Ardent Spirits on the Expedition

Page 1 of 4

by Robert R. Hunt

Reprinted by permission from We Proceeded On,
(August and November, 1991).

"If you contemplate some enterprise against the enemy,
the commissary must scrape together all of the
beer and brandy that can be found."

Meriwether Lewis must have blinked when Dr. Rush advised him how to take care of his health. In Philadelphia in June 1803, preparing for his voyage of discovery across the continent, Lewis had been referred by President Jefferson to Benjamin Rush. Dr. Rush was the leading physician and professor of medicine at the nation's first medical school, the University of Pennsylvania. He drew up a list of eleven rules as a guide for Lewis in caring for the medical needs of the Expedition.1 Most of Rush's rules seem rather routine to us today. "Rest in a horizontal position," he said—a standard bit of advice, certainly, for soldiers who learn in boot camp never to stand when you can sit and never to sit when you can lie down. Other rules had to do with fasting, sweating, washing, and "gently opening the bowels." But rules number 6 and 8 must have caused Lewis to suppress a smile:

Rule 6: "The less spirit you use the better."
Rule 8: "After having your feet much chilled it will be useful to wash them with a little spirit."

What was an Army captain, about to lead a contingent of soldiers on a prolonged campaign, to make of these injunctions about "spirits?" Could Dr. Rush have realized (or did he know all too well?) how much the military of this era depended upon the liquor ration? After seven years of frontier experience prior to his tour with the President, Lewis knew well enough that spirits were not for foot baths, and that rations must be ample to last throughout a mission

Lewis's Early Army Experience

His acquired learning on such matters began with his very first days in the Army. As a volunteer at age 20 in the Virginia Corps during the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, the new recruit wrote home from western Pennsylvania that he and his mates were each "cutting a most martial figure. . . . We have mountains of beef and oceans of whiskey, and I feel myself able to share it with the heartiest fellow in camp."2 A year later, commissioned an Ensign, serving with General Anthony Wayne in the Ohio Valley Campaigns, Lewis became involved in a "spirited" dispute with a fellow junior officer. Accused of being drunk and ungentlemanly, he was brought before a court martial, the first held in Wayne's Legion.3 He emerged from this scrape "not guilty" and was acquitted with honor but one wonders whether too much whiskey had been shared among these "hearty young fellows in camp." Considering the rough and tumble life of a soldier on the frontier, with its daily conditioning to the use of spirits, such incidents were inevitable.

Background of the Liquor Ration

Despite its risks, the liquor ration was an absolute necessity. No military commander of the 18th Century would have thought of leading his troops on any mission without planning for this need. Frederick the Great, probably the greatest military strategist of that time, advised in his writings:

If you contemplate some enterprise against the enemy, the commissary must scrape together all of the beer and brandy that can be found en route so that the Army does not lack either, at least during the first days. As soon as the Army enters enemy territory all of the brewers and distillers, especially of brandy, must be seized so that the soldier does not lack a drink, which he cannot do without.4

Thomas Jefferson, as Governor of Virginia during the Revolution, attended to these needs through legislation by the General Assembly. "Officers, soldiers, sailors and marines raised under the Laws of the Commonwealth, shall, during their continuance in the service, be furnished . . . with . . . rum or brandy at ten shillings by the gallon, whiskey at five shillings by the gallon."5 And in August 1780 he writes that "We have lately appointed a commercial agent within whose particular line of duty it will be to provide spirit for the army. To him we shall refer the proposition of General Roberdeau to furnish whiskey."6 These "furnishings" were not cheap. Jefferson's papers include an order on the State of Virginia of April 4, 1781 from General Nathanael Greene for $14,500 for 110 gallons of whiskey "purchased for the use of the Southern Army."7

The liquor ration authorized by resolution of Congress November 4, 1775 for General Washington's Continental Army included "one quart of good spruce or malt beer."8 After the Constitution was established, Congress by the Act of April 30, 1790 gave the enlisted man of the Army (in addition to clothing and food allowance) a daily ration of "half a gill of rum, brandy or whiskey."9 This basic ration was revised by Congress by the Act of March 16, 1802 authorizing a liquor ration of one gill of rum (thus the official ration throughout the Lewis and Clark Expedition) which remained in effect through the War of 1812.10 By the time of that war, temperance sentiments seemed to have set in. A veteran of 1812, Charles Cist, relates his belief that the whiskey ration "was drank by parts only of each mess; but its presence, and the convivial spirit of those days, doubtless led too many to contract a relish for ardent spirits, which brought individuals in after-periods of their lives to a premature grave."11

