The life of a history buff usually starts with a question like this: “I wonder what it was like back then?” Until Doc Brown and Marty McFly come to town, our ability to time travel is limited to books and documentaries – research – on the era that interests us most. As logistics experts, we are fascinated with supply chains of the past. How do they compare to the modern era? What did they get right? What did they get wrong? So, in celebration of Independence Day, we’ve put together a brief piece on the logistics of the American Revolution.
Happy Fourth of July America, be safe and enjoy traveling back in time to the Appalachian Trail of the 1770s!
Fighting the Terrain
One of the most critical players in the story of Revolutionary War logistics is the terrain. It’s tough to imagine an Eastern seaboard which isn’t cut through by winding interstates and expressway exchanges. However, the trek from Boston to Savannah was treacherous. Rocky land and frigid temperatures in the North, impassable thick forests through New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, and dense clouds of insects and humidity blanketing the South battered forces on either side. Moving troops and supplies was a logistical nightmare. With few official roads and only a fledgling infrastructure in and around the colonies, Breakdowns and missed deliveries of goods plagued the British and Colonial Supply Chains. Often, skirmishes would halt the lines of communication between the battlefield and civilization. Leaving troops in the dark on when their resupply would arrive.
Picture the worst shipping mishap you’ve ever experienced. Now take away all notifications from your carrier. Scary, huh?
The British Supply Chain
A Celebrated Naval History
For centuries, England was the mightiest Empire, fueled by its indomitable naval command. They had the best ships, the best captains, and were skilled at years of exploration and conquering in the name of monarchy and divine right. The island nation’s extraordinary Navy enjoyed dominance through the end of World War II, in which its ships were able to stave off much of the Nazi attack on their shores. At the onset of the war, the British supply chain, “compared to the logistics organization of the rebelling colonies, was, on the surface, the epitome of efficiency. Faced with a 3,000-mile line of communication across the Atlantic Ocean, Great Britain ensured that its military forces were reasonably well equipped and never starved” (McCoy, 2012)
This history is in stark contrast to the trials and mishaps of the American Revolutionary War. Much of British rule viewed the Revolution as an isolated regional movement. This perceived lack of seriousness may have contributed to future woes – not understanding the scope of work is a killer for all supply chains.
Despite thousands of nautical miles between their colonies and home, England had spent years building a solid foundation for its supply chain. However, colonists often victimized their supply chain through guerrilla tactics and blockades. Also, internal strife and corruption weakened the strength of their supply chain:
In the late 18th century, Britain had a system to support its widely dispersed colonies, but it was plagued with many internal problems. When that support system was pressured by a quick succession of overseas conflicts, these faults were quickly exposed. The British, to their credit, were able to correct many of the deficiencies before the end of the Revolutionary War, but not in time to win (Tokar, 1999)
The only thing left was sauerkraut, vinegar, and porter…sounds like a party…or a retail store after Black Friday… British troops were subject to a scene straight out of a post-apocalyptic movie, where fresh produce and proper sustenance were like gold. Couple this with harsh winters, oppressive summers, and the psychological trauma of warfare, and it’s a wonder they were able to continue fighting for so long.
The Colonial Supply Chain
On the other side of the battlefield, things were just as grim. The chain of communication was arduous. Often, letters from the Southern colonies would take months to reach the intended recipient. This created a sense of isolation in the ranks, which deepened the stresses of war. In his book on the life of John Adams, David McCullough shared that the second President would often wait months before receiving a reply to his correspondence. (205) Distances that would take just hours to cover (or seconds with a smartphone), were separated by weeks of travel.
Long delivery times for communications were manageable with the battles clustered in the North East. However, once the action expanded South toward Savannah, gaps in communication became much more daunting.
Overworked and Undersupplied
The difficulties of supplying an American Revolutionary soldier was a direct result of their colonial status. For the fledgling band of revolutionaries, finding adequate suppliers was grueling.
“Supplying the American troops was an extremely difficult task. There were very few factories in the colonies that could produce the weapons and the equipment needed by an army. The money necessary to pay for supplies was issued by the new state governments and the new central government. But this money did not have the trust of the business people and had very little value” (Durham, 1992)
In other words, like any start-up, the soon-to-be sovereign nation struggled to find suppliers and secure great rates. They didn’t have the reputation – or volume and economic stability if you want to continue the modern supply chain analogy – to find reliable partners.
