Historic Valley Forge

Valley Forge Commissariat

One of the principal historical mystiques of Valley Forge is the near starvation experienced there by the Continental Army during the winter of 1777-78. As early as December 22 of the former year, a short three days after the arrival of the army at its winter encampment, General Washington was writing a piteous letter to Henry Laurens, President of Congress, at York, Pa.

"It is with infinite pain and concern, that I transmit [to] Congress. . . Letters respecting the State of the Commissary's department. If these matters are not exaggerated, I do not know from what cause this alarming deficiency or rather total failure of Supplies arises; But unless more Vigorous exertions and better regulations take place in that line, and immediately, this Army must dissolve. I have done all in my power by remonstrating, by writing to, by ordering the Commissaries on this Head... but without any good effect, or obtaining more than a present scanty relief."

On the following day the Commander in Chief, in even more explicit manner, warned Laurens of the prospective dissolution of the army for lack of foodstuffs, or its forced dispersion "to obtain subsistence the best manner they can. . ." Otherwise, should the Commissary Department continue to fail in its duty, the army would surely be starved into non-existence. Indeed, "a dangerous mutiny begun the night before" had threatened the ruin of discipline. The central cause, of course, was the dreadful lack of provisions.

By the latter part of 1777 the Commissary, and it adjunct, the Quartermaster Department (Quartermaster General Thomas Mifflin having resigned on November 7), were in an extremely decayed state. Although these departments were normally supervised by commissioned officers, the general employees of these departments, even those directly attached to the army, were civilians, which made them often difficult for military control. The early history of the Commissary Department of the Continental Army is not always a pretty one. While the majority of its civilian employees were undoubtedly honest and patriotic, instances of theft and corruption were not infrequent. General Washington often expressed his anger and bitterness in writing when these instances came to his attention.

Nor were these the only reasons for the too frequent failure to adequately feed the troops. The decline in value of the Continental currency made farmers shy from selling to the commissary agents. Congress, until March and April, 1778 failed to provide experienced officers to supervise the Commissary and Quartermaster Departments. The system of paying the Purchasing Commissaries on a percentage basis, instead of salaries, led to confusion, irregularities and sometimes fraud. Temptation was rampant, even in the majority of civilian employees resisted that temptation. Also, in the immediate vicinity of Valley Forge the passage of the American and British armies during the preceding campaign had divested the country of food supplies; southeastern Pennsylvania could not adequately supply the American troops as normally its rich farmlands could have done. The commissaries had to look elsewhere for supplies. Finally, nature intervened with rain and snow, which turned the roads into quagmires, thereby blocking easy access to the encampment.

The concentered at Valley Forge was the principal military force in the Middle Military Department, which covered southern New York, new Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland. The Northern Department consisted of norther New York and the New England states; the Southern Department, Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia. It is with the Middle Department and the commissary of that area that the present essay is concerned.

Supply magazines, principally for food, in the Middle Department were established at New Windsor, New York, above West point on the Hudson River; at Morristown, Newark, Elizabeth, Pittstown, Princeton, Trenton, Bordentown, Burlington, Haddonfield and Mount Holly, New Jersey, though the latter three could be threatened by enemy attack from Philadelphia and probably were therefore little used; at Easton, Bethlehem, Allentown, Coryell's Ferry (on the Delaware at the present New Hope), Pottsgrove (now Pottstown), Downingtown, Lancaster and Carlisle in Pennsylvania; at Baltimore and Georgetown in Maryland; and at Sussex Court House in southern Delaware.

A Commissary Return for Valley Forge for January 1778 lists the following commodities purchased or ordered to be purchased for the supply of the troops: flour, bread, pork, slat beef, fresh beef, veal or mutton, hams, tongues, bacon, fish, butter, peas, turnips, potatoes, cabbages, wheat, lard, molasses, cider, spirits, rum, whiskey, vinegar, rice and salt. Many of these items are left blank on the Return, however, indicating that they were unattainable. Candles and soap, although inedible items, were also the responsibility of the Commissary Department.