Cist's conclusion as to the dire effects of Army spirits seems tellingly confirmed during the Black Hawk Campaign in Illinois in June 1832. The commanding general, Winfield Scott, seeing the effects of drunkenness in connection with an epidemic of cholera among his troops, echoed Cist's vision of premature graves with his famous order as follows:

That every soldier or ranger who shall be found drunk or sensibly intoxicated, after the publication of this order, be compelled as soon as his strength will permit, to dig a grave at a suitable burying place, large enough for his own reception, as such graves cannot fail to be wanted for the drunken man himself or some drunken companion. This order is given as well to serve as a punishment for drunkenness, as to spare good and temperate men the labor of digging graves for their worthless companions."12

Scott's order was issued at the very time when "ardent spirits" were abolished from the ration and were forbidden in any camp, fort or garrison. Sugar and coffee had replaced the issue of whiskey. Thus it was that by November 1832 the Army had been the "first institution of our government to prescribe prohibition for its personnel."13

Logistics of the Ration

But at the time of Lewis and Clark, the ration was still very much a part of military life. To understand its implications for the Expedition, one must know its logistics: quantities, procurement, shipment, storage, distribution and usage. In legislation and military orders of the day, the ration was typically expressed in "gills." The journals of the Expedition refer also to "drams" and to "grog." How much is a gill? The Oxford English Dictionary defines a gill as "a measure of liquids containing one fourth of a standard pint." In folk terms, "a pint is a pound the world around." Thus, at one fourth of a pint, a gill equates to four ounces. With two pints to the quart and four quarts to the gallon, there are thirty-two gills to the gallon—in other words, one soldier's ration for thirty-two days per the authorized ration at the time of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

A fluid "dram" equals one-eighth of a fluid ounce (containable in two thimbles of average size), thus 128 drams per pint (i.e. 8 X 16 oz.) and 1024 drams per gallon (i.e. 8 X 128). "Grog" is defined as a drink "consisting of spirits (originally rum) and water . . . 'half and half grog,' a drink made of equal parts of spirits and water." All of these terms appear repeatedly in the journals of the Expedition and should be clear in mind as the reader follows Lewis and his party across the continent.

To give the reader a modern-day perspective on the effect of a ration of one gill (equivalent as noted above to four ounces of whiskey), it should be noted that the American Medical Association and the National Safety Council have made studies of levels of alcohol in the blood causing intoxication.14 These studies became the basis for the conclusion that blood values of 0.10% or more is evidence of being "under the influence." This standard has been generally adopted in many states of the U.S. as legal evidence of intoxication and grounds for apprehension as a dangerous driver.15 The accompanying illustration shows volumes of whiskey or beer necessary to produce such level. The inference is that the daily ration authorized for Lewis's Corps of Discovery would have been at an intoxicating level.

Blood alcohol as related to driving. A 150 lb person is questionalbe with 2 beers and illegal with 4.

When Lewis was in Philadelphia in 1803 he had to determine how much liquor was to be provided for the Expedition to fulfill the Army allowance for his men. He made a "List of Requirements" for the public purveyor who was to make his purchases. Under "Provisions and Means of Subsistence," Lewis listed:

"6 kegs of 5 gallons each making 30 gallons of rectified spirits such as is used for the Indian trade
6 kegs bound with iron Hoops."16

