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By MAJ. Louis C. WILSON Q. M. C.
The Quartermaster Review – May-June 1928

Overview of Army Rations from the Revolutionary War to 1928

FROM THE wielding of a club by the primitive cave man to the handling of modern scientific and effective implements of warfare by the professional or emergency defender of a nation, the physical condition of the fighter is recognized as the basic factor in the matter of efficiency, and such physical condition depends in great degree, if not wholly, upon food.

Harking back to the primitive man of cave days and following the course of human events through the ages when food statistics, as well as other historic data, are rare or lacking, to comparatively recent years, we can only say that, in general, man, in his struggle for existence, ate what he, as an individual, could get, and that he continued to live and progress in spite of the fact that dietetic principles which are now recognized as scientific and proper were not then known and were, therefore, not applied.

Coming down to later times, when it was seen that the proper study of mankind is man, both from the viewpoint of the individual and that of the individual as a member of the community, state, or nation, study and experience produced growth and advancement in the producing of foods and in their application to the best interests of human beings, food being not only life but energy as well.

This evolution of food, generally, has been of untold benefit to mankind in general to an extent which can only be fully appreciated by a study of the subject, but it has been of incalculable value from the viewpoint of the soldier. It is, in these modern days, recognized that not only must the soldier be fed but that he must be fed properly, i.e., that, in order to get the best result from him, his food should not only be sufficient in quantity but that it should be “good tasting” and such as to cause him enjoyment in eating it; that it must be of sufficient variety to maintain his interest; that it must be of a character to keep his body and his mental attitude in the desired condition and his body and spirit full of work and enthusiasm for his mission. There are many sidelights in the mind of Uncle Sam in meeting these food requirements for his soldiers, such as economy in purchasing food supplies to the best financial advantage; close supervision of their quality by inspection; proper management in their storage and use so as to prevent deterioration or loss otherwise; their proper preparation, so that they may be cooked and served to the soldier in a palatable manner; the prevention of unnecessary losses by the garbage-can route; and the affording of well-balanced menus, etc., considering all the factors of proteins, calories, carbohydrates, mineral matter and the respective principles which each of these represents.

With the foregoing general survey of the Evolution of Food, we come down to our immediate interest in food for the troops of our country. Such a survey would cover the period from the days of the War of the Revolution, when rationing troops was turned over to sutlers or contractors, which experience was very unsatisfactory, down to the present day.

Further on in this article is a series of tables showing the rations prescribed for our Army during the various war periods of the nation, and also the present components of the ration. A comparative study of these tables will be of interest in indicating the growth and improvement in the problem of feeding our troops to the best advantage, and while it is not impossible that further progress in the continuing effort to improve the food of the soldier will be made, it is believed that our soldier today is better fed than ever before and better fed than the soldier of any other nation.

As a running review of the various changes in the Army ration from the Revolutionary period to date, introductions to the study of the detailed tables following the items herewith may be of interest:

The problem of feeding the colonial troops at the beginning of the Revolutionary times was, naturally, a serious and, to some extent, a difficult one. The basic difficulty was that of procuring articles of subsistence, because supplies of foods previously imported were shut off, and home products were limited and not located where supply to a moving army could be readily effected. As will be noted from the table, the ration was very limited, and none of the articles which are now furnished, and which could not be termed in any sense of the word, were provided. The sutler or contractor systems were tried out and were found to be decidedly inefficient and unsatisfactory. From these unsatisfactory methods has developed the present system of food supply by a special and distinct military organization, The Quartermaster Corps, U. S. Army.

It will be noted from the tables that during certain periods in the early history of the nation, spruce beer, cider, rum, brandy or whiskey have been components of the soldiers ration. The elimination of these, as was as the abolishing of the later Army canteen, is worthy of notation in the progress of the country’s fighting forces.


Contracts entered upon under a resolution passed by Congress, April 12,1785, provided for 1 gill of common rum per ration in lieu of the 1 quart of spruce beer or cider provided in the ration established by resolution of November 4, 1775.

By Section 10, Act of April 30,1790, the spirit ration was reduced to one-half gill of rum, brandy or whiskey.

Section 3, Act of June 7,1794, authorized the issue, in the discretion of the President, of not to exceed one-half gill of rum or whiskey in addition to each ration, to troops employed on the frontiers, and under such special circumstances as, in his opinion, might require an augmentation of some parts of their rations.

By Section 6, Act of July 10, 1795, the spirit ration was increased to one (1) gill.

Section 22, Act of March 3,1799, again reduced the spirit ration to one-half gill, commanding officers being authorized to make extra issue, at the rate of one-half gill per ration, “in cases of fatigue-service, or other extraordinary occasions.”

A vegetable component consisting of 15 pounds of beans or peas, or 10 pounds of rice or hominy, per 100 rations, was added to the ration by Executive Order under authority of the Act of April 14,1818.

By Act of March 2,1819, “an extra gill of whiskey or spirits” per day was allowed to “noncommissioned officers, musicians and privates” engaged in “work on fortifications, in surveys, in cutting roads, and other constant labor, of not less than ten days.”

