Supply Problems Plagued the Continental Army from the Start

By Frank E. Grizzard, Jr.


Almost everyone is familiar with the great suffering that George Washington’s troops endured while encamped at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, in the winter of 1777-1778. Less well known is the fact that nearly all of the supply problems faced by the Continental army during that winter had existed since the very first weeks of the war and would continue to plague the army in the years following. Inadequate administrative procedures, a scarcity of money and the failure of credit, a weak transportation system, and a lack of manufacturing all combined with the natural obstacles of geography and weather to create frequent shortages of food, clothing, tents, and other military supplies throughout the war. The difficulties caused by these problems appeared during the Boston Campaign, beginning in April 1775 and continuing through the army’s first winter. Critical shortages of arms and ammunition, clothing, shelter, and camp equipment persisted in spite of repeated appeals to political authorities and the local population; food rations for both man and beast were unpredictable.

The Continental Congress’s efforts to equip and feed its army were inadequate from the start. The sheer magnitude of the task and the lack of an established supply system guaranteed that serious problems of procurement and distribution would ensue at least initially. Never had Americans undertaken such a colossal effort of organization and finance, and Congress was not prepared to act decisively on such matters. Congress’s policies toward the army generally were dictated by temporary expedients; its sporadic attempts to meet its obligations to the Continental troops were disorganized and unsystematic. Overall, Congress’s administration of military matters can be characterized as inefficient, and its bureaucratic wranglings only exacerbated its lack of experience and its inability to make useful projections about the critical needs of the army in the field. Representing the people of thirteen different states was not an easy matter, and the delegates were forced to govern by consensus and to administer by committee.

When Washington arrived in Massachusetts to take command of the Continental army in July 1775 he immediately recognized the severe problems that would plague his army throughout the war. The first sight that awaited him at Cambridge was the motley-clad troops, and one of the first general orders that he issued (4 July 1775) called for exact returns of all sorts of supplies—provisions, ordnance stores, powder, lead, tools, tents, camp kettles, etc.—and was at pains to ensure that each man was given at least one blanket. The same month another general order (23 July 1775) was aimed at eliminating the difficulties and confusion caused by the shortage of uniforms.

The fledgling army’s worrisome supply shortages were rendered especially critical by the increasing likelihood that the raw, ill-clad troops would be obliged to continue besieging Boston during the harsh New England winter. Realizing that preparations for winter could not be begun too soon, Washington in early August directed the construction of board huts to house the soldiers, and on 4-5 August 1775 he wrote Continental Congress president John Hancock, “I need not enlarge upon the Variety of Necessities such as Cloathing, Fuel & Co.—both exceedingly scarce & difficult to be procured, which that Season must bring with it.”

In a circular letter to his general officers, written on 8 September, Washington predicted that a shortage of wood for fuel would make it “too probable that Fences, woods, orchards, and even Houses themselves, will fall Sacrifices to the want of Fuel, before the end of the winter.” In the same letter Washington wondered whether the lack of clothing, blankets, and “proper Covering” would cause the soldiers to return home as they came to feel the severity of winter. These concerns were repeated at a council of war held by the general officers at Cambridge three days later. During the first week of October Washington informed the Massachusetts General Court that the season already had advanced too far to provide sufficient barracks for the troops and thus many of the houses in and around Cambridge would have to be appropriated for the soldiers’ use. In addition to living in crude huts that first winter, the men were quartered in thirty-six houses in Chelsea, crowding the local inhabitants, who were themselves, according to Lt. Col. Loammi Baldwin, “vastly destressed and impoverished by repeated difficulties.”

To feed the army during the winter months, fifteen thousand barrels of flour were purchased in Philadelphia and shipped to Boston via Newburyport. As the “Season for killing Pork” (the fall) approached, Commissary General Joseph Trumbull wrote Washington on 6 September, a large number of hogs was ordered to be purchased, driven to within twenty miles of the camp, where they would be slaughtered and salted.

In August teams of horses, carriages, and wagons had been hired to supplement those owned by the Continental army; by the following October the same items were impressed into service as hiring became more difficult due to the demands of the New England harvest. (The same situation arose for boats and other small vessels.) In early December baggage wagons and gun carriages, harnesses, etc. were still in great demand, and impressment continued throughout the winter. Hay for the horses was also in great demand.

It was not sufficient, however, simply to feed and quarter the men of the army. As soldiers they also had to be equipped to fight, and the lack of arms and ammunition were a constant problem. As early as August Washington wrote John Hancock, lamenting the “Scarcity of Ammunition,” an “Evil” alleviated only somewhat by the recent arrival of a large quantity from New York. The merchant firm of Clark & Nightingale of Providence, Rhode Island, obtained a small supply of powder, lead, and arms in early September, but the purchase of small quantities could not begin to fill the need. Critical shortages of arms, gunpowder, and ammunition appeared not only in Massachusetts, where the British army was encamped, but in Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, and even Virginia. Gunpowder had been sent to Cambridge from Connecticut and New York the previous June, leaving the latter colony, in Washington’s words, “almost destitute of that necessary Article.” Capt. Cornelius Van Dyke’s company of New York militia, for example, was ordered to march up the Mohawk River to counter a possible Indian attack without a supply of ammunition. The situation had improved only marginally by September, despite desperate attempts to purchase and manufacture gunpowder, lead, and small arms.

