"As many fireplaces as you have tents..."
Earthen Camp Kitchens
By John U. Rees
For soldiers, building a fire meant the difference between merely eating to fill an empty belly and the satisfaction of a warm, nourishing meal. Without cooking fires during a prolonged rainstorm at Brooklyn in August 1776, Captain Alexander Graydon was forced to eat his salt pork uncooked. An exhausted Joseph Martin, after serving in Fort Mifflin's garrison during the grueling November 1777 siege, evacuated the fort with his company, crossed the Delaware River and halted briefly after receiving "a day's ration of salt pork... and a pound of sea bread." With little time available "We kindled some fires in the road, and some broiled their meat ... I ate mine raw. We quickly started on and marched till evening ..." Staples such as soft bread or newly-baked biscuit needed no preparation to be eaten, but seasoned hard bread had to be softened by boiling and rations of meat, flour, rice, and vegetables were more toothsome if cooked.1
Open fires, built quickly and often abandoned soon after they served their purpose, were the usual medium for meal preparation. When time and location allowed the army also employed large temporary kitchens (round or square) dug into the ground. Humphrey Bland gave detailed instructions for building an earthen kitchen in his 1762 Treatise of Military Discipline. His was a circular construction with a 16 foot-wide mound in the center, a 1 1/2 foot shelf around that, all encircled by a ditch 3 feet wide by 2 feet deep. This kitchen could accommodate 11 or 12 fireplaces, each consisting of a 1 foot square firebox dug into the inside wall of the surrounding trench and a chimney hole "of four inches diameter" through the shelf above. With a fire underneath the "heat [was] conveyed through those small holes to the bottom of the kettles, which are placed on top of them."2
Overhead view of earthen kitchen,
with dimensions given in Humphrey Bland's 1762 specifications.
(Illustration by Ross Hamel.)
According to Bennett Cuthbertson, author of a System for the Compleat Interior Management and Oeconomy of a Battalion of Infantry (1768), "the allied Army in Germany last war" (i.e., the Seven Years War, 1756-1763) used circular kitchens similar to the one described by Bland. During the War for Independence the Continental Army also built them, though how often is not known. The Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States Part I. published in 1779 (Friedrich de Steuben, Philadelphia, Pa., p. 79) gives the following description of a battalion cooking area: "The kitchens are to be dug behind their respective companies, forty feet from the field officers tents. The sutlers tents are to be between the kitchens." This mirrors Humphrey Bland's reference to "The circles ... drawn in the plan [of a camp] between the grand and petty sutlers, [which] are marked for kitchens, or places where the private men are to dress their victuals ..." As in Bland's 1762 Treatise, Steuben's illustration of a camp (viewed from above) shows circular cooking areas, an indication that as early as 1779 earthen kitchens were being depicted and occasionally used.3
Several other sources allude to excavated kitchens as well. For example 19 July 1779 orders for the 1st Pennsylvania Regiment, direct "The Quarter Master to see the vaults [latrines] sunk as soon as Possible, and to have Kitchens sunk [i.e., dug] in the frount for the soldiers to Cook in, and some to the Right for the officers waiter's to Cook in. The soldiers to have no fire But what is in the Kitchens." Charles Willson Peale's portrait of Colonel Walter Stewart (2nd Pennsylvania Regiment), painted during or just after the war, shows a camp complete with lines of tents and soldiers cooking on a circular kitchen.4
Since these kitchens were a European innovation British and German troops must have used them often. In what seems to be a reference to earthen kitchens, Chaplain Johann Waldeck, of the German Waldeck Regiment, noted the situation soon after his arrival at Pensacola, Florida: "21-29 January  - In the city absolutely no preparations have been made for quartering the troops. Also no kitchens set up where the troops can prepare their food, and only now the soldiers have been ordered to begin work on the cooking excavations." Two other publications, one English, the other German, show a variation of kitchen fireplace construction. Francis Grose's Military Antiquities. Respecting a History of the British Army (London, 1801) shows a women cooking at a kitchen, the fireplaces of which are open niches dug out to the bottom of the surrounding trench. A 1788 German military manual, Was ist jedem Officier wahrend eines Feldzugs zu wiffen nothig. Mit zehen Kupferplatten. (trans., "What it is necessary for each officer to know during a campaign") (Carlsruhe), shows two similar firepits with camp kettles suspended from sticks placed across the top of the excavations. This publication also shows a square earthen kitchen.5
Humphrey Bland extolled the advantages of "cooking excavations" for the soldiers. Chief among the benefits was the ability to cook in the rain, the lessening "of accidents by the fire's being blown amongst the tents or forage," easing the officers' task of overseeing food preparation, and that "very little fuel will serve to dress their victuals." These last two points merit further discussion.