Issue of spirits as a component part of the ration was discontinued by Executive Order in 1832 (General Orders No.100, A.G.O., 1832), and an issue of coffee and Sugar, at the rate of 4 pounds of coffee and 8 pounds of sugar per 100 rations, was substituted therefor. Under this provision, Section 22, Act of March 3, 1799, which authorized the issue of spirits “in cases of fatigue-service, or other extraordinary occasions,” became operative. This made the spirit ration an extra issue, subject to the discretion of the President.

By Act of July 5, 1838, the allowance of coffee and sugar was increased to 6 pounds of coffee and 12 pounds of sugar per 100 rations.

Section 4, Act of May 19, 1846, allowed commutation in money for the extra spirit ration allowed enlisted men engaged in the construction of fortifications, in surveys, etc., by the Act of March 2,1819.

Section 4, Act of June 21, 1860, increased the allowance of coffee and sugar per 100 rations to 10 pounds and 15 pounds, respectively.

By Section 13, Act of August 3,1861, the components of the ration were increased as follows: “Bread or flour, 22 ozs., with an alternate issue of 16 ozs. of hard bread; a vegetable ration, to consist of 16 ozs. of potatoes, to be issued at least three times per week, if practicable.” These increases were for the war period only; at the end of the war the ration was to be reduced to the articles and quantities as authorized by law or regulations on July 1, 1861.

Paragraph 2150, AR, 1861, authorized the issue to troops in the field, when necessary, of 4 pounds of yeast powder to the 100 rations of flour.

Section 10, Act of July 5, 1862, authorized issue of extract of coffee in lieu of the coffee and sugar ration.

Pepper was added to the component articles of the ration by Section 11, Act of March 3, 1863, issue to be made at the rate of 4 ounces per 100 rations.

Section 2, Act of June 20, 1864, provided “that the Army ration shall hereafter be the same as provided by law and regulations on the first day of July, eighteen hundred and sixty-one” with the addition of the pepper ration authorized by the Act of March 3,1863.

By General Order No. 120, June 29, 1865, the War Department discontinued the issue of the spirit ration altogether.

Section 5, Act of June 16, 1890, added a pound of vegetables to the ration, “the proportion to be fixed by the Secretary of War.”

Issue of sirup or molasses, at the rate of 2 gallons in lieu of 15 pounds of sugar, was authorized in 1895.

General Order No.78, A.G.O., April 21,1899, added 2 ounces of dried fruits to the ration.

Section 40, Act of February 2, 1901, authorized the President to prescribe the components of the ration and to direct issue of substitutive articles therefor when, in his opinion, such issues are required either by economy or a due regard for the health and comfort of the troops. The average cost of the garrison ration for each of the fiscal years since this authorization has been as follows:

F.Y. Cents F.Y. Cents
1902 16.24 1915 24.96
1903 17.56 1916 28.01
1904 17.33 1917 33.22
1905 16.18 1918 48.20
1906 15.16 1919 49.75
1907 15.74 1920 52.83
1908 18.66 1921 46.15
1909 21.05 1922 32.74
1910 21.44 1923 29.78
1911 23.35 1924 31.65
1912 23.78 1925 31.50
1913 23.41 1926 36.12
1914 24.39 1927 34.77

From monthly reports received from the field, it is estimated that the average cost during the current fiscal year (1928) will be approximately 50 cents.

During the World War the ration furnished troops of the American Expeditionary Forces, was, basically, the garrison ration, with certain prescribed changes and modifications therein from time to time as conditions warranted. For instance, fresh vegetables other than those specified in the garrison ration, when procurable locally, were authorized; substitutions were permitted in wider latitude than in the garrison ration at home; the allowances of meat, coffee and sugar were increased for troops engaged in work involving hard manual labor of eight hours or more per day; tobacco, smoking, and cigarette papers were added as ration components, with tobacco, chewing, or cigarettes, as substitutes; and candy was added as a component of the ration as a recognized essential for the welfare and comfort of the soldiers.

Established by resolution of Congress November 4, 1775.

Basic Ration

Beef 16 ozs.
Flour 16 ozs.
Peas 6.857 ozs.
Milk 16 ozs.
Rice 1.143 ozs.
Spruce beer 1 qt.
Candle .0686 oz.
Soap .183 oz.

Established by Act of Congress March 16. 1802

Basic Ration:

Beef 20 ozs.
Flour 18 ozs.
Rum 1 gill
Vinegar .32 gill
Salt .64 oz.
Soap .64 oz.
Candle .24 oz.

Established in 1838

Basic Ration

Beef 20 ozs.
Flour 18 ozs.
Beans. dry 2.4 ozs.
Coffee, green .96 oz.
Sugar 1.92 ozs.
Vinegar .16 gill
Salt .64 oz.
Candle .0686 oz.
Soap .183 oz.


