Monday, August 24, 2015

More Than a Full Stomach: Nutrition and the Field Ration (excerpt)

By Sanders Marble, Office of Medical History

Rations are a never-failing source of conversation and complaint. The field ration has to balance nutrition and portability, and understanding and capabilities of those two have changed over the Army’s history.

Early Rations
The Continental Congress legislated this ration:: One pound of beef, 18 ounces of flour, 1 pint of milk, 1 quart of spruce beer, 1.4 ounces of rice, and 6.8 ounces of peas.

Flour was often baked into hardtack to travel better; milk was a nice idea but it did not travel, and it is unlikely milk was regularly delivered anywhere, especially in those quantities. Spruce beer was a mild antiscorbutic (scurvy-preventative) agent, but, again, impractical because a quart of spruce beer per man per day was too large to be manageable. This ration kept you full and had enough calories if the Commissary General could actually supply everything, but was vitamin-deficient. That should not be a surprise; vitamins were not discovered until the early 20th Century and even carbohydrates, protein, and fat (as subcomponents of food with differing nutritional effects) were unknown concepts. The main reason foods were chosen for the ration was because they shipped and stored well. Moreover, troops were expected to get food beyond the ration: by purchase, by foraging, by gifts from civilians, or by growing it themselves if camped long enough.

The ration changed little between 1775 and the 1890s, and some moves were backwards. Vegetables and spruce beer were dropped in 1790. Coffee was added, and rum removed in 1832. Aside from a small allowance of peas and beans, there was relatively little change. Joseph Lovell, the first Surgeon General, suggested replacing some of the meat with vegetables, but he was ignored. However, the army did not waste away from deficiency diseases. First, soldiers bought and/or grew ration supplements; most forts had land to grow vegetables, keep cows, and so forth. Troops also foraged, either hunting or gathering. In the desert southwest, surgeons found cactus juice an effective, if unpalatable, anti-scorbutic. To get the troops to drink it they added sugar, lemon extract, and – probably the key – whiskey. Furthermore, “commutation” was allowed. A unit could take the cash value of some of the authorized ration and buy other food. But these supplements stopped when troops went into the field. Then it was back to hardtack and salt meat.

The Civil War
The ration was almost unchanged in the Civil War. Potatoes were added in 1861 and desiccated vegetables were available to U.S. forces, but troops hated them (calling them ‘desecrated vegetables’ or ‘compressed hay’) and over-cooked them. Thus, most of the vitamins that had survived the drying process were destroyed. To reduce bulk, “essence of coffee” was developed, but it looked – and tasted – like axle grease and was soon replaced with ground coffee. Eben Horsford, a pioneering civilian nutritionist, explored better rations, and the Army bought some to test. Horsford’s designed his Marching Ration to be more compact, with roast wheat instead of hardtack and 3 ounces of cooked-down beef he claimed was equivalent to 10 ounces of fresh lean beef. It may or may not have been nutritionally equivalent, but it was an utter disaster: the wheat molded and the meat spoiled – even dogs would not eat it.

In the Civil War there were thousands of troops on campaign for months and even years, and some nutritional problems arose. Scurvy developed over winters, and during the Atlanta Campaign around 20% of Sherman’s troops showed symptoms until fruits and berries were ripe. Elsewhere, there were occasional skirmishes for berry patches, the prize being the berries with their Vitamin C, although the troops probably wanted the sugar and flavor. Some Confederate troops, living largely off cornbread and bacon, developed night blindness due to low Vitamin A levels.

After the Civil War, the modest improvement for the citizen-soldiers disappeared. There was still no official field ration, although an improving canning industry could produce tinned meat and vegetables. These were mainly used as a travel ration for railroad journeys where troops could not build fires for cooking, rather than in the field.

By the 1890s there were glimmers of nutritional science. Foods were analyzed for carbohydrates, fat, and protein but the Army was still largely concerned with filling the stomach: 1882 regulations allowed the substitution of bread if no vegetables were available. In 1890 a pound of vegetables per day was authorized, but 70% had to be inexpensive potatoes.

Image: Soldiers cooking, Civil War. Source: Library of Congress



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