Nathanael Greene and the Supply of the Continental Army
By Edward Payson
The Quartermaster Review May-June 1950
It was March 1778 and on the hills of Valley Forge, rising above the Sehuylkill River, lay the winter quarters of George Washington ‘s Continental Army. On this scenically beautiful spot, commanding a broad panorama of the fertile Pennsylvania countryside, the great Virginian had stood guard all through the winter. Only twenty miles to the southeast lay Philadelphia, capital and largest city of the new-born United States; since September it had been held by the British forces of General Sir William Howe. Sixty miles to the west lay the small Pennsylvania town of York, the meeting place of the fugitive Continental Congress. From his vantage point at Valley Forge, Washington could observe the movements of his opponents and make any deployments that might be necessary to protect his own forces or the temporary capital at York.
But the greatest menace to the American cause during that long winter came not from Sir William Howe but from the breakdown of the American supply system. The Quartermaster General’s Department, which was responsible for the procurement of tents, spades, shovels, and other camp equipage and of all transportation facilities, was in utter confusion. Quartermaster General Thomas Mifflin, a leading Pennsylvania patriot, was a politician, not a soldier; his talents were better to the hustings than to the administration of a complex supply service. Discontented in his uncongenial position, he longed to abandon it, after July 1777 did not even pretend to perform the duties of his office. Finally, in November, he submitted his resignation. Y et Congress took no steps to appoint a successor and let matters drift, thought reports of fraud in the headless department were continually being circulated and the Commissary General was complaining, not without justification, that deficiencies in the food supply, for the procurement of which was his responsible, were attributable to the failure of the Quartermaster General’s Department to provide transportation for its carriage.
By January troubles originating in these two departments of the Army were taking up almost as much time in Congress as were all other matters put together. Washington, in a moment of despair, wrote that he could “declare that no Man, in my opinion, ever had his measures more impeded than I have, by every department in the Army” and singled out the lack of assistance from the Quartermaster General as the outstanding example of the difficulties under which he labored. Washington was, indeed, obliged to perform many quartermaster duties himself.
A committee of the Continental Congress, investigating the supply situation at Valley Forge, reported that truly alarming conditions prevailed in the Quartermaster General’s Department. Unless these conditions were speedily improved, this committee warned, not only “the future success” but also “the present existence” of the Army would be imperiled. It reported that the supplies of Washington’s forces were “dispersed over the whole country; not an encampment, route of the army, or considerable road but abounds with wagons, left to the mercy of the weather and the will of the inhabitants.” The committee noted that three thousand spades and shovels had only recently been discovered in the immediate vicinity of the camp and that huge quantities of tents and tent-cloth had “laid a whole summer in a farmer’s barn, and unknown to the officer of the department, was lately discovered and brought to camp by a special order from the General (Washington).” Had straw been procured in adequate quantities, the report claimed, the ”lives of many soldiers” would have been saved. ”Unprovided with this or other materials” to protect them from ”cold and wet earth,” hundreds of soldiers had fallen ill, and the number of deaths had mounted ”to any extraordinary degree.”
As for horses and wagons, the committee found that these essential means of transportation were nearly nonexistent. “Almost every species of camp transportation,” it declared, “is now performed by men, who patiently . . . yoke themselves to little carriages of their own making or load their wood and provisions on their backs.” There was ample pork in New Jersey, the report continued, but owing to the non-availability of wagons, not a single pound could be brought to Valley Forge. Because of such conditions, the committee warned, there was real danger that the troops would starve or disperse in search of food.
Despite the committee’s criticism of the Quartermaster General’s Department, it would be unfair to conclude that the alarming shortages it described resulted wholly from Mifflin’s administrative incapacity or the irresponsibility of quartermaster agents. Many conditions militated against a successful administration by any Quartermaster General, no matter how competent he might be. The American colonies had never developed an adequate system of land transportation. There were few roads-almost no good ones-and even wagons were scarce in both town and country. The colonies had relied largely on the sea and the tidal rivers of the coast for transfer of commodities over long distances. But the British blockade was so effective that practically all American seaborne traffic was paralyzed, and the Continental Army depended on the undeveloped system of land communications. Moreover, when two large armies occupied the same region, as was the case in the Philadelphia-Valley Forge area in the winter of 1777-78, their demands created a local scarcity of supplies. Under such conditions American Quartermasters were at a disadvantage, for they had only a depreciating paper currency to offer for supplies, whereas British Quartermasters offered gold or silver. Inevitably, Howe in Philadelphia obtained the bulk of the available horses, wagons, and camp equipage, while Washington at Valley Forge got very little.
