Military operations of the American Revolution have been fully covered in numerous volumes, but these works have included relatively little analysis of how the Continental Army was kept in the field. Accounts have described how Revolutionary soldiers left bloody tracks in the winter snow as they marched without shoes to defeat the British at Trenton. Their stamina and fortitude have been extolled in descriptions of the distress they suffered at Valley Forge. The curious reader, however, is left to wonder how the soldier was clothed and armed and why there was such a shortage of provisions. This study seeks to provide answers as to how the main Continental army, the army directly under General George Washington's control, was maintained in the field for eight years.
Five supply services were established to provide logistical support to the Continental troops: the Quartermaster’s Department, the Commissariat, the Clothing Department, the Ordnance Department, and the Hospital Department. This study traces the evolution of these administrative agencies during the war and discusses the contributions made by key personnel who directed them. Against this background of administrative developments, it describes improvisations as well as regular procedures used in conducting supply operations. The chiefs of these agencies were attached to Washington's staff, but procedures they introduced moved out from the main army to the separate armies, which operated with considerable independence despite Washington's title of Commander in Chief of the whole Continental Army. The separate armies, in turn, were supported by deputies, though the supply chiefs did not necessarily exercise any close supervision over these subordinates.
A functional treatment is employed in discussing supply of the troops. Consequently, there is no analysis of the logistical support provided for all the campaigns of the war. References to a campaign are made to show problems that developed or changes that evolved in the handling of supply. Given the limits set for this study, these references are necessarily to campaigns involving the main Continental army. This approach is not meant to deny the significance of western operations or the campaigns of the Northern and Southern Armies. The logistical problems confronting them were as difficult and the conditions as distressing as any encountered in supplying Washington's army.
This study thus does not offer a comprehensive analysis of logistical operations in the American Revolution. Such an account would have to include an analysis of supply in the British army in America. The role played by the states in logistical operations would also have to be covered.
The larger part of this volume is based on original sources. Of basic importance are the Papers of the Continental Congress and the Revolutionary War Records located at the National Archives and Records Service in Washington, D.C. The author is grateful to the assistants who provided aid in working with those records. Various other manuscript collections provided a considerable body of supplementary and enlightening material. The author wishes to acknowledge the help given by the staff of the Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, and is most appreciative of the courtesies extended by the directors and librarians of the American Philosophical Society, the Pennsylvania Historical Society, the New-York Historical Society, the Huntington Library, and the William L. Clements Library.
The author is much indebted to the U.S. Army Center of Military History for the encouragement and support extended in the preparation of this volume. Particular thanks are due to Dr. Stetson Conn, former Chief Historian of the center, and Dr. Robert W. Coakley for their constructive criticism of the manuscript, and to John Elsberg, who served as editor.
Any deficiencies in this book are to be ascribed only to the author.
14 March 1980
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