Washington later complained to his brother John Augustine Washington that “we are obliged to Submit to an almost daily Cannonade without returning a Shott from our scarcity of Powder, which we are necessitated to keep for closer work than Cannon Distance whenever the red Coat gentry pleases to step out of their Intrenchments.”

Nor did Washington always have the financial resources to supply his army. By early September the military chest was also “totally exhausted,” and the commissary general’s credit was soon strained to the utmost. Money was lacking to pay riflemen, who were critical to the army. One million dollars was appropriated by Congress in early October, alleviating the situation temporarily, but the long term problem of financing thew war was never solved.

To make the problem of preparing for winter more vexing, the terms of enlistments for many soldiers were about to expire. Many soldiers who were willing to reenlist as their enlistments ran out would agree to reenlist only under the condition that they could return home and prepare their winter clothing, or so wrote Col. Samuel Holden Parsons and Lt. Col. Experience Storrs to Washington in separate letters of 23 October 1775.

Washington complained to James Warren on 2 November 1775 that “different Regiments were upon the point of Cutting each others throats for a few Standing Locusts near their incampments to dress their victuals with.”

Enlistments of the old army expired with the old year; by 31 December 1775 less than half of the 20,000 men authorized by the Continental Congress had been recruited for the new army, thus forcing Washington to call out the militia reinforcements. The “confused & distorded [sic] state” of the army made it impossible for Washington to get exact returns of the numbers of men actually present and fit for duty, and by 10 January 1776 he found himself “weaker than I had any Idea of” and requested the Massachusetts council to call out more militia reinforcements. Moreover, confusion and lack of discipline within the new army was accompanied by increased filth and garbage about the barracks. Blankets, clothing, arms, and other military stores that were sorely needed by the main army at Cambridge had been stockpiled near Quebec, hundreds of miles away from the troops who needed them.

The remainder of the years of the war passed in much the same way as that first one. The lessons learned by Washington during that critical first winter led to reforms, but efforts to change things the following spring and summer were not sufficient to improve the situation much. On 24 July 1777 Brig. Gen. George Clinton wrote to inform Washington that 30,000 pounds of hard bread sent in bulk to Fort Montgomery, New York, had been “so much broken as to render it almost unfit to be used,” nor were there empty casks in which to convey it. This despite the fact that the very next day Connecticut governor Jonathan Trumbull, Sr., could write to Washington that “The Earth Helpeth us—I never saw it better cover’d with its Fruits for our Support; The Enemy threaten it’s [sic] Destruction; May God prevent them!” At that time the army’s most severe trial lay yet ahead, and in fact it survived the famous winter at Valley Forge because of the heroic efforts of Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene to reform the supply and transportation system during the winter of 1777-1778. It would be near the war’s end, however, before Robert Morris could step in to set the army’s supply system on a solid foundation.


Appendix I

The Continental Congress passed a resolution on 4 November 1775 defining the ration of each enlisted soldier:

Resolved , That a ration consist of the following kind and quantity of provisions, viz:

    1 lb. of beef, or 3/4 lb. pork, or 1 lb. salt fish, per day.
    1 lb. of bread or flour per day.
    3 pints of pease, or beans per week, or vegitables equivalent, at one dollar per bushel for pease or beans.
    1 pint of milk per man per day, or at the rate of 1/72 of a dollar.
    1 half pint of Rice, or 1 pint of indian meal per man per week.
    1 quart of spruce beer or cyder per man per day, or nine gallons of Molasses per company of 100 men per week.
    3 lb. candles to 100 Men per week for guards.
    24 lb. of soft or 8 lb. of hard soap for 100 men per week.

Appendix II

On 23 December 1775 Congress appointed a committee to consider what articles were necessary for the army, and the committee brought in the following report:

The Committee appointed to enquire what Articles are necessary for the Army beg Leave to report that in their Opinion the following Goods and Stores are absolutely necessary and ought to be imported as soon as possible, vizt.

Sterling.
60,000 striped Blankets, suppose 5/. . . . . . . . . . 15,000

120,000 yds. of 6/4 Broadcloth, the Cols. to be brown and blue from 3/ to 6/ per yd. average 4/ . . . . . . . 24,000

10,000 yd Ditto of different Colours for facing at 4/. . 2,000

3,000 ps Duffield or some such Cloth at 90/ ps . . . . . 13,500

100 m sorted Needles 5/. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 25

50 m Do none very fine 5/ . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 12.10

10 Do for sail cloth 10/. . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5

3,000 ps Ravens Duck 25/ . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3,750

3,000 ps Ticklenburgh 65/. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 9,750

1,500 ps Osnabrugs 55/ . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4,125

1,000 ps Vitrey (a french manur) 55/ . . . . . . . . . . 2,750

4,000 ps hamburgh Dowless 20/. . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4,000

20,000 Stands of Arms 25/. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 25,000

300 tons Lead 18. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5,400

1,000,000 Flints 5/ pr m . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 250

1,500 Boxes Tin 40/. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .3,000
iron wire properly sorted for it. . . . . . . . . . .500
medicines, Surgeons Instruments, lint and bandages. 2,000

500 Sheets Copper of different sizes average at 36/ . . . . 900

Sterling . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 116,467.10

Your Comee having also taken into Consideration the best Ways and Means for supplying the continental Treasury with Silver and Gold beg leave to report that the Sum of 160,000 Dollars be laid out in the Produce of these Colonies and exported agreeable to the Resolves of this Congress to proper Ports in Europe and the West Indies and there disposed of for Gold and Silver to be Imported into the Continental Treasury as soon as may be.

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