The breakdown of the American supply system was so threatening that action looking to its correction obviously had to be taken as soon as possible. Chiefly on the advice of Washington, the committee that had investigated supply conditions at Valley Forge recommended that Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene be appointed Quartermaster General. Greene, then only thirty-five years old, was a Rhode Island officer of Quaker ancestry, whose natural military capacity had early attracted Washington’s favorable attention. Throughout the winter he had vigorously protested against conditions in the Quartermaster General’s Department, particularly the shortage of forage for horses, hundreds of which, he pointed out, had starved to death. Only recently he had led foraging expeditions in search of wagons and horses. Ambitious to make a name for himself as a combat officer, he was reluctant to accept a post that might deprive him of this chance, and fully accepted it only on condition that he retain his place in the line.
With this reservation he entered on his new duties on March 23, 1778 and immediately started to bring order out of the chaos into which the department had fallen. Finding information on the quantities and the storage places of Quartermaster stocks to be unavailable, he had such reports submitted by his representatives throughout the country. He filled the numerous vacancies in procurement positions and broadened the territorial scope of Quartermaster buying activities. Though the hiring and purchasing of horses, for example, were ordinarily confined to the areas in which the Army was operating, Greene sent agents into distant Virginia counties to buy animals, which were reported to be available there in large numbers. He inaugurated a program of bridge-building and road-making to facilitate the transportation of Continental stores from Lancaster and Reading-activities that had been neglected through the winter. In preparation for the summer campaign he put special emphasis on the procurement of tents, horses, wagons, and boats, all of which were particularly scarce, and did much to alleviate these shortages.
Perhaps Greene’s most outstanding contribution during his early days as Quartermaster General was the development of a comprehensive system of grain depots capable of supplying forage to Washington’s forces wherever they might be. This system was based on a flexible geographical line running from the Hudson River somewhere between Manhattan Island and the Highlands, through northern New Jersey to Head of Elk, now called Elkton, in northeastern Maryland. Washington, governing his movements by those of the British, shifted his forces from point to point along the “line of communications,” as it was called, but was careful not to let the enemy penetrate the back country. Because of the ever-present possibility of a shift in the theater of operations, Greene established a number of small magazines rather than a few large ones, and limited grain stocks to a three- to six-month supply. In the spring of 1778 depots from Head of Elk to Valley Forge held approximately 200,000 bushels; those along the Schuylkill River and these along the Delaware north of Trenton also held 200,000 bushels; depots between the Delaware and the Hudson held about 100,000 bushels. In accordance with Washington’s directions, magazines located along these rivers were placed fairly high upstream to avoid capture by raids from British sea-going vessels. Back of the line of communications 100,000 bushels were stored in a series of small depots that stretched from Wright’s Ferry on the Susquehanna, through Lancaster, to Reading on the Schuylkill. Greene instructed his field agents that in “forming” their magazines they should “give all sorts of grain the preference to wheat-oats first; corn next; rye next, and so on.”
If the Quartermaster General is not a man of great resource and activity, and worthy of the highest confidence, he would be unfit for the military station he is to occupy: for as it is not possible at all times to conceal from him real designs and movements under false appearances, the better and safer way is to place full confidence in him under the seal of responsibility. Then, knowing the plan, he participates in the concealment, on which, and the celerity of a movement, success oftentimes depends. In addition to these requisites in a Quartermaster General, economy in, providing for the wants of an army, proper arrangements in the distribution of their supplies, and a careful eye to the use of them, are of great importance and call for a circumspect choice.
-George Washington to Secretary of War James McHenry, July 4, 1798.
Thought Greene was handicapped by inadequate funds and an unstable currency that was already depreciating at a rapid rate, he brought order out of confusion, accumulated sufficient horses, wagons, and boats to make the Army once more a mobile organization, and remedied the most striking deficiencies in the supply of tents and other items of camp equipage. In Washington’s words, Greene “so arranged it as to enable the Army to take the Field the moment it was necessary, and to move with rapidity after the enemy when they left Philadelphia” in June 1778. At Monmouth, New Jersey, on the 28th of that month the Quartermaster General commanded the American right wing with distinction, in an engagement that nearly ended in disaster because of Maj. Gen. Charles Lee’s incompetence, and became a drawn battle only after desperate efforts on the part of Washington and others.
