The Sailor’s Diet of 1862

By André B. Sobocinski, Historian, BUMED

On July 25, 1862, following reports of sickness and low morale, Fleet Surgeon William Maxwell Wood was ordered by the Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles to conduct a medical and sanitary inspection of the James River Flotilla.[i] 

Fleet Surgeon William Maxwell Wood

Travelling aboard the steamer USS Satellite, Wood visited the principal vessels of the flotilla, met with their commanding officers and medical complements.

He found diarrhea, dysentery, scurvy, and typhoid to be prevalent among the ship’s companies, and no suitable shipboard accommodations for the sick.  The chief complaint among the ship’s Sailors, however, was the lack of fresh provisions and vegetables.  As Wood noted, “Those vessels that have been in the river longest have had this kind of diet but once in three months.”  Wood recommended that supplies be furnished twice a week going on to state that: “Even though the material effect of this change of ration might not be certain, the moral effect upon men engaged in this depressing service of having the food that they prefer, would be of a sanitary character.”

Throughout the nineteenth century the lack of provisions can be tied to outbreaks of vitamin deficiencies like scurvy and night blindness in the Navy, impacting operational readiness.  And, for better or for worse, shipboard rations could also be linked to shipboard morale.

Aboard the Civil War Union vessels on blockading duty food often broke the monotony of a dreary life aboard ship. As one Sailor put it, “When breakfast is done, the next best thing I look forward to is dinner, and when that’s done, I look forward for supper time….”

The Civil War Sailor’s diet was rich in protein and carbohydrates, but could be wholly deficient of taste.  An example was the dreaded “hardtack” (or hard-tack) which served as a shipboard staple for as long as there had been a U.S. Navy.  Usually measuring 3 inches square by 1 inch thick it was comprised of plain flour and water baked into an almost impenetrable biscuit.  Sailors often referred to hardtack as “tooth-dullers” and “worm castles.” And over time this bland bread substitute often became susceptible to mold and mealy pests like maggots and weevils.

Union soldier sitting on crate of hard tack

To compensate for the lack of taste, hardtack was sometimes soaked in freshwater and then baked with salt pork and molasses. The end result was known by the even less appetizing name, “dandyfunck.” 

Since Navy Regulations of 1818, a Sailor’s weekly ration consisted of: Suet (1/2 pound), Cheese (6 ounces), Beef (3.5 pounds), Pork (3 pounds), Flour (1 pound), Bread (98 ounces), Butter (2 ounces), Sugar (7 Ounces), Tea ( 4 ounces), Peas or Beans (1 pint), Rice (1 pint), Molasses (1/2 pint), and Vinegar (1/2 pint).  In 1842, raisons, dried apples, coffee, cocoa, pickles, cranberries, and “sour crout” [sic] were added as supplementary items.

Due to the lack of refrigeration, the Navy frequently turned to foods that could be taken aboard ships for extended cruises—salt beef and pork (sometimes known as “salt horse”), butter and fish preserved in brine.   Oftentimes these items were so rotten that when they were brought aboard they were almost immediately expunged. Sailors were also furnished with tackle and bait so that they could catch fresh fish (and hopefully not what they had just thrown overboard!)

Navy Beans, also known as “white peas,” was commonly rationed aboard warships in part because of their long storage life; as too were potatoes and onions, which could also be used as anti-scorbutics. 

From the early days of the U.S. Navy, alcohol was also a popular component of a Sailor’s ration. The “grog ration” was a practice taken from the British Royal Navy. The term “grog” derived from the nickname of Admiral Edward Vernon (AKA, “Old Grog”) so named because of his grogram cloak.  To reduce the issue of inebriated sailors in his service, it is said that Vernon had his crew’s daily rum ration watered down.  

The tradition of the grog ration had long been met by opposition of the U.S. Navy’s first shipboard physicians who regularly termed it “highly pernicious,”  “destructive of morals,” and “depressed the body system already enervated by . . .salted provisions.”   That July of 1862, when Fleet Surgeon Wood conducted his sanitary inspection of the ships on the James River, he made no mention of grog or spirit rations.  That very same month (on July 14th) the U.S. Navy had abolished the alcohol ration.   Officially, alcohol would thereafter be used only for medicinal purposes and under the Navy physician’s purview.

James River Fleet in 1862

Sources.

Kerr, W. “William Maxwell Wood: The First Surgeon-General of the United States Navy.” Annals of Medical History.  Paul B. Hoeber, Inc.: New York, NY. 1924.

“Living Conditions in the 19th Century U.S. Navy.”  Navy Department: March 17, 1869.  Retrieved  from: www.history.navy.mil/content/history/nhhc/research/library/online-reading-room/title-list-alphabettically/l/living-conditions-in-the-19th-century-us-navy.html

Ringle.  Dennis. Life in Mr. Lincoln’s Navy.  Annapolis, MD.  Naval Institute Press. 1998.

Sobocinski, A.B.  “A Few Notes on Grog.” The Grog Ration, Vol. 1, No. 2, Jul-Aug 2006.


[i] The Flotilla was a division of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron whose mission was to open the navigation of the James River and protect vessels transporting Union supplies and personnel.

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