Elegant Dining with the Lees.

Emerging Revolutionary War welcomes this guest submission by historian Werther Young, aka Elmer Woodard

Not THAT Lee. And not at Stratford Hall,  Leesylvani, nor Shirley plantations. No rustle of silk, silver platters from the kitchen, obsequious servants bowing and scraping, no twitter of conversation, nor the tinkling of crystal.  Our repast was much less spectacular. In his Memoirs, Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee told of a dining experience during the Race to the Dan on or about February 11, 1781. We tried to recreate that meal.

Lee’s Legion had been assigned By Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene to Col. Otho William’s Light Division, which had in turn been tasked with luring the British away from Greene’s main army on its retreat to Boyd’s Ferry (now South Boston, Virginia). Williams apparently roused his men at 3 a.m. at Guilford Courthouse (modern Greensboro, N.C.), drew rations, and marched north to collect his Delaware company at an outpost near Brice’s Crossroads (now Summerfield, North Carolina). He then marched northeast on the road to Dix’s Ferry (now US Rt. 158 towards Reidsville, North Carolina and Danville, Virginia) as far as Rodes’ House, six miles almost due north of Guilford Courthouse, and four miles northeast of Brice’s Crossroads.  With Lee’s cavalry rearguard at Rodes’ House, Williams’ infantry was probably spread out along the present Scalesville Road northeast towards Troublesome Iron Works and modern Reidsville. A Lt. Harrington commanded cavalry patrols southeast towards Salem, North Carolina on the Scalesville Road, the direction of the last reported location of the British. In the cool and drizzly morning, everything was quiet, so quiet that Williams’ men had started the slow process of cooking their rations. 

The latest intelligence put the British somewhere towards Salem (present Winston-Salem, North Carolina), some twenty-four miles away. Unfortunately, that information was stale. The British had marched early, passing through Dobson’s Crossroads (present day Kernersville, North Carolina) and by early morning were near present Oak Ridge, North Carolina just nine miles away from Rodes’ House and coming on hard, while Williams and his men were enjoying a “comfortable meal.”  

On paper, Revolutionary War infantry regiments were made up of companies of fifty men each. Generally, cavalrymen counted each horse as a man, so their “company” was only about twenty-five men, and was called a “troop.”  For ration purposes, each company/troop was further divided into subgroups of five or six men each, called a “mess.” In practice, a company could be anywhere from fifteen to seventy men, but let us stay with a typical size of fifty.  By 1781 in North Carolina, with many, many exceptions, army rations were essentially a pound of protein and a pound of carbohydrate per day, roughly four Quarter Pounder hamburgers per day.

“Protein” in the 1781 south was meat, usually pork, fresh or salted. Carbohydrate was usually ground corn, and was packaged from the mill in barrels of about 200 pounds.  Rations were usually issued in three day lots to the company, although six day lots were not unheard of. Indeed, the British 1768 warrant specified that the men’s haversacks were to be large enough for six days’ rations.   Williams’ “Light” Division was ‘Light’ because it did not contain wagons, so the men had to carry everything, including rations, themselves. Stopping to distribute rations would certainly lose the Race to the Dan, so the men were probably issued six days rations (two pounds per man per day, or twelve pounds per man) beforehand.[1]  Our theoretical fifty-man company would receive about 600 pounds of food for six days; the horsemen about the same because they had to feed the horse.  One whole (500 man) regiment would receive about 3,000 pounds of food.  Williams had about a regiment and a half, so his six days’ ration weight would approach 5,000 pounds. 

Rations were issued raw, and it was the messes’ responsibility to cook them.  One of the most essential pieces of equipment was therefore something to cook them in.  This item was so important that four iron kettles were among of the few items specifically mentioned by the Williamsburg Public Store on the very day it opened, October 12, 1775.[2] Kettles were sometimes cast iron, like a witch’s cauldron, but most often were sheet iron with soldered joints, holding about four gallons. Many were made in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Each mess received one kettle, which someone in the mess had to carry where ever they went.[3]

Read more: Elegant Dining with the Lees.

By 11 a.m. or so, somewhat delayed by the difficulties of igniting wet wood, Williams’ Light Division was happily cooking their rations. Lee described the fare as “the meat was on the coals and the corn cakes in the ashes.”[4] Apparently, it also was pretty far along in the process, as Lee referred to having had (past tense) a “comfortable meal” at that time.  For one five-man infantry mess with six days’ rations, this meant that they were boiling thirty pounds of meat and making thirty pounds of corn cakes per man.  

Earlier this year my son Patrick and I decided to try some applied archaeology and figure out just how the corn and pork ration system in the 1781 south worked.  We had found a first-person account from an Overmountain man who went through the Smoky Mountains from Sycamore Shoals (now Elizabethton, Tennessee) to King’s Mountain, North Carolina in ten days on twenty pounds of “parched corn,” about two pounds per day. While we had heard of parched corn, no one really knew what it was, because no one eats it anymore. Additional research showed that it’s just corn meal that has been browned over heat. It was usually mixed half and half with a sweetener of some sort. So, we browned some corn and mixed it with table sugar.  It tastes like sweet cornmeal-flavored sand.  We tried to make parched corn molasses bars, but this degenerated into a sticky mess, and we were … requested … to absent ourselves from the kitchen, permanently ending that part of that experiment.