The accounts show that $70.00 was paid June 1, 1803 (i.e., $2.44 per gallon) for "Strong Spt. Wine" plus $1.20 each for the 6 kegs.17 This supply was shipped by wagon along with the other purchases in Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, put on board the keel boat there to accompany Lewis down the Ohio, thence up to St. Louis and Camp Dubois, the Expedition's staging ground. But, as noted above, one gallon of spirits would supply one man's ration for only 32 days; thus this purchase of 30 gallons would have supplied Lewis's ultimate party only about one month. As the scale of the project began to expand beyond the small cadre of soldiers originally contemplated, provisions had to be made at the staging area for additional supplies. The record is sketchy as to the extent of liquor acquisition there. Clark notes on January 28, 1804 that "Mr. Cummins came with meel & Brandy from contractor . . . at 6 oClock 14° above O, Porter all frosed & several bottles broke."18 And the next day Clark records receiving 8 bottles of wine on the "Express returned from Koho." Lewis also accounted for additional supplies while the Corps was at Camp Dubois. He calculated, as of May 21, 1804, amounts due to Elijah G. Galusha for purchase of 538 rations furnished the detachment between December 1803 and March 180419—the period when the men recruited or assigned to the Expedition were reporting for duty. 538 rations translate to about 17 soldiers for 32 days. On May 18, 1804 Clark records that "two keel boats arrive from Kentucky today loaded with whiskey, Hats, etc. &c." Can the reader assume that these boats carried cargo for delivery to the Expedition or is Clark merely observing commercial civilian traffic on the river? This reference may have been a basis for an assumption that these boats delivered their "whiskey, Hats, etc." to Lewis and Clark; at least one commentator (Rochonne Abrams) alleges that the Expedition carried 300 gallons of spirits.20 No real grounds have been found for such a high figure. As to the actual amount of liquor ultimately transported, specific references in the journals remain the basis for our estimates. The most informative reference is Lewis's undated memo (probably mid-April 1804) regarding his expenses, compiled at Camp Dubois.21 This included the following:

"100 G. Whiskey 128 cents 128.00
20 G. Whiskey Do 25.00

The above figures may tie in with Clark's entry made earlier at Camp Dubois, January 26, 1804 when Clark was planning for the stowing away of provisions in the Expedition's own keel boat. He offered the following table:

Kegs In I
45 for pok 18 long 10 Thick
50 for flour 24 long 15 Thick
18 whiskey 15 long 12 Thick
7   corn    
120    

On the presumption that Clark is recording the dimensions of barrel-type kegs (i.e., broader or "thicker" in the middle than at top and bottom) we may estimate the gallonage of spirits which were stored in the hold. A barrel-shaped keg 15" high, 12" wide at its "thickest" middle and 10" wide on top and bottom (on the assumption that the staves, the lid and the bottom were½" thick) would contain 1184.761 cubic inches.22 One gallon contains 231 cubic inches. Thus one keg of such dimensions would contain ca. 5.13 gallons and 18 kegs would contain 92.34 gallons—assume then that these were 5 gallon kegs; the 18 kegs would account for 90 gallons. This supply plus the 30 gallons purchased in Philadelphia would account for the 120 gallons in Lewis's expense estimates noted above, which we assume here for the purpose of this paper was the total supply carried when leaving Camp Dubois.

Sufficiency of the Ration

Two questions come to mind: First, how long would this level of supply last, and second, what supply would have been necessary to last until July 4, 1805, the date recorded for the last of the ration? In addressing both questions, a tentative assumption is made that the daily ration distribution was the official one gill authorized by law and that the distribution was limited to U.S. soldiers on board.

These assumptions are prompted by Donald Jackson's analysis of "The Expedition as a Military Detachment."23 Jackson reminds us that "Lewis and Clark were Army men going by the book." Further, that soldiers like those on the Expedition knew, when they lined up for the ration, "exactly how much whiskey they would receive while it lasted." Going "by the book," rations could be drawn only for U.S. soldiers, sworn in and on duty, not for the non-soldier members of the party such as the accompanying French engages, and the "hires," including Drewyer, Charbonneau, et al. To determine the adequacy of the supply, the number of those participating in the ration can be calculated by journal references to the personnel complement, such as when the voyage paused near the junction of the Missouri and the Kansas Rivers. Clark provided then a short summary of the party as of July 4, 1804 below a list of the engages as follows:

3 sergts. & 23 men from the Boat (good)
George Drewyer
1 Corpl & 4 Privates in a Perogue . . .
Mr. Dueron
Capt. Lewis myself &York
in all 46 men July 4th 4 horses & a Dog

Extrapolating from this table, there were 33 U.S. soldiers (including the two captains) entitled to participate in the base ration. Captains were authorized three rations a day (on the premise that they had to provide for servants);24 the 33 base number would thus be augmented by 4, i.e. plus 2 each, for both Lewis and Clark, in addition to the per capita count. This makes a total ration base of 37 for the period from May 14, 1804 (departure date) through the winter to April 7, 1805 when the permanent party headed west, and the return party south, i.e., 330 days in all. Thereafter the permanent party "consisted of the two Captains, three sergeants, twenty-three privates, Drouillard, Charbonneau, Sacagawea and her infant and York"25 the military ration base was then 32, from April 7, 1805 through July 4, 1805, the date on which there was no longer any supply of ardent spirits.

