Revolution: Supply

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Revolution: Supply

When the Continental Congress assumed the task of prosecuting war against Great Britain it faced the challenge of reconciling the political culture of revolution with a necessity to adapt imperial methods for providing manpower, equipment, and supplies for American military forces. This tension resulted in an ill-managed administrative system characterized by divided authority and responsibility between various congressional committees, state authorities, and military leaders who often worked at cross purposes to meet the military needs. This organizational conflict was manifested at the lowest levels in the regiments, where soldiers then, as today, could not fight unless they were properly supplied with food, weapons, and clothing.

At the beginning of the Revolution, the Americans lacked domestic sources for most provisions except food and forage. Military transportation did not exist and there was no central control of supply within the colonies. The Continental Congress sought to provide for the army but organizational difficulties and lack of money resulted in American forces having just enough supplies to remain operational. The American economy was primarily agricultural and manufacturing was inadequate to supply large forces with ammunition, clothing, cannon, tents, shovels, and other items required for life in the field. Throughout the war, however, the Americans obtained some supplies by capturing them from the British. Another source of supply was aid from France, but American ships had to run a British navy blockade in order to deliver their cargoes. The most critical challenge throughout the war was transportation, because the road network was primitive and many areas had no roads at all. When supplies could be obtained, they often sat in storage depots due to lack of transportation to move them where needed.

In 1775 the Continental Congress authorized the quartermaster general and commissary general departments to provide the necessary food and supplies to the army formed at Boston. The quartermaster had responsibility for the procurement and distribution of supplies other than food and clothing as well as for the movement of troops and maintenance of wagons and boats. Major General Thomas Mifflin served as the first quartermaster general but quickly became frustrated by having to beg Congress and the states to provide funds, materials, and food. During operations in 1776 and 1777 the fighting consumed tons of munitions, food, and forage, and much more was lost when the British overran American positions. Horses died of wounds and wagons broke down under hard use and enemy fire. On 8 October 1777, Mifflin quit his position because of his conflicts with Congress and the bureaucratic frustration of trying to make the supply system functional. As a result, when the American army went into camp at Valley Forge in the late fall of 1777, the soldiers suffered severe shortages of food and clothing, mainly because of the breakdown of transportation.

In spite of these difficulties, some important shipments of French arms, munitions, and clothing, along with supplies captured from the British, were forwarded to the army at Valley Forge. General George Washington took a personal interest in all supply matters and authorized impressments of civilian provisions, but with proper receipt for later payment. In 1778 Washington urged Congress to appoint Major General Nathanael Greene, one of his more able officers, to replace Mifflin. Greene reorganized the quartermaster department to more adequately manage the funding, purchasing, and storing of supplies and equipment. By 1780 the department had over three thousand personnel to oversee logistics operations in the areas of clothing, food, forage, and transportation, which resulted in more regular deliveries to the army. The pressure on Greene may have eased somewhat as the Continental Army became a seasoned force and accepted the supply problems as routine. The regiments learned to make do with less of everything and gradually found ways to get more out of what they had.

More than anything else, the shortage of money continued to hinder operations, and Washington often had to dismiss troops from the field or encamp them in dispersed areas to reduce the regional logistics burden. Lack of money also led to pay and enlistment grievances demonstrated by several troop mutinies in 1781. In May 1781 Congress appointed Robert Morris, a Philadelphia merchant and Pennsylvania delegate in Congress, to the new post of superintendent of finance, and his actions greatly influenced supply matters. He believed that if the country could mobilize enough funds and credit to keep the army in the field, the British would eventually quit. Morris even pledged his own personal funds to arrange for flour shipments to the army. By mid-1781, when the Yorktown campaign began, the supply situation of the Continental Army had greatly improved. Morris successfully gathered provisions and equipment, made transportation arrangements, and managed the finances that paid for it all. From a logistics perspective, the coordination of material, financial, transport, and other supply resources was almost perfect at Yorktown.

In spite of all the difficulties, procurement of supplies occurred, transportation lines remained open, enough imports got through, and every supply crisis passed. The Continental Army had enough supplies to get the job done, and they contributed to the American victory.

See alsoValley Forge .


Carp, E. Wayne. To Starve the Army at Pleasure, Continental Army Administration and American Political Culture, 1775-1783. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984.

Huston, James A. The Sinews of War: Army Logistics, 1775–1953. Washington, D.C.: Office of the Chief of Military History, United States Army, 1966.

Risch, Erna. Supplying Washington's Army. Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, United States Army, 1981.

Steven J. Rauch

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Revolution: Supply

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Revolution: Supply