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Logistics and the Continental Army: A Review in Four Parts

Logistics and the Continental Army:

A Review in Four Parts

by Joe Wagner

Discussion and Review of:

Supplying Washington’s Army by Erna Rich, published by the Center of Military History, United States Army, Washington, DC.in 1981.

Logistics:  “. . . the branch of military science dealing with the procurement, maintenance, and movement of equipment, supplies, and personnel.”

The Continental Army winter camp at Valley Forge in 1777-78 is the stuff of legend.  A pitiable, cold, starving army in rags perseveres through all hardship to emerge in the spring ready to fight and win.  Skeptics will point out that it really wasn’t all that tough a winter from a meteorological point of view; the succeeding winter at Morristown, NJ was far more intense.    But for the men who were there, it was a time of real hardship.  More than the cold, the lack of clothing, food, fuel, and every necessity of life were made worse by the knowledge that the British were only a few miles away in the warmth and comfort of their late capitol, Philadelphia.  Why was there such a logistical failure at Valley Forge –what caused the inability of the Continentals to support themselves in the field for those cold winter months?

This first article begins a four-part series on logistics of the Continental Army drawn from the comprehensive US Army Military History Center publication that details the planning and execution necessary to support an American army in the field during the Revolution.  It will provide some information for the reenactment and interpretation of that world of 235 years ago.  It was easy enough to call up the militia, appoint the generals and colonels, establish tables for rations and clothing, and plan a campaign.  But who brings the ammo and the flints?  Where are the tents and kitchen gear?  Who collects the food that is authorized for each man?  Where are the wagons and carts to carry everything?  Where do the horses and oxen come from to pull the wagons – and who feeds those?  How does an army stay in one place for months and not suck dry the surrounding countryside?  Or how does it move twenty miles, or two hundred, and expect to find everything it needs along the way and at the other end?  And how did a collection of colonies with no experience or logistics structure instantaneously create the people and processes necessary to do all of these things and a million more?

The sections on Logistics to be provided here are:

Part I.  The Quartermaster General

Part II. Transport and Forage

Part III.  Subsistence and Clothing

Part IV.  Ordinance

Each Part will be posted on the First Virginia blog in future weeks and months.

Logistics Part One: The Quartermaster General

Logistics and the Continental Army

A Review in Four Parts

Part One: The Quartermaster General

By Joe Wagner

It’s to the credit of the Continental Congress that within weeks of the April 1775 deployment of an American militia army at Boston, they authorized creation of the necessary staff offices to provide for the Army’s needs.  Even before Washington arrived to take command, in June and July 1775 Congress authorized appointment of a Quartermaster General (actually with the rank of Colonel), and a Commissary General of Stores and Provisions.  They later added a Hospital Department, Commissary of Military Stores (Ordinance), and a Clothier General.  It was left to the new Commander the task of actually filling these positions, and those of other specialists who would work under them. We’ll begin in this first Part with what the Continental Congress and the army began with – the first essential ingredient of army logistics – a Quartermaster General (QMG).

Washington filled this most important logistical position in August 1775 with appointment of Major Thomas Mifflin, a 31-year-old Philadelphia merchant then serving as one of his aides.  Mifflin’s tenure represents the first of three QMG phases in the history of the Continental Army.

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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.

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Logistics Part Four: Ordinance

Logistics and the Continental Army

A Review in Four Parts

Part Four: Ordinance

by Joe Wagner

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

the procurement, maintenance, and movement

of equipment, supplies, and personnel.”

 

Organization of Continental Ordinance

The purpose of ordinance activities in the 18th century was to provide forces in the field with the weapons and ammunition to carry on the fight.  While the focus was mostly on artillery needs, the term and the activities included provision and repair of muskets and other individual arms, preparation of ammunition for muskets, and supplying all the materials and accoutrements necessary to maintain the army’s fighting capabilities.

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