For Want of Clean Water

September 27, 2022 Posted by: Ranger Kelly

Toilets were not a humorous topic in the 18th Century. In fact, access to clean water and proper sanitation meant that disease would not spread. An idea that was not always taken seriously in the British or Continental armies.

Clean Water = Life.
And as a result, a constant battle waged by any commander at Fort Stanwix had nothing to do with an enemy outside the walls. Instead, it was an on-going fight to preserve the health and cleanliness of the fort and the people within it. This was particularly true when the soldiers performed their “bathroom business.” While the germs in human waste that could cause sickness and disease were unknown at the time, the officers recognized that when large amounts of human waste were near crowded living areas, sickness quickly spread. There was also the simple fact that this created a very undisciplined, disorderly, and unmilitary like situation.

Unfortunately for the officers, the lack of understanding within the enlisted ranks of the need for basic hygiene, along with a desire to “cut corners” whenever possible, left the various commanders of the fort trying different combinations of punishment and improvisation to enforce the use of proper bathroom facilities.

Below: A model of the necessary building as based on plans from the original fort.
A wooden building on tall stilts. A bridge connects it to the fort. A stream runs underneath.

The entries below are illustrative of some of the military issues that had to be dealt with before proper sanitation could be effective:

From the Orderly Book of the 78th Highlanders of Foot

…Particular care to be Taken to Keep good order, and the Barracks clean. The Cooks of the Day to take care of this; that all Nastiness whatsoever be Carried out of the Sally Port and thrown at a Distance into the Swamp below the Well…The Sally Port to be left Open night & Day, for the Convenience of the Men; till Such time as the Necessary House be up. But it Is Expected that no body will be Slovenly as to Dirty the Fort within the Palisadoes after this Night...

Dec. 1, 1758 Parole: CARLILE
...If any man is found to *****[Defecate] or otherwise Nasty the Fort he shall be Obliged to clean it with his hands, and no Other Instrument Shall be Allowed, as it is a Scandal & Shame that So much Nastiness Should be seen in the Fort Already; and if in time to Come the Like happens, the Major will place a Sufficient number of Sentry's within the Fort to hinder it. The Serjeants will take Care to Preserve the Provision Barrels, to make Conveniency's for the Sick Men, as Likewise ****[urination] pots which are to Stand at the Door of the Barracks and to be Carried out of the Fort and Cleared Every Morning and properly Cleaned.

Mar. 31, 1759 Parole: ROCHESTER –
…Doctor McLean being Convinced that The great Number of Fluxes [
diarrheaof which has Lately been Amongst the men is in Great measure Owing to that Small beer Sold by the Baker. Therefore it is hoped when they Know this they will forebear tasting of it.

From the Journal of Lt. William Colbrath of the 3rd NY Regiment

Augt 11th
This Day the Enemy having observed that we brought Water from the Creek altered its Course so that it became dry. This wou'd have done us much Damage had we not been able to open two Wells in the Garrison, which with the one We had already provided a Sufficient Supply...

From the Orderly Book of the 3rd NY Regiment

Garrison Orders Fort Schuyler
Septr 15th 1777

The former Orders Respecting the keeping clean of the Camp and Garrison. The Commandt is very sorry he has Reason to complain is not properly attended to. It is therefore once more Strictly enjoyn'd, upon the Officers particularly concerned in them to be carefull in seeing, that they are Comply'd with, any Person who may be found easing themselves, in any other places about the Camp, or Garrison, except the Necessaries provided for that purpose, may depend on being Severely punish'd on being discovered. And the Officer of the Guards are to Order the Centinels to detect such Scandelous Offenders. -M: Willett Lt Colonel

Garrison Orders Fort Schuyler
Sepr 20th 1777
The soldiers are not to make use of the Necessary House within the Fort in the Day Time. The one in the Ditch being designed for that purpose...

Garrison Orders Fort Schuyler
May 21st 1778
Parole Dean C Sign Lee
 ...The Qr. Mr. Sergeant will have Tubs placed at the Several - Corners of the Barricks for the Men to make Water in which are to be Emptied and Washed every Morning.

A necessary was a privy or outhouse. On the 1758 plan of Fort Stanwix and the Gansevoort Plan, large wooden necessaries were depicted off the east face of the southeast bastion, standing on stilts over the small creek that ran along the east side of the fort. Passage to the privy was accomplished by a catwalk from the bastion. The orderly book for the Third New York Regiment mentioned building new necessaries from time to time in the ditch and elsewhere.

Below: A British military encampment, circa 1785.
British military encampment circa 1785. A busy camp with multiple people moving between rows of canvas tents. Laundry lines are strung between tents.

cleanwater, wastemanagement, AmericanRevolution, continentalarmy, FortStanwix, FortSchuyler

Last updated: September 27, 2022

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