Friday, September 25, 2020

19th Century Army Subsistence by Zina Abbott

Most readers, when they think about the military, think about the troops—the fighting units. However, there is a lot more to keeping an army together. Enter the Quartermaster, Ordnance department, and Commissary, or subsistence.

Today, I wish to talk about subsistence.

There is the saying that the Army marches on its stomach. Someone has to see the men get their rations. That duty falls to what is called the commissary officer.

In 1775, the Continental Congress established the Army and named George Washington its commanding general. That same year, Congress created the Office of the Commissary General of Stores and Purchases to provide the Army's daily rations. Officers in charge of subsistence operations were known as chief commissaries, while their staff consisted of assistant commissaries and commissary sergeants. It was the commissary department’s responsibility to purchase the subsistence stores. The principal articles of the ration of the soldiers were pork, bacon, beef, flour, beans, and other articles of farm produce.

Commissary Tent Army of the Potomac- June 1863

Fifty years later, the commissariat, as it was then known, began selling food items – which at the time were also known as commissaries or commissary items – from its warehouses "at cost" to Army officers for their personal use. By 1841, officers could also purchase items for their families.

Providing adequate rations during wartime was always a challenge. With the Mexican-American war, distance was often a troublesome factor. During the Civil War, both sides worked at disrupting the supply lines of the opposing army, and non-combatant civilians paid the price in dealing with frequent raiding parties commandeering their food to feed the troops.

The army ration is the established daily allowance of food for one person. It was fixed by the army regulations as follows:

Twelve ounces of pork or bacon, or canned beef (fresh or corned), or one pound and four ounces of fresh beef, or twenty-two ounces of salt beef; eighteen ounces of soft bread or flour, or sixteen ounces of hard bread, or one pound and four ounces of corn meal; and to have, every one hundred rations, fifteen pounds of pease or beans, or ten pounds of rice or hominy; ten pounds of green coffee, or eight of roasted (or roasted and ground) coffee, or two pounds of tea; fifteen pounds of sugar, four quarts of vinegar; four pounds of soap; four pounds of salt; four ounces of pepper; one pound and eight ounces of adamantine or star candles; and to troops in the field, when necessary, four pounds of yeast powder to one hundred rations of flour.

This ration was so large that, if the food was wholesome and supplied in full, the soldier fared very well. In many cases in the permanent posts the companies were more than able to maintain their mess on the rations issued. The surplus was used to purchase extra articles for their mess, or applied to the company fund to be expended for the benefit of the company.

Group at commissary depot Aquia Creek Landing, Virginia, Feb. 1863

Under the best conditions, providing rations for nineteenth century soldiers was difficult. Yet, the soldier's usefulness depended to a large degree upon his health. The free open life of the army tended to take care of his physical condition if his food was wholesome. The farther away the troops are from their source of food supplies, the more challenging keeping them in rations becomes. On the Kansas frontier, at one point, the companies stationed at Fort Monument, one of the smaller posts at a stagecoach station, marched to Fort Wallace because they ran out of rations and had no assurance when more would arrive.

As part of my research for my books set in 1860s frontier Kansas, much of the fresh meat provided the soldiers stationed there was bison. Along with other white settlers, stagecoach personnel, and railroad crews, the troopers spent their off-time hunting. 

Army Commissioners Department

At frontier outposts, the mainstays of the common ration were likely to be salt port, beans, hard bread, and coffee. Soldiers supplemented their diets by hunting, fishing, gathering wild plants, and cultivating vegetable gardens, such as the one shown in this post's header which was taken at Fort Laramie. Officers' families often kept livestock. Soldiers spent their own money to buy extra food from the post trader or, prior to 1867, the post sutler.

In the field, a commissary, or subsistence, officer was not a separate Army designation like a quartermaster. Rather he was a line officer in a fighting unit or at a military post designated as an acting commissaries of subsistence. Each received an extra $20 per month less the value of a ration. They were charged with providing rations for the troops.

The establishment of a military post in a region created a market for grains, horses, mules and cattle. Sometimes, something just as desirable and important were fresh vegetables. Without leafy greens or potatoes to help see the men through the winters, the Army dealt with increased cases of scurvy in the winter.  The result was, if the Indian danger was not too great and suitable lands could be obtained, that small settlements of farmers and ranchers would spring up, depending upon the post for a market. For this reason, military authorities encouraged the opening of farms and ranches near the post

Supply a military post with these food items often became the sole support of the settlers and the only reason for its existence. Once a fort was abandoned because its purpose had been served, it sometimes meant the end of the nearby settlement. Even though the commissary department tried to obtain its supplies near the points of consumption, it was almost impossible. Many food stores had to freighted to the posts, which was usually done by contract freighters.

Commissary Clerks Aquia Creek Landing, Virginia

At the end of the Civil War, there was a major change in how subsistence was handled. As Congress made provisions for a “peacetime” Army, even though said army spent years battling the native tribes that resisted being forced onto reservations, it passed the act of July 28, 1866, entitled "An Act to increase and fix the Military Peace Establishment of the United States." 

Congress authorized the Army to sell goods at cost from its subsistence warehouses to officers and enlisted men alike, beginning on July 1, 1867. This was the start of the modern commissary benefit. No geographical restrictions were placed on these sales, which could take place at all Army posts, from the frontier to the east coast.

Reconstructed Sutler's Store, Fort Laramie

The post sutlers were done away with. They could continue to sell to Army personnel as free traders. However, they could no longer put liens on soldiers’ pay to cover the items sold. Also, the commissary department started their program of providing goods at cost to the military posts with the intent that they be available for purchase by officers and enlisted men alike. The transition was rough, and the stores that showed up at the posts often left much to be desired. However, the objective was that no longer would officers need to purchase for themselves and their families what was referred to as fine stores—better food over and above standard military rations—and have them shipped to a post. The commissary department would provide the items for sale.

The subsistence warehouses of the nineteenth century were gradually replaced by Army-run grocery stores called sales commissaries, which sold items at cost, providing soldiers good food at reasonable prices. By 1868, customers could choose from an official 82-item stock list, which was comparable to civilian dry-goods grocery stores at the time.

From these humble beginnings, members from all of the military branches today have access to commissaries across the world.


In my most recently published book, Hannah’s Highest Regard, the story takes place in Kansas. Jake is a quartermaster kept busy with providing supplies and livestock to his assigned fort to deal with the increase of soldiers and the demands of dealing with hostile Native Americans, primarily Cheyenne. The issue of subsistence for Fort Riley is assigned to another lieutenant who becomes interesetd in Hannah. You may find the book description and purchase link for that book by CLICKING HERE.



The first book about Hannah Atwell, the one that introduces us to Jake Burdock, is titled Hannah's Handkerchief. You may find the book description and purchase link by CLICKING HERE




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