Officers' must have greatly appreciated having all the cooking kettles concentrated at a single location. Bland noted, "if you erect one of these kitchens (by which I mean an entire circle or square) for each troop or company, they need not be larger than what will contain as many fireplaces as you have tents... for as all the men who lie in a tent, are of one mess, every mess must therefore have a fire place, that they may have no excuse for their not boiling the pot every day." In conjunction with these points. "the Officers can, with a great deal of ease, look into the conduct and oeconomy of their men" when preparing food. Again Steuben's 1779 Regulations echo Bland: "... an officer of a company must often visit the messes; see that the provision is good and well cooked; that the men of one tent mess together; and that the provision is not sold or disposed of for liquor."6
Even more important was a kitchen's fuel efficiency. Economy of fuel was essential in many areas of Europe, but even in the heavily wooded countryside of North America such a savings had benefits. Wood for cooking or warmth was a daily necessity for the troops, the cutting and hauling of which required much labor. Orders for General Nathanael Greene's Division, Germantown, Pennsylvania, 1 August 1777, "The Quarter Masters of each Regiment are directed to see the Men are provided with wood for Cooking, the Quarter Master Genl. of each division will direct the Regimental Quarter Masters where to cut wood." Army orders, Skippack, Pennsylvania, 30 September 1777, "One hundred and fifty ax-men, from Genl. Sullivan's, Greene's, Lord Stirling's and Stephen's divisions, and Genl. Nash's brigade, are to be selected this day, and a like proportion from the other brigades. These men are always to carry their axes with them ... [besides building roads and fortifications] they are to cut firewood for their respective brigades." 7
Wood may have been plentiful, but not all of it was available. Several orders attest to this. "Head Quarters, New York, May 5, 1776 ... The Officers commanding the Guards, in and near the encampment, are to be particularly attentive to prevent any waste or depradation, being committed upon the Fields, Fences, Trees, or Buildings about the camp ... any non-commissioned Officer, or Soldier, who is detected cutting any of the Trees, or Shrubs, or destroying any of the Fences, near the camp, will be confined, and tried for disobedience of orders." Pompton, New Jersey, 25 July 1777, "The troops having arrived at the place of encamping so early, they can with the greatest ease provide themselves with wood; and each Brigadier General will see that it be done accordingly - That fences are ever burnt must be imputed to inattention, and want of care in officers ..." Just prior to the army's departure from Valley Forge in June 1778, General Nathanael Greene appointed several men to look into any damage the troops may have caused, including "Destruction of Fences, or Timber."8
Equipment shortages exacerbated the need for fuel conservation. Although each mess squad was supposed to be issued a tomahawk or hatchet, and each company a few axes, wood cutting tools were sometimes unavailable, in short supply, or in poor condition. At Whitemarsh, Pennsylvania, Sergeant Ebenezer Wild noted on 7 December 1777 that his company "had no axes to cut wood for fires nor covering."9
Digging a Field Kitchen
Two Virginia historical sites have kitchen excavations. Yorktown Victory Center's earthen kitchen (the fourth on site) was built entirely by manual labor in 1995. Used regularly by the staff, the current example was made of sandy soil purposely mixed with clay to enhance longevity. Colonial Williamsburg's military camp has also incorporated earthen kitchens; the camp is currently in the process of being relocated, and another kitchen is planned for the new site.10
Earthen kitchens were an elegantly simple solution to a number of problems, but required a good deal of labor. Under ideal conditions soldiers could construct a full kitchen in a single day, depending upon the nature of the soil at the chosen site, and whether there were conflicting demands for labor. Stephen Gilbert related constructing a single fire pit (trench section, firebox, and chimney) with another man, noting that the endeavor required about an hour's worth of digging. Justin Grabowski noted that the kitchen trench built in 1995 at Yorktown Victory Center took four men about four hours (16 man-hours) to excavate "through clay, roots and rock," using only mattock and shovel. After that was completed approximately 30 to 45 minutes was required to dig out a single firebox and chimney. (It must be noted that the trench of this kitchen seems not to have been dug to the proper depth, lessening the time for digging but making it difficult to build and tend the fires.)11
Cutaway view of earthen kitchen (shelf, ditch and fireplace).
The chimney hole should be set back from the edge of the ditch about 10 to 11
inches; depth of fireplace from 16 to 18 inches.
(Illustration by Ross Hamel.)
Three connecting firepits dug by myself and Matthew Murphy at Bordentown, New Jersey, in June 1997 required about 3 man-hours each, with the soil comprised largely of clay and small stones, very difficult digging indeed. This experience agrees with that of John Hill, who noted that the last complete kitchen dug at Colonial Williamsburg's military camp took approximately 36 man-hours to finish (i.e, 12 firepits at 3 hours each).12
Because of the insights available through hands-on experience, reconstructing an earthen kitchen is well worth the effort, despite the prodigious amount of labor required (admittedly one commodity plentiful in armies). Those few who have have cooked on the excavations at Yorktown Victory Center, Colonial Williamsburg, and itinerant kitchens like the one at Bordentown, have had a rare opportunity, enabling them to confirm (or deny) the simplicity and efficacy of the design.
