Feeding an Army

The struggles of the Revolution can seem remote to generations living over two centuries later. However, the enjoyment of food and the challenges of feeding an army are both relatable themes to modern Americans as Thanksgiving approaches.

MARYLAND STATE PAPERS (Revolutionary Papers)

Receipt for payment of goods purchased in New York. MARYLAND STATE PAPERS (Revolutionary Papers) MSA S997-1-352

The diet of a Continental soldier during the winter of 1776 was made up of allotted rations that consisted mainly of salt meats like beef and pork, along with bread or biscuits. They also foraged to supplement their diets and compensate for inadequate provisions. However, the countryside of New Jersey was gradually picked clean by the armies, and in the fall of 1776 the Americans would be dependent on a nation-wide supply system to feed the troops. Commissary General Joseph Trumbull had the responsibility of ensuring that the troops were fed and equipped. The task of acquiring food would prove simpler than finding shoes and warm clothes for the men. Trumbull obtained grains and flour from the South and most of the salt meat came from New England, passing by wagon through a dangerous route in the New York highlands.[1]


Account for supplies and expenses. MARYLAND STATE PAPERS (Revolutionary Papers) MSA S997-1-349.

The Maryland troops were supplied by this national system, to which Maryland was a contributor, as well as by their officers. Maryland documents from 1776 include numerous accounts and receipts for beef, pork, rum, whiskey, sugar, butter, and cooking utensils, along with other supplies. Because of shortages of cash and delays in transporting provisions, officers often purchased food and clothing for their men and applied to be reimbursed afterwards. For example, the image on the top left is the receipt of Major Mordecai Gist for purchasing “sundry stores” while in New York. The image to the right is the account of General Smallwood, which contains the debts and credits of a number of men. For example, Benjamin Chambers, a lieutenant was paid for “victualing 10 soldiers on a Detachment.” Other officers bought spirits and the battalion purchased bacon.

But what sort of foods would the men of Smallwood’s battalion have dreamed of while on the campaign? Two historic cookbooks give us clues to past palates, along with recipes that can be translated to a modern table. In 1774, Hannah Glasse wrote The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, which was published in London.[2] Although Glasse does not include recipes with New World squashes, corn, or berries, she does have a roast turkey recipe complete with stuffing that is recognizable to modern cooks. Glasse’s other recipes range from apple dumplings to ox cheek pie and even include instructions “to make a hedge-hog.” Although European hedgehogs would not have been available across the Atlantic, Amelia Simmons made use of native produce and game in her publication, American Cookery–the first American cookbook.[3] Simmons had her own roast turkey recipe, but she also recorded an early version of the standard American pumpkin pie, a recipe that surely existed before this publication in 1794, although this is our earliest record for it.

To try your hand at one of Hannah Glasse’s “plain and easy” recipes, click here.

To see Amelia Simmons’ “pompkin” pie recipe and learn more about the first American cookbook, click here.

[1] David Hackett Fisher, Washington’s Crossing, (Oxford University Press, 2004), 268.

[2] Hannah Glasse, The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, (London: W. Strahan, J. and F. Rivington, J. Hinton, 1774).

[3] Amelia Simmons, American Cookery, (Hartford: Hudson & Goodwin,1796). From the Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division.


Happy Thanksgiving to all of our readers!


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