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Diet and Food Preparation for the British Army during the War of 1812
by Robert Henderson

pd502.JPG (33070 bytes)
Voltigeur Officer inspection the rations by Eugene Leliepvre
(courtesy of Parks Canada)

          Every morning at nine o'Clock the men were served breakfast consisting of bread, along with milk, soup, tea, or saloop, and occasionally butter. Some supplemented their breakfast rations with privately-purchased food such as cheese or pork. In the afternoon, between twelve-thirty and one o'clock, the soldiers would then sit down to dinner. Before the sitting, the tables were draped with cloths and set with plates, knives, forks, and spoons; only then would the meal be served. Once seated, the men were expected to rise from their meals only when the officer of the day entered the room to receive a mess report from the orderly sergeant. One regiment described dinner as consisting of "soup well thickened with meal, flour, or rice, and with the meat there must be a sufficiency of vegetables." However, the standard daily ration established in British North America changed continually. By the time of the War of 1812 each soldier was being supplied with:

1 lb. of flour,
1 lb. of fresh beef or 9 1/7 oz. of pork,
1 3/7 oz. of pork or 6/7 oz. of butter,
3/7 pint of pease,

and 1 1/7 oz. of rice

If hospitalized, the soldier received a pint of milk porridge or rice gruel for breakfast; meat, potatoes, and bread for dinner; and a pint of broth from the meat for supper. In case of fever, animal food was not allowed. Instead a "spoon diet" was provided which is described as tea for breakfast, "a quarter pound of bread made into panado or pudding with as much milk or sago" for dinner, and tea for supper. For soldiers eating with their families apart from their comrades, they typically enjoyed a breakfast of milk and bread; a dinner of meat, vegetables, salt, and bread; and a supper of milk and potatoes or broth, and bread. Supper was not allotted for the unmarried soldiers.

          While the preferred types of meat by military officials were beef and mutton, mutton does not appear to have been issued to the soldiers in Upper Canada. Instead it was likely purchased privately by the troops and kept for special dinners held by the men on occasions such as Christmas, royal family member birthdays, and battle anniversaries. One soldier noted that having too many celebrations, as ordered by the regiment's commander, usually left the members of the mess continually in debt.

           On the other hand, beef was in continuous fresh supply for the troops in Upper Canada. At the garrison of Fort George, fresh beef of "ox or heifer" was supplied "in quarter" pieces from the locality. This was the result of a decision made by London in 1802 which stated that: "the facility of supplying the king's troops serving in his Majesty's American colonies and possessions with fresh beef and other articles of necessity upon the spot, at a much cheaper rate than salt provisions can be sent from hence..." The preceding year, a prospective beef supplier named Robert Hamilton, presented the following to the commissary officer at Fort George:

            Our country has now a considerable quantity of beef to spare. Several of the most respectable farmers, who have been consulted say they could engage to deliver weekly or twice a week during the warm weather a sufficient quantity of fresh good merchantable beef for the supply of the garrison of Fort George.

           While the commissary officer supported this proposal, he did not think "any absolute dependence should be placed on this supply." The Commissary Department took various measures to provide each garrison with 100 days supply of salted Irish beef. These provisions seemingly remained in storage until the opening of the war. By 1803, the commissary's scepticism on Canadian supply sources seemed to lessen. General Hunter, commander of the forces in the Canadas, received a letter from Richard Cartwright in Kingston describing the impact of army supply contracts on Upper Canada's beef economy:

...the country abounds in cattle and the measure adopted by your excellency of supplying the garrisons for part of the year with fresh beef will further encourage the breeding of them, and the liberal price received for the small quantity sent to Lower Canada the last year, if continued for the present season, will make people here in future go largely into the business of barrelling of beef. This detail though it shows that this important manufacture is still in its infancy, shows also that it is progressive by increasing and we may reasonably conclude that it will continue to do so, if not checked either by unfavourable seasons, which destroying the crops of grain or hay will deprive the farmer of the means of feeding his swine or cattle...

Cartwright suggested Upper Canada could eventually become the sole source of beef and other food stuffs to troops not only in the Canadas but in Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, and, ultimately the West Indies. Unfortunately, after 1803, a series of poor harvests in the Canadas occurred, reducing Upper Canada's food surpluses and the producers' ambitions. During the War of 1812, salted provisions, flour, and peas for the troops in the Atlantic provinces were once again being supplied from the Canadas. The West Indies market remained elusive.

         One factor Cartwright did not consider when estimating the reliability of the province's beef production was war. When the United States declared war in 1812, all able-bodied Canadians were drawn from the fields and into the ranks of the militia. Regulars were also drawn from other parts of British North America into the threatened upper province. The result was a substantial increase in the size of the garrisons being supplied and a coinciding decrease in farm production. By 1813, Upper Canada could no longer keep up with the army's demand for beef. Military officials turned to the United States to secure supplies which served two purposes: not only would needed supplies be obtained, but drawing food from the United States also reduced the enemy's resources along the border. This was accomplished with success as thousands of heads of cattle were being driven into Canada from New York and Vermont. One American citizen along the St. Lawrence noted in 1814: "It is incredible what quantities of cattle and sheep are driven into Canada. We can hardly get anything for love or money. The day before yesterday upwards to 100 Oxen went up through Prescott [Upper Canada] and yesterday above 200." Both American smugglers and increased supplies from Britain sustained the soldiers' beef supply to the end of the war.

