Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Eating Habits of the American Soldier, 1812


Civil War era rations and care package.

 19th-century travelers could expect to find some basic foods and eating utensils in roadside taverns, as could soldiers when they were quartered in the settlements.

Civil War-era mess tin and utensil.
Researching a living history impression requires that you follow a lot of leads down a lot of different aspects of everyday life. Figuring out how soldiers ate during the War of 1812 is one of them. We know a lot about how troops during the American Civil War ate, not only because of period sources and photography, but because a lot of mess items survived. The War of 1812 presents more problems, because the soldiers were issued their rations in the form of raw food by the mess or 6 or 7 men. Each mess was equipped with a tin or sheet iron pot and two tin pans. As for individual eating equipment, the men were on their own.

A postwar report to Congress about the poor variety in soldiers diets suggests how improvised food was in the 1812 Army:

When a recruit receives his ration, if the meat be fresh, he broils it to a cinder on the coals, on the end of his ramrod; if salk port, he eats it raw; and if salt beef, he boils it; and with his bread, will make a pretty good meal for some time, but in the morning he feels the want of his usual infusion of tea, and at noon his customary supply of vegetables. As a substitute for the former, he warms his stomach with a gill of undiluted, corroding whiskey, and, after living a few weeks in this way, is sent to the surgeon, worn down with dysentery, diarrhea, and other complaints of the stomach and bowels... (American State Papers, Military Affairs, vol. I pg. 805).
The surgeon who wrote the report claimed that the amount of meat, bread and whiskey allotted each soldier was generous; but there was no allowance of vegetables-- supposedly, the soldiers were able to forage or buy these items from sutlers out of their pay-- and the army sick lists were enormous as a consequence.

He compared contemporary allotements per day per soldier by the two Napoleonic powers, France and England:


  "Pulse" in the French army was a kind of dried mixture of beans and legumes. They weren't getting lots of vegetables by our standards (1 gill= about 4 fluid ounces), but it was commonly believed that cooking meat, bread, and vegetable rations into a soup would improve digestion.

We know a lot about what kinds of food were being delivered to the Northwest Army because of a Congressional investigation into the wartime expenses incurred by William Henry Harrison. Inventories of food and other ration items delivered by civilian contractors reveal what was actually reaching the troops (from the American State Papers pp. 644-661):


The Northwest Army in 1813 was having a hard time shipping enough barrels of salt pork and flour up to the Lake Erie region, let alone issuing vegetables. Another problem was the lack of mess kits:

Our company is divided into messes of six men each. Our rations are delivered together to each mess when we encamp at night. This consists of flour, fat bacon, and salt. The flour is kneaded in a broad iron camp-kettle, and drawn out in long  rolls the size of a man's wrist, and coiled around a smooth pole some three inches in diameter and five or six feet long, on which the dough is flattened so as to be half an inch or more in thickness. The pole, thus covered with dough, except a few inches at each end, is placed on two wooden forks driven into the ground in front of the camp-fire, and turned frequently, till it is baked, when it is cut off in pieces, and the pole covered again in the same manner and baked. Our meat is cooked thus: a branch of a tree having several twigs on it is cut, and the ends of the twigs sharpened; the fat bacon is cut in slices, and stuck on the twigs, leaving a little space between each, and then held in the blaze and smoked till cooked. Each man takes a piece of the pole-bread, and lays thereon a slice of bacon and with his knife cuts therefrom, and eats his meal with a good appetite. Enough is cooked each night to serve for the next day; each man stowing in his knapsack his own day's provisions. (Samuel Williams, "Expedition of Captain Henry Brush..." Ohio Valley Historical Series, Misc. No. 2, quoted in James Brenner, "On Campaign: In Camp and Field..." pg. 10).
A Camp Kettle.

In some of the new 12-months regular infantry regiments  raised that year, the situation for recruits was even more dire:
We drew our pork and flour, but we had no camp equipage, not having yet reached our regiment. We kindled fires of drift-wood found on the beach. We took the flour, some on pieces of bark, and some in dirty pocket handkerchiefs. If we had cups, we ladled the water from the bay into the flour, and those who had no cups lifted the water with their two hands so arranged as to form a cup. The flour thus wet, without salt, yeast, or shortening, was baked, some on pieces of bark before the fire, hoe-cake or johnny-cake fashion; and some removed the fire and put the dough into the hot sand, wrapped in leaves or paper. Our pork we cooked in the blaze of the fire, on the points of sticks.    (Alfred Brunson, A Western Pioneer, [Cincinnati: Walden and Stowe, 1880], 110, quoted in Brenner, 10.).
The Petersburg, VA volunteer company had a similar experience when marching to Fort Meigs in February:
The same night we encamped on very wet ground... It was with difficulty we could raise fires; we had no tents, our clothes were wet, no axes, nothing to cook in, and very little to eat. A brigade of pack-horses being near us, we procured from them some flour, killed a hog, (there being plenty of them along the road;) our bread was baked in the ashes, and the pork we broiled on the coals-- a sweeter meal I never partook of. (Nile's Weekly Register, "Picture of a Soldier's Life" dated 28 March 1813.)
 
 From these sources, it appears that a good impression of 1812 camp life would include broiled meat, bacon or salt pork, hard-baked biscuit or some sort of ash cake or fried dough cooked in or over the fire. Eating utensils were very few and far between: a private soldier probably carried some sort of cup, a spoon and knife, and perhaps even a fork. He may have shared a mess tin, but if he carried one himself it was small and lightweight-- no pewter or hardwood. The private soldier traveled light, with whatever he could bear to carry for miles in his pack or haversack, and not much else.