Logistics Part Three: Subsistence and Clothing

Logistics and the Continental Army:

A Review in Four Parts

Part Three: Subsistence and Clothing

by Joe Wagner

Logistics:  “. . . the branch of military science dealing with

the procurement, maintenance, and movement

of equipment, supplies, and personnel.”

The Commissary General

From 1775 until the summer of 1781, just before the Yorktown campaign, feeding the troops of the Continental Army was accomplished using a Commissariat system.  This simply means the collection and distribution of food was performed by an independent organization not responsible to the military command structure, with specialists assigned to carry out the job.  Their leader was the Commissary General. There were four Commissary Generals during that period – Joseph Trumbull, William Buchanan, Jeremiah Wadsworth, and Ephraim Blaine.

Joseph Trumbull came to the job by virtue of holding the same position for the colony of Connecticut, responsible for supplying food to its troops surrounding Boston in April 1775.  After Washington took command, he was impressed with the feeding of the Connecticut troops, and he recommended Trumbull to Congress as his Commissary General.  Unlike many of the logistical jobs Washington had to fill, Trumbull was an eager volunteer, and immediately went about setting up subsistence stores around Boston.  He established four and also several supply collection points along the roads leading to the city.  He also hired purchasing agents, to be paid on commission, to work in Massachusetts and New York obtaining and shipping provisions.  Congress appointed a deputy Commissary General for the south, who did not report to Trumbull, but directly to Congress.  He was William Aylett of Virginia, who supported such forces as were operating in the south apart from the main army.  Trumbull served throughout the 1776 and 1777 campaigns, but due to excessive Congressional oversight and criticism, he became frustrated and resigned in August 1777.  His successor, with no experience and little talent, was William Buchanan, who was serving as a deputy Commissary General in the Middle Atlantic department.

William Buchanan was faced with the same excessive Congressional oversight that had frustrated Trumbull.  He was also thrust into the job at the very moment that Washington was engaged in the most frenetic activity of the war.   In 1777 the army was in constant movement between the Hudson and Delaware Rivers to counter British moves against Philadelphia or the Hudson valley.  His late summer appointment and inability to collect provisions, along with the other logistical failures enumerated in Parts I and II of this series, contributed to the disastrous 1777-78 winter camp at Valley Forge.  When the Congressional Committee came to camp in February 1778, their investigation resulted in the resignation of Buchanan on March 20th.  The selected replacement was Jeremiah Wadsworth, another deputy who originally worked for Trumbull.

Congress gave Wadsworth some help by rescinding the impossibly complex Commissary Regulations in April 1778.  Unlike the neophyte Buchanan, Wadsworth was a 35-year-old experienced merchant and had been active in commissary matters for Connecticut.  While the Congress had undone many of its bureaucratic restrictions, allowing Wadsworth to function more freely, it also had reached the point where it could not send him any money.  As with the other logistical functions we have discussed, in late 1778 and 1779 the lack of cash or acceptable credit made it more and more difficult for the Commissary agents to obtain food for the troops.  Wadsworth, also following the practice of other logistical leaders, put himself at personal financial risk, and in October 1779, told Congress that unless funds were sent, he could no longer carry on his role.  In December, Wadsworth was replaced by the final Commissary General of the Revolution, Ephraim Blaine.

Ephraim Blaine was, like Wadsworth, a veteran of the Commissary system.  He was a merchant from Carlisle, PA, and had been Buchanan’s deputy for the Middle department since 1777.  Blaine was the fortunate beneficiary of the 1780 Congressional decision, mentioned in earlier parts of this series, to do away with a centralized military supply process, and task the individual colonies for specific supply quotas.  It relieved Blaine of the purchasing function, and required only that he collect and distribute the provisions supplied from the various colonies.  Blaine filled this role until the end of the Yorktown campaign, when the entire supply process was contracted out, and the Commissary department was disbanded in November 1781.

Troop Rations

As with everything else concerning the army, Congress took unto itself the task of specifying for the Commissariat a detailed ration list for its soldiers.  This definition of rations did not change throughout the war, and was very similar to that of the typical British soldier.

“Resolved, that a ration consist of the following kind and quantity of provisions, viz:

 1 lb. of beef, or ¾ pork, or 1 lb. salt fish, per day

1 lb. of bread or flour per day

3 pints of pease or beans per week, or vegetables equivalent

1 pint of milk per day

1 half pint rice or indian meal per week

1 quart of spruce beer or cyder per day”

Also listed were molasses, candles, and soap, to be issued on a company basis. As with much of Congressional planning, the follow-through often left much to the imagination.  There is no record, in any commissary report or inventory, that milk was ever issued to a single soldier throughout the war.  In reality, subsistence of troops at the time meant two things – bread and meat (beef or pork).  Thus, the Commissary department was most often judged on its ability to provide flour and livestock to the army.   As one would expect, the unrelieved diet of half-cooked meat and hard bread contributed to sickness, and Washington often lamented the lack of vegetables, vinegar, or beverages to provide needed vitamins to prevent scurvy.

