments in the Continental regiments, and they also led men to desert the Continental army in order to enlist fraudulently in state regiments for the larger bounty. Bounty jumpers would enlist, collect their bounty, desert, reenlist, and collect another.

The bounty battle continued to rage throughout the war as the conflict wore on and the currency rapidly lost value. On 23 January 1779, Congress authorized Washington to grant up to two hundred dollars to each able-bodied man who would enlist or reenlist for the war. On 9 March, the delegates resolved to pay this bounty out of the Continental treasury to men recruited by the states or, if the state was giving this amount or more, to credit the state with two hundred dollars for each man enlisted against its quota. On 29 March, Congress recommended that Virginia and North Carolina raise as many regular battalions as possible and give the recruits the two-hundred-dollar bounty for a single year's service in Virginia, the Carolinas, or Georgia.

Again the states outbid the central government. New Jersey added $250 to the congressional bounty of $200, land, and clothing. On 3 May 1779, Virginia offered $750, a suit of clothes each year, and 100 acres of land to men who signed up for the duration; the state deducted and retained from this bounty the cash and clothing offered by Congress. In 1780 New Jersey increased its bounty to one thousand dollars more than all Continental offers. Much of this increase was due to depreciation of Continental currency, which hit the officers particularly hard, and on 21 October 1780, Congress finally adopted Washington's urgent recommendation that—in order to keep good officers in service until the end of the war—they be granted half pay for life.

As the war dragged on, the bounty offers became very creative. To meet their quotas of recruits, many states by 1780 had organized their citizens into "classes" in each locality, distributing the wealthy and the poor into groups that were then responsible for finding one soldier. In Salem, Massachusetts, in June 1780, one class offered an eighteen-year-old man a series of inducements to serve in the Continental army: a few dollars in specie; several hundred dollars in the rapidly inflating paper currency; and half a dozen head of three-year-old cattle when he completed his enlistment, thereby paying for service now with animals that the class did not then possess and which the young man might not live to collect.


Integrated with the system of pay and bounties was the matter of rations. Whereas a private soldier was entitled to a single ration (three meals a day), officers were authorized extra rations in an effort to provide them the wherewithal to set a table befitting their rank. For example, the scale prescribed by Congress on 22 April 1782 was five rations for a major general, four for a brigadier general, two for a lieutenant colonel commandant, one and a half for a major or captain, and one for a subaltern.

The Continental Congress prescribed the army's ration on 12 September 1775. As finalized on 4 November, the ration was to:

consist of the following kind and quantity of provisions: 1 pound of beef, or 1/2 pound of pork or 1 pound of salt fish, per day; 1 pound of bread or flour, per day; 3 pints of peas or beans per week, or vegetables equivalent, at one dollar per bushel for peas 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 one pint of Indian meal, per man per week; 1 quart of spruce beer or cider per man per day, or nine gallons of molasses, per company of 100 men per week; 3 pounds of candles to 100 men per week, for guards; 24 pounds of [soft] soap, or 8 pounds of hard soap, for 100 men per week.

The ration, heavy on salted meat and carbohydrates, was roughly equivalent to what civilians were eating and was only occasionally supplemented with fresh provisions. Foodstuffs, of course, had to be chosen with an eye to what could be procured locally and transported with the army. Keeping food edible and water potable were the primary considerations; there was no awareness of whether or not the diet was nutritious or whether it provided soldiers with the caloric intake required to maintain their level of activity. Alcohol, in the form or spruce beer, hard cider, rum, and even whiskey (the latter two were authorized but seldom issued because of expense), was important because it reduced reliance on water that might be contaminated, or when mixed together with water, as in grog (water cut with rum), rendered water at least semi-potable.

Congress or the commander in chief might authorize a particular type and quantity of foodstuff, but as was the case with pay, it was not always possible to provide the prescribed amount. As long as the army was stationary in the Boston area, Quartermaster General Jonathan Trumbull Jr. could draw on the relatively abundant resources of the rich Connecticut River valley and actually issued the troops more than the prescribed ration. Active operations always increased the difficulty of providing food to the troops, and nearly every campaign of the war saw soldiers enduring some form of privation. Poorly preserved meat, grains infested with insects, and even otherwise inedible plant matter like unripe fruits and vegetables were better than no food, although they could cause gastrointestinal distress that sometimes, as at the Battle of Camden (16 August 1780), could have tactical significance.

Insufficient logistics, especially in winter, inflicted enormous suffering on American troops. Benedict Arnold's men were reduced to boiling shoe leather to survive their march to Quebec in the fall of 1775, and the winter encampments of Washington's army at Morristown and Valley Forge became notorious examples of the privations soldiers could endure when necessary. Competition with the French expeditionary force that arrived at Newport, Rhode Island, in July 1780 put further strain on the procurement system, especially since the French paid in specie while the Americans offered only nearly worthless paper money. The dislocations caused by wartime operations, the lack of credit, British naval superiority, and competing demands for labor all reduced the food supply, as did crop diseases, most notably the Hessian fly that attacked the wheat crop.

The British ration varied in accordance with what was locally available, but in a representative contract of 1778–1779, it provided each soldier with one pound of flour per day, either one pound of beef or slightly more than nine ounces of pork per day, three pints of peas per week, one-half pound of oatmeal per week, and either six ounces of butter or eight ounces of cheese per week. The British relied in part on preserved food that was shipped across the Atlantic from England and Ireland, and although stocks on hand occasionally dipped to worrisome levels, they generally did a good job in feeding their armies. They were also adept at fashioning local procurement networks for their garrisons at New York City, Philadelphia, Newport, and Charleston. Indeed, without a brisk and clandestine trade with American suppliers, they would have been hard put to sustain those enclaves.

Although quartermasters in both armies issued firewood and cooking utensils when possible, soldiers prepared their meals individually or formed small groups in which men took turns cooking. Since flour and beef were the only items usually issued, food preparation was an all-too-simple task. According to the historian Erna Risch, "an unrelieved diet of half-cooked meat and hard bread was responsible for much of the sickness that reduced the strength of the Army when it frequently was most needed" (p. 10).

SEE ALSO Quartermasters of the Continental Army.


Bowler, R. Arthur. Logistics and the Failure of the British Army in America, 1775–1783. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1975.

Buel, Richard V., Jr. In Irons: Britain's Naval Supremacy and the American Revolutionary Economy. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1998.

Chase, Philander D., ed. The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary Series. Vol. 6, August-October 1776. Charlottesville, Va.: University Press of Virginia, 1994.

Curtis, Edward E. The Organization of the British Army in the American Revolution. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1926.

Hatch, Louis C. The Administration of the American Revolutionary Army. New York: Longmans, Green, 1904.

Risch, Erna. Quartermaster Support of the Army: A History of the Corps, 1775–1939. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1962.

――――――. Supplying Washington's Army. Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, 1981.

Shy, John W. "Logistical Crisis and the American Revolution: A Hypothesis." Feeding Mars: Logistics in Western Warfare from the Middle Ages to the Present. Edited by John A. Lynn. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1993.

Smith, Paul H. et, al., eds. Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774–1789. Vol. 2, September-December 1775. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1977.

                            revised by Harold E. Selesky