Soldiers' Rations

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Soldiers' Rations

SOLDIERS' RATIONS. Prussian King Frederick the Great wrote in 1747, "The foundation of an army is the belly." Major General Henry Knox weighed in on the subject in 1781: "To subsist an Army well, requires the utmost attention and exertion. Unless an Army is properly fed, all calculations and schemes of enterprize are in vain…. Experience has often convinced us of the truth of this assertion, and some times at too dear a rate." These lessons were quickly learned by Revolutionary soldiers. Private Joseph Plumb Martin recalled an incident while serving in the Connecticut militia in New York in 1776: "Having had nothing to eat for forty-eight hours … one of the men … complained of being hungry. The colonel, putting his hand into his coat pocket, took out a piece of an ear of Indian corn burnt as black as a coal. 'Here,' said he … 'eat this and learn to be a soldier.'" Later, Martin happily devoured broiled fresh beef "black as coal on the outside and … raw on the inside," a meal that, Delaware Captain Enoch Anderson noted, "to hungry soldiers … tasted sweet." But poor or inadequate provisions were hardly the everyday lot, and commanders did all they could to provide troops decent, sustaining food.


A British memorandum found at at Yorktown, Virginia, in October 1781, listed Major General Charles Lord Cornwallis's soldiers' daily allowance: one pound beef or nine ounces pork, one pound of flour or bread, three-sevenths pint of peas, and one-sixth quart "Rum or Spirits." A half pint of oatmeal or rice and 6 ounces of butter for seven days was also issued. The document also noted, "Since the troops have been upon this island, spruce beer has been issued at 8 quarts for 7 days. N.B. When the small species are not delivered, 12 oz of pork are allowed." "Small species" for British troops at Yorktown included sugar, chocolate, and coffee. Sauerkraut was also issued on occasion to British troops to minimize the effects of scurvy for soldiers in garrison or winter quarters.

Continental army rations mirrored the British model, but provisions were constantly modified. In July 1777 Major General William Heath ordered that rations include beer, butter, and "1 Jill of Rum Pr. Man each Day on Fatigue" as well as "Vinegar occasionally." After a winter at Valley Forge spent eating mostly meat and flour, in April fish, bacon, and "Pease, or Beans" were added to the daily ration; four months later both soft and hard breads (biscuit), as well as butter, were being issued. For seven months in 1780, New Jersey troops received extraordinary state stores consisting of rum, sugar, and coffee in substantial quantities and small amounts of chocolate, tea, pepper, and vinegar.

Further variation in the soldiers' diet was possible through the purchase of foodstuff from sutlers or local farmers at camp markets. George Washington noted in the summer of 1777 that "nothing can be more comfortable and wholesome to the army than vegetables, [and] every encouragement is to be given to the Country people, to bring them in." A large variety of items were available at these markets for those soldiers who had money to spend or items to barter. An August 1777 document listed "the Prices of Articles sold in Camp," among them butter, "Mutton & Lamb," veal, milk, potatoes, squashes, "Beans or Peas in the Pod," cucumbers, "Pig[s] for roasting," and "Turnips Carrits & Beets." A 1779 order regulating "the prises of fresh Provisions, spirits, and shugar, and so forth, Hereafter to be given to farmers and others, seling to the army," included many of the items above, as well as turkeys; geese; ducks; "Dunghill fowls"; chickens; cheese; eggs; cabbage heads; "Sallets, Carrats, Pasnips"; lump, loaf, and brown sugar; honey; and vinegar plus a variety of beverages.

Foraging, authorized or not, was always an option. In 1778 at the Gulph in Pennsylvania, orders for Jackson's Additional Regiment stated, "Complaint has been made by many of the Inhabitants near this post of their Spring Houses being broke open & large quantities of Butter, Cheese, Bread & many other valuable articles stole from them, and it is strongly suspected these Robberies have been committed by some of the soldiers." From near Woodbridge, New Jersey, Colonel Israel Shreve wrote his wife: "I Rode All over this Village through the Gardens in search of Asparigas [but] found none, All the Beds being Cut that Day by the soldiers."


