What did soldiers eat? Not enough!

In response to last week's blog about the delicious meal prepared for the Regimental Dinner held by the Canadian Volunteers at Fort George, Kevin (a grade 8 student in northern Ontario) asked me what did War of 1812 soldiers actually eat? Kevin is an enthusiastic champion of the Jake and Eli stories. Here's his review of Blood Oath.

The short answer to Kevin question is that regular soldiers did not enjoy the bountiful fare that was prepared for the re-enactors last weekend. 

While in garrison, a British soldier was given a daily ration of a pound of flour, a pound of or fresh beef or 9 1/7 ounces of pork, 1 3/7 ounces of pork or 6/7 ounce of butter, 3/7 pint of peas, and 1 1/7 ounces of rice.  The soldiers would pool their rations and take turns as cooks as members of a mess.  The size of the mess varied according to the practices of each regiment. Usually they were under the supervision of a corporal or a "chosen man." Fort George had kitchens and cooking places for each company, which encouraged messing in larger numbers.

Robert Henderson has provided an excellent piece on "Diet and Messing of the Army in Upper Canada in 1812" as part of The War of 1812 Website included in at "The Discriminating General." He includes such details as the way in which English soldiers tended to roast their beef while Scottish soldiers boiled theirs -- the Scots retained more of the nutrients and often added oatmeal and potatoes to the broth. Soldiers sometimes supplemented their diet with fish, but in general fish was seldom used because it rotted too quickly. In the Niagara peninsula, soldiers could also hunt for grouse and pigeons and gain nutrients, as well, from the plentiful gardens in the region and from the pears, apples and berries that were available. 

Bread was either baked by contractors or was prepared by mess cooks.  In Blood Oath, the Lovelace women are contracted by Colonel Scott to provide bread for American officers in exchange for being provided with flour.  This kind of arrangement after the American invasion was noted by William Kirby in his Annals of Niagara (1896).

While in garrison, soldiers tended to be comparatively well fed. In the field, however, the soldiers had to make do with less: 1 1/2 pounds of bread, half a gill of rum, and one pound of fresh or salt beef -- or 10 1/2 ounces of salt pork if beef was not available. This diet would give a soldier about 2600 calories a day.

In his masterful social history of the War of 1812, Plunder, Profit, and Paroles, George Sheppard suggests that a War of 1812 soldier would require about the same number of calories as a modern day labourer or athlete in training -- that's about 4000 to 4800 calories. Others suggest the caloric needs were even higher -- as much as 6500 calories a day. Either way, it is clear that the basic energy requirements to do their jobs were not being met by a soldier's rations.

So what's a soldier to do? Some used their own pay to try to acquire additional food, but often the farmers of Niagara were reluctant to part with their produce. Cash was in short supply. From the farmer's perspective, what good is a promise to pay at a future date, when it was very much in doubt which side was going to win the war? 

So when they could not buy  food, the soldiers on both sides resorted to stealing, looting and plundering. Both sides prohibited looting, but soldiers in the American and Crown armies did rob local farms in the Niagara peninsula. Thomas Ridout, a junior officer in the Crown forces wrote to his father in September 1813, "Tonight our dragoon is to make a grand attack on the onions.The nests are kept very nice and clean from eggs. [ie. he was stealing from the hen houses]. We feed a turkey at our door which is doomed for our Sunday dinner." Elsewhere, Ridout refers to "an extensive robbing of peas, apples, onions, corn, carrots." [Sheppard p. 100]

With soldiers on both sides stealing, pillaging and looting to keep fed and fit for battle, it is little wonder that resentment quickly grew among the inhabitants of the Niagara peninsula. Professor Sheppard makes the case that the local inhabitants resented the thieves who wore the red coats as much as the invaders who wore blue.

These are the issues I'm looking at as I continue work on a fourth Jake and Eli book. The working title is The Company of Traitors, and I'm planning to take the boys' adventures to December 1813.