Supply of the Continental Army

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Supply of the Continental Army

SUPPLY OF THE CONTINENTAL ARMY. The American rebels started the war with almost none of the supplies required to arm, clothe, shelter, or otherwise equip, maneuver, and support army or naval forces. They lacked powder, muskets, cannon, lead, bayonets, cartridge boxes, cartridge paper, textiles, entrenching tools, and such camp equipment as kettles. The supplying of food was less of a problem while the army was stationary around Boston, but the shortage of salt meant that meat and fish could not be preserved. Manufacturing in America was undeveloped when the war started and never was built up to a point where it contributed significantly to the war effort; virtually all the shortages had to be made up by captures from the British or by purchase on credit from friendly powers (France, Spain, and the Netherlands).

The basic structure of American procurement was adapted from the way the British army organized and administered its supply system. On 16 June 1775, Congress created two supply offices, the quartermaster general and the commissary general of stores and purchases, both of which were required to report to the delegates. But since these departments began operating from a standing start in an economy much less well developed and flexible than Britain's, their efforts were often ad hoc and had about them an air of desperation. Given the difficulties they faced, American supply officers in most cases accomplished great feats in keeping the Continental army in the field and able to fight.


Until the reorganization of 1780, the American quartermaster general had duties and responsibilities far beyond those of the modern quartermaster. In addition to the procurement and distribution of supplies other than food and clothing, he was the principal staff officer involved in the movement of troops and therefore responsible for route reconnaissance; the repair and maintenance of roads and bridges; the layout, organization, and construction of camps; and the supply and maintenance of wagons and teams and of boats for water movement. Washington therefore felt the need for this key staff officer soon after assuming command at Boston and asked for authority to make his own appointment. When this was granted on 19 July 1775, Washington named Thomas Mifflin of Pennsylvania to the post on 14 August. Stephen Moylan took over the office in June 1776 but proved unequal to the task, and four months later Mifflin was back. He was seldom at Washington's headquarters in 1777, but his duties were performed by three subordinates: Joseph Thornsbury, whom Washington appointed wagonmaster general in May; Clement Biddle, appointed commissary general of forage on 1 July; and Colonel Henry Emanuel Lutterloh (or Lutterlough), an officer who had served as a quartermaster in the army of the duke of Brunswick, whom, at Washington's suggestion, Mifflin made his deputy.

Quartermaster operations, severely strained in 1776, suffered further dislocation in 1777, primarily in the field of transportation and distribution. Congress detained Mifflin in Philadelphia over matters of reorganization, and he remained in the city to stimulate recruiting and later to move stores out of the way of the British threat. On 8 October 1777 he submitted his resignation on grounds of ill health, but Congress, whose indecision and neglect had contributed to the collapse of the supply system, did not accept the resignation until 7 November. Then, the next day, the delegates asked Mifflin to carry on until they could get around to picking his successor. Mifflin, who had been appointed to the new Board of War, retaining the rank but not the pay of a major general, simply told his deputy, Lutterloh, to take over as quartermaster general. This shuffling of personnel came at a time when defeats in the field, and the need to keep operating in the face of the British occupation of Philadelphia, had already dislocated the supply system and contributed to the army's suffering during the winter encampment at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.

With the lament that "No body ever heard of a quarter Master in history as such," the capable Major General Nathanael Greene of Rhode Island reluctantly accepted the noncombatant office of quartermaster general on 2 March 1778 and held it until 5 August 1780. Two able men were prevailed on to be his deputies: John Cox was to make all purchases and examine all stores; Charles Pettit would keep the books and the cash. Congress put Greene and his deputies on a commission system, whereby they could retain one percent of the money spent by the Quartermaster Department. The three men agreed to divide this amount equally.


On 19 July 1775, Congress appointed Joseph Trumbull, the son of Connecticut governor Jonathan Trumbull, as commissary general. His department, charged with feeding the army, functioned well until the war moved from the Boston area to New York and New Jersey, when it faced the unprecedented challenges of reconnecting logistical arrangements in a war that went from the defense of extended positions to the near chaos of defeat and retreat.

After the disasters of 1776—the loss of New York City and the retreat through New Jersey—Congress was seized by what Richard Henry Lee would later call a veritable "rage for reformation," most of which was directed against the Commissary Department. On the recommendation of the Board of War, and in line with Washington's ideas, the delegates split Trumbull's office into a commissary general of purchases and a commissary general of issues. Fully a year before Congress made the decision, Trumbull had wholeheartedly supported this division of his office but made a strong argument that he and his deputies be taken off a fixed salary. He reiterated an earlier proposal that he receive a one-half of one percent commission on all money passing through his hands, and that 2.5 percent be retained by the deputies purchasing subsistence. The morale of Trumbull's assistants was low because of criticism and because Congress had been so slow to prescribe regulations for the department.

