Its Origin and Use in the United States Navy
Grog, celebrated in naval song and story, while of British origin in term and use, designated the spirit ration in our service when John Adams wrote the first rules for the regulation of the Navy of the United Colonies.
The history of the origin of grog is inextricably interwoven with certain phases of American colonial history. In 1739 the Cartagenan campaign was of great economic interest to the American provinces. The Spanish depredations on commerce in the Antilles vitally involved the struggling colonists and caused many of them to serve in the operations against Spain. The base of these operations, the West India Station, was commanded by Vice Admiral Edward Vernon of the Royal Navy. When on November 22, 1739, Vernon with only six warships reduced Porto Bello, his popularity was as great on this Continent as in England. At the height of his prominence he issued his famous order diluting the rum ration and thereby creating grog. The order, though issued as a station order, was quickly accepted throughout the British service, and is so rarely seen in print that it is quoted here in full:
By Edward Vernon, Esq., Vice-Admiral of the Blue, and Commander-in-Chief of His Majesty’s Ships and Vessels in the West Indies.
Whereas it manifestly appears by the return made to my general order of the 4th of August, to be the unanimous opinion of both Captains and Surgeons that the pernicious custom of the seamen drinking their allowance of rum in drams, and often at once, is attended with many fatal effects to their morals as well as their health, which are visibly impaired thereby, and many of their lives shortened by it, besides the ill consequences arising from stupefying their rational qualities which makes them heedlessly slaves to every brutish passion, and which having their unanimous opinion cannot be better remedied than by the ordering their half pint of rum to be daily mixed with a quart of water, which they that are good husbands may from the savings of their salt provisions and bread purchase sugar and limes to make more palatable to them. You are, therefore, hereby required and directed, as you tender both the Spiritual and Temporal Welfare of His Majesty’s subjects and preserving sobriety and good discipline in His Majesty’s service, to take particular care that Rum be no longer served in species to any of the Ship’s company under your command, but that their respective daily allowance of half a pint a man for all your officers and ship’s company be every day mixed with the proportion of a quart of water to every half-pint of rum to be mixed in one scuttled butt kept for that purpose, and to be done upon deck, and in the presence of the Lieutenant of the watch, who is to take particular care to see that the men are not defrauded in having their full allowance of Rum, and when so mixed it is to be served to them at two servings in the day, the one between the hours of 10 and 12 in the morning, and the other between 4 and 6 in the afternoon. And you are to take care to have other scuttled butts to air and sweeten their water for their drinking at other times, and to give strict charge to your lieutenants in their respective watches to be very careful to prevent any Rum or other spirituous liquors being privately conveyed on board the ship by your own boats, or any others, as both you and they must expect to answer for the ill consequences that may result from any negligence in the due execution of these orders. For which this shall be your warrant. Given under my hand on board H.M. ship the Burford, 21st August, 1740.
Admiral Vernon had been affectionately styled “Old Grog” by his men, and when the new beverage proved most palatable they promptly called the mixture grog. There seems to be some diversity of opinion among biographers and historians as to the part of his attire which was responsible for the Admiral’s nickname. Dr. Brewer states it was a grogram cloak or coat which he wore when he walked the deck in bad weather. Grogram being a strong coarse material made of silk and mohair billowed around the Admiral in curious outlines when the wind blew into a gale.
One of Vernon’s biographers holds that another article of dress was responsible for “Old Grog”—a distinctly styled pair of breeches. However, Dr. Brewer’s version is more generally accepted, and is perpetuated in an old English sea song written on board the H.M.S. Berwick in 1781 by Dr. Trotter, just prior to Admiral Parker’s engagement with the Dutch fleet.
A mighty bowl on deck he drew
And filled it to the brink:
Such drank the Burford’s gallant crew,
And such the gods shall drink.
The sacred robe which Vernon wore
Was drenched within the same;
And hence his virtues guard our shore
And grog derives its name.