The Continental Army had neither field kitchens nor food service troops.  As we well know from our reenactment profession, they did it all themselves at the squad, company, or regimental level.  The only utensil recorded for issue to troops was a camp kettle.  With a capacity of 9 quarts, and issued to every six men, it was wielded by a “volunteer” selected to cook for his section of men.  “It’s a hard game,” lamented one such volunteer cook.  Most often, it was used to boil beef or other meat, and when available, the cherished vegetables were added to make a stew.

An exception to the individual nature of food preparation was bread.  During the early war years when flour was actually provided, a regimental commander would assign the flour for his unit to bakers, drawn from his own troops, or hired from the local economy.  With each soldier entitled to “1 lb. of bread or flour per day”, per the Congressional regulation, there was a potential for some entrepreneurship on the part of the officers and bakers of the unit.  The regulation said the soldier was to be provided 1 lb. of flour or bread.  The pound of flour drawn from the Commissary for each soldier on the roster produced far more than a pound of bread, due to addition of water and other ingredients.  Consequently, when the pound of flour produced the required pound of bread, there could be as much as a third of a pound of additional bread, for use as seen fit by the commander or bakers. Brig. General Knox wrote to Washington that members of his Commissary made so much profit from selling excess bread that when they ran low on other supplies, they were able to provide 8,000 rations to the Artillery Park by local purchase, using the funds from bread sales.   Bread was produced using field ovens constructed in the camp, or by use of local baker’s ovens in near-by towns.  It was estimated that it took approximately a barrel of flour to provide bread to each soldier during a seven-month campaign season.  As the war went on, supplies available in the northern and middle colonies gradually decreased, and more flour was brought up from Virginia and the south.  Starting in November 1776 contracts let in Virginia by Commissary General Trumbull resulted in 10,000 barrels of flour being shipped from the James, York, Rappahannock, and Potomac River ports by the following year.  The army relied more and more on the south to fill this need since New England was not a large grain producer and the middle colonies were depleted.

Just as bread was delivered to the army in the form of flour, meat was delivered in the form of cattle and hogs.  The process employed for fresh meat was to buy the animals wherever available, gather them at a central pasturage convenient to the army’s location, and move them as necessary nearer to the camp for slaughter.  An alternative was to centrally slaughter the animals, salt the meat, and stow it in barrels for shipment to the army as needed.  These preserved rations became essential when the army was in constant motion as happened during the campaign of 1777.  Herds of animals could not be safely moved with the troops, and resupply had to be accomplished on a much smaller scale.  Just as with flour, the opportunity to turn a profit from army meat could not be ignored.  Ordered to remove about 100 cattle from islands in the Delaware River at the approach of the British army towards Philadelphia, one enterprising agent fulfilled the letter of his orders by selling the entire herd to British commissary agents, both meeting the removal requirement and filling his purse.  As the war progressed, use of salted meat in pre-selected provisioning magazines became the norm.  Washington had Trumbull set up such stores along his routes of march through New Jersey and about Philadelphia, including Springfield, Boundbrook, Princeton, and Trenton, NJ.  Other depots of salted meats and provisions were established along routes of march west of Philadelphia including Lancaster, York, and Milltown Pa, to the south along the Chesapeake Bay towards Baltimore and Alexandria, and as far west as Winchester, VA.  Similar stores established to the north were along the Hudson valley in places such as Peekskill, NY and Danbury, Conn.  A typical example is the inventory for Head of Elk, MD, for use by troops passing south towards Yorktown, which included 300 barrels of flour, 300 barrels of salted meat, and 10 hogsheads of rum.

Whether bread, meat, or other foodstuffs, all army provisions had to be paid for, or impressed.  As repeatedly noted in discussing other areas of logistics, by 1779 the currency and credit of the Congress and the army became essentially worthless.  It was at this time that the Commissary collection system was discontinued, and the concept of specific requisitions from the colonies took effect. In the area of provisions, each colony was given specific quantities of flour, corn, beef, pork, rum, salt, and tobacco that were to be delivered to the Continental Army by certain dates.  The failure of this process became evident as both impressment orders and desperate appeals for help from Congress issued forth from army headquarters.  The arrival of French aid and the French Army in 1780-81 might seem to offer relief in the provisions area, as it did for armaments and other supply needs.  Ironically, the result was exactly the opposite.  The French Army became a competitor for provisions and supply needs, equally as serious as the threat from the British.  In the buildup for the march south to Yorktown in the summer of 1781, the Continentals were paying 15 shillings a hundredweight for flour delivered in New Jersey.  French Army buyers for Count Rochambeau immediately offered 21 shillings. The Americans had to cease trying to purchase, and instead depend on specific requisitions of flour from Maryland and Delaware, to be provided along the route of march.

Following the victory at Yorktown, the reduced level of activity and the need to reduce expenditures caused Congress to dismantle the Commissariat, and responsibility for feeding troops was contracted out to local merchants in the vicinity of the camps.


