Valley Forge FAQs

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 Continental Congress provided for TWO supply offices:

Quartermaster General [Q.M.G.]

Commissary General of Stores and Purchases [C.G.S.P.]

with both reporting to Congress. Joseph Trumbull was appointed as Commissary General of Stores and Purchases on June 19th, 1775. His charge was to feed the army. The office functioned well for a time — in and around Boston during the beginning of the war. However, the move of the troops into New York and New Jersey led to some problems.

Following the loss of New York City in 1776 and the subsequent retreat through New Jersey, Congress went on a rampage. Their anger was mainly directed at the Commissary Department. Through a recommendation of the Board of War and some ideas expressed by General Washington the C.G.S.P. was split into the Commissary General of Purchases and the Commissary General of Issues. Trumbull was all for the split, requesting only that he and his subordinates be removed from a fixed salary. His idea was to have the men of the C.G.S.P. receive a commission from the amount passing through their hands. The assistants in the department, and even Trumbull, were experiencing low morale...criticism from all fronts and lack of direction from Congress were the norm for the department.

Finally on June 10, 1777, Congress produced a detailed order of regulations. These regulations regarded all aspects, including the how, whats and whys of record keeping, governmental markings on animals and other various details. On June 18th, officers were elected for the new office, but Trumbull was officially notified he retained his position in the post of C.G. Purchases until July 5th. His deputies were: William Ayless, William Buchanan, Jacob Cuyler and Jeremiah Wadsworth. Commissary General of Issues was given to Charles Stewart. His deputies were: Elisha Avery, Matthew Irwin and William Mumford. Congress paid scant attention to Trumbull's recommendations, particularly his commission ideas. He tried to hold onto his organization, but the men began quitting. 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. Interestingly enough, Charles Stewart held his position as C.G. of Issues until the end of the Yorktown Campaign.

The Quartermaster General was responsible for numerous duties, far beyond the usual duties of a QMG. For example, the QMG 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.

The position of QMG was not immediately announced, so at Boston, George Washington asked Congress for the authority to choose who would fill the position. On July 19th, Congress gave him the permission he sought and by August 14th, Thomas Mifflin was the QMG of the Continental Army. (In June of 1776, Stephen Moylan took over the position for several months, but he was not able to meet the challenges of the job, so Mifflin returned to the post.)

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)

In 1777, the Quartermaster Office fell apart — primarily in distribution/transportation. Why did this happen? There are a number of reasons: Mifflin was spending his time in Philadelphia by order of Congress for recruitment, moving stores from British threat and general reorganization efforts. The members of Congress were indecisive in their dealings with the Continental Army, and the indecision led to great neglect. 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 further that he remain in his post until a new QMG could be chosen. Mifflin, anxious to take up his new post on the Board of War, told his deputy Lutterloh, to take over the job.

The neglect, indecision and derisiveness on the parts of both Congress particularly, and Mifflin led to the supply problems at Valley Forge during the winter of 1777-1778. There, the troops lacked proper clothing, shoes and armaments. There were times when the troops went for days without meat and only subsisted on firecake and water. Washington and his generals were all furiously writing Congress and their respective representatives to Congress for aid in the form of supplies for the men of the encampment.

At Valley Forge on May 2, 1778, Nathaniel Greene accepted the post of QMG, albeit very reluctantly. It was a thankless job for anyone. His deputies were:

John Cox — charged to purchase and examine all stores

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.

Now, in the midst of all of this is the Clothier General. The duties at first fell under the Q.M.G. Department and Mifflin, during 1775 temporarily was in charge of it. After the reorganization in 1777, Congress created the office of Commissary of Clothing. This post entailed the submission of regimental clothing to the states as well as the receipt and payments of for deliveries. [Regimental paymasters would receive the clothing, issue to the troops and finally deduct the costs from each individual soldiers pay.]

The post was appointed by Congress on October 16, 1776, filled by George Measam, for the Northern army. General Washington requested of Congress on December 20th, 1776 for a Clothier General for the Continental Army. This would be INSTEAD OF one for each field army. Congress agreed a week later.

James Mease (former Commissary to the Pennsylvania Troops) requested the position from General Washington and was given it on January 10, 1777. He attempted to "be the best he could be," however, he was found not to be up to the task. Problems included all manners of clothing, but particularly shoes. There was a "Hide Department," established by Congress in November 1776, which was to work with the other departments. The Hide Department was under the jurisdiction of the Board of War, and it was directed to make deliveries to the Commissary of Military Stores. They were to provide for the production of equipment. The Commissary of Hides was George Ewing from August 5, 1777 to April 20, 1779. After his resignation, The Board of War devised a commissioner system, with five appointees: 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.

Dissatisfaction with the Clothier Department on the part of General Washington led to his request of Congress in April of 1778 for an investigation. On August 4, Washington wrote Congress that Mease was unfit for the post. The arrival of stores from France limited his duties anyway, the states were directed to supply their own troops and eventually the Board of War took over the purchasing for the Army. 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, working operations from there. James Wilkinson accepted the post 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.

SAS, Courtesy The Valley Forge Historical Society

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