Dutch Ovens & Camp Cooking in Washington’s Continental Army

Battle of Pell’s Point fought by four regiments of Massachusetts soldiers commanded by Colonel John Glover.

On October 18th, 1776, at first light, Colonel John Glover stood atop a hill and raised his spy-glass to look out over the harbor of Pell’s Point, NY along the Long Island Sound. He was flabbergasted. He saw what looked like upwards of over two hundred British ships sitting off shore. General William Howe was already landing an advance force of over 4,000 British and Hessian troops. Their orders were to race across Westchester County and seal in General Washington’s troops along Harlem Heights to the south. Colonel Glover, in charge of a brigade of four reduced regiments numbering approximately 750 men rushed his men forward to do battle. Using a series of stone walls, he conducted a skillful hit and run tactic that not only delayed the British advance, but inflicted heavy casualties on the advancing redcoats and their Hessian counterparts. By days’ end, Howe decided that the path across the county lay with countless such stone barriers lined with obstinate rebels. He spent the next ten days cautiously advancing his army up to White Plains where Washington’s forces awaited.

When Colonel Glover’s men were heartily welcomed back among the main army and word traveled through the ranks how they so bravely fought and saved the army from entrapment, the men around camp asked Glover’s men about their experience. The Massachusetts sailors and farmers sitting around the fire watching other regiments spooning out steaming chunks of stew from large cast-iron Dutch Ovens while they, due to the loss of their mess, had to chew on hard biscuits that could break a rat’s teeth, heroic feats were far from their minds. Almost to a man they complained that when their Colonel spotted the ships sitting the harbor, he was so hell bent on tearing into the enemy that everyone was ordered to grab a musket, leaving no one to pack the baggage and tents including the mess. As they were gradually pushed west, all of their gear, including their beloved Dutch Ovens, some which had been in the family for generations, were lost to the enemy. Though standing up to a force six times their numbers and no doubt saving the Continental army from capture and possibly the collapse of the entire rebel cause, it was a soldier’s stomach that mattered the most to those tired and hungry men.

Dutch Oven

However, the soldier’s love affair with their precious kettles had its limits. Just prior to Colonel Glover’s action at Pell’s Point, Washington realized his army faced entrapment along Harlem Heights by a flanking British army determined to cut across Westchester County.  Washington ordered his men to make a hasty retreat eighteen miles north to White Plains.  The few wagons they had were reserved to transport a large number of sick including munitions and supplies. Therefore much of the camp baggage had to be carted by hand over the long arduous push north. Private Joseph Martin remembered that he been saddled with a cast-iron kettle the size of a milk pail. He faithfully lugged the enormous Dutch oven several miles until it seemed his arms were about to become dislocated. When word filtered down the column to rest, he put his heavy burden down. He wrote, “one of the others gave it a shove with his foot and it rolled down against a fence. That was the last I ever saw of it.  When we got through the night’s march, we found our mess was not the only one that was rid of their iron bondage.”

Columbus in 1492 first brought these cast-iron pots to the Americas.  The name “Dutch Oven” probably originated from the Dutch traders who in the seventeenth century, sold the iron pots to settlers and Native Americans.

These heavy iron pots had a flat bottom with three short legs to keep the pot out of the coals.  Others were flat bottom without the legs; the favorite of troops who would lie the iron directly onto the hot ambers.  The handles were used to lift the pot from the fire, or to suspend the pot over the flames.  Handles were solid tabs of iron or strong wire bail-types attached to the pot through molded tangs or pounded holes in the sides.  Most ovens were about a foot in diameter, though some were as large as twenty four inches; no doubt the one Private Martin labored over.

Dutch Ovens were revered by generations of families using the same pot countless times, many over a hundred years in age and looking as new as the first day they were laid to a fire.   Among the implements many soldiers packed prior to leaving home was one of the family’s kettles; usually the smallest that was more practical to carry.   These kettles were indispensible and versatile in preparing a hot meal whether in a kitchen’s hearth or propped upon a campfire’s hot coals.  They were used for frying, roasting, baking breads, boiling, steaming, broiling, and stewing.  Unknown to colonial users was the incredible nutritious value of food cooked in this fashion that allowed the food to retain most of their vitamins. The lids to the kettle were lipped so coals laid atop would remain.  Usually a third of the quantity of coals beneath was laid atop the lid.  This allowed a constant heat over the entire metal surface; especially important when baking breads.  Lids could also be reversed and used as a griddle.

All pots when first made had to be seasoned prior to use.  Throughout the pot’s use, depending on how well they were cared for, it was rarely necessary to repeat this procedure.

Cast iron is porous.  Filling the pores with grease, usually bear grease, built a patina on the surface.  This formed a barrier between the air and the surface of the metal which prevented rust and provided a non-stick coating.  This thin smooth blacked finish darkened even more so with age; the sign of a well maintained and well used oven.

Proper cleaning afterwards was the key to the oven’s usefulness as it maintained the seasoned surface and prevented rusting.  Any food left in the kettle was removed with a wooden spoon or scraper.  It was then filled with water and suspended over the fire until near boiling.  After all the food broke away from the oven’s surface, the pot was rinsed with clean water.  A little bear grease was applied before the pot was stored away.  Soup was never used as it would impregnate the pores of the metal and taint the flavor of the cooked food.

From officers to privates, some of the married troops would be accompanied by their families. Wives cooked and did laundry for their husbands and other troops for pay.

Additional implements used in preparing and servicing food from the oven included:  wood bowel, tin plate, horn spoon, two or three prong fork, tin cup, tin plate and in some cases pewter, and stoneware mug.

The following examples are of a typical meal prepared by a soldier once the campfire had a good bed of coals to lay the Dutch Oven onto.  While the fire was being prepared, the salt pork was left to soak in water to get out some of the salt:

Soup was quick and simple:

  • Brown small portions of salt pork by setting the pork into the oven and searing.  Once it is brown, dump in water scraping off the scum that formed on top.
  • Add carrots, parsnips (or other vegetables).  Season to taste.  Cider vinegar was usually added.
  • Move the oven to moderate the heat then let simmer.  After a short while, add in cabbage.
  • After meat is thoroughly cooked, cut bread into cubes and toss in at end.

Another favorite:

  • Dried peas were soaked overnight.
  • Coat the meat with flour then brown by searing.  Then add water.
  • Add the peas to the stew water and boil
  • Add potatoes, onions, parsnips or other available vegetables and let simmer for one hour.

Hash was cooked often using whatever meat was available including fresh game:

  • Diced salt pork or other meat then brown in oven.  Remove and mash in separate bowl.
  • Parboil potatoes then mash in separate bowl.
  • Mix the meat with potatoes then add milk if available.
  • Form into patties then lay back in the oven to fry.

And desert:

  • Bring two cups of water to a boil.  Slowly add half a cup of crushed corn meal.  Bring to a rolling boil then stir in more corn meal.
  • Once all the corn meal is stirred in, move the oven to moderate the heat and let slowly boil.
  • After it turns into a thick paste, take it off the fire and let cool.
  • Season from a pocket kit with such spices the soldier may have available:  salt, cinnamon, Barbados molasses.

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Hannah Glasse.  The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy.  1774:  London, UK    1967: Microfilm copy done by the University of Michigan.

McCullough, David.  1776.  2005:  Simon & Schuster, New York, NY.

Mills, Sheila.  Outdoor Dutch Oven Cookbook.  2008 McGraw-Hill Publisher.

Samuel, Charlie.  Home Life in Colonial America2003: Rosen Publ. Group, New York, NY.

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