Rations, 1864

An Army Travels On It’s Stomach

There is a military axiom which says: Amateurs discuss tactics. Professionals discuss logistics.  Great captains from our earliest days have understood that having an army does you no good if you cannot feed it, clothe it, arm it, and train it.  This was a lesson learned, and that right well, by both sides during our own Civil War.

During the Civil War, the daily ration for an enlisted man in the Federal Army was as follows: (from US Army Regulations, (rev) 1863)

Meat:          12 ounces of pork or bacon, or
                   1 pound and 4 ounces of salt or fresh beef
Bread:         1 pound and 6 ounces of soft bread or flour, or
                   1 pound of hard bread [hardtack] or
                   1 pound and 4 ounces of corn meal
To every 100 rations:
                    15 pounds of beans or peas, and
                    10 pounds of rice or hominy
                    10 pounds of green coffee, or
                     8 pounds of roasted (Or roasted and ground) coffee, o
                    1 pound and 8 ounces of tea
                    15 pounds of sugar
                    4 quarts of vinegar
                    1 pound and 4 ounces of adamantine, or star candles
                    4 pounds of soap
                    3 pounds and 12 ounces of salt
                    4 ounces of pepper
                    30 pounds of potatoes. when practicable. and
                    1 quart of molasses

Paragraph 1191: "Desiccated [dehydrated] compressed potatoes, or desiccated compressed mixed vegetables, at the rate of 1 ounce and ½ of the former, and I ounce of the latter. to the ration, may be substituted for beans, peas, rice, hominy, or fresh potatoes.

Meat and Bread; same as above
Coffee, Sugar, and Salt; same as above

For it’s time, the Federal Army ate very well. Even the Confederate Armies ate pretty well, their failures in supply being, in almost every case, the result of a lack of transport rather than of the rations themselves.

The image accompanying this short article is of a group of Clerks of the Commissary Depot at Aquia Creek Landing, Va. It was taken in February, 1863. Even in the CW there were REMF, and from their clothing it appears they lived rather well in the field.

Having said that, I would ask the reader to look at the pile of boxes in the background. Those are boxes of hard bread, the ubiquitous “Hardtack” of so many songs, commentaries, and jokes. It was a cracker made of flour and salt water, about 3” square by ½” thick, baked and then air-dried until it was hard as a rock. A common moniker was “sheet-iron shingle”.  It’s advantage was simple: It would provide basic nutrition for a soldier in the field, traveled well, and would last almost forever as long as moisture was kept out of the boxes.

Regardless of the stories, hardtack kept very well, and it became such a staple of the American Diet that one company, Bent’s Crackers, still makes it today.

The boxes in the image each hold 50lbs of hardtack, and are made of white pine board. The ends were strapped with bands made of stripped saplings, and if you look at the ends of the boxes, those dark lines are the bands. Note also on top of the pile that a portion of the tarpaulin which keeps the weather out has been pulled back to show off the pile.

Now, to bring this back to the beginning, chew on this fact: A soldier, being issued 1lb of hard bread a day, requires a steady supply to keep him fed. To ameliorate the problem, 3 days’ rations were issued to the soldiers at a time when in the field. If you look at the 30 June 1863 returns for the Army of the Potomac, you will see there are approximately 85,000 men. That’s 42.5 TONS of hard bread a day just to provide the bread ration.  To put it into perspective, that is a train of 50 wagons a day, just to get bread to the army, and those wagons also require forage for their teams. Which means more wagons to haul just forage along the route. Now add the meat and coffee rations, and you begin to understand why accurate maps of road networks, of route of march planning, and the locations of water and rail lines are so vital to a commander.

This was just one army. The Federals also had the armies of the James, the Ohio, the Tennessee, the Gulf, and various smaller commands to supply.

This is also why virtually every campaign keeps it’s route of march within 3 days’ march of a railroad. A wagon is useless beyond 3 days’ because you cannot carry enough forage for the teams as well as it’s cargo. You simply couldn’t keep an army in the field for any length of time without adequate resupply, and the only way to maintain momentum and maneuver, and prevent losses due to foraging, was to use the railroads.

The wonder is not how well those planners and supply folks provided for the armies. The wonder is that they were able to do it at all.

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6 Responses to “Rations, 1864”

  1. January 23, 2010 at 07:31

    I guess I'm guilty like alot of folks in only seeing the tip of the spear and not paying enough attention to the handle.

  2. January 25, 2010 at 21:25

    Thank you, Tim, for recognising the supply types. In our own beloved USN, Snipes and Storekeepers are made sport of, but let's see a ship even move across the harbor without them. Men like Burke and Halsey and the ESSEXes may have won the war, but they could not have done so without the " Doug Robertses" and the USS RELUCTANTs feeding them, armiong them, and fueling them. The same applies to the US Army, and the Services of Supply. So again, many thanks from the son of an SK2.

  3. January 26, 2010 at 07:28

    Most interesting. You know a long time ago I had occasion to have a sheet or two of Hard Tack. I wonder how close to the Civil War version it was. I remember how hard it was and how it was best eaten with the stew we made almost every night. This was a Boy Scout trip down into the Grand Canyon so we had to carry everything. We had lots of dried beef and pork, lots of noodles and the Hard Tack. We spent 10 days down in the Canyon, did the Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim and the 50 mile award as well as many construction projects down in the Canyon. Lots of fun, hot as blazes down there and the hike back out took us two days and it is only 7 miles! Again, great post.
    BT: Jimmy T sends.

  4. January 26, 2010 at 08:33

    I remember being served hard tack pudding when I was a child. My aunt made it with great aplomb. Interesting diet. The beef was preserved in salt, and when they wanted to eat it they would be required to soak it and leach the salt out. My relatives used to do this with squid, octopus and fish. It's still done in a lot of asian countries.

  5. January 26, 2010 at 08:41

    Oh, and the hard tack I remember was by Sailor Boy. Very popular in Hawai'i. I even remember someone eating it with poi, which was totally disgusting to me!

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