The commissaries were divided into two groups: the Issuing Commissaries who, though civilians, often served with the troops and at military posts; and the Purchasing Commissaries who circulated about the country handling the business indicated by their title. It was with the latter that the army experienced the most trouble, not only from the difficulties they experienced in acquiring supplies but also because of the irregularities already noted, though in one instance an Issuing Commissary at Valley Forge was arrested for theft, convicted by court martial, and drummed out of camp in disgrace.

Since the business of the Purchasing Commissaries, rather than that of the Issuing Commissaries, better illustrates the difficulties of supply at Valley Forge, the story of the former will form the bulk of this essay. The Issuing Commissaries were undoubtedly paid on a salary basis rather than on the percentage system of the Purchasing Commissaries. The latter method was undoubtedly intended to promote more activity by the Purchasing Commissaries, but it also opened the business to the irregularities already noted.

The principal Commissary officer in charge of Middle Department purchasing during most of the winter of 1777-78 was William Buchanan, formerly lieutenant colonel in the Maryland Militia. Thus Buchanan was not a regular army officer, but technically a civilian. He had been appointed Deputy Commissary General of Purchases on June 18, 1777, then promoted full Commissary General on August 5 of the same year. Much of the ill-supervision of his department during his tenure in charge may be laid to Buchanan's lackadaisical activity, or rather his inactivity. This inactivity apparently was passed down from the head of the department to numbers of his subordinates, though certainly not to all. As early during the encampment period Washington was complaining, "at present neither the principal of the Department [Buchanan] nor any of his Deputies make their appearance in camp" to discuss with the chieftain matters of mutual interest.

On the following day, the 28th, Washington urged Buchanan to assume some activity. The Commander in Chief's letter read, "As the Season advances in which the bad weather and broken Roads will render the transporting of provision from any distance for the most part subject to considerable delay, and sometimes impracticable, it becomes indispensably necessary to form with all possible expedition ample Magazines for our Winter Supply contiguous to the Rear of the Camp, and to embrace every favourable Opportunity of keeping them furnished. They ought never to have less than thirty days provisions in them.

"You will likewise extend your views to establishing the necessary Magazines for the next Campaign" expected in the spring. "The deputies in your department complain of a deficiency of Waggons, the power you have by virtue of your office of impressing them, if exerted, will certainly remedy this evil." But, despite this urging, Buchanan continued dilatory in his assigned tasks.

Not all the purchasing agents were in Buchanan's category, however. Notably, Ephrain Blaine of Pennsylvania, Deputy Commissary General for New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland, exerted his best efforts to rectify the deficiencies in the department, and earned the gratitude of Washington. Blaine's efforts were not enough, nevertheless, and the army at Valley Forge continued to face starvation or dissolution on more than one occasion.

Nor did the Commander in Chief solely blame the commissaries for the laxity of the department. Blame could be aimed elsewhere. For instance on January 20 Washington wrote to governor William Livingston of New Jersey, "I am pleased to find that your legislature have fixed a price circumscribing the avarice of your farmers, who like their neighbours" especially those in Pennsylvania "are endeavouring to take every advantage of the necessities of the Army" by demanding exorbitant prices for their produce. On the other hand the farmers contended that the constant depreciation of the Continental currency made it only fair that they should increase their prices. Also, with the frequent lack of any currency with which to pay for their agricultural purchases, the commissaries were forced to issue promissory notes to the farmers, which the latter distinctly distrusted.

In order to implement the sagging supplies of foodstuffs in camp Washington, in January and February particularly, was forced to detach from his army such troops as were physically able to go, to forage afar from camp. Colonel Walter Stewart was sent with a small force to Bucks County, Pa., Captain Henry Lee and his dragoons to Delaware, and, with the most formidable force of all (550 men), Brigadier General Anthony Wayne to Salem County, New Jersey. These efforts added materially to the commissary supplies brought to Valley Forge, but were not enough.

