Historic Valley Forge

Provision Shortages at Valley Forge

Washington faced a bleak and hungry winter as he and his troops made camp at Valley Forge in December of 1777. The passage of the American and British armies during the preceding campaign had vastly diminished food supplies in the region. Congress would not provide experienced officers to supervise the Commissary and Quartermaster Departments until the spring of 1778, just as the hardships at Valley Forge were coming to an end.

On December 22, 1777, just three days after the arrival of the army at its winter encampment, General Washington wrote 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.

Incompetence, Corruption and Disorganization
within the Supply Chain

Quartermaster General Thomas Mifflin had resigned in November, 1777. Although the Commissary and the Quartermaster Department were normally supervised by commissioned officers, they were primarily staffed by civilians, and this was a frequent source of conflict. The commissaries were divided into two groups: the Issuing Commissaries who, though civilians, often served with the troops at military posts; and the Purchasing Commissaries who circulated about the country acquiring supplies. The Issuing Commissaries were paid salaries while the Purchasing Commissaries were paid on a percentage basis. While this was intended to provide incentivies for more purchasing activity, it also encouraged corruption. In one instance an Issuing Commissary at Valley Forge was arrested for theft, convicted by court martial, and drummed out of camp in disgrace.

Supply magazines 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 faced potential enemy attack from occupied Philadelphia and were probably 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
  • salt beef
  • fresh beef
  • veal or mutton
  • hams
  • tongues
  • bacon
  • fish
  • butter
  • peas
  • turnips
  • potatoes
  • cabbages
  • wheat
  • lard
  • molasses
  • cider
  • spirits (rum and whiskey)
  • vinegar
  • rice
  • salt

Many of these items are left blank, however, indicating that they were unattainable.

The principal Commissary officer in charge of purchasing for the Middle Department (covering southern New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland) during most of the winter of 1777-78 was William Buchanan, formerly lieutenant colonel in the Maryland Militia. He had been appointed Deputy Commissary General of Purchases on June 18, 1777, then promoted to full Commissary General on August 5, in which capacity he abjectly failed to excel. In a letter dated December 28, 1777, Washington expressed the troops' desperate need for supplies, urging Buchanan to rise to the challenge:

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 with respect to their situation. [ . . . ]The deputies in your department complain of a deficiency of Waggons[sic], the power you have by virtue of your office of impressing them, if exerted, will certainly remedy this evil.

Despite this urging, Buchanan was slow to effectively respond to the crisis. Some purchasing agents displayed more initiative and resoursefulness. 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, earning Washington's gratitude. Unfortunately, Blaine's efforts were not enough, and the army at Valley Forge continued to face starvation or dissolution on more than one occasion.

Other Factors

The commisaries were not solely to blame for supply deficiencies. Washington decried the greediness of farmers who took advantage of the army's high demand for foodstuffs by demanding concomitantly high prices. The general welcomed government intervention to bring prices down. On January 20 Washington wrote to Governor William Livingston of New Jersey, noting:

I am pleased to find that your legislature have fixed a price circumscribing the avarice of your farmers, who like their neighbours are endeavouring to take every advantage of the necessities of the Army.

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 often issued nothing but promissory notes to the farmers, which the latter distinctly distrusted.

Much of the supply deficiency at Valley Forge was probably inevitable, even given organized, efficient commisaries and patriotic, generous farmers. Keeping an entire army supplied throughout a winter presents enormous challenges. Roads quickly became impassible after snow and rainstorms. Suppliers were often unable to transport their goods to the encamped army even if they were willing to give it away for free.

In order to supplement the sagging food supplies, Washington detached troops to forage far 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.

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Prayer at Valley Forge
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Congress Gets Involved

In the second week of January, Washington's long requested committee of Conference, consisting of members of Congress, arrived at Valley Forge. Washington composed a lengthy written survey of his recommendations, observing:

This department has been all along in a very defective and for some time past, in a very deplorable situation. One important change 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 revolution being ill-timed or too great, from the difficulties in the way of executing the office being multiplied, or from the present Gentleman at the head of it, not having yet had leisure to digest his plan and form his connexions, I shall not undertake to determine. But unless a very considerable alteration shortly takes place, I see no prospect of adequate supplies for the succeeding campaign. To attempt supplying the army from hand to Mouth (if I may be allowed the phrase) scarcely ever having more than two or three days provisions beforehand, and sometimes being much in arrears, is a dangerous and visionary experiment. We shall ever be liable to experience want in the most critical conjunctures, as we have frequently done heretofore, and to suspend or forego the most interesting movements on account of it.

Whether the first establishment of this department, the present or the mode of supplying the army by contract at certain stipulated rates, be preferable, is a question not for me to decide, though well worth a strict and candid examination. But I shall not scruple, in explicit terms to declare, that 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. but our arms, enfeebled by the embarassments of irregular and fluctuating supplies of provisions, will reap no other fruits than disgrace and disappointment. 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.

[. . . ]

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.

General Washington Soldiers On

On February 1, with the Commissary Department functioning only sporadically, and with frequent complaints reaching General Washington of the irregularities in the Department, Washington, in General Orders, issued a warning 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 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.

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, Washington wrote:

To Jonathan Trumbull, Sr.

Valley Forge the 6th February 1778


I must take the liberty of addressing you on a subject, which, though out of your sphere, I am fully persuaded, will have every possible attention in your power to give-It is the alarming situation of the Army on account of provision-Shall not undertake minutely to investigate the Causes of this, but 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, than have been for some time past. We have been once on the brink of a dissolution in the course of the present year for want of this Article, and our condition now is but little better. What is still more distressing, I am assured by Coll Blaine, Deputy Commissary in the middle District, comprehending the States of Jersey-Pensylvania & Maryland, that they are nearly exhausted in this instance;1 and the most vigorous and active exertions on his part will not procure more than sufficient to supply the Army during this Month if so long. This being the case, and as any relief that can be obtained from the more Southern States will be but partial, trifling and of a day, we must turn our views to the Eastward and lay our account of support from thence-Without it we cannot but disband- I must therefore, Sir, intreat you, in the most earnest terms, and by that zeal which has so eminently distinguished your character in the present arduous struggle, to give every countenance to the person or persons employed in the purchasing line in your State, and to urge them to the most vigorous efforts to forward supplies of Cattle from time to time; and thereby prevent such a melancholy and alarming Catastophre-As I observed before, this subject is rather out of your province; yet I know your wishes to promote the service in every possible degree, will render any apology unnecessary, and that the bare state of facts will be admitted as a full and ample justification for the trouble it is like to occasion you-I have the Honor to be with great Respect and Esteem Sir

Your most obedient Servant

Go: Washington

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 apprised of its approach by Loyalist spies.

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. On March 2, Major General Nathanael Greene was appointed Quartermaster General with overall supervision not only of the Quartermaster Department but also the Commissary. On March 23, William Buchanan resigned as Commissary General and was replaced by Colonel Jeremiah Wadsworth of Connecticut, who was experienced in commissary matters, having served as Deputy Commissary General in New England. Thereafter, until his resignation on January 1, 1780, he worked in considerable harmony with General Greene, the overall system of supply and provision vastly improved in their capable hands.

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


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