Revolutionary War Logistics

When Hernan Cortes came to the New World in search of gold he introduced a form of warfare to the natives. Contrary to what some may believe, the conquest of the Aztecs was not as simple as it may seem in the history books. After the Spaniards killed Montezuma the Aztecs rebelled against Spanish rule. They drove the Spanish out of their capital and began to fortify the city. Cortes was forced to use a different tactic to secure his gold. He placed the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, under siege. He cut off the supply lines to the city and began to systematically secure each street and house in the city. It was a slow process and was viewed as a cowardly act by the Aztecs, but Cortes knew that to keep his small army of Spaniards and native allies in the face of an enemy with larger numbers that he would need to starve them thus weakening their army and resolve for war. The Aztec resolve was great and they held to the last, but Cortes’ calculation as correct.

During the eighteenth century the commander of every army in the world was not the general, but flour and forage. Feeding an army was a difficult task. There were no such thing as railroads which meant that supplies had to be hauled in wagons pulled by horses on roads that were susceptible to harsh weather. Thunderstorms and snowstorms would often slow much-needed supplies to the army and allow disease and starvation to get a grip on the soldiers. Lack of food and provisions would often cause armies to end campaigns early and leave them vulnerable to enemy assaults. The commanders in the American Revolutionary War were plagued by the same concerns and many of the Revolutionary War battles were fought based on logistical concerns.

The greatest example of this was when General William Howe split up his army and garrisoned them all over New Jersey. He did this so that he could house and feed his army, but it left him vulnerable to George Washington‘s daring attack on Trenton and Princeton. Washington exploited the weakness and forced Howe to pull his army back towards New York. This pulling back meant that Howe would have to house and feed larger portions of his army. If it had not been for the difficulty of feeding his army Howe may have continued to pursue Washington over the Delaware River.

Continental Army

When George Washington was elected President of the United States of America he knew how important a strong executive branch. Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton argued often over the role government played and Washington often sided with Hamilton. He sided with him so much that Jefferson resigned his place in the cabinet after Washington was elected for a second term. The experience Washington had throughout the war no doubt played a role in his view of government.

For eight long years Washington was at constant odds with the Continental Congress over supplies. He had endured French muskets that would not fire, a lack of food, disease throughout the camp, and a worthless Continental dollar by which he paid his soldiers. Each colony had a separate government which meant that there was not a strong executive to draft men into the army or create an efficient way to supply these men. He was often forced to take from citizens to keep his men from starving. This led to terrible winters at Valley Forge and Morristown.

When Washington took command of the Continental Army he began creating its infrastructure. One of the first assignments he completed was to deliver to Congress a soldiers daily ration:

1 lb beef or 3/4 lb pork or 1 lb salt fish per day
1 lb bread or flour per day
1 pint of milk per day
1 quart spruce beer or cider per day
3/4 pint of molasses per day
3 pints of peas or beans per week (or equivalent weight in vegetables)
1/2 pint of rice or 1 pint “indian meal” (cornmeal) per week ((Stephenson, Michael. Patriot Battles: How The War of Independence Was Fought.New York: Harper Perennial, 2007. 108))

These rations were substantial, but necessary for men who lived active lives compared to the sedentary ones of modern times.

Benjamin Rush was opposed to any type of meat or spirit to be used in the army:

The Diet of solders should consist chiefly of vegetables. The nature of their duty, as well as their former habits of life, require it. If every tree on the continent of America produced Jesuit’s bark, it would not be sufficient to preserve or to restore the health of soldiers who eat one or two pounds of flesh in a day. Their vegetables should be well­ cooked. It is of the last consequence that damaged flour should not be used in the camp. It is the seed of many diseases. It is of equal consequence that good flour should not be rendered unwholesome by an error in making it into bread. Perhaps it was the danger to which flour was always exposed of being damaged in a camp, or being rendered unwholesome from the manner of baking it, that led the Roman generals to use wheat instead of flour, for the daily food of their soldiers. Caesar fed his troops with wheat only, in his expedition into Gaul. It was prepared by being husked and well boiled; and was eaten with spoons in the room of bread. If a little sugar or molasses is added to wheat prepared in this manner, it forms not only a wholesome food, but a most agreeable repast.