On 10 June 1777 Congress finally produced a long, detailed set of regulations prescribing how records would be kept, how government animals would be branded, and other minutiae. On 18 June it elected officers for the new organization. Although he apparently was not officially notified until 5 July, Trumbull was retained in the establishment as commissary general of purchases, and his deputies were William Ayless, William Buchanan, Jacob Cuyler, and Jeremiah Wadsworth. The second post was given to Charles Stewart (who retained it until the end of the Yorktown campaign), and his deputies were William Mumford, Matthew Irwin, and Elisha Avery. Congress paid little attention to Trumbull's recommendations, particularly with regard to his proposal about commissions. Trumbull tried to hold his department together while he argued with Congress on modification of its plan, but the delegates refused to yield ground and Trumbull's deputies began to resign. On 19 July, Trumbull submitted his resignation with the request that it be effective 20 August 1777. Buchanan was named (5 August) to succeed him. After Buchanan's resignation on 23 March 1778, Jeremiah Wadsworth took over the office on 9 April. After Wadsworth resigned on 1 January 1780, Ephraim Blaine became commissary general of purchases and held the post until it was abolished after the Yorktown campaign, in October 1781.


Although the supply of clothing fell in the domain of the commissary general, the quartermaster general, Mifflin, had temporarily handled this responsibility in 1775. When Congress got around to reorganizing the supply services after the evacuation of New York City, its first act was to create the office of commissary of clothing. This official would submit regimental clothing to the states and receive and pay for deliveries; regimental paymasters then would receive the clothing, make issue to the troops, and deduct the costs from the soldiers' wages. George Measam was appointed to this post in the southern army on 16 October 1776, a week after Congress created it, and at the same time Washington was authorized to fill the post in his own army. On 20 December, Washington wrote Congress to recommend that a clothier general for the Continental army (rather than one for each field army) be appointed, and a week later the delegates agreed, although they did not prescribe his authority.

James Mease, a Philadelphia merchant and former butler who had been commissary to Pennsylvania troops since 25 January 1776 and who had executed supply orders for Congress, asked Washington for this post on 6 January 1777 and received it four days later. He reported to Washington's camp in February 1777. On 19 July, Washington reported that "I have no reason to accuse the Clothier General of inattention to his department, and therefore, as his supplies are incompetent to the wants of the army, I am to suppose his resources are unequal." Shoes were a particular problem, the shortage rendering some organizations, in Washington's words on 23 June, "almost entirely incapable of doing duty." Congress had established a Hide Department (22 November 1776) to take custody of the original wrappings of cattle slaughtered for the army. Now it directed the commissary of hides to exchange these for tanned leather or for shoes; if this proved unfeasible, the commissary of hides could set up the tanyards, secure the other necessary materials and workmen, and produce the shoes, or he could contract for their manufacture. The Hide Department was then put under the Board of War, which directed that it make deliveries of leather to the commissary of military stores for the production of other equipment. Six weeks after the man selected by Congress declined to serve as commissary of hides, George Ewing was appointed to the post on 5 August 1777. He resigned on 20 April 1779, and the Board of War came up with a new plan under which five commissioners were appointed: William Henry for Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Delaware; John Mehelm for New Jersey; Moses Hatfield for New York; Robert Lamb for Massachusetts; and George Starr for Connecticut.

Washington had meanwhile grown increasingly dissatisfied with Mease's performance. In April 1778 he asked Congress to investigate, and on 4 August he wrote that Mease was unfit for the post. Mease's functions were reduced as clothing started to arrive from France, the states were directed to supply their own troops, and the Board of War took over the purchase of items for the Continental army. Late in 1778 Washington told a visiting congressional committee that a reorganization of the Clothing Department was still necessary, and on 23 March 1779 the delegates got around to acting. Mease had submitted his resignation in December 1777, offering to stay in office until a successor was named, but on grounds of ill health he left the main army and operated from Lancaster, Pennsylvania. After two others had declined the new office as set up in March 1779, James Wilkinson accepted on 24 July. He was to take orders from Washington and the Board of War, and each state would appoint its own clothier.


In 1775 the quartermaster general had operated with two assistants and some forty clerks, laborers, wagonmasters, and superintendents. By 1780 the quartermaster general and his two assistants had 28 deputies and 109 assistant deputies plus many storekeepers; clerks; barrackmasters; express riders; laborers; and superintendents of government property, roads, stables, woodyards, and horseyards. The forage branch had a commissary general and assistant, 25 deputies, and 128 assistant deputies as well as clerks, forage masters, measurers, collectors, weighers, stackers, superintendents, and laborers. The wagon branch had a wagonmaster general, eleven deputies, plus many wagon masters, wagoners, packhorse masters, and packhorsemen. The boat department had superintendents, masters of vessels, mates, and boatmen. In 1780 the Quartermaster Department employed almost 3,000 people at an estimated monthly payroll of $407,593, a sum that excluded the commissions paid to the quartermaster general, his assistants, and the commissary general of forage but included those paid to some, but not all, of their deputies.

