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Uncommon Sense

By oieahc · December 05, 2017

Histories of Hunger in the American Revolution

Doing History 14 min read

Today’s post accompanies “The American Revolution in North America,” episode 163 of Ben Franklin’s World and part of the Doing History 2: To the Revolution! series. You can find supplementary materials for the episode on the OI Reader app, available through iTunes or Google Play.

By Rachel B. Herrmann

Poor Joseph Plumb Martin. The Connecticut private had been at it again—eating something a bit iffy to deal with his hunger. This time, it was “an old ox’s liver” that Martin had procured from camp butchers before chucking it into his kettle. The more he boiled it, “the harder it grew,” he recalled, but he ate it anyway. The next morning, Martin’s stomachache drove him to the doctor, who gave him “a large dose of tartar emetic.” After taking the medicine and exercising to encourage it to do its work, Martin promptly “discharged the hard junks of liver like grapeshot from a fieldpiece.”[1] Martin ate a fair amount of offal throughout his service. He sampled “A sheep’s head which” he “begged of the butchers,” and an ox’s milt, or spleen—which also made him vomit.[2] Not all soldiers shared Martin’s predilection for what chefs today refer to fondly as “the nasty bits,” but during the Revolutionary War, British and American soldiers suffered from the curse of bad army food.

Hunger affected people in different ways during and after the War for Independence. Martin’s empty belly drove him to eat food he knew might make him ill. He found hunger such a pervasive problem that he personified it, referring to “The monster Hunger” in his retrospective account of the war.[3] Martin’s memoir offers historians a useful starting point for considering the way that white, male soldiers experienced food deprivation while fighting in places like New York and Connecticut. The fact that his narrative has been published makes the source more accessible to our students, too. As this episode of Doing History makes clear, however, the war stretched from Florida to Nova Scotia and from Boston to the Mississippi, and its chronology creeps backward into the 1750s and 1760s, and forward at least to the 1790s. When we consider published accounts by lesser-known writers like former slave David George, and harder-to-access manuscripts like the British Headquarters Papers, we can come closer to appreciating the full range of the ways that people anticipated, endured, and dealt with food scarcities.

Native American and black forces also dealt with want, and in ways that were both similar to and different from the coping strategies that Martin used. Formerly enslaved people and Indians battled hunger by stealing cattle and grain for their own consumption, and for the military entities for whom they fought. They created hunger among their enemies, and prevented it among their allies—and in this respect, their experiences resembled Martin’s. In other instances, Native Americans and formerly enslaved soldiers seemed to have opinions about hunger that distinguished them from Martin. In August of 1779, in the wake of Major General John Sullivan’s destructive invasion of Iroquoia, British-allied Iroquois Indians had an odd approach to food supply. The campaign had left at least 160,000 burnt bushels of corn in its wake, but Iroquois Indians during this period began to critique their British allies, who they said “talked of nothing but Provisions.”[4] Martin had witnessed other people with unruly appetites. After the Battle of Harlem Heights he saw a lieutenant colonel respond to a soldier who “complained of being hungry.” The colonel produced “an ear of Indian corn burnt as black as a coal” from his pocket and told the man to eat it to better “learn to be a soldier.”[5] Martin may have romanticized the officer’s toughness to remind readers that many American soldiers remained unpaid for their service; he published his narrative anonymously in 1830, after finally getting his pension in 1818. The people who observed Indians had a harder time understanding their motivations, but they studied their appetites anyway, and concluded that they were physically better able to deal with periods of want compared to their non-Native allies.

As I remind my students, the British lost the war, and so when we talk about the formerly enslaved people who decided to cast their lots with the British, we need to remember that they likely worried a lot about that choice in 1783. Formerly enslaved people—who had attacked former masters’ plantations to steal foodstuffs for the support of British troops—had to migrate, or risk re-enslavement and still more drastic punishment. When they ran from the former mainland American colonies to Nova Scotia, they dealt with hunger in ways that might have surprised Joseph Plumb Martin. Their experiences with want, and their strategies for coping with it, should suggest the extent to which the effects of the war stretched across the North American continent.

