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Feeding a Frigate

By Commander Tyrone G. Martin, U. S. Navy (Retired)

Think of a man-of-war in the age of fighting sail, and you think of the thunder of many guns and the smoke billowing up from their muzzles to blend in with clouds of bulging white canvas, all surmounting a choppy sea with sparkling whitecaps. Thanks to the skill of the writer or artist and our own vivid imaginations, we give little thought to the men manning these ships and what it took to sustain them until this moment of glory. In the pages to follow, we’ll take a look at the food these men ate and how they were kept supplied far from home on the high seas.

When the U. S. Navy was established in 1794, there were no ships, no crews, and, until 1798, by which time there were both, only an overworked Secretary of War who oversaw the administration of both the Army and Navy. To simplify the problem of determining the amount of food needed for the ships’ crews and its cost, and borrowing from the British Admiralty, it was decided to legislate a specific diet to be served each man each day of the week, regardless of the size of the ship or where she was serving. Commanding officers were expected to adhere to the “menu” and not to deviate from it without documenting the reason. Substitutes for foodstuffs found to be unfit were, of course, permitted. Captains, too, were authorized to buy fresh foods when they were in port, as long as they stayed within monetary allowances, but without refrigeration such items would not be in the diet for long. As originally provided, the legislated “menu,” which was valued at twenty-eight cents per ration per day, was as follows:

Every day: 1 lb. hard bread, and 1/2 pt. “spirits” or 1 quart beer.

Sunday: 1 1/2 lbs. salt beef, and 1/2 pt. rice.

Monday: 1 lb. salt pork, 1/2 pt. peas or beans, and 1/4 lb. cheese.

Tuesday: 1 1/2 lbs. salt beef and 1 lb. potatoes or turnips.

Wednesday: 1/2 pt. rice, 1/4 lb. cheese, and 2 oz. butter or molasses or 6 oz. of oil.

Thursday: 1 lb. salt pork and 1/2 pt. peas or beans.

Friday: 1 lb. salt fish, 1 lb. potatoes or turnips, and 2 oz. of butter or molasses or 6 oz. of oil.

Saturday: 1 lb. salt pork, 1/2 pt. peas or beans, and 1/4 lb. cheese.

As unsavory as this diet may seem to you today, in terms of those times, it probably was much better than most of the men would have been able to provide for themselves ashore, and at more than three thousand calories a day furnished the nourishment needed to sustain men engaged in very hard labor.

Three years after establishing this “ration,” the Congress made some adjustments in it. The pork and beef allowances were reduced to 1 lb., those for potatoes and turnips increased to 1 lb. and for molasses to 6 oz. New to the ration were 1 lb. of “pudding” on Tuesdays and 2 oz. of butter or 4 oz. of oil on Fridays. Four years later, the Congress reduced the ration to the point where it cost but twenty cents per ration per day, but it went back up to the former amount again in 1806, where it remained until 1842, when the value rose to thirty cents per ration per day.

The 1842 Act continued most of the basic foodstuffs noted above. Its importance rests with the fact that it dropped the specific daily “menu,” leaving only daily or weekly allowances, and furthermore, it provided a range of “substitutive items,” reflecting the broader range of goods then available. New to the ration were such things as raisins and other dried fruits, pickles, cranberries, and coffee and cocoa. (Tea had been added in 1818, but never proved popular with the jacktars. Coffee became a primary, rather than a substitutive, item in 1862.)

No further changes were made in the ration until after Constitution left regular service in 1855.

One item in the ration of interest to everyone is the “spirit ration.” Inherited from the British Royal Navy was the custom of serving spirits to the crew twice a day. Since the 1740s, the usual spirit had been rum mixed with an equal amount of water to prevent the sailors from saving up their “tots” for drinking binges. (Water caused the rum of the day to become unpalatable in a short time.) This rum and water mixture was called “grog,” from the nickname of Rear Admiral Edward “Old Grog” Vernon, who concocted the mix.

The new U. S. Navy began by following this same custom. Secretary of the Navy Robert Smith, who came into office in 1801, tried substituting American-made whiskey — sour mash bourbon — for the West Indies rum, and found the sailors favored it. By the War of 1812, American “grog” was bourbon and water. The usual practice was to serve one-half of the daily ration after dinner at noon and the remainder after supper, around 4 in the afternoon. On each occasion, the Purser and his mates kept careful record of each man’s ration. Those who passed it up were credited with four cents on their account; those who attempted a second “tot” most often were flogged (whipped) the next morning.

One begins to understand the enormity of the feeding problem faced by the Secretary of the Navy in 1798 when one takes the ration provided per man per week and works it out, for example, for a single frigate with a crew of four hundred officers and men. In one year there had to be provided some 310 barrels of salt beef, the same quantity of salt pork, 1220 gallons of molasses, 15840 pounds of rice, 1930 pounds of butter, 1500 pounds of cheese, 1730 of vinegar, 240 bushels of dried beans, 53 barrels of flour, 49 barrels of Indian meal, over 56 tons of hard bread, 19470 pounds of salt fish, 730 bushels of potatoes, and 8650 gallons of rum!