There were three rations in effect during this period, the first established in 1860, the second in 1861 and the third in 1864. There was not a material difference in these three rations, a few of the component articles being slightly increased, others decreased, and finally, the addition of yeast powder to the ration in 1864. The 1864 ration is used in this demonstration and is as follows:

Basic Ration

Beef 20 ozs.
Flour 18 ozs.
Yeast powder .045 oz.
Beans, dry 2.56 ozs.
Coffee, green 1.6 ozs.
Sugar 2.4 ozs.
Vinegar .32 gill
Salt .64 oz.
Pepper, black (added) 04 oz.
Soap .64 oz.
Candle .24 oz.


Basic Ration:

Beef 20 ozs.
Flour 18 ozs.
Baking powder .64 oz.
Beans, dry 2.4 ozs.
Potatoes, fresh 16. ozs.
Coffee, green 1.6 ozs.
Sugar 2.4 ozs.
Vinegar .32 gill
Salt .64 oz.
Pepper, black .04 oz.
Soap .64 oz.
Candle .24 oz.


At the time the United States entered the World War (April 6, 1917), the Army was using a ration established in 1913. This was the ration used in the Continental United States throughout the war, except that in 1918 two articles (sweet potatoes and oatmeal) were added to the list of substitutive articles. Following is the ration:

Basic Ration

Beef 20 ozs.
Flour 18 ozs.
Baking powder .08 oz.
Beans, dry 2.4 ozs.
Potatoes, fresh 20 ozs.
Prunes 1.28 ozs.
Sirup .32 oz.
Coffee, R. & G 1.12 ozs.
Sugar 3.2 ozs.
Milk, evaporated .5 oz.
Vinegar .16 gill
Salt .64 oz.
Pepper, black .04 oz.
Cinnamon, ground .014 oz.
Butter .5 oz.
Lard .64 oz.
Flavoring extract, lemon 014 oz.
Soap .64 oz.
Candle .24 oz.


Prescribed by the President by Executive Order dated February 3, 1927, effective July 1, 1927.

Basic Ration

Beef, fresh 18 ozs.
Bacon 6 ozs.
Flour, wheat 18 ozs.
Baking powder .08 oz.
Beans, dry 1.2 ozs.
Rice .8 oz.
Potatoes 17. ozs.


Onions 5 ozs.
Tomatoes, canned 2 ozs.
Prunes .384 oz.
Jam .64 oz.
Apples, evaporated 128 oz.
Peaches, evaporated 128 oz.
Macaroni .5712 oz.
Cheese .5712 oz.
Flavoring extract .014 oz.
Coffee, roasted or roasted ground 1.5 ozs.
Tea .05 oz.
Cocoa .3 oz.


Sugar 4 ozs.
Milk, evaporated 1 oz.
Butter 1.75 ozs.
Oleomargarine 25 oz.
Vinegar .08 gill
Pickles, cucumber .08 gill
Salt .5712 oz.
Pepper, black .04 oz.
Lard .32 oz.
Lard, substitute .32 oz.
Sirup .1427 gill
Cinnamon .014 oz.


As above stated, special activities of the Quartermaster Corps are constantly engaged in the study of subsistence for the Army. Components of the ration and articles kept for sale at commissary sales stores are covered by detailed specifications prescribing all the requirements of such commodities and based on Government Master Specifications with such modifications as are peculiar to the Army, such requirements including manner of packing and marking the articles, sizes of containers, etc. The benefits being derived from the Quartermaster Subsistence School at Chicago have been marked. The schools for bakers and cooks have been productive of much good in the furnishing of high grade breads and in the furnishing of cooks who are far ahead of the enlisted men detailed in the days of old to cook without previous instruction and training.

In the effort to keep step with the latest information on the subject of canned foods, the army has had the advantage of research information furnished by such Organizations as the National Canners Association, and keeps in close touch with the Department of Agriculture, the Navy and Marine Corps in matters of mutual interest on food subjects.

The Quartermaster General is now preparing a permanent exhibit of the rations prescribed during the Wars of 1776, 1812, 1846, 1860-1865, 1898 and 1917, together with the present garrison ration, which is to be placed in the War Department at Washington, D. C. Every article in the respective groups will be the actual commodity, or, in the case of perishable articles, a simulated model, and in all cases the exact quantity of the article as prescribed in the several rations will be shown. This exhibit will be artistically displayed and will, it is believed, be of considerable interest. An exhibit of this kind was placed on view by the Quartermaster Corps at the Military Exposition and Carnival for the Army Relief Society, recently staged at Washington Barracks, D. C., and was the subject of considerable favorable interest and comment.

In the study of the various rations of the Army, it will be noted that, in the most recent of these rations, care has been taken to incorporate articles which will supply all of the following components which have been determined by scientific investigation to be essential in the proper maintenance of the human body:

Proteins.-To replace muscular wastage and to furnish nitrogen to build up tissues.
Fats.-To produce fuel and heat, and to promote palatability.
Carbohydrates.-To produce fuel and energy.
Mineral matter. -As found in fruits and vegetables and certain cereals-To form bony structure and blood, and to aid digestion.
Vitamins.-Found in milk and certain fruits, vegetables, etc. To maintain the body in health.
Water.-As found in foods. To promote elimination of waste material and to act as a solvent.
Roughage.-To assist intestinal functioning.

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