Watercolor sketch of an African Nova Scotian by Capt. William Booth (1788), Nova Scotia Archives National Archives of Canada C-040162 W.H. Coverdale Collection of Canadiana,

In Nova Scotia, white Loyalists blocked black colonists’ access to land, and they enacted food laws to avoid famine. Their baking, fishing, and marketing regulations became a way to fight white hunger while ignoring—and sometimes creating—black neediness. In the face of these challenges, black colonists did not advocate for the immediate eradication of hunger, nor did they agitate for the right to prevent it themselves; like the Iroquois, they deemphasized their appetites and criticized those who hungered too much. David George—who ran away from slavery, became a butcher supplying pork to the British, and converted to Baptism—was one of the men who made it to present-day Canada. He told the story of a moment at St. John’s, where he sailed to baptize other black colonists. When he disembarked, he recalled, the people “were so full of joy that they ran out from waiting at table on their masters, with the knives and forks in their hands, to meet me at the water side.”[6] In this vivid image, black people—possibly free black servants, or possibly the bondpeople whom white Loyalists brought with them—abandoned their roles as food preparers and servers, taking with them the cutlery that allowed people to serve food in a civilized way. If these white masters wished to remain satiated, George implied, they would need to eat with their fingers.

David George had made it to Nova Scotia. The people who remained in the new United States also thought about hunger. The British had tried—and largely failed—to understand Indian appetites during the war; the Americans struggled to reckon with them, too. By the 1810s, federal officials had come to fear outbreaks of famine in Indian towns and villages, because they associated hunger with violence. They began to consider distributions of food aid that they knew would foster disease, thus providing a destructive alternative to military campaigns. In 1815 Benjamin Stickney, Indian Agent at Fort Wayne, wrote to William Crawford, Secretary of War, and described the “observations” he “had the opportunity of making.” Stickney had discovered “that three or four months’ full feeding on meat and bread, even without ardent spirit, will bring on disease, and, in six or eight months, great mortality.” Stickney paused long enough to wonder whether it would “be considered a proper mode of warfare” to encourage this growth of disease. But he did not ponder long, because economic savings compensated for his moral reservations. He believed that “more Indians might be killed with the expense of $100,000 in this way, than $1,000,000 expended in the support of armies to go against them.”[7] He knew that health specialists had learned that wheat and meat had deleterious effects on Indians. Stickney was a minor official in the overall structure of the U.S. government, but he felt comfortable using Native hunger as an excuse to wage a new type of war against them.

These varied experiences of hunger creation and prevention illustrate that during the Revolutionary War, there was no uniform way to describe rumbling stomachs. Hunger was a monster that prowled across the continent. Hunger was not to be born. Hunger was endurable. Hunger was power. Hunger was proto-scientific. Hunger was benevolence. Hunger was war.

Rachel B. Herrmann is a Lecturer in Modern American History at Cardiff University. Her book No Useless Mouth: Hunger and the American Revolution, is under contract with Cornell University Press.


[1] James Kirby Martin, ed., Ordinary Courage: The Revolutionary Adventures of Joseph Plumb Martin, Second Edition (St. James, NY: Brandywine Press, 1999 [1993]), 114.

[2] Martin, Ordinary Courage, (for the sheep’s head) 31, (for the ox’s spleen) 47.

[3] Martin, Ordinary Courage, 109.

[4] Lieutenant Colonel Mason Bolton to General Haldimand, Niagara, August 16, 1779, photostat 2202, box 10, British Headquarters Papers, New York Public Library. See also Rachel B. Herrmann, “‘No useless Mouth’: Iroquoian Food Diplomacy in the American Revolution,” Diplomatic History, 41, no. 1 (2017), 42-44.

[5] Martin, Ordinary Courage, 28.

[6] “An Account of the Life of Mr. DAVID GEORGE, from Sierra Leone in Africa; given by himself in a Conversation with Brother RIPPON of London, and Brother PEARCE of Birmingham,” (London, 1793-1797), in Unchained Voices: An Anthology of Black Authors in the English-Speaking World of the Eighteenth Century, ed. Vincent Carretta (Lexington, 1996), 339.

[7] B[enjamin] F. Stickney to William H. Crawford [Secretary of War], Indian Agency Office, Fort Wayne, 1 October 1815, in American State Papers, Class II, vol. 2, 86. For more on Stickney see To James Madison from William Bentley, 11 December 1809, Founders Online. Accessed July 11, 2017.


[…] Histories of hunger in the American Revolution. […]
Nursing Clio Sunday Morning Medicine  •  December 10, 2017
Thanks for the comment, Ken!
Rachel Herrmann  •  December 08, 2017
Good work Rachel, Martin wrote later, and as survivor he could laugh, but as you see, the burden of his essay is as bitter as hunger. They had taken the Revolution away from him and folks like him. His hunger was a metaphor for a larger hunger, left unsatisfied. You treat it well. Ken Lockridge
Ken Lockridge  •  December 05, 2017

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