The next project would be to figure out how Colonel Lee and his men prepared their February repast.  Having thirty years’ experience as a Civil War reenactor with the 44th Virginia and 5th New York Zouaves, I knew that cooking meat on coals in a hurry results most of the time in semi-raw, inedible meat, and corn cakes made in the ashes are just gritty yellow discs that taste like burned dirt.  Given that Lee’s Legion moved about sixty miles in five days, they weren’t eating raw meat and burned dirt.  

Happily, I have a four-gallon mess kettle, and so the experiment began. As it turned out, a friend had recently killed his wife’s pet hog, and he generously donated ten pounds of frozen pork.  In 1781,  pork was either on the hoof or salted, the only way of preserving it at the time.  Since Mr. Hogg was no longer on the hoof, our friend salted it. Finding a watertight oak barrel difficult to come by, he dry-salted it in a food safe plastic bucket, with a layer of pickling salt, then a layer of meat, and so on until the bucket was full, with the top layer being salt.  It then sat for several months, during which time we turned to the carbohydrate issue.

Corn meal is a much more complex article than one would imagine.  Back then in the South it was not just a staple, but THE staple. Farmers planted corn, which generated about twenty-six bushels (approximately 1500 pounds) per acre.  When harvested in the fall, the stalk was cut and then a dozen or so stalks tied together and set upright into a “shock” to dry.  Once dried, the ears went into the corn crib and the stalks fed the animals. Periodically the farmer removed the kernels from the cobs, placed them in a log bucket or a cloth bag, and took them to the mill to be ground.  The miller ground the corn, taking a percentage, and returned the rest to the farmer.  This would last a family of four for about two months before it became musty, at which time the farmer would shuck more corn and go back to the miller.  

The mill was water powered and contained two mill stones which ground the corn kernels into meal.  Nowadays, most “corn meal” is for baked corn bread, and is superfine, almost like powdered sugar.  Back then, this was almost unheard of.  The finer the grind, the higher the miller’s toll (grinding fee), so the grinds were usually much coarser.  Fine meal, meal, and grits were what humans generally ate.  One coarseness level below grits was “Indian grind,” which only Indians would buy, because it was the cheapest grind but still fit for humans, rather than animals.  Soldiers received it, too.  We managed to find a local mill that was happy to make us some Indian grind but we had to buy fifty pounds of it.  Ten bucks later, we had a about eight gallons of Indian grind.

We were not too thrilled about eating burned, dirt flavored disks, so we decided not to make ash cakes.  A bit of research revealed that non-ash corn cakes were often made on a flat rock, or even a shovel blade. We decided to use a spade blade with the edges bent up.  Spades these days are surprisingly expensive, but a case of beer delivered to a pal at the local machine shop soon had us a brand-new steel spade blade with turned up edges and an integral handle, just as shown in the Collectors Encyclopedia.[5]  

Rummaging through the pile of rarely-used reenacting gear produced a foot long “flesh” fork for manipulating the chunks of pork, a small kettle to mix in, a ladle, and a spatula for flipping, although these items could technically be considered cheating. Ten pounds of salt pork has its own unique needs, so we scrubbed out a cooler, put Mr. Hogg’s remains on ice, and set forth. 

As members of the re-created 7th Virginia Regiment, we attended their annual living history event at the Gloucester Museum of History in Gloucester Courthouse, Virginia, where the 7th was initially mustered in April 1776.  Since fires were not allowed, one of the members brought a charcoal brazier.  Not exactly wet wood from February 1781, but it would do. Once the coals were going, the first task was to put the pork on.  This was pretty simple, in that you put the pork in the kettle, fill it with water, and put it on the fire. The point of this is to remove the salt and cook the meat.  Ten pounds of salt pork half-filled the kettle. With the pork simmering, we reviewed the next phase of the plan.  When lard formed on the top of the water, we’d skim it off. When the pork was done, we’d use the salty pork water (the “liquor”) to make batter for the corn cakes, and then fry them in the lard on the spade.

Of course, the plan went awry almost from the beginning.  Despite a lot of boiling, there was not much lard, and nothing was going to get fried without any lard.  One of the kind folks at the museum had to run and errand and agreed to pick up a pound of lard for us.  Of course, as soon as she left, the kettle hit critical lard mass, and we were up to our smallclothes in it. We needed a way to get rid of the lard, so my son Patrick used the small kettle to go ahead and mix water with the Indian grind, and I greased up the shovel. In the meantime, we were fighting a lard tsunami that threatened to boil over into the fire.  We took turns using the spatula to skim, but had no place to put it, except my drinking cup. Hot lard is much like sand at the beach—it gets into everything. The cup was too hot to handle, so we had to use a rag.  Which was soon hot and slippery, because it was full of lard.  Soon our hands were covered with a layer of lard, which at least made everything else slippery.  