It has been said that Admiral Vernon’s best memorial is to be found not in his native England but on the shores of the Potomac River. Lawrence Washington held a captain’s commission in the American colonial forces which took part in Vernon’s expedition against Cartagena. A warm friendship developed between the young officer and his commander in chief. After Admiral Vernon’s return to England, Lawrence Washington corresponded with him and through him obtained, in 1746, a midshipman’s warrant in the Royal Navy for his younger brother George. To commemorate their friendship, and in admiration of the British Admiral, Lawrence Washington gave the name Mount. Vernon to his historic estate.
The earliest annals of our Navy contain mention of the custom of serving grog as a part of the Navy ration. It was the custom in the Continental Navy and was continued in the United States Navy until 1862, although in the later organization whiskey was issued rather than rum. The rules for the regulation of the Continental Navy written by John Adams and adopted November 28, 1775, indicate the ration of spirits to have been a “Half a pint of rum per man every day, and discretionary allowance on extra duty and in time of engagement.” “Splicing the main brace” as it was called, or serving out an extra allowance of grog, after any extra hard work or unusual service, was a popular custom on board the ships of our embryo Navy. An act of Congress approved March 27, 1794, provided as part of the Navy ration “one half-pint of distilled spirits per day, or in lieu thereof, one quart of beer per day, to each ration.”
The first printed Naval Regulations, those of January, 1802, ordered the captain or commander of a vessel of war "not to suffer any person to suttle or sell any sort of liquors to the ships' company, nor any debts for the same to be inserted in the slop book, on any pretense whatsoever." There was much care exercised in the stowage of spirits on board our warships. The spirit-room was in the after-hold and was kept under lock and key at all times. It was only opened in the presence of an officer and no lights were permitted in the room. The master superintended the stowage of the spirits and had charge of the keys which were only surrendered to a commissioned or warrant officer.
Considerable ceremony attended the daily serving of the "tot of grog." At seven bells under the watchful eyes of the master's mate the needed amount of grog was pumped from one of the casks in the spirit room into a wooden tub with a cover, called the grog tub, which was then locked and placed under the care of a sentry.
A schoolmaster and acting chaplain on the U.S.S. Constitution in his Sketches of Naval Life gives us a very vivid description of this time-honored custom on board ship. He has written:
Shortly after eight bells, as the drum rolls, all move aft, toward the grog tub. Around this point of time concentrate half the meditations of the day. I often place myself at the tub, to watch the rolling of the eyes, and the look of supreme gratification with which they swallow their half pint; for, that is the measure to each; it is one gill of whiskey diluted with an equal quantity of water. A rope is drawn athwartships, near the tub: each as his name is called, crossed, and takes his allowance, which must be drunk on the spot. From this they pass to dinner. The whole operation is superintended by the officer of the deck.
Those of the crew in the sick bay or under punishment were not allowed grog, except by order of the surgeon. Their names were often inadvertently called, this error resulted in attempts being made by those who had already drawn their allowance to "double the tub." Very seldom did success crown their efforts for the grog issue was closely checked.
Often the men drew their allowance for extra rations in money. In 1818 the Navy Commissioners' rules and regulations designated the money value of the grog allowance at five cents per day.
The first attempt to restrict the use of grog by legislation was contained apparently in a resolution of Congress, February 43, 1829, which directed that the Secretary of the Navy appoint three medical officers to render their opinions as to whether it was necessary or expedient that distilled spirits constitute a part of the rations allowed midshipmen. Also to comment upon their effect on the health and morals of the individuals.
In compliance with this resolution of Congress, the Secretary of the Navy forwarded the reports of Surgeons William Barton, Lewis Heerman, and Thomas Harris which were unanimous in agreeing that it was neither necessary nor expedient that spirits be a part of the midshipman's ration. Dr. Barton reported at length on the effect on the morals of the individual and says in part that the custom justifies
appellation of demoralizing habit to the daily use of such quantity of ardent spirit as now by law constitutes part of the rations for midshipmen, whenever they draw them in kind.
It cannot be found that any law was passed restricting the use of grog as the result of these reports. But the following year the Navy Department issued an order that
all persons in the naval service who voluntarily relinquished the spirit portion of their rations were to be paid therefor at the rate of six cents per ration, and in September supplemented the order with another stating the individual must relinquish his grog for a period not less than a month in order to receive the commutation.
