Historic Valley Forge

Supply system failed

Q.I would like to know the facts on how and why the supply system failed during the Revolutionary War.
Brian Hughes, Columbus, Georgia

A.On June 16, 1775, delegates of the Continental Congress provided for two supply offices to be overseen by two top officers, the Quartermaster General (QMG), and the Commissary General of Stores and Purchases (CGSP), both of whom were to report to Congress.

Joseph Trumbull was appointed as CGSP on June 19th, 1775, charged primarily with feeding and clothing the army. The office functioned well in and around Boston during the beginning of the war. Following the loss of New York City in 1776 and the subsequent retreat of the Continental Army through New Jersey, Congress split the Commisariat into two sepearate departments,one focused on obtaining supplies (Commissariat of Purchases), the other on distributing them (Commissariat of Issues). Trumbull supported the split, requesting only that he and his subordinates be removed from a fixed salary. Instead the men of the commisariat would be compensated based on the size of the supply purchases.

On June 18th, officers were elected to oversee the newly reorganized departments. Trumbull remained in the post of Commissary General of Purchases until July 5th. His deputies were: William Ayless, William Buchanan, Jacob Cuyler and Jeremiah Wadsworth. Charles Stewart was selected as Commissary General of Issues. His deputies were: Elisha Avery, Matthew Irwin and William Mumford. Congress paid scant attention to Trumbull's recommendations, particularly his commission ideas. Trumbull resigned on July 19, 1777. William Buchanan replaced him on August 5th and he in turn resigned the end of March in 1778. On April 9, 1778, Jeremiah Wadsworth took the post, resigning January 1, 1780. Ephraim Blaine was named to the post and held it until it was abolished after Yorktown in 1781. Charles Stewart held his position as Commissary General of Issues until the end of the Yorktown Campaign.

The Quartermaster General was responsible for the procurement and distribution of supplies, other than food and clothing. He was the principle staff officer involved in the movement of troops: routing reconnaissance; repair and maintenance of roads and bridges; layout, organization and construction of camps; supply and maintenance of equipage, both land and water. On August 14th, Thomas Mifflin was made the the QMG of the Continental Army.

The tasks and duties of the QMG officer were performed by Mifflin and several subordinates or assistants:

  • Joseph Thornsbury: (Appointed Wagonmaster General in May by General Washington)
  • Clement Biddle (Commissary General for Forage on July 1)
  • Henry Emanuel Lutterloh ( At General Washington's suggestion, Mifflin made him his deputy)

Mifflin, citing reasons of ill health, submitted his resignation to Congress on October 8, 1777, but they didn't accept it until November 7th, asking that he remain in his post until a new QMG could be chosen. At Valley Forge on May 2, 1778, Nathaniel Greene reluctantly accepted the post of QMG. His deputies were:

  • John Cox — charged to purchase and examine all stores of supplies
  • Charles Pettit — charged to keep account of the books and cash

The three men were put on a "commission system" by Congress. They were able to retain one percent of the money spent by the QM Department. They split the revenue between them. Greene retained the position until August 5, 1780.

On October 16, 1776, Congress created the Commissariat of Clothing to handle procuring and distributing clothing to the troops. Note that while the army fed its soldiers, it didn't give them clothing for free. Clothing costs were deducted from their pay. George Measam was appointed Clothier General for the Northern army. A few months later, on December 20th, 1776, Congress approved Washington's suggestion that a single Clothier General be appointed for the entire Continental Army. James Mease (former Commissary to the Pennsylvania Troops) was given the position on January 10, 1777.

He didn't do a very good job. Washington saw firsthand at Valley Forge the many soldiers enduring winter with nothing more than rags wrapped around their frost-bitten feet. In April of 1778, shortly after the brutal winter encampment, Washington called for an investigation. On August 4, Washington wrote Congress that Mease was unfit for the post. Mease submitted his resignation in December of 1777, staying in the office until a new man was found for the post, but he cited grounds of poor health, left the post and moved to Lancaster. James Wilkinson accepted the position on July 24, 1779. His orders came from the Board of War and the Commander-in-Chief, while each state was to appoint their own clothier.