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Getting supplies to the army on the western frontier of Indiana, Ohio and Michigan in 1812 was a difficult business. Heavy barrels, sacks and bales of food and clothing were loaded onto boats that sailed down the Ohio River. Supplies were then transferred to smaller boats or canoes and paddled north to where the army was camped.
The winter weather of 1812 plagued General James Winchester’s left wing of the Northwestern Army as it marched north to recapture Detroit, which had been surrendered to the British on August 16th. First rain flooded the land, then the rivers dried up. Finally, it froze, so that Winchester’s men couldn’t use their boats at all. Soldiers laboriously loaded the provisions onto much slower pack trains of horses and makeshift sleds.
The difficulty moving supplies posed serious problems for the small force of about two thousand soldiers, mostly Kentucky militia, with four hundred regular soldiers from the 17th and 19th U.S. Infantry Regiments. In order to support a large army in the early nineteenth century, commanders had to feed all the men and officers a daily ration. In addition, the army’s horses and cattle consumed large amounts of fodder.
Not only did Winchester have to feed everyone on the trip, but he also needed to build a large stockpile of food and supplies to support his army when he reached Detroit. As most armies of the day did, Winchester’s soldiers drove a herd of cattle along with them on the march. Soldiers assigned to guard the animals were called the “grass guard.” These cattle were slaughtered as needed, and all the parts were used; the hides saved for leather and the fat for making tallow candles.
We need only multiply the army’s regulation daily ration for each soldier to fully grasp the scale of Winchester’s supply problem. Each soldier was supposed to receive the following, each day:
1¼ pounds of beef
1½ pounds of flour
5 ounces of liquor
5 ounces of vinegar
In addition to these basics, soldiers were also issued small amounts of salt, lye soap and candles. When cattle were unavailable, meat was preserved with salt in large wooden barrels. If possible, the flour was baked into bread or hard biscuits. Soldiers banded together in groups of five or six and cooked their rations in a common pot.
If soldiers were stationed at a fort for a long period, they could grow gardens to supplement their rations. For Winchester’s army on the move, there was only the sutler. Sutlers were civilian merchants who followed the army, selling small luxuries to the soldiers at high prices. The sutler marching with the Northwestern Army to Detroit offered the following items.
Tobacco: 50 cents cents per pound
Whiskey: 50 cents per quart
Hyson tea: 3.00 dollars per pound
Chocolate: 75 cents per pound
Coffee: 62 and ½ cents per pound
Unfortunately, the average soldier’s pay was only $5.00 a month. No problem! – The sutler would extend credit, up to one-third of a soldier’s wages. This situation led to constant problems with soldiers being in debt. Some soldiers tried hunting and fishing to supplement their diet, but this proved impractical, as the large number of men on the march scared away the game, and there was little spare time for fishing.
“…such comforts and conveniences…”
Officers were instructed to take care of their men. The drill book that Winchester used to train his army contains advice that urges officers to “…see that the public provision, whether of medicine or diet, is truly administered, and to procure for them besides such comforts and conveniences as are in his power.” This advice must have seemed like a cruel joke to the men in Winchester’s army as supply problems began to cause shortages of food and winter clothing.
During the War of 1812, the federal government relied on contractors to provide rations to the army. These contractors would sub-contract with local purveyors, who often could not profitably fill the contracts or meet the demands of the army for food. Several times during his winter march Winchester was forced to reduce the amount of the soldiers’ daily ration, especially flour. Other parts of the ration were increased to make up for the lack.
This was only the beginning of the troubles faced by the left wing of the Northwestern Army on their winter march to Detroit. Plagued by bad weather and short rations, the men endured hunger, cold, and disease, knowing only that when they reached their destination they would face the British army and their Indian allies.
For Further Information:
From September 1st to December 1812, as the Northwestern Army marched towards Detroit, all the major orders issued by General Winchester were written down so that they could be copied by the officers of the army and then read to the men. General Winchester’s orderly book gives us a detailed picture of what army life was like in 1812, from the toilets they used, to the food they ate, they work they did in camp, the punishments they endured and the clothes they wore.
U.S. Army Quartermaster Foundation (Includes information on the evolution of Army rations)
Figure 1: Left to right: tin kettle used to cook soldiers’ food, cloth haversack used to carry food on the march, lye soap, candle, camp axe for cutting firewood, bowl with salt pork and flour, whisky ration, and vinegar ration.
Figure 2: Clockwise from left: a block of chocolate, coffee, whisky, tobacco and tea.