          In addition to beef, records show the soldiers were consuming vast quantities of salted pork produced in the Canadas. A domestic supply of pork had the same effect as in the case of beef, that is the reduction in imports of barrelled pork from Great Britain. The following is a listing of expenses estimated by Cartwright for making one barrel of pork:

to make a barrel of 208 lbs. those who have paid minute attention to the subject say it will require at least 216 lbs. as bought from the farmer, which at 3 d per lb. is 2 14s 0d Cask and cooperage 6s 9d Cutting up and packing 1s 3d Salt and Saltpetre 8s 6d Warehouse rent, attendance, and labour for weighing etc. 1s 0d The pork being bought in November, six months must elapse before it can be sent to market. Interest for that time on 3 10s 6d is 2s 1d

TOTAL 3 13s 7d

However, many of the contractors used considerably less pork in each barrel than the previous list states. In 1807, the Commissary weighed the numerous barrels of pork and flour being supplied by Upper Canadian contractors and found that the Army was being short-changed; the deficiencies were ordered to be rectified by the contractors. The Commissary required each barrel to be composed of "Prime Mess Pork" and hold 52 four-pound pieces. It appears from archaeological finds and earlier military contracts that there were no pig's heads or feet included in the barrels. If the pork was issued lean or spoiled, the soldiers reserved the right to reject it.

        Meat was prepared in one of two ways: boiled and roasted, or baked. Scottish soldiers tended to boil their meat, while the English preferred roasting. One military official writing on the subject in the 1790s thought "roasted or baked meat will occasion thirst more than boiled food and broth; except the latter are very salty." By the beginning the War of 1812 boiling had taken over as the most common method of preparing meat. One soldier of the 7th Regiment estimated that three-quarters of a pound of beef with the bone yielded a pint of broth to each man. Sometimes oatmeal and potatoes were included with the meat into soups or bouille, especially in Scottish garrisons. Other favoured vegetables in the soldier's diet included cabbage, peas, and beans, and each were prepared as the cook saw fit. Unfortunately, rotating cooks were usually inexperienced:

       The fundamental rule, in the culinary art, consists in roasting quick, and boiling slow. It does not appear to be known in the army: the soldier's pot always boils with fury; and his soups and stews are not such, as a good method of cooking might produce from the same materials. Fuel is wasted, and the mess is not well prepared--neither so nutritious, nor so savoury as it might be.

      Supplementing meat with fish was common practice for soldiers stationed in British North America. Shadrach Byfield of the 41st Regiment recounts how he was injured on a fishing party in the winter of 1811-12 while stationed at Fort George:

I was employed in holding one end of the net, and with the violence of the wind and the waves I was pulled into the water from the ice on which I was standing, and came in contact with the boat, and was almost squeezed to death between the boat and the ice. I was pulled into the boat and carried to the barracks very much bruised, but no bones were broken.

         Generally, fish consumption was frowned upon by the military: "fish is seldom a part of the men's diet... It ought not to be allowed above twice a week (if it can be prevented) as, unless used with much pepper, it will be apt to occasion fluxes...fish is inclined to rapid putrefaction, the worst species of camp dysentery has been known to accrue from this diet." When fish was fresh and firm, there was less concern. With fresh "white fish and black bass" caught in great abundance from the Niagara River next to Fort George, concerns over fluxes and dysentery from a fish diet likely would not have existed at that garrison. In 1801, rope was provided from Commissariat stores at Fort George for the soldiers to construct a fishing net. If fish could not be caught, some regiments like the 100th chose to purchase it from local markets.

         Hunting seems to have been practised by the soldier adding grouse, pigeons, etc. to his diet. As well gardens for the soldiers were established at Forts George and Erie, allowing freshly grown supplements into the daily diet. Finally pears, apples, and berries were common fruits available to the soldier on the Niagara frontier.

         Another requisite staple to the soldier's diet was bread. By 1812, flour for the soldier's bread was being provided almost exclusively by Canadian farmers. Indeed as early as 1793 bread made from Canadian flour was being examined by military officials: "Royal Artillery reports according to orders that the bread made from the Canada flour is better than what they have received for some time past and is good and wholesome." One officer of the 4th Regiment dared to proclaim that it was "better than any he has seen issued to the troops." At Fort George, the troops were not the only recipients of the fine flour of Upper Canada. In 1808, mice damaged over 500 pounds of flour at that garrison alone. As with the supply of meat, the War of 1812 seriously hampered flour production and additional provisions had to be secured from the United States. The general regulations established by the military called for the flour to: "... be made from good, sound, sweet, and dry English or Foreign wheat, without any mixture of middlings, or other adulteration whatsoever, but produced from the whole of the meal as it comes from the mill, after having been dressed through a twelve-shilling cloth..."

            Typically the army had the flour baked into bread by contractors, but in Canada several regiments chose to have the mess cooks prepare their own instead. In August 1811, orders were issued sanctioning this practice and allowing the savings to be devoted "solely to the comfort and convenience of the Non Commissioned Officers and Privates." When soldiers were sent from their mess on detached duties, some regiments had a regimental baker make bread or biscuits and send them to the men away from the regiment. As a result of the orders allowing the men to bake their own bread, damaged bake ovens at Fort George were recommended to be repaired as soon as possible so the men could benefit "both in the quality and quantity of [their] bread."

Copyright: The Discriminating General 1999


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