Alcohol Rations in US Military History (Early History)

Alcohol rations in US military. They have a long history in both the army and the navy. Of course, they are based on English and European tradition. And alcohol rations have a long history there. For example, between 1655 and 1970, the British Navy issued a daily rum ration. It was a tot, or one-half pint.


I.   Alcohol Rations US Army

II. Alcohol Rations US Navy

III. Resources

I. Alcohol Rations in US Army

alcohol rationsOn April 30, 1790, Congress gave each soldier one-half gill of rum, brandy, or whiskey. (A gill is four fluid ounces.) However, it could give each a money equivalent. On March 3, 1799, the alcohol ration was abolished. But it could be given in cases of special need. Of course, that was at the discretion of the commanding officer.

In 1802, Congress restored the alcohol ration. It also increased the amount to one gill. Then in 1804 Congress said the army could issue the equivalent of the spirit allowance in malt liquor. It also authorized the President to determine the time and place where the malt liquor would be available. Congress also, in 1818, gave the President power to modify the ration as he saw fit.

Opposition to the alcohol ration appeared in 1829. Then President Andrew Jackson abolished it in 1830. The army substituted coffee. In 1838, Congress abolished the army alcohol ration. At the same time it increased the coffee allowance by 25%.

      Civil War

This army prohibition continued until until the Civil War (1861-1865). In 1862, Congress prohibited alcohol sales to soldiers by sutlers. These were private vendors who sold items to soldiers. It closed the Office of Sutlers. Then it ordered the Subsistence Department to supply items formerly sold by sutlers. The following year Congress permitted sutlers to sell at certain posts.

The President issued an order in 1881 to prevent the sale of alcohol to soldiers. The first army canteen existed the year before. The army considered it a success. So in 1889 Congress established the army canteen. The next year it prohibited the sale of alcoholic beverages to any enlisted soldier at any post. However, the law was easily broken.

In 1901 Congress prohibited the sale of alcohol in army canteens.

II. Alcohol Rations in US Navy

alcohol rationsIn 1794, Congress set the daily ration at one-half pint of distilled spirits. In lieu of that, one quart of beer. Three years later, the beer option was dropped.

The Navy, in 1831, permitted sailors to opt out of their daily ration in exchange for six cents per day. In 1842 Congress increased the daily ration to one gill. That is one-quarter pint. Five years later it reduced the “exchange rate” to three cents per day. However, the next year (1848), it was raised to four cents per day.

Then in 1851 Congress restricted the ability to forego the ration for money. Then only officers and their attendants and certain others could do so. That is, those doing duty on sea-going or receiving vessels. And those “attached to the ordinary of the navy yards.” Two years later Congress repealed the earlier restrictions. So now the privilege was granted to all sailors.

      Civil War

During the Civil War, in 1862, Congress abolished the spirit ration. That was because grain was needed for the war effort. Only medicinal spirit was allowed. In fact army commanders generally ignored alcohol drinking during the war.

In 1893 the Navy permitted officers in specific roles to form their own wine messes. Yet no officer was required to participate. The navy prohibited the issue or sale of alcohol to enlisted sailors in 1899.

However, in 1914, the navy prohibited any alcohol on vessel, naval yards, or stations. Of course, that ended the officers’ wine messes. Keep in mind the context. The temperance movement was very strong. And many states had state-wide alcohol prohibition. In only five years states would approve National Prohibition.

In 1917 Congress empowered the President to prohibit even the possession of alcoholic beverage on any military post. It was illegal to sell alcohol to men in uniform. The next year the navy established dry zones five miles wide around naval bases. That was almost certainly illegal. The temperance movement was very, very strong.

National Prohibition began in January of 1920. It did not prohibit either buying  or drinking alcohol. It did prohibit selling. But the navy prohibited sailors from buying alcohol.

Repeal occurred in December of 1933. The navy, in March of the following year, restricted alcohol to officers. It was to officers’ quarters, messes, and clubs.

III. Resources

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