Signs of the Times
The demand for supplies was not too much for British shipping to accommodate. However, the supply chain broke down under the combined effects of weather, poor supply procedures, and profiteering. Long lead times for resupply of goods, coupled with a less than reliable distribution system from England, hindered British operations on the North American continent, requiring their forces to forage for resources and base themselves out of key port cities in the colonies (McCoy, 2012)
For colonists, the terrain was home. Their ability to resupply and seek refuge with their fellow countrymen and women helped sustain the army when their supply chain was cut off. By creating a network of storage and supply centers, their supply chain was lean and somewhat manageable. Despite the advantage of familiar ground, the elements and realities of warfare punished the troops.
Both sides experienced similar difficulties in maintaining a consistent network of assets.
Lack of Technology
The most apparent impairment of both sides of the conflict was a lack of technology. There were no instant notifications of shipment, no same-day fulfillment, and no support teams standing by to field questions and provide tracking information. Men slogged up and down the coast on ships, horseback, and rickety carts. No smartphones, tablets, or air freight. Heck, even the concept of “flying automobiles” was still nearly 100 years off. In hindsight, the British should have fared better than the Colonists; with their robust history of war and re-supply:
“The demand for supplies was not too much for British shipping to accommodate. However, the supply chain broke down under the combined effects of weather, poor supply procedures, and profiteering. Long lead times for resupply of goods, coupled with a less than reliable distribution system from England, hindered British operations on the North American continent, requiring their forces to forage for resources and base themselves out of key port cities in the colonies” (McCoy, 2012)
The human element was both the strength and weakness of troops: the ability to overcome great adversity, but hampered by the physical nature of humans.
There’s a reason not everyone can hike the Appalachian trail. It’s hard. Although it might not be as treacherous as climbing Everest, the rocky terrain is demanding. Troops were forced to march in terrible conditions with limited gear and provisions. Reinforcements traveled hundreds of miles – even thousands for the British – to help their comrades. For the colonists:
“The sheer magnitude of the task and the lack of an established supply system guaranteed that serious problems of procurement and distribution would ensue at least initially. Never had Americans undertaken such a colossal effort of organization and finance, and Congress was not prepared to act decisively on such matters.” (Gizzard)
From the start, a lack of structure caused enormous problems for the colonists. The British had a wealth of supplies but struggled to move them to America. Poor planning caused great turmoil for both sides.
Food logistics was a pain point for both sides of the war, but especially for the Colonists. During the winter months, they would march miles, subsisting on stale biscuits and the odd packet of cornmeal.
Feeding the army was difficult, especially during the winter. When the army was marching or on a campaign, soldiers were given a type of biscuit or hard bread and ears of corn. Sometimes there was a packet of cornmeal and, when available, some dried beef (Durham, 1992)
Without the prospect of an Amazon Fresh delivery, troops were forced into malnutrition and meager rations. But The Colonists did not let this break their will. Somehow, they overcame the harsh conditions and lack of supplies and emerged victoriously.
Having many conversations with clients and shippers, and witnessing the downfall of companies, we know that poor supply chain management is a major risk for all ventures. Somehow, despite inferior technology, terrible supplies, and great distances, the Colonists were able to outmaneuver and outlast the daunting British military. So as you reach for your third helping of potato salad (come on…really? You said you were on a diet), think about all of the planning and hard work that went into bringing the mayo, spuds, and cracked black pepper to your aunt’s grocery store.
Durham, Lloyd J. (1992). Outfitting an American Revolutionary Soldier [Blog post] Retrieved from https://www.ncpedia.org/history/usrevolution/soldiers
Gizzard, Jr., Frank E. Supply Problems Plagued the Continental Army from the Start [Article] Retrieved from http://gwpapers.virginia.edu/history/articles/supply-problems-plagued-the-continental-army-from-the-start/
McCoy., Eric A. (2012, September).The Impact of Logistics on the British Defeat in the Revolutionary War [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://www.alu.army.mil/alog/issues/SepOct12/The_Impact_Logistics_British_Defeat.html
McCullough, David (2002) John Adams. City, State: Simon & Schuster.
Tokar, John A. (1999, September). Logistics and the British Defeat in the Revolutionary War [Blog post] Retrieved from http://www.almc.army.mil/alog/issues/sepoct99/ms409.htm