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[ground war modern warfare]Modern Meals Ready To Eat Are Fine Dining Compared To What Troops Ate In The Revolutionary War

  Pennsylvania Fifer Samuel Dewees of the 11th Pennsylvania Regiment wrote an account of what Continental soldiers’ ate during the war, including how biscuit was often made of “shipstuff,” the lowest quality flour available:

  Sometimes we had one biscuit and a herring per day, and often neither the one nor the other. Sometimes we had neither the one nor the other for two days at a time, and in one or two instances nothing until the evening of the third day. This was previous to our drawing a biscuit and a herring each day, the biscuit was made of shipstuff and they were so hard that a hammer or a substitute therefore was requisite to break them. This, or throw them to soak in boiling water, upon these, a biscuit and a herring each day, the soldiers lived until their mouths broke out with scabs, and their throats became as sore and raw as a piece of uncooked meat.

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  A recipe for biscuit from 1815 describes the process for making the semi-edible dough as follows:

  BISCUIT, Sea, is a sort of bread much dried, to make it keep for the use of the navy, and is good for a whole year after it is baked. The process of biscuit-making for the navy is simple and ingenious, and is nearly as follows: A large lump of dough, consisting merely of flower and water, is mixed up together, and placed exactly in the centre of a raised platform, where a man sits upon a machine, called a horse, and literally rides up and down throughout its whole circular direction, till the dough is equally indented, and this is repeated till the dough is sufficiently kneaded. In this state it is handed over to a second workman, who, with a large knife, puts it in a proper state for the use of those bakers who more immediately attend the oven.

  Adequate food supplies were most difficult to come by during the brutal winter that spanned from late 1777 to mid-1778 when General George Washington and his men were encamped at Valley Forge. During this time, food was so scarce that many of Washington’s soldiers threatened mutiny, and were known to chant “No bread, no meat, no soldier.” Like in many conflicts throughout history, the Continental Army resorted to foraging when food was difficult to come by, or worse, pillaging or theft. Officers often turned a blind eye to their troops raiding colonial settlements for sustenance.

  

  Library of Congress

  A recreation of a Revolutionary War-era Quartermaster’s quarters

  British forces likewise struggled to keep their troops fed, compounded by their requirement to keep their Army supplied from across the Atlantic. In Major Eric A. McCoy’s article “The Impact of Logistics on the British Defeat in the Revolutionary War” published in Army Sustainment

  Magazine, McCoy writes that “the problems of supplying the army from Great Britain were great, and the most serious challenge was that of shipping food over such a tremendous distance.”

  This reliance on imported foods and supplies proved to be a compounding factor in Britain’s defeat during the American Revolution. “In theory, the British should easily have been able to put down the rebellion among their American colonists,” Tom Standage claims in An Edible History of Humanity. “Britain was the greatest military and naval power of its day, presiding over a vast empire. In practice, however, supplying an army of tens of thousands of men operating some three thousand miles away posed enormous difficulties. […] The British failure to provide adequate food supplies to its troops was not the only cause of its defeat, and of America’s subsequent independence. But it was a very significant one.”

  

  Public Domain

  A reenactment of Continental Army troops storming Yorktown.

  It wasn’t just shipping challenges that hindered the British food supply, however. The American colonies hired private citizens to engage in piracy, an act known at the time as “privateering.” These civilian ships were authorized to harass or capture British ships, seizing their cargo and selling it back to the colonies. Writing in Army Sustainment, McCoy outlines the losses these privateers were able to inflict on British supply lines:

  American privateers authorized to intercept British cargo also took their toll. Only 13 of the convoy’s ships eventually made it to Boston, and very little of their cargo survived. Only the preserved food (such as sauerkraut, vinegar, and porter) arrived intact. Most of the other provisions were rotten, damaged, or dead; only 148 of the livestock survived. Out of 856 horses shipped, only 532 survived the voyage. This convoy marked the last time that Britain attempted to ship fresh food and livestock to its army.

  When supplies ran low, British forces resorted to foraging. This exposed many Redcoats to ambushes and other guerilla tactics carried out by Colonial forces, and McCoy notes that “British losses in these types of skirmishes soon equaled those suffered in larger pitched battles.”

  

  AP/Mel Evans

  A Revolutionary War-era camp at a reenactment

  Fast forward to today, and rations have come a long way. While modern MREs (Meal, Ready to Eat) earn nicknames such as “Meals Rejected by Everyone,” “Meals Rarely Edible” or variations of digestive euphemisms like “Meals Refusing to Exit,” these rations are nonetheless a massive improvement on the salted, dried meats and semi-edible hardtack carried by the soldiers of the Revolution.

  

  Public Domain

  A modern “Ham and Shrimp Jambalaya” MRE

  That’s not to say hardtack has completely gone away. The simple, shelf-stable “bread” is still a common item for survival kits used in maritime operations or even by long-distance backpackers. Hardtack can still be found in some MRE kits around the world today.

  

  Public Domain

  A Vietnam-era airman’s C-ration kit containing hardtack biscuits

  The role that food supplies played in the American Revolutionary War underscores the fact that wars aren’t always won by weaponry and tactics alone. Logistical concerns like how to ensure soldiers are properly fed in the field take just as much precedence as combat supremacy does. General George Washington and the Continental Congress saw this need for soldiers to have ready-to-eat foods with a long shelf life 225 years ago, paving the way for modern MRE delights such as the reviled Chicken a la King or the infamous Veggie “vomelet” Omelette.

  This Independence Day, as you’re firing up the grill and cracking a cold one, remember the culinary sacrifices made not just by the Continental Army, but by all U.S. troops in the field. If you really want to honor their sacrifice, maybe even consider adding some hardtack to your menu.

  Bon appétit!

  Contact the author: Brett@TheDrive.com

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