Continental Army Logistics

The Maryland soldier knew no more than any other ranker of the organization behind this state of affairs, which is to say that he knew very little. He may have been aware that the official apparatus for supplying the army began with Congress. If he did not know it, he soon learned, for the army laid most of its problems at the door of Congress—and well before the war ended most of the country agreed with the army.

Shortly after it created the Continental army in June 1775, Congress established quartermaster and commissary departments charged with providing the supplies the army required. The immediate inspiration for these agencies was similar institutions of the British army. Similar yet different, for Parliament had long since turned the whole business of supply over to the Treasury, which let contracts for all the things the army in America needed. The Treasury, which devoted most of its energies to other matters, cooperated with the colonial secretary, the secretary at war, and the commissary department in America. These agencies and later the navy board worked out arrangements with London merchants and their agents which succeeded rather well in sending out food, clothing, fuel, medicines, and forage.

The British worked against tremendous obstacles, perhaps the most formidable of which was the distance involved. The long voyage across the Atlantic forced the Treasury to look ahead. Even so there were mistakes and close calls with starvation very much on Henry Clinton’s mind in 1779 and 1780, for example. Occasionally too, ships laden with provisions sailed to the wrong ports. After the British evacuated Philadelphia, two victualers from Cork put into the Delaware bound for the city, unaware that the hungry mouths there were American—not British.

Distances and communications may have provided ample problems but the British had great resources. For one thing they had been in the business of taking care of armies for a long time. They had the experience and the institutions which, although they might be severely taxed by the scope of the task, could respond. They did not have to create a system—the bureaus and agencies, the records, the means of payment, procurement, and distribution—all at once and make it work because several thousand men needed everything from beef to musket balls.

Congress had to do all these tasks while it was engaged in a good many other things, almost all for the first time. Congress had to call an army into being and supply it in a country at war which was suspicious of the army, and yet eager to make profits selling supplies to it. The men who worked within this system of supply, in and out of the army, possessed virtually no experience with it, or with any large institution. They sought, moreover, to satisfy soldiers who did not look admiringly upon large organizations and complicated procedures.

The commissary general got off to a good start. He was Joseph Trumbull of Connecticut, a merchant who had performed a similar job for his state’s troops. Trumbull relied mainly on his own state for supplies as long as the army besieged Boston. There were ample stocks of food in New England the first year of the war, and Trumbull found that feeding the army, which was stationary, was not especially difficult. After this first campaign the ease disappeared and more often than not the soldiers suffered from an inadequate diet—and were sometimes near starvation.

The quartermaster general, Thomas Mifflin of Pennsylvania, did not enjoy Trumbull’s initial success, though the problems of his department did not make themselves felt until 1777. Mifflin, the choice of George Washington, took office in August 1775. His charge from Congress included operational responsibilities as well as supply. The quartermaster general in the British army ordinarily supervised the movement of troops. Congress decided that he would have the same duty in the American army and that he would also oversee the maintenance of roads and bridges traveled by the army, lay out and construct its camps, and furnish and maintain its wagons, teams, and boats. Mifflin resigned the quartermaster’s post shortly after the British departed Boston. His successor, Stephan Moylan, served three months, until Congress persuaded Mifflin to resume the job in September.

Congress regarded failures of supply in the way legislative bodies often regard failures—as evidence that the organization was flawed. In the case of supply, Congress evidently believed that the flaw was simplicity—and it began to make the system more complicated. To make institutions more complicated means that more offices and officials must be appointed and the transaction of business made cumbersome.

Over the next four years Congress experimented along these lines. In June 1777 it divided the commissary general’s post into two: a commissary general of purchases and a commissary general of issue. This change made sense in that it separated two demanding and dissimilar functions. Congress assumed that the two commissaries would consult one another and that they would respond to Washington’s direction. For the most part the commissaries satisfied these expectations, though at times they must have felt confused, since their ultimate master was Congress itself and Congress was not averse to speaking in several voices.

It was not ambiguity that produced most of the trouble, but the firm and clear conviction of Congress that the commissaries should not profit from office. Joseph Trumbull had assumed his post when it was Connecticut’s to give in 1775, and he and his deputies had come to expect that they would receive a commission of 1.5 percent of all the money they spent for supplies. This arrangement understandably induced a certain activity in the commissary department. Just as understandably, Congress thought the commissaries might prove rather expensive, and in the reorganization it put Trumbull and his men on salary. Trumbull resigned in disappointment two months later—half of his old post had been given to Charles Stewart, who was now commissary general of issue, and the old incentives had disappeared too. Stewart served until after the battle of Yorktown; William Buchanan, who had been one of Trumbull’s deputies, took over as commissary general of purchases. He held on until March 1778, and in April another deputy, Jeremiah Wadsworth, accepted the job. His tenure ran until January 1, 1780, when the final holder, Ephraim Blaine, assumed the responsibility, serving until the post was abolished near the end of 1781.