What shall I say to the custom of drinking spirituous liquors, which prevails so generally in our army? I am aware of the prejudices in favour of it. It requires an arm more powerful than mine; the arm of a Hercules to encounter it. The common apology for the use of rum in our army is, that it is necessary to guard against the effects of heat and cold. But I maintain, that in no case whatever, does rum abate the effects of either of them upon the constitution. On the contrary I believe it always increases them. The temporary elevation of spirits in summer, and the temporary generation of warmth in winter, produced by rum, always leave the body languid, and more liable to be affected with heat and cold afterwards. Happy would it be for our soldiers, if the evil ended here! The use of rum, by gradually wearing away the powers of the system, lays the foundation of fevers, fluxes, jaundices, and the most of diseases which occur in military hospitals. It is a vulgar error to suppose that the fatigue arising from violent exercise or hard labour is relieved by the use of spirituous liquors. The principles of animal life are the same in a horse as in a man; and horses, we find undergo the severest labour with no other liquor than cool water. There are many instances where even reapers have been forced to acknowledge that plentiful draughts of milk and water have enabled them to go through the fatigues of harvest with more pleasure and fewer inconveniences to their health, then ever they experienced from the use of a mixture of rum and water.

Spirituous liquors were unknown to the armies of ancient Rome. The canteen of every soldier was filled with nothing but vinegar; and it was by frequently drinking a small quantity of this wholesome liquor mixed with water, that the Roman soldiers were enabled to sustain tedious marches through scorching sands, without being subject to sickness of any kind. The vinegar effectually resists that tendency to putrefaction, to which heat and labour dispose the fluids. It moreover calms the inordinate action of the solids, which is created by hard duty. It would be foreign to my purpose, or I might show that the abstraction of rum from our soldiers, would contribute greatly to promote discipline and a faithful discharge of duty among them. General Wolfe, who was a philosopher as well as a general, never suffered a drop of spirits to be drunk by his soldiers, except when they served as sentries or upon fatigue duty in rainy weather. Perhaps these are the only cases in which a small quantity of rum may be useful. It will be of the most essential service if it be mixed with three or four times its quantity of water.

Rush was correct in his assumptions. The army suffered from scurvy, malaria, smallpox, and other ailments. It would not be until Monmouth that Washington’s army was inoculated from these diseases. It is unfortunate that his opinion was not listened to as it could have saved many lives, but Rush’s opinion was often forceful and his participation in the Conway Cabal no doubt hurt his reputation among those in Congress.

British Army

The British Army in America had problems supplying their army as well. They not only had to provide for about 56,000 British soldiers, but also 30,000 Hessians. This led to many supply problems and much-needed American victories. As stated before the victories at Trenton and Princeton happened because Washington was able to exploit Howe’s difficulty in feeding his large army. This also occurred at the siege of Boston, Battle of Cowpens, Battle of Guilford Courthouse, siege of Yorktown, and to some extent the Saratoga campaign.

General William Howe receives much criticism for leaving General Burgoyne and his northern army stranded. The British had organized a pincer attack that would essentially cut the colonies in half if they were successful. Burgoyne marched southward from Canada and would rendezvous with Howe. Howe never came and instead captured Philadelphia which was the largest city in the colonies, but had little tactical significance. While these are legitimate criticisms, one must not forget Howe’s dilemma.

In the southern theatre of war Cornwallis was unable to leave South Carolina due to guerrilla tactics used by Francis Marion, Thomas Sumter, and others that made quick attacks on his supply lines. Unable to feed his army Cornwallis made a desperate attack on Nathanael Greene in which he took the field but took heavy losses. This victory forced him to retreat back to Yorktown. Here the Continental Army and the French Navy sealed him up and cut off his supply lines. Cornwallis would be forced to surrender to George Washington and American independence was won.


  1. Rush, Benjamin. Directions for Preserving the Health of Soldiers. Letter, 1777.
  2. Stephenson, Michael. Patriot Battles: How The War of Independence Was Fought. New York: Harper Perennial, 2007.