A Brief History of the Naval Spirit Ration


Oct 3, 2019
Frederick, MD
In this brief history, I try to put the famous end of the ration during the Civil War in the context of the greater history of the American naval spirit ration, going back to the colonial era. This is adapted from a lecture I delivered at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in conjunction with Tobacco Barn Distillery to promote their USS Constellation Rum, and from a blog post I wrote on my website British Tars: 1740-1790.

It’s easy to assume that there is a single, universal naval tradition. In truth, French sailing culture is as different from British as it is from Russian and Spanish. As a British colony, Americans inherited the British maritime subculture and made some deviations over the course of our history.

It is for this reason that we associate rum so closely with sailors. Rum was primarily a product of the British Caribbean, and due to winds and tides it was necessary for British naval and merchant vessels to sail up to North America before the return voyage to Europe. It is unsurprising then that the number one import for colonial Maryland, outstripping all others, was rum.

On these voyages, merchant and naval sailors could lay in their own personal stores of alcohol. John Fray, a sailor on the Maryland merchantman Rumney & Long in 1747/8 bought twelve gallons of wine, two gallons of brandy, fifteen gallons of cider, and twelve and a half gallons of rum. That’s more than 41 gallons for a single voyage. All told, alcohol cost him four pounds and seventeen shillings, about a quarter of all his expenses.

Maryland State Archives, SC 1065, Rumney & Long ledger book, f.14.JPG

Maryland State Archives, SC 1065, Rumney & Long ledger book, f.14

Naval vessels carried their own stores of alcoholic beverages as well. In this return from the Royal Navy’s 60-gun Centurion in early 1755, about the time that she sailed in convoy to North America with the 50-gun Norwich during the French and Indian War, we see how many tons of beer and water each vessel carried for the voyage across the Atlantic.

ADM 4_180 f499.png

The National Archives (UK), ADM 4/180, f.499

In these two examples alone we see wine, brandy, cider, and beer, as well as rum. Beer was the primary alcoholic ration of the Royal Navy in the eighteenth century, but given regional availability, it was often substituted. In his book The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy, N.A.M. Rodger transcribed a table of equivalences for substituting rations. A gallon of beer could be substituted by a pint of wine, or a half pint arrack, rum, or brandy. On long passages and on foreign station men drank watered wine (in the proportion of 8 to 1) or watered spirits (in the proportion of 16 to 1), but in home water they drank beer alone, and the length of time a ship could stay at sea was effectively measured by how long her beer would last.

Given the pipeline of rum from the Caribbean to North America, it is unsurprising that it was a common drink among mariners in Colonial America.

Still, it wasn’t always available and American sailors sometimes had to make-do. During the American Revolution, British sailor Samuel Kelly related the drinks of choice for the upper and lower decks of a Continental Navy vessel during the Revolution:

The American officers appeared sober men, as they generally drank water mixed with the bottled porter, though some of the crew had broached a pipe of Madeira wine in the between decks, and cut up the cheese which they fried in the pan to eat.

Mixing drinks was common. The most popular drink ashore was rum punch, a sort of proto-cocktail that was shared among drinkers out of a single bowl. At sea, mixing drinks usually meant watering down, which includes the most famous sailors' drink: grog. Grog was very simple. Francis Grose defined it with only three words in the 1785 edition of his A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue: “rum and water.”

Eighteenth century sailors (like most of eighteenth-century colonial society) were figuratively awash in liquor. Alcohol formed an important part of maritime culture. That drinking culture was host to a diverse range of drinks, but rum became the defining liquor among British sailors. Given the influence of the Royal Navy on our own naval tradition, it is unsurprising that we would adopt rum as the popular culture drink of choice for Jack Tar. But, as we've seen, there were many other options, and Americans would eventually settle on their own liquor as the defining drink of sailors.

The American Revolution changed the nature of our society and the way we drink. Rum was primarily a British product, and a symbol of the chains that both connected and bound the Atlantic World. Beginning in 1765 Americans took political pride in local manufactures to replace imported British goods. Even for those who were not as fervent in their politics, rum was simply not as available while the nine-year Revolutionary War ground on and the Royal Navy severely restricted imports. Much as the Revolution saw us supplant coffee for tea as the drink of choice, so too did we see a shift away from rum and toward whiskey. In 1806, the shift was made official in the United States Navy. Kentucky was the primary producer for the US Navy, with a single distiller in 1809 receiving a contract for 10,000 gallons.

