Army and Empire: British Soldiers on the American Frontier, 1758-1775

By Michael N. McConnell | Go to book overview
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6
Diet and Foodways

Veteran British officers fully appreciated the relationship between diet and the health and discipline of their soldiers. Indeed, “Nothing,” according to long-serving Bennett Cuthbertson, “contributes more to the health of Soldiers, then a regular and well chosen diet.” Moreover, “their being obliged every day to boil the pot; it corrects drunkenness, and in a great measure prevents gaming and thereby desertion.” He therefore urged regimental officers to establish and enforce “regular and constant messing” among their men.1

Not only does Cuthbertson’s advice underscore the obvious health benefits of a “regular and well chosen diet,” it also offers some hints as to how redcoats were expected to eat: by “boiling” their food and by sharing mealtimes in “messes” that reinforced bonds within companies and thus contributed to a sense of comradeship—comradeship that could help sustain collective identities even when companies and regiments were widely dispersed. But what, exactly, did British soldiers on the frontier eat? How was food prepared and eaten? To what extent did their diet contribute to or undermine general health?2

One thing is clear from the surviving records: the army consumed— and wasted—prodigious amounts of foods. Indeed, much of the common soldier’s time in the field or at a place like Fort Niagara or Pensacola would have been taken up in moving and storing mountains of supplies.

Eighteenth-century military campaigns were largely shaped by the need to collect and replenish food supplies, for draft animals as well as men. Campaigns necessarily ended when armies either outdistanced their supply magazines or consumed all the food and fodder within reach of their lines; severing an opponent’s lines of supply was a sure—and less bloody—way of forcing him to retreat, perhaps surrendering all the advantages of weeks of campaigning in the process.3

The need to keep men fed circumscribed warfare in America to an even greater extent than in Europe. Poor or nonexistent roads meant that armies

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