We must have gotten the triple expansion Indian grind, because soon we had half a gallon of batter and a hot shovel, so we started frying. The soupy batter just ran all over the shovel and over and out the sides in a giant boondoggle, but over time the water soaked into the grind, stiffening it up.  A three-inch portion, one-half inch thick, was enough to fry in place and we soon learned to flip it just as the visible top side began to tan, not brown, about five minutes for the first side, and four for the second. 

We soon had it going like gangbusters, cranking out five shovelcakes every ten minutes.  Surprisingly, the only thing that Indian grind likes to absorb more than water is – lard.  All of the lard we had skimmed was soon gone, but we avoided disaster by fishing nice fatty chunks of pork out of the kettle and greasing the shovel with that. In no time, we had gone through two pounds of Indian grind and had a plate of thirty to forty shovel cakes to go with our salt pork. The moment of truth had arrived.  Someone had to try it.  This whole thing being my idea, this duty fell to me. 

Honestly, it was pretty good.  The boiled salt pork tasted exactly like boiled pork, now known as “pork loin.”  We had accidentally used water in the Indian Grind instead of the kettle liquor from the pork, so the shovel cakes needed salt, but they were still really good, being essentially a crunchy corn pancake. Everyone was eating them like potato chips.  We purloined some honey from the surgeon, and the shovelcakes became REALLY good. Shovelcakes differ from potato chips in that the former, like the parched corn, are immensely filling.  After three or four each, everyone was stuffed, and we still had plenty of them, so we tossed them in a haversack, and turned to stopping car traffic to interrogate the drivers as to whether they were a friend of American Liberty or vile traitors in league with the pernicious Lord Dunmore.  Most of the drivers had clearly never heard of Lord Dunmore, but they got it when we used somc…historical license… and changed the vile traitor to the pernicious Benedict Arnold.  To our great surprise, the shovelcakes survived the trip home largely without crumbling, and we munched on shovelcakes while scrubbing out the kettles. We rustproofed the inside with lard.  We cleaned the guns and oiled them with lard. And we still have a great deal of lard.  

In summation, we had duplicated how Lee and his men fed themselves on the Race to the Dan.  Each mess had cooked its six days ration of thirty pounds of meat and made dozens of ash/shovelcakes out of their thirty pounds of Indian grind for their “comfortable meal” on that cold drizzly day in February.  What they didn’t eat hot went into their haversacks, and though we haven’t quite yet confirmed this, probably turned that item into a lard-soaked corny gritty pork mess.  Since it was already fully cooked, they could reach in and munch at any time, and all they needed to do for the next meal was to reheat it over the fire.

Recipe for stovetop Gateaux de la Pelle (shovel cakes):

1 cup water

½ cup Indian grind

¾ teaspoon salt

4 tablespoons butter

Boil water and add salt.  When hot, add butter.  Once the butter has melted, combine this mixture with the Indian grind, adding small amounts of grind until the batter is stiff.  Spoon onto well lard/bacon greased griddle/frying pan. Turn when the top side is just tan, just about to brown.  Condiments include honey, butter, molasses, more butter, powdered sugar, and/or more butter.

Regular store-bought corn meal probably won’t work, as it is too fine.  Uncooked yellow or white grits might work, but we haven’t tried that.  Yet.   

Returning to 1781, while “the meat was on the coals and the corn cakes in the ashes,” a citizen galloped into Williams’ camp at Rodes’ House.  The man had found one of Lt. Harrington’s patrols and had been rushed to headquarters in the emergency.  The British had evaded detection and were now only four miles away, approaching Brice’s Crossroads.  It was all mess kettles and elbows.  No doubt shocked that he had been so badly surprised, Williams ordered his men to stop cooking, fall in, and escape northeast.  Lee and his men rode south to fight – and delay – Banastre Tarleton and his Legion.


[1] The British accounts reveal that they had to forage during the Race, and were nevertheless starving.  In contrast, the American account mention extreme fatigue, but little hunger.

[2] Gregory B. Sandor, Journal of the Public Store at Williamsburg (privately published, 2015), 1.  See also 9, 10.

[3] Linen Bags for Camp Kettles (revwar75.com)

[4] Henry Lee, Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department of the United States (Miami, FL: Hardpress, 2017), ebook location 4523-4542.  No mention is made of any campfire grates, fire irons, dining flies, etc.

[5] Spade converted into a frying pan by soldiers, from the collections of Morristown National Historical Park. Pictured in George C. Neumann and Frank J. Kravic, Collector’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of the American Revolution, (Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 1975), 94.

Wether Young  is a graduate of Norfolk Academy, Washington and Lee University, and Campbell University School of Law.  He has practiced law in Virginia for 35 years.  . Beginning in 1987, he has been a member or the 44th Virginia, Coppens’ Zouaves, Brian Pohanka’s 5the New York Duryees’ Zouaves (First Sergeant), the Life Guard, King Charles I, 151er Regiment de l’Armee de France, His Majesty’s Marines, and the 7th Virginia Regiment.  Publications include “Evolutions of the Color Guard in the Cam Chase Gazette,” and  “Johnson & Dow Waterproof and Combustible Cartridges” in the magazine of the Company of Military Historians. He is also the author of “A Bloody Day at Gaines’ Mill “  (McFarland, 2019). 

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