This shift by no means affected the actual quantity of alcohol consumed the average American drinker, much less the average American sailor. As the historian Matthew Brenckle points out, “the average…consumption across the drinking-age population in the early Republic stood at about 6.8 to 7.1 gallons per person per year, whereas a sailor receiving his full spirit ration every day consumed slightly over 27 gallons per year.” Every single day, American sailors were issued half a pint of distilled spirits, usually whiskey, making them perhaps the largest individual consumers of whiskey in the nation.

It is important to note that this did not necessarily translate into universal drunkenness. Prior to the invention of grog in 1740, sailors were given their spirit ration straight and all at once. It was the invention of grog that slowed the consumption and watered it down, greatly reducing the dangerous alcoholism that plagued the Royal Navy. The early nineteenth century United States Navy followed suit, and similarly watered down its whiskey.


"Jack Tars conversing with Boney on the Blockade of Old England," Charles Williams, London, 1806, British Museum
Still, drunkenness was an issue. Throughout the nineteenth century, America suffered a crisis of alcoholism across the free working class. Ashore and afloat sailors coped with their difficult conditions by turning to the bottle. It was this era that gave rise to the temperance movement.

Temperance is not the same as prohibition. There was little enthusiasm among temperance advocates for legal action against brewers, distillers, vintners, or drinkers. Instead they focused on moral suasion, that is convincing the drinker to leave the bottle behind through ethical arguments. As a particularly religious era, the Antebellum period saw some surprising success behind this effort. That success did not translate to men at sea. Sailors held unorthodox religious views in the eighteenth century and were widely perceived in the nineteenth century as being agnostic or atheistic, and were believed to be less likely to be swayed through moral argument alone. Whether or not this is true is rather beside the point, because some temperance advocates saw sailors as impossible to convert, and made an exception in their opposition to legal action when it came to mariners.

In 1842, partly in response to public pressure, the US Navy cut the spirit ration in half. This may have been mostly to reduce the cost of whiskey and save on the limited storage space available in their warships, but public pressure provided an excuse for this action. Still, the tradition continued for another generation. Drinking among naval seamen was so prevalent that when Commodore Perry sailed to Japan perhaps the very first illustration of a common U.S. Navy seaman created by a Japanese artist depicted him lifting a glass to his lips.


American Sailor Drinking, 1854, Japan, Library of Congress

Much like the Revolution changed the nature of drinking in the navy, so too would the most destructive conflict in our nation's history: The Civil War.

To understand why the spirit ration was discontinued during the Civil War, we must recognized that the temperance and prohibition movements did not exist in a vacuum. Progressive causes of the era were linked, and few progressives were single-issue voters. The famous nurse Clara Barton was an advocate for temperance, for example. In an 1845 speech in Ireland, Frederick Douglass announced “That I am a teetotaler is most true. I have been a staunch one for some years.” He made the connection between progressive causes explicit when he said, “I believe…that if we could but make the world sober, we would have no slavery…All great reforms go together.”

President Lincoln was not among them. In 1840, the Illinois state legislature voted through statewide prohibition. Lincoln, at the time a member of the state house of representatives, declared that “Prohibition will work great injury to the cause of temperance…A Prohibition law strikes a blow at the very principles upon which our government was founded.” While ostensibly in favor of temperance, the future president was opposed to prohibition.

With the relative indifference of the Lincoln Administration, the spirit ration might have survived the decade if not for the outbreak of war. Historian David A. Norris wrote “A chance to end the grog ration arose…when Southern members of Congress left the nation’s capital after the beginning of the war. Northern representatives and senators were more sympathetic to the temperance cause, and with Southern seats now vacant, there were enough Northern votes to abolish the naval spirit rations.”

Detail from a sketch by C. Ellery Stedman, Splitting the main-brace for the last time in the U...jpg

Detail from a sketch by Asst. Surg. C. Ellery Stedman, "Splitting the main-brace for the last time in the U.S. Navy 30 Sep 1862," U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center Collection

On August 31, 1862, the grog ration was officially discontinued, with the final ration to be issued on September 30th of that year. Much of the whiskey was handed over to surgeons for conversion into ether and laudanum or to be used straight as spiritus frumenti. Thousands more barrels were sold at auction.

Sailors are still known to this day for their affinity for alcohol, but the government would no longer issue it.