Hungry History

Starving Soldiers at Valley Forge

By Stephanie Butler
valley-forge

iStockphotos.com

The weather is finally turning colder, and the crisp morning air can only mean one thing: the season’s first snowfall isn’t far away. But imagine how chilling that cold air would be if you were a soldier in Washington’s army, preparing to spend a winter in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.

Even as the soldiers arrived in Valley Forge in the early winter of 1777, they were not in the best of health. A summer of hard-fought battles had left the men dispirited and discouraged. Additionally, their food rations were hardly generous: Each man was issued a pound of meat a day, either beef, salt pork or salt fish. A pound of flour was also given to each man daily. According to government regulations of the time, the troops were also supposed to get three pints of peas or beans (“or vegetables equivalent,” if they were lucky), a pint of milk per day and a smaller amount of rice, corn and molasses to round out their meals. Unfortunately, these regulations functioned more like ideal guidelines: Allowances were adjusted based on the availability of items at hand. If there were no beans or peas, more flour might be doled out. If no fresh milk was to be had–which, during wartime marches, was more often than not–the men had to go without.

Putting over 12,000 already weak men together in a ramshackle camp with little food was a recipe for disaster from the start. The men subsisted on a concoction called “firecake”–flour and water mixed together and baked in iron kettles. The men didn’t get any kind of yeast or leavening agent with their rations, so the firecakes were flat and dense. On a good day, the cakes were tasteless; on the bad days, weevils or maggots would have found the flour store and added some extra protein to the mix. The large amounts of salt needed to preserve meats rendered an end product that had to be soaked repeatedly to be remotely edible. And since animal fats are much less prone to spoilage than muscles, most of the “meat” the men were given resembled a hunk of salty lard more than a juicy chop or bacon slab.

Washington recognized his men were in dire straits, and wrote to Congress repeatedly for help, but none came until a German baker named Christopher Ludwick arrived at the camp. Ludwick was a devoted American patriot who also happened to be a very skilled baker. Sensing that a hungry army needed his talents, Congress appointed Ludwick “superintendent of bakers, and director of baking, in the grand army of the United States.” Ludwick promised to produce 135 pounds of bread for every 100 pounds of flour he was given, and did just that for the next five years of the war. His bread provided the one bit of culinary respite in the lives of an army of hungry men.

Categories: American Revolution, George Washington