Mention has previously been made of the ill condition of the roads leading to camp during wet weather. When such conditions prevailed teamsters either refused to attempt carriage of supplies to Valley Forge, or, having commenced their journeys to that place, simply abandoned their wagons en route and returned home on foot. Mud and snow are the enemies of every army. Other teamsters, having reached Valley Forge only to discover that they were expected to undertake new and unagreed on assignments, simply disappeared with their empty wagons into the countryside.

In the second week of January Washington's long requested committee of Conference, consisting of members of Congress, arrived at Valley Forge to consult with the Commander in Chief on the means of rectifying all departments of the army. In anticipation of the Committee's expected arrival Washington composed a lengthy written survey of his recommendations for the perusal of the Committee and the future action of Congress. Concerning the Commissary Department the Commander in Chief observed:

"This department has been all along in a very defective and for some time past, in a very deplorable situation. One important change," apparently the appointment of William Buchanan as Commissary General, "has already taken place in it; since which it has been with the utmost difficulty we are able to keep the army together. Whether this proceeded. . . from the difficulties in the way of executing the office being multiplied, or from the present Gentleman [Buchanan], at the head of it . . .I shall not undertake to determine. . . To attempt supplying the army from hand to Mouth. . . scarcely ever having more than two or three days provisions beforehand, and sometimes being much in arrears, is a dangerous and visionary experiment.

"Whether the first establishment of this department," which, however, had proved defective, "the present" by which the purchasing commissaries were paid on a percentage basis, "or the mode of supplying the army by contract" between commissaries and producers, "at certain stipulated rates, be preferable, is a question not for me to decide, though well worth a strict and candid examination" by Congress. The Commander in Chief then continued, "unless ample magazines are laid up in the course of this winter and the approaching spring, nothing favourable is to be looked for from the operations of the next campaign. . .To obviate this, no possible exertion should be omitted; the ablest and best qualified men in the several states, whence provisions are drawn, should be called forth to aid in the matter; such as are acquainted with the resources of the country and may have been conversant in business of this kind."

He then advised, "magazines any where in the rear of the army from Lancaster to the North," that is, the Hudson, "River would not be amiss, and the more numerous they are, the better. . .

"Whether the Commissaries should be dependent on the Quarter masters for teams, or be empowered to provide for themselves, is a matter they can perhaps best settle between themselves. But it is necessary they should come to some agreement or determination upon the subject, to remove the inconveniences hitherto incurred on this score; the Commissaries having frequently imputed the deficiency of supplies to a want of the means of transportation."

During the presence of the Committee of Conference at Valley Forge General Washington further elucidated verbally on the subjects under discussion, including the Commissary Department. Since these discussions, which were frequently held at the Committee's quarters at Moore Hall, two miles northwest of the encampment proper, were strictly oral, unfortunately no record of them was kept for the perusal of future historians.

On February 1, with the Commissary Department functioning only sporadically, and with frequent complaints reaching the Commander in Chief of the irregularities in the Department, Washington, in General Orders, discovered it necessary to issue a warning against evil practices by repeating the congressional resolution of June 10, 1777:

"Resolved, That the Commissaries General of Purchases and Issues, and their respective deputies for neglect of duty or other offences in their respective offices shall be subject," even though civilians, "to military Arrest and trial by order of the Commander in Chief or any General Officers commanding a Division of the Army, Post or Department where such neglect of duty or offence may happen; and the respective Assistants of the Deputy Commissaries General of Purchases and Issues shall be for the same causes be liable to military arrest as [are] Commissioned Officers of the Army, by any General Officer or any Officer commanding a detach'd post to which such assistant may be assign'd." Washington added, "The General directs that due attention be paid to the foregoing resolve."