A restriction was placed on the number of spirit rations allowed officers on March 3, 1835, by limiting their ration to one per day. Heretofore an officer received a number of grog rations; a captain six, then on down according to rank.
A journal dated June 13, 1834, and written by Dr. Adee gives us a vivid picture of the grog in the wardroom life:
It is usual on board men-of-war in the English and American navies to celebrate Saturday evening with song and sentiment and circulate the inspiring cup about the social board; and, indeed Jack is deserving of a bumper. Last evening I prepared a little repast on the mess-table and invited Captain Deacon with his guests to join us in this weekly festivity. On such occasions home is invariably the topic, and sweethearts and wives a standing toast. A chorus at ten o’clock concluded the ceremony, and all retired.
This was the occasion of the writing on board the U.S.S. Brandywine in the South Pacific of the favorite “Brandywine Song,” which later was adopted by the Royal Navy and sung in their Saturday night gatherings.
Another medical officer of the same period saw some virtue in grog for he wrote in sympathetic strain in his journal of a cruise on the U.S.S. Potomac:
On the Fourth of July twenty-one guns were fired and all hands received a double allowance of grog—and that, at least, was well received.
In 1842 the grog ration was materially changed. It was reduced to one gill, and a half a pint of wine could be substituted for the gill of spirits. And further, no commissioned officer or midshipman, or any person under 21 was allowed to draw the grog ration. They were permitted to draw money in lieu thereof.
Less than ten years later on January 29, 1850, the Navy Department sent a circular to all commanding officers directing that they forward their opinions on the use of corporal punishment and the spirit ration. The replies to that portion of the circular relating to the spirit ration were varied in opinion. Commodore Warrington wrote:
The hour of serving the grog has ever been emphatically the happy one in each day of the seaman’s life. Malt, coffee and cocoa are perishable and bulky for storage. The changes from cold to tropical climates make them valueless. The evil, therefore, is to be found, not as is generally supposed in the regulated allowance, but in the excess which arises from external communication.
While Captain E. H. Stringham expressed an utterly different viewpoint. He favored abolishing the spirit ration and said:
In respect to the spirit ration I would add, that I have never been in the habit when in command of serving out an extra allowance of grog or “splicing the main brace” as it is technically called. In bad weather, and when the men have been much exposed, I have generally given them hot tea or coffee to refresh them, and have always found them satisfied. In many cases they have stated that they preferred it to “grog.”
From this time on sentiment steadily grew toward the abolition of grog. This sentiment was shared and fostered by the majority of medical officers and in 1861 commanding officers were authorized to suspend or stop the allowance of grog, whenever, in their opinion, it was expedient.
Grog ceased to be a custom and became a tradition in our Navy on September 1, 1862. Congress on July 14 of that year sounded the death knell for grog by directing that the spirit ration forever cease in the Navy of the United States. Thereafter until 1872 the Navy Regulations referred only to some monetary adjustment in lieu of the spirit ration. Then mention of grog ceased utterly.
It lives with us in song and story of the day of the sailing ship. Doubtless there were many farewells to grog sung on board the ships of our squadrons, but the one sung in the wardroom of the U.S.S. Portsmouth on the Mississippi River became a favorite ballad in our Navy. The | song, tradition tells us, was written by ' Pay Director Caspar Schenck and is in part:
“Farewell to Grog”
Wardroom of the U.S.S. Portsmouth. Time—August 31, 1862, officer sings:
Oh! messmates, pass the bottle round,
Our time is short, remember;
For our grog must stop, our spirits drop,
On the first day of September.
Farewell, old rye! ’tis a sad sad word,
But alas it must be spoken;
The ruby cup must be given up,
And the demijohn be broken!
Jack’s happy days will soon be past,
To return again, no, never
For they’ve raised his pay five cents a day
And stopped his grog forever.
(The boatswain’s mate pipes, “All Hands Splice the Main Brace”)
All hands to splice the main brace call,
But splice it now in sorrow,
For the spirit-room key will be laid away
Forever, on the morrow.