More Than a Full Stomach: Nutrition and Developments in the Field Ration

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By Dr. Sanders Marble

Throughout the history of the U.S. Army, rations are a never-failing source of conversation and complaint. While a tasty hot meal can be a huge morale booster (especially if there’s enough time to relax), repetitive, tasteless food drags at the spirit. This article will look at the history of Army field rations, the development of nutritional science, and where the Army is pushing nutrition research.

When the United States declared independence, the Continental Congress legislated a daily ration for the Continental Army that consisted of one pound of beef, eighteen ounces of flour, one pint of milk, one quart of spruce beer, 1.4 ounces of rice, and 6.8 ounces of peas.

Flour was often baked into hardtack to travel better. Milk was a nice idea, but it was highly perishable and did not last. Furthermore, there were not enough dairy cows around New York City that could provide over 10,000 pints of fresh milk per day to supply Washington’s army as it was watching British troops occupying the city. It is doubtful that other Continental troops elsewhere received regular supplies of milk. Spruce beer was a mild anti-scorbutic (scurvy-preventative) agent, but, again, the authorized ration was unrealistic—a quart of spruce beer per man per day was too large to be manageable. It is worth emphasizing here that the anti-scorbutic value was useful but not the reason for issuing spruce beer; the concept of vitamins and deficiency diseases did not yet exist.

This ration had bulk and enough calories if the Commissary General could actually supply all elements, but it was vitamin-deficient. As mentioned previously, vitamins were not discovered until the early twentieth century, and even carbohydrates, protein, and fat (as subcomponents of food with differing nutritional effects) were unknown concepts. The main reason foods were chosen for the ration was because they shipped and stored well. Moreover, troops were expected to get food beyond the ration—by purchase, by foraging, by gifts from civilians, or by growing it themselves if in camp long enough.

The Army’s daily ration underwent little change between 1775 and the 1890s, and, in some ways, the Army took a number of steps backwards. Vegetables and spruce beer were eliminated in 1790. Rum was dropped from the ration in 1832, with coffee added as the replacement. Notwithstanding a small allowance of peas and beans, there was relatively little change. Joseph Lovell, the first Surgeon General, suggested replacing some of the meat with vegetables, but his advice was ignored.

It is worth spending a moment explaining why the Army did not waste away from deficiency diseases such as scurvy. First, soldiers were encouraged and expected to buy and/or grow supplements to their rations. Forts had land to grow vegetables, keep cows, and so forth. Troops also foraged away from garrisons at times, either hunting or gathering. In the desert Southwest, surgeons found cactus juice an effective, if unpalatable, anti-scorbutic. To get the troops to drink it, they added sugar, lemon extract, and whiskey, which was probably the key ingredient in getting soldiers to consume it. Furthermore, commutation was allowed. A unit could take the cash value of some or all of its allotted ration and buy other foodstuffs. But these supplements stopped the moment the troops went into the field, and it was back to hardtack and salt meat.

In an effort to reduce bulk and the time required to prepare coffee, the Union Army provided soldiers with a product known as "essence of coffee" during the early part of the Civil War. This early form of instant coffee proved very unpopular with the troops and was soon replaced by ground coffee. (U.S. Quartermaster Museum)

The ration was largely unaltered by the Civil War. Since there were thousands of troops on campaign for months and even years, some nutritional problems did arise, despite ration changes. In 1861, potatoes (another mild anti-scorbutic, if not overcooked) were added to the ration. Desiccated vegetables (dried and compressed potatoes and vegetables) were available to Union forces, but soldiers hated them and often referred to them as “desecrated vegetables” or “compressed hay.” Most of the vitamins that had survived the drying process were destroyed by boiling the vegetables too long. To reduce bulk, “essence of coffee” was developed. However, soldiers hated it, too—many said it looked, and tasted, like axle grease, and it was soon replaced with ground coffee.

Eben Horsford, a pioneering civilian nutritionist, tried to devise a better ration and got the Army to buy some just as the Civil War was ending. Horsford designed his Marching Ration to be more compact, with roast wheat instead of hardtack and three ounces of cooked-down beef he claimed was equivalent to ten ounces of fresh lean beef. It may or may not have been nutritionally equivalent, but it was an utter disaster. The wheat molded and the meat spoiled, so troops refused to accept it; even dogs would not eat it.

Prolonged consumption of the meat/bread ration, albeit with occasional fruits and vegetables, had a harmful effect on the troops. Cases of scurvy developed over winters. Perhaps twenty percent of Major General William Tecumseh Sherman’s troops were listless until fruits and berries became ripe during the Atlanta Campaign. Elsewhere, there were occasional skirmishes for berry patches, the prize being the berries with their Vitamin C, although troops were more interested in obtaining them for the sugar and flavor. Some Confederate troops, living largely off corn bread and bacon, developed night blindness due to low Vitamin A levels.

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