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.”