While Congress had been quick to organize many of the army’s logistics functions, and hand them over to Washington to implement, they paid special attention to the need for clothing for the troops.  That’s because cloth, blankets, shoes, hats, and all articles of uniform and clothing generally were not abundant during the war.  There were no mills or large production facilities of any kind in the colonies.  Much clothing was homemade, and the fact that a man was lucky to own more than a couple of shirts testifies to the scarcity and trouble involved.  Virtually all raw materials of cloth were imported.  As a result, Congress in January 1776 authorized its Secret Committee to arrange the import of material and its distribution, ultimately from the French.  While the Secret Committee was engaged in the purchase of cloth, another Committee was working the problem from a different angle.  The Marine Committee was instrumental in adding clothing to the supply through capture of British merchantmen.

In January 1777, Washington appointed as “Clothier General” one James Mease, a Philadelphia merchant.  Despite the title, he remained a civilian.  While certainly Washington wanted his troops well-clothed for their protection and comfort, his underlying thought may be expressed in this letter to Mease in April 1777.

“. . . if timely steps are not taken, we shall next Spring be all in confusion again, and bring our Army into the field half complete and of a thousand different colours as to uniform, which has not only an ill appearance, but it creates much irregularity; for when a Soldier is convinced that it will be known by his dress to what Corps he belongs, he is hindered from committing many faults for fear of detection.”

Like most of the other logistical functions, Mease failed to adequately supply the army, largely from lack of funds, as well as a singular lack of skill or interest in doing anything which did not result in a sales commission for him.  He was followed in later years by James Wilkerson (July 1779 – March 1781) and John Moylan (April 1781 – April 1782).  Washington was frustrated particularly in this area, for while wagons, animals, fodder, and provisions could be impressed from the countryside when all else failed, to obtain clothing absolutely required access to a source and funds for purchase.  That money solved any problem was evident from records for some regiments which, through the status and wealth of their sponsors, could afford to order their own clothing supplies.  In December 1777, certain Massachusetts units, numbering three battalions, were easily clothed from 12 wagonloads of materials imported through Boston, and paid for in cash.

Linen was woven in most colonial homes, but wool was scarce.  Blankets were exceedingly scarce, while apparel made of leather, such as breeches, jerkins, and shoes were more available.  Though the import of clothing in the colonies was scant, the capture of prize cargoes, coupled with efficient distribution, might have accomplished the task.  But there was no central control, no coordination at the Continental level.  Congress produced its usual ineffective measures, and each state, responsible for the original issues of clothing to its regiments, simply carried on in that support in a hit or miss fashion.  Reluctant to pool resources, soldiers from states better situated to receive imports fared better than those who did not.  Both Continental and state purchasing agents competed with each other for resources, and the lack of a centralized system meant timing and equality of deliveries was uncertain.

Uniformity in dress did not exist even by regulation from 1775 to 1779.  It was then that the familiar dark blue was adopted.  During much of the war, green and brown predominated in regimental colors.  In 1775, Congress had directed that uniforms provided for the army about Boston be dyed brown, with differing facing colors for each colony.  Since such uniforms were never provided, the color issue was moot.  An early attempt to cloth everyone in a hunting shirt failed when not enough material even for that effort could be gathered.

It was in the fall of 1778 that things turned for the better in the area of clothing and uniforms.  Congress made a strong appeal, as part of the policy of specific supplies from each colony, for clothing material.  Virginia, under the direct guidance of Patrick Henry, sent nine wagonloads to its forces.  There was also a significant increase in imports from France and other sources, arriving in Boston and other free ports.  Helping the issue, much of the imports were finished goods – shirts, stockings, shoes, and blankets.  It was at this time that overalls were decided upon as the preferred item for uniform trousers, rather than breeches and stockings, this to both reduce the need for stockings and provide more durable protection to the legs.  As a result of the improved sources and handling, the entire army was re-clothed before going into winter camp in December 1778.  While there were continued periods of want, continued French aid kept the Continentals from again facing a winter of nakedness.

Of special note is the situation with shoes.  Beginning in 1776, they were a serious problem.  A Sgt. Smith recorded the following during the retreat from New York City.

“ . . . our soldiers had no shoes to wair; was obliged to lace on their feet the hide of cattle we had kill’d the day before.”

An obvious source of leather for shoes were the cattle killed by the thousands to feed the army.  The Hide Department was established to collect the leftovers from slaughter, see to their tanning and preparation for cutting into leather for shoes.  Unfortunately, while there were plenty of hides available, converting them into shoes was still a hand-done skill that, like all skills in America at the time, were too few and too disorganized to produce the needed results.  And once the feeding system changed to one favoring salted beef and pork, provided from distant processing points, the availability of hides at the army’s location began to diminish.  The solution reached for clothing – that of imports largely from France was not so satisfactory with shoes, since the quality of French footwear provided under contract had proved abysmal;

“ . . by putting in small scraps and parings of leather and giving the shoes the appearance of strength and substance, while the soals were worth nothing and would not last more than a day or two’s march.”

Board of War Correspondence, 6 Dec 1779

The shoe problem was never solved, and continued through to the end of the war, even under the contract system instituted in 1781, in which shoe procurement was placed under the Clothier General.

The next installment of this series will be:



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