This procession must have yearned for combat with real musket balls at times; certainly these officers—by definition a lower breed because they were staff rather than line—received fire of every other sort. After Trumbull resigned he deflected some of it by pointing to Congress, the author of the reorganization, as responsible for making his job impossible. Every head of a department ought to have control of it, he suggested in a letter to Washington. Congress had deprived him of control: “In this establishment an Imperium in Imperio is established—If I accept to Act, I must be at Continual Variance with the whole Department, and of course in Continual Hot Water, turn Accuser, or be continually applying to Congress and attending with Witnesses to Support Charges.” What Trumbull meant was that the division of the department into purchasing and issuing sections had created an unworkable system—with the two commissaries bound to fall out. He was partly wrong, and he was not altogether straightforward in explaining his resignation. Congress’s refusal to permit him to collect commissions gnawed at him as much as his reduced authority.

Out of republican scruples, Congress had denied commissions to the commissaries. The delegates thought the salaries of the commissaries and their deputies were too high; for example, in 1775 John Adams called them “extravagant.” Congress wanted not only to hold down expenses while increasing supplies, it wished to improve control of supplies and thereby strengthen the army while protecting the public purse. At any rate in the reorganization of 1777 it included the requirement that henceforth elaborate records be kept. Lest the commissaries have any doubts about what was wanted the records were described in some detail—accounts, invoices (in duplicate), receipts, returns, and journals. Each deputy of purchases, for example, would keep a journal in which every purchase would be recorded, and in order that there be uniformity of accounts, each page was to be divided into ten columns in which the complete history of each purchase would be entered. If livestock were bought, “the number, colour and natural marks” would be entered, plus a good deal more. Naturally, few of these requirements appealed to the commissaries, but Congress, determined to defend the public interest, had good reasons for rationalizing a system that presented ample opportunities for corruption.

Congress gave even more attention to the quartermaster general’s department than it did to the commissary. The quartermaster general may have had a more difficult set of tasks, with his operational responsibilities competing with his duties to purchase and transport supplies. Thomas Mifflin, the first quartermaster general, possessed strong abilities, but he answered too many extraordinary calls on them to allow him to serve effectively. During much of 1777, he worked closely with Congress, reorganizing the service and recruiting troops. While he was at this, the department fell apart. The usual explanation for this disintegration allocates a good deal of blame to Congress. Congress deserved some of it. In 1777 it began a practice it was to stay with throughout the war—setting rates of payment for wagons and teams, which would transport supplies, below current market values. Quartermasters found merchants and teamsters reluctant to do business with them when they could do it more profitably with others. The breakdown of supply in 1777, like most in years following, turned out to be a crisis of distribution.

At times undoubtedly, Congress made matters worse by clumsy habits of supervision. Complaints brought investigations by the committees Congress worked through, and the investigations sometimes brought delay or temporary paralysis. The lines of authority always lacked clarity, though of course final responsibility for the system lay with Congress. On a practical level, however, quartermasters found it absolutely necessary to work more closely with the army command. But where money was concerned, that command had to defer to Congress, with often near-disastrous results for the army.

Congress simply did not know how to manage this business. And that inability, as common to senior commanders as it was to the delegates, lay at the bottom of the supply failures. Finance, supply, and management all presented uncharted ground. To solve the problems, Congress and the men of the army made an organizational revolution, with all the slippages and mistakes that ordinarily attend a transformation of scale.

Congress faced one additional problem—unstable public finance. Lacking a secure revenue, it was forced into various expedients to raise money. None proved altogether satisfactory.

Although Congress blundered badly in handling supply, stinting the quartermaster general and his deputies was not among its errors. For most of the war these officials divided a commission of 1 percent of all monies they spent. Nathanael Greene, who succeeded Mifflin in March 1778, admitted a year later “that the profits is flattering to my fortune.” Greene, however, lusted more for fame than money and, noting that the post was “humiliating to my military pride,” declared sadly that “No body ever heard of a quarter Master in History as such or in relating any brilliant action.” He was wrong in the first half of his assertion—quartermasters were not only heard of, they became notorious. Greene himself performed ably, though throughout his tenure he never ceased to sing lamentations about the graceless post he held.