Remembering that one gallon provides one ration for 32 days, the questions as to adequacy of the supply for the above bases can be answered: First, 120 gallons would have provided 37 rations at the "legal rate" for only 104 days, that is, would have lasted only from May 14, 1804 until about August 26, 1804, still a long way from winter quarters at the Mandans. Second, if full rations could have been distributed from May 14 1804 to July 4, 1805, approximately 470 gallons of spirits would have been needed, i.e. 94 kegs of gallons each! Where could Clark have stashed an additional 70 kegs or more on the keel boat? Even that supply could have lasted the party only as far as the Great Falls. These considerations make it clear 1) that the estimated supply of ardent spirits was grossly inadequate for soldiery expectations, but on the other hand, 2) that it would have been impossible as a practical matter of available cargo space to have started the voyage with provisions for full rations for even half the distance to be traveled. If indeed only 120 gallons were on board at embarkation, the Commanders would seem to have erred significantly. Paul Russell Cutright has noted that when Lewis was in Philadelphia preparing for his trip he "knew in general what articles he wanted to take, but he chafed under the problems of how much to buy. . . . He made mistakes."26 Cutright ranks the shortage of the liquor supply alongside the failure to buy enough of the blue trading beads as among the most serious of Lewis's mistakes. In short, after less than four months of the voyage up the Missouri, there was an insufficient ration of spirits on hand.


1. Donald Jackson, ed., Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition with Related Documents, 1783-1854, 2nd ed., 2 vols. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978), 1:54-55.

2. Richard Dillon, Meriwether Lewis, A Biography (New York: Coward-McCann, 1965), 19.

3. Ibid., 20-21.

4. Jay Luvaas, ed., Frederick the Great on the Art of War (New York: Free Press, 1966), 110.

5. Charles T. Cullen and Julian Parks Boyd, eds., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, 21 vols. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1983), 2:379.

6. Ibid., 3:543.

7. Ibid., 5:342.

8. Willam A. Ganoe, The History of the United States Army (New York: Appleton, 1924), 13-14.

9. Ibid., 95-96.

10. "The United States Army Rations," Miscellaneous Files (Food), Mimeo compilation of ration ingredients, 1775-1930s. U.S. Army Military History Institute, Carlisle Barracks, Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

11. Charles Cist, The Cincinnati Miscellany, or Antiquities of the West, compiled from the Western General Advertiser (1845; reprint, New York: Arno, 1971), 251-2.

12. Ganoe, History, 171-2.

13. Ibid., 172. See also Gerald Carson, the Social History of Bourbon, an Unhurried Account of our Star-Spangled American Drink (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1963), 8-9, 20-21, 72ff, 251n.

14. Encyclopedia Britannica (1966), "Alcoholism."

15. See State of Washington, RCW 46:61:502.

16. Jackson, Letters, 1:72.

17. Ibid., 1:88.

18. Gary E. Moulton, ed., The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, 13 vols., (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983-2001), 2:155. All quotations or references from the Journals noted herein are from the Moulton edition.

19. Jackson, Letters, 2:429n.

20. Rochonne Abrams, "Meriwether Lewis: the Logistical Imagination," The Bulletin, Missouri Historical Society, 36, 4, pt. 1 (July 1980), 229.

21. Moulton, 2:200.

22. The formula for calculating the interior cubic inches for a keg of such dimensions, on the assumptions made, is: V = .262H(2D2 + d2) where V = volume, H = height, D = diameter at widest point, and d = diameter at narrowest point. Thus V = .262 x 14(2 x 112 + 92). I. N. Bronshtein and K. A. Semendiaev, Handbook of Mathematics (New York:Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1985), 182. The author is indebted to Joseph E. Hunt and Yang Hexiong of Seattle, Washington, for assistance in these calculations.

23. Donald Jackson, Thomas Jefferson & the Stony Mountains: Exploring the West from Monticello (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1981), 164-9.

24. Ibid., 182-3 and note 8.

25. Moulton, 3:4.

26. Paul Russell Cutright, "Meriwether Lewis Prepares for a Trip West," The Bulletin, Missouri Historical Society, 23, 1 (October 1966), 3-20.