In desperation Washington sent missives far and wide to the heads of state governments and other persons in power, requesting their aid. To Governor Jonathan Trumbull of Connecticut he appealed, that because of "the alarming situation of this Army on account of Provision. . . there is the strongest reason to believe, that its existence cannot be of long duration, unless more constant, regular and larger supplies of the meat kind are furnished. . . and as any relief that can be obtained from the more Southern States will be put partial. . .we must turn our views to the Eastward" to New England, "and lay our account of support from thence. . .I. . .therefore entreat you in the most earnest terms. . .to give every countenance to the person or persons employed in the purchasing line in your state. . ."

By March New England began answering this call for assistance. Droves of beef cattle commenced heading cross-country to Valley Forge. Unfortunately one significant herd of 130 fine beef cattle was captured by a British raiding party from Philadelphia, the enemy having been apprized of its approach by Loyalist spies.

In continued desperation the Commander in Chief wrote to Buchanan on February 7, "The spirit of desertion among the Soldiery never before rose to such a threatening height, as at the present time. The murmurs on account of" the lack of "Provisions are become universal. . ." Diplomatically Washington did not "wish to throw out the least imputation of blame upon any person. I only mean to represent our affairs as they are, that necessity may be properly felt, of exerting the utmost care and activity to prevent the mischiefs, which I cannot forbear anticipating with expressible concern." To General John Sullivan the Commander in Chief wrote, "The soldiers have been with great difficulty prevented from mutiny for want of Victuals."

Happily the worst provision difficulties at Valley Forge were approaching an end. With the return of the Committee of Conference to York, discussions concerning the necessary reconstructions of the army were presented to Congress and the Board of War. In line with this restructuring on March 2 Major General Nathanael Greene, despite his aversion to accepting the post, was appointed Quartermaster General with overall supervision not only of the Quartermaster Department but also the Commissary. This appointment would prove of inestimable value to the army.

Nevertheless, the burden of supervising both departments proving too onerous for any one man, and William Buchanan having resigned as Commissary General on March 23, a replacement for Buchanan was immediately sought. A few days after Buchanan's resignation Colonel Jeremiah Wadsworth of Connecticut, who was experienced in commissary matters, having served as Deputy Commissary General in New England, was summoned by Congress to York for consultation. Wadsworth was offered the post of Commissary General, but he desired to deliberate on his acceptance until Congress fully stated his duties and the departmental regulations in writing.

On march 29, Congress having acceded to Wadsworth's request, New Jersey Congressman Abraham Clark wrote a brief note to Wadsworth stating, "Mr. Wadsworth is desired to peruse the enclosed regulations, and signifie [sic] his pleasure whether he is willing to Accept the appointment of Comsy. genll. — and whether he find any defect in the System of Consequence Sufficient to require a reconsideration . . ." This missive with its enclosure reached Wadsworth's hands the "same Day," as he docketed it, but it was not until April 9 that his commission was issued by Congress. Whether or not Wadsworth predicated his acceptance on any changes in the regulations is unreported. Nevertheless, having mulled over his decision, accept he did, to the great benefit of the army, since Wadsworth was a born businessman. Thereafter, until his resignation on January 1, 1780, he worked in considerable harmony with General Greene and fulfilled the Commander in Chief's expectations of his services in excellent degree.

Although Greene and Wadsworth were obliged to struggle under adverse conditions to resurrect the Quartermaster and Commissary Departments respectively, by the conclusion of the Valley Forge encampment on June 19, 1778 both departments were functioning to some satisfaction. True, neither of these officers had to face the weather and road conditions of the previous winter, but the near decay of their departments during that period posed excessive burdens on them. But then it was the presence of these burdens that called forth the proper men to rectify them.

"Valley Forge Commissariat" by John F. Reed, from The Picket Post, The Valley Forge Historical Society, Fourth Quarter, 1980

Courtesy National Center for the American Revolution/Valley Forge Historical Society