Greene’s successful revivification of the Quartermaster General’s Department insured a fairly satisfactory transportation and supply situation from the summer of 1778 to the autumn of 1779. But even during this period Greene was the butt of almost incessant criticism in the Continental Congress and among the people at large. Because his salary, in accordance with the traditional practice that had been sanctioned by Congress, amounted to a small percentage of all the funds he disbursed, the false rumor spread that he was enriching himself at public expense. For the same reason Greene found it more and more difficult to obtain essential appropriations from Congress. Though he himself favored the abolition or modification of the percentage system, Congress became increasingly critical of his department and in November 1778 set up a commission to supervise its operations. This commission restricted Greene’s authority, and it was only after much persuasion that he consented to remain in his increasingly unpleasant post.
Meanwhile the value of Continental paper currency had started its precipitous decline to almost complete worthless. During the first half of 1778, when Greene was reorganizing his department, Continental money had been fairly stable at a ratio, with respect to gold, of about four to one; by December this ratio was down to nine to one. By April 1779 it had reached twenty to one, and by November, forty-five to one. In April 1780 the ration was sixty to one, and from that date until May 1781 the decline continued at an accelerated pace. At that time the ratio reached the figure of approximately 1,000 to 1, indicating runaway inflation, and circulation of Continental currency virtually ceased.
This development had disastrous effects on Quartermaster operations. Farmers and merchants were naturally loath to sell their goods to a government whose currency might lose half its value overnight. They much preferred barter, but the Continental Army had nothing to barter. By the summer of 1778 Greene had no credit, and his money was almost unacceptable. Only by making immediate payments was he able to buy any horses, wagons, and forage or hire any artificers for the innumerable tasks for which, in the absence of Quartermaster units, civilians were of necessity employed. Even then scarcely any artificers or supplies could be procured. The few wagoners willing to serve insisted on advance payment of their wages, and the few farmers who might consider hiring or selling their wagons and horses to the Army demanded spot cash.
By fall Congress virtually gave up the effort to use its credit or paper bills and adopted the “specific supplies” system, under which the States, instead of making money payments to the Continental Congress, furnished specific quotas of forage, wagons, and other designated supplies. This system, though perhaps preventing a complete breakdown of supply, did not provide Quartermaster items in the required quantities. States were tardy in filling their quotas, did not meet their quotas in full, and sometimes did not meet them at all. If a State’s quota called for the provision of certain items, the Quartermaster General’s Department was usually forbidden to use such meager resources as it might command for the procurement of these items in that State. This restriction repeatedly handicapped its operations, and impressment of supplies often bad to he resorted to in the end-a procedure that could not help but make quartermasters unpopular.
The plight of the Continental Army encamped at Jockey Hollow, near Morristown, New Jersey, in the winter of 1779-80 was as bad as, or even worse than, it had been at Valley Forge. In the middle of December, Washington informed the Continental Congress that his men had been on half rations for the past five weeks and that his magazines were “absolutely empty every where.” ”We have never,” he continued, “experienced a like extremity at any period of the war.” Greene manfully struggled against these adverse conditions, and though the winter was more severe than that of Valley Forge and roads were almost constantly snow-bound, he utilized his limited resources so skillfully that a complete breakdown of supply was averted. Debarred from procuring forage and other supplies even had he possessed the money and credit to do so, Greene time after time had to beg New Jersey to meet a crisis in the supply of grain, without which horses could not haul the food that sustained the Army. New Jersey, though its resources had been practically exhausted by years of almost constant procurement not only by the American Army but also by the large British garrison which had held New York since 1776, responded with sufficient supplies to keep the Jockey Hollow encampment from dispersing in search of provisions.
When the spring of 1780 came and forage could once more be brought from areas to the south over snow-free roads, the crisis in the Continental Army passed, but Greene’s relations with Congress remained strained. Early in the year he and Washington worked out a comprehensive plan for the operation or the Quartermaster General’s Department. Congress ignored these suggestions and further irritated Greene by issuing orders direct to his subordinates and by appointing, in the face of his opposition, ill-qualified men to important Quartermaster posts. In August, worn out by the trials of the past two and a half years, Greene submitted his resignation as Quartermaster General. But he quitted his post knowing that Washington felt he had done an excellent job under the most unfavorable conditions. At Valley Forge he had rehabilitated a department fast becoming inoperative; at Jockey Hollow he had kept that department in operation under almost impossible handicaps; it other times he had always so administered affairs that the Continental Army could take the field when and where tactical situation demanded it. He left the Quartermaster General’s Department, then, with enhanced reputation among his fellow officers, and shortly afterwards, as commander of the Southern Army, came to be recognized as second only to Washington among the field commanders of the American Revolution. While his fame as a battle leader has since remained secure, Nathanael Greene’s services to the cause of American independence as Quartermaster General during the darkest period of the Revolution have been almost forgotten.
(From the Archives of the U.S. Army Quartermaster Museum, Fort Lee, Virginia)