In 1779 the operations of the quartermaster general and the commissary general came under mounting criticism. Expenditures of the two departments had more than quadrupled, from $9,272,534 in 1776 to $37,202,421 in 1778, and in May 1779 Congress's committee on the treasury estimated that at least $200 million would have to be spent that year by the two departments unless finances could be put on a firmer basis. The larger problem, of course, was the extraordinary depreciation of the Continental currency. The extremely severe weather, the suffering of the army at its winter encampment at Morristown, New Jersey, during 1779–1780, and the suspicion that all purchasing agents were getting rich on the commission system all brought such animosity against the two department heads that Greene and Wadsworth both threatened to resign. Only Congress's public statement of confidence in their activity kept them in office until the fall, when both officials tendered their resignations. Congress accepted Wadsworth's on 1 January 1780 and Greene's on 5 August 1780.


Greene's successor, Timothy Pickering, the former adjutant general and member of the Board of War, was named to the position on 5 August but did not wind up his affairs in Philadelphia and report for duty until late September; he would hold the office until 25 July 1785. Pickering operated under the reorganization plan Congress had implemented on 15 July 1780. For the first time, the duties of the quartermaster general no longer included any of the operational functions inherited with the model adopted from the British army. Pickering and all subsequent quartermasters general of the American army have been concerned only with supply. With much noise about "four years of wasteful profusion," Pickering undertook to eliminate the "superfluities" in his department and "lop them off" (Risch, Supplying, p. 62). But the real requirement was money to make the supply system work, and this was not available in sufficient quantities to buy food and clothing or to transport what little was received. The situation was so desperate that Washington had to furlough many troops for want of food and clothing when he went into winter quarters in December 1780, and Greene's southern army also went threadbare and hungry. These shortages, plus pay and enlistment grievances, contributed significantly to the troop mutinies of 1781.

In the spring of 1781 the New England states again came through with provisions, thanks largely to the efforts of Major General William Heath, whom Washington sent to request help. Congress then established a new system whereby private contractors, instead of the states, procured, delivered, and issued the rations. Robert Morris, the newly appointed superintendent of finance, worked out the details and raised the cash. It took the combined and cooperative efforts of the quartermaster general, the state deputy quartermasters, and the superintendent of finance to provide Washington with the means to move the Franco-American army from the Hudson Valley southward 450 miles to the James River and defeat Earl Cornwallis, a prodigious achievement accomplished between 14 August and 19 October 1781.

After the victorious Yorktown campaign, Quartermaster General Pickering took charge of all arrangements for returning American troops to the North. He also took charge of much of the captured British matériel, sending some of it to Greene in the South. He provided wood and straw for the army hospitals at Williamsburg and Hanover, Virginia; handled claims for damages and debts incurred by the allied armies in Virginia; and during the winter of 1781–1782 was involved in settling the transportation accounts arising from the campaign.

As early as 1781 Morris, whose role in restructuring and sustaining the finances of the Revolution made him increasingly prominent in matters of army supply, was responsible for purchasing clothing. Soon he was making all contracts for supplies, and on application of the clothier general was providing funds to pay for the manufacture of clothing. Wilkinson resigned as clothier general on 27 March 1781 and was succeeded by John Moylan, a brother of Stephen.

As the year 1781 ended, Morris had taken over the duties of the commissary generals of purchases and of issues, both Blaine and Stewart relinquishing their posts without waiting for Congress to accept their resignations. Morris, by one means or another, furnished clothes for the army, "not as fully as Washington desired but nevertheless more adequately than in earlier years of the war" (Risch, Supplying, p. 71). Elimination of the commissary departments made it possible to consolidate many supply functions and to reduce overhead, an economy measure that Pickering heartily supported. Congress put other reforms into effect, and before the end of 1782, Pickering's staff was reduced to ten officers. On 25 July 1785 it abolished the office of the quartermaster general.

The remarkable and unsung Edward Carrington served as Greene's quartermaster general in the Southern Department. His success in equipping and feeding the troops under extraordinarily difficult circumstances earned him a lasting reputation; Alexander Hamilton nominated him to be quartermaster general of the U.S. Army in the mobilization for the Quasi-War against France in 1798.

SEE ALSO Board of War; Carrington, Edward; Continental Currency; Greene, Nathanael; Heath, William; Manufacturing in America; Mifflin, Thomas; Morris, Robert (1734–1806); Morristown Winter Quarters, New Jersey (1 December 1779–22 June 1780); Moylan, Stephen; Pay, Bounties and Rations; Pickering, Timothy; Salt; Valley Forge Winter Quarters, Pennsylvania.


Chase, Philander D., et al., eds. The Papers of George Washington. Vols. 10 and 12. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2000, 2002.

Risch, Erna. Quartermaster Support of the Army: A History of the Corps, 1775–1939. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1962.

―――――. Supplying Washington's Army. Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, 1981.

Showman, Richard K., et al., eds. The Papers of Nathanael Greene. Vol. 3. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press for the Rhode Island Historical Society, 1983.

                              revised by Harold E. Selesky