In 1798, the Navy was just beginning to go to sea — and overseas — and was growing rapidly in size to face the needs of the Quasi-War with France. The Secretary not only had to find contractors willing to sell adequate amounts for the legislated amount of money, he then had to find the means to get it to his consumers. The ships would, of course, stock up as much as possible prior to sailing, and, for those operating right off our coast, it was easy to come into any major port and make contact with the local Navy Agent. For those sent to the West Indies, he had to arrange either for local purchase or hire civilian ships to carry the stuffs out to them.

During 1799-1800, Constitution under Commodore Silas Talbot found herself in a unique position: stationed off the island of Hispaniola to protect American shipping, but required by our diplomats there to remain at sea as much as possible to avoid causing an incident inimical to American interest in a nearby port caught up in a revolution. Talbot and the Secretary of the Navy hit upon a solution: based on regular reports from the Commodore, Secretary Benjamin Stoddert regularly would dispatch civilian merchant ships loaded with the required supplies to Talbot, who would take them aboard at sea. The first such “underway replenishment” occurred in December 1799, when Constitution took the chartered schooner Elizabeth in tow, and in a two-day operation her boats shuttled back and forth replenishing the ship’s stocks. The process was repeated at about monthly intervals, and only at the end of her tour of duty did the ship finally go into the previously banned port. By the time she returned to Boston in August 1800, she had spent an amazing 349 of 366 days at sea, and her men were worn out from constant exertion but remarkably healthy in those circumstances.

Preparation of the daily ration was left to the ship’s cook. In our Navy, this petty officer most often was an older man who, from age or disability, no longer was able to perform seaman functions; a skilled cook he rarely was. His actual culinary effort was limited to the noon meal. Most often, he took the meat of the day — provided in one pound chunks, bone, gristle and all, by the contractor -and tossed them into the “coppers” (large pots) in the camboose (galley stove) where, together with the potatoes, turnips, peas, or beans, and perhaps a few onions, the whole would be boiled until time to be served.

The cook was assisted in his efforts by “mess cooks,” men elected by each of their “messes” (dining groups of 8-10 men) to serve one week stints as cook’s helpers, servers, and clean-up men. In addition to delivering the meal in “kids” (communal pots) to their respective messes, the mess cooks also drew from the Purser’s Steward the appropriate amounts of such things as bread, butter, cheese, etc., for their messes. (Today, the “Purser” is known as the Supply Officer. The “Steward” was his petty officer assistant.)

For meals, the crew was divided up into a number of messes. These were organized largely by the men themselves so that eating would take place among “friends.” One could change his mess if he wished, but not oftener than monthly. The oldest “salt” in each mess became its president. He kept discipline in the group, saw to the fair distribution of the fare at hand (after selecting the morsels of his choice), and oversaw the activities of the mess cook in caring for the leftovers from the prepared dinner that constituted breakfast and supper, and in maintaining a clean and neat mess kit, containing their metal cups and dishes.

The meals themselves were taken on the berth deck — one deck below the gun deck — where each mess was allocated space in which to spread its old canvas “table cloth” on deck and the men sat around it as at a picnic, each taking his share of the communally served food. Breakfast began at 8 and consisted of bread and whatever leftovers there were saved in the mess kit. Dinner, the one hot meal of the day, began at 12. Supper, at 4, again was bread and leftovers. One hour was allowed for each meal. If a mess chose to do so, it could use the money in the Purser’s account from their commuted (unused) rations, like grog money, or money each chipped in, to purchase additional items with which to supplement their fare from him or, if in port, from bumboats around the ship.

The ship’s officers generally established their own mess and had an elected member of it attend to purchases of food, wine, and any desired (and affordable) delicacies outside the Navy supply system. In lieu of feeding from the general mess prepared by the ship’s cook, each officer was allowed a certain number of “rations” commensurate with his rank for which he was credited with the money. The Captain drew six rations, the lieutenants and the other “middle officers” drew two, and the midshipmen and other warrant officers, one apiece. The Captain and the wardroom officers each had their own cooks and mess attendants, the midshipmen and warrants had no more than ship’s boys as “go-fors.” Like the crewmen, the officers decided whether or not to augment their diet with additional funds from their pay.

The system hasn’t changed all that much over the past two centuries. The enlisted personnel continue to be fed by the Navy based upon a regulated amount of money per man per day. The records of each command are inspected every three months, and small overages in food money spent are forgivable, but woe to the Captain whose Food Service Officer hasn’t used all the food money allowance nearly to the penny! The reason(s) for any underexpenditure better come from culinary efficiency and not from skimping. The officers continue to receive a money “ration” (now the same amount for each regardless of rank) and decide amongst themselves how much they will spend and what they will eat. For all, the food available within the Navy Supply System has progressed incredibly in variety and quality since the “good old days” of “salt horse” and “hardtack.”

Some sources:

Langley, Harold D. Social Reform In The United States Navy 1798-1862. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1967.

Martin, Tyrone G. A Most Fortunate Ship. Revised edition. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1997.

Rodger, N. A. M. The Wooden World. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1986.

A TIMONIER Publication
1990, 1997, TGM