In an attempt to relieve the quartermaster department of some of its burdens, Congress had made two important changes late in 1776 after the evacuation of New York City. First it appointed a commissary of hides and made him responsible to one of its committees, the Board of War. The hides department took over the task of keeping the army in shoes, a challenging task, given the inflated price of leather and the fact that this army marched everywhere it went.

An even more important reform saw Congress establish a separate department to supply clothing to the army. A clothier general headed this department; his name was James Mease. His performance may be estimated from the phrase soldiers coined to describe the sickness associated with inadequate clothing—they were, they grimly joked, dying of “the Meases.” Mease, a Philadelphia merchant, asked Washington for the appointment with the sycophantic wish that God grant that Washington’s future success “may on all occasions be equal to your merit and then I am sure it will be great as your Excellency’s desires.” A few months later Mease was explaining to a disgruntled Washington how it happened that one of his regiments had been dressed in red uniforms. Such an opportunity came rarely to Mease; most of the time he found his explanations had to do with the absence of uniforms of any color. Washington realized that not all of the shortages of clothing were the result of Mease’s incompetence, but he could not ignore those that were, and in August 1778 he asked for Mease’s removal. Congress delayed action until the following July.

Mease proved to be an easy target, though he clung to his post long after his chief’s patience ran out. The line officers who were so critical of him actually contributed to his problems and to the suffering of the army by their high-minded appropriation of supplies virtually wherever the opportunity arose. Supplies had to be moved from the countryside to the main army. On the road, open season on supply trains seems to have prevailed, as state commanders and units detached for some special service stopped the wagons and took what they needed—or wanted. The rationalization must have come naturally to them. They were defending the country, and these supplies had been provided for the use of the army. The officers were part of the army and they were in need. That some central intelligence, General Washington’s headquarters, for example, might have assessed the overall needs of the army and decided on rather different priorities either did not occur to them or did not matter.

To its credit, Congress did not give up its attempt to bring order to disorderly supply arrangements. By late 1779 it had decided that much in the old procedures would have to be discarded in favor of going directly to state governments for what the army required. Early in December 1779 Congress resolved to requisition “specific supplies” from the states much as it requisitioned money. This resolve led to just about the same sort of results as the states sought to comply, sometimes succeeding, but more often failing. The plan, which went into effect in 1780, would have yielded uneven results even had the states been able to collect the supplies. Delivering beef, flour, forage, and the like to Washington’s army, which was located in New York, would have been immensely difficult for the southern states. Robert Morris, the superintendent of finance, recognizing this difficulty when he inherited the problem of supply in 1781, attempted to make the best of things by ordering supplies collected at a great distance to be sold and the proceeds used to buy food and clothing located as close as possible to the army. Time and transportation costs were thereby saved.

By the time Morris was to begin his tenure as superintendent, in June 1781, in those states which had tried to carry out congressional wishes more bitterness than supplies had been produced. These states had set up their own agencies of procurement, several with powers to impress what their citizens refused to sell, and set about to do their share in supplying the army. Their citizens—those in New Jersey, for example—did not lack patriotism, but they did not wish to accept paper money or certificates for what they had worked to accumulate. To accept such paper, it was pointed out, was the equivalent of giving goods away. Naturally they protested, and their government began to back off. New Jersey severely reduced the authority of the state superintendent of purchases and the county contractors in June 1781 and soon gave up impressing supplies altogether. Elsewhere, where an apparatus to procure supplies had been constructed, the attempt to compel citizens to “sell” their property was discarded even earlier.

The states soon stopped most of their efforts to impress, but the army did not. Under Washington’s sensitive guidance, impressment was used only as a last resort. He had grown weary of civilian failures, but he also saw the dangers of impressment. Thus, though in July 1781 he characterized the subsistence of the army as “miserable,” he continued to avoid as much as possible measures that would alienate civilians.

When Congress placed public finance in the hands of Robert Morris, a most capable and resourceful man, it made an important attempt to revise the supply system. Morris was a wealthy Philadelphia merchant with financial connections that extended far beyond his own city. In giving him power to procure all sorts of supplies for the army, Congress did not discharge the quartermasters and commissaries of the army. It bestowed on Morris considerable power to let contracts and to use the resources of the Congress to pay them off. Since in 1781 those resources were temporarily replenished by large loans from France, Morris began with a certain advantage. He used his power well, if at times somewhat summarily, and in the last great campaign of the war, the entrapment of Cornwallis at Yorktown, his contribution was clear.

In the end, however, the intangible played as great a part as organization or system in keeping the army going. The army’s will to survive and to fight on short rations, its willingness to suffer, to sacrifice, made the inadequate adequate and rendered the failures of others of little importance. The army overcame the worst in itself and in others. It was indomitable.