The long-considered idea of digging an earthen kitchen finally came to fruition in June 1997 at a large living history encampment in Bordentown, New Jersey. The excavation could count on only one laborer, myself, as our group was hosting the event and other work needed to be done. This and the fact that it had to be completed in a single day, led me to attempt digging three firepits (1/4 of a full-sized kitchen), using only tools available to 18th century soldiers.
... the inner diameter is sixteen feet; the breadth of the trench surrounding them, is three feet; the seat [on the inside of the trench] is one foot and a half; and the breadth of the outside wall two feet; which makes the outer diameter twenty-nine feet ... (Humphrey Bland, Treatise of Military Discipline (1762))
June 6, 1997, 8:00 AM
Before any digging could be done, the kitchen's outline had to be marked on the ground: this was accomplished by first sinking an iron tent pin in the center of the chosen site and attaching a length of rope with knots tied at three pre-measured points as per Bland's dimensions; taking a bag of powdered lime, and scooping out a handful, I placed the lime-filled hand at the first knot, pulled the rope taut, and walked the entire circumference, dropping lime to trace a line as I went; this was repeated for each remaining knot. In this manner the inner mound, and inside and outside of the trench were marked, ready to excavate.
Since the kitchen excavation had to be filled in at the end of the weekend, I began by removing the sod from the outlined trench; this was placed on the outside of the trench to form the outer seat, the sod making a pleasant sitting and working surface. (This was done for half the kitchen circumference, in case some hardy soul wanted to try his hand at digging a fireplace over the weekend.)
10:00 AM to 4:30 PM
After a brief rest period, I commenced digging a 10 1/2 foot section of trench (outside measurement), sufficient for three firepits. About 12:30 PM Matt Murphy, a member of the same recreated regiment, offered to join me in the effort; misery loving company, I welcomed him gladly. By 1:30 the first firepit was ready to use, complete with firebox and chimney hole. With Matt's continued help the third and final firepit was finished around 4:30 PM. (Approximately 3 man-hours were used for each firepit.)
Several insights were gained through this enterprise.
Construction: To begin with, only one man at a time could safely work on a three-foot-wide firepit section. The digging was done by alternately plying pick and shovel; the finishing work on the trench and firebox was done with shovel and spade. Partially abrogating my original intent, a modern sod cutter with a 4-inch blade proved the perfect tool for cutting the firebox chimney's; a simple iron pry bar may also work for the job. The chimney holes were cut above the firebox, 10 to 11 inches from the edge of the trench; each firebox was dug in from its 1 foot square opening to a depth of 16 to 17 inches.
Firekeeping: A camp kettle placed directly on top of the chimney hole reduces the draught. Laying a piece of sod to either side of the hole prevents this, serving to raise the kettle and allow free airflow. Squares of sod can also be used to cover the chimney holes when not in use, holding sparks in and keeping rain water out.
Camp kitchen in use. The tin or sheet iron kettles commonly
used by armies in North America would be placed on two pieces of sod to allow the
draught of the fireplace to escape through the chimney hole. Barrel-hoop "broilers"
constructed by the soldiers may also have been used for that purpose.
(Illustration by Ross Hamel.)
Cooking: Having little time available for experimentation, I only prepared a simple soldier's meal: beef, carrots, and biscuit, boiled in a sheet-iron kettle. I hope in future to gain experience with soup, stew, pease-porridge, milk porridge, hasty pudding, suppawn, and other dishes cooked by soldiers.
... as the fire-places are open at the side, like the mouth of an oven, the air which enters there forces all the heat up the small hole to the bottom of the kettle, and consequently boils it very soon; and as the kettle covers the said hole, the rain cannot come to extinguish it, or create the men any trouble in keeping it in.
Building the kitchen was a rewarding experience, made all the more so by having it used to good effect and viewed with interest by those previously unfamiliar with one. The people who cooked on it over the weekend remarked on several points agreeing with Humphrey Bland's assessments: how quickly kettles heated using less fuel, the ease of earthen kitchen cooking compared to working with an open fire on the ground, and the convenience of the seat/working surface provided by the kitchen's outer shelf.
In addition to introducing people to cooking excavations and their use, building the kitchen also worked is an exercise in living history, and showed what can be accomplished in a short time, given the proper setting, and much-needed support.
My thanks to the following people who helped in various stages of kitchen construction and research: Matthew Murphy, Chuck Beale, Stephen Gilbert, Sandra Oliver, Justin Grabowski of Yorktown Victory Center, and John Hill and Pat Gibbs of Colonial Williamsburg. Special thanks go to Paul Hutchins and Drew Smith for their encouragement with the Bordentown project. My appreciation also to James Casco (Whitcomb's Rangers), Nancy Pecca (2nd New Jersey Regiment), Susan Plaisted (German Regiment), David Wilson (2nd Massachusetts Regiment), and others whose names I cannot recall who either cooked on the kitchen at Bordentown or stopped by, voicing support and posing questions.