Early in the war, General Washington set forth what he considered proper cooking methods:

Head-Quarters, Middle-Brook [New Jersey], June 2, 1777…. Each regiment, or corps to appoint, by rotation, a regimental officer of the day … to inspect the food of the men, both as to the quality and the manner of dressing it, obliging the men to accustom themselves more to boiled meats and soups, and less to broiled and roasted, which as a constant diet, is destructive to their health. (Fitzpatrick, ed. Writings, 8, p. 171)

The only army-issue cooking and eating utensils were tin or sheet-iron camp kettles, with one wooden bowl per kettle, iron pots and wooden trenchers for garrison quarters or barracks, and usually inadequate supplies of spoons. In January 1777 Colonel Timothy Pickering described a typical kettle-cooked meal: "for two thirds of the week flour was dealt out, which the soldiers made, some into cakes, and some into dumplings, boiled with their meat."

Lacking kettles, soldiers were forced to prepare their rations crudely. Private Elijah Fisher recounted in November 1777 that

we had no tents nor anithing to Cook our Provisions in and that was Prity Poor for beef was very leen and no salt nor any way to Cook it but to throw it on the Coles and brile it and the warter we had to Drink and to mix our flower with was out of a brook that run along by the Camps and so many dippin and washin [in] it maid it very Dirty and muddy. (p. 7)

The same month Connecticut surgeon Jonathan Todd described the firecake commonly eaten in such circumstances: "Our Flower we Wet with Water & Roll it in dirt & Ashes to bake it in a Horrible Manner."

British and German troops cooked the same way when campaigning. A British officer told of raw beef being issued the men under Major General John Burgoyne in New York during 1777, "which they eat, dressed upon wood ashes, without either bread or salt." German Sergeant Berthold Koch of the Regiment Von Bose, described the period following the Battle of Guilford Courthouse in 1781:

We remained on the battlefield for three days, under the open skies without tents … each man, officers as well as privates, received four measures of corn instead of bread and for meat, such cattle as the enemy had left behind…. We placed the corn on the fire to cook it. Then it was taken from the container and eaten. The meat was either boiled or roasted on sticks and eaten…. On 20 March we began our withdrawal…. We marched eighteen miles each day…. At evening we camped and the royal militia brought us cattle and some flour. The cattle were slaughtered and the meat was cooked or roasted and the flour made into cakes and cooked on a board in the fire. (Burgoyne, Enemy Views, pp. 450-451)

They marched north, and "on 5 April we went to Williamsburg in Virginia…. We received a double ration of rum each day at that place and our full provision of meat and ship's bread."


Anburey, Thomas. Travels Through the Interior Parts of America in a Series of Letters by an Officer. New York: New York Times and Arno Press, 1969.

Burgoyne, Bruce E. Enemy Views: The American Revolutionary War as Recorded by the Hessian Participants. Bowie, Md.: Heritage Books, 1996.

Commager, Henry Steele, and Richard B. Morris. The Spirit of 'Seventy-Six: The Story of the American Revolution as Told by Its Participants. New York and London: Harper and Row, 1975.

Fisher, Elijah. Elijah Fisher's Journal While in the War for Independence … 1775–1784. Edited by William B. Lapham. Augusta, Maine: Badger and Manley, 1880.

Fitzpatrick, John C., ed. The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources 1745–1799. Vol. 8. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1933.

Frederick II of Prussia. "The Instruction of Frederick the Great for His Generals." In Roots of Strategy. Edited by Thomas R. Phillips. Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 1985.

Rees, John U. "'The Foundation of an Army is the Belly:' North American Soldiers' Food, 1756–1945." ALHFAM: Proceedings of the 1998 Conference and Annual Meeting 21 (1999): 49-64. Also available online at

――――――. "'To Subsist an Army Well…:' Soldiers' Cooking Equipment, Provisions, and Food Preparation during the American War for Independence." Military Collector and Historian 53, 1 (Spring 2001): 7-23.

――――――. "Addendum: Brass Kettles." Military Collector and Historian 53, 3 (Fall 2001): 118-119.