Logistics and the British Defeat in the Revolutionary War

by Major John A. Tokar

When war erupted in the American colonies in 1775, the British Army was unprepared logistically. Compared to the logistics organization of the rebelling colonies, the British logistics system was, on the surface, the epitome of efficiency. Faced with a 3,000-mile line of communication across the Atlantic Ocean, Britain ensured that its soldiers were reasonably well equipped and never starved. Indeed, a logistics feat of this magnitude would not be repeated for over 150 years, until the Allied invasion of North Africa in World War II. However, significant shortcomings in the resupply system did exist, and before they were identified and corrected, they contributed significantly to the British Army's defeat.

An analysis of how Britain supplied its army, both from home and in the colonies, demonstrates how the presence, or absence, of critical commodities affects military operations. Ultimately, the lack of sufficient reserve supplies, combined with cautious generalship, insufficient transportation, widespread corruption, and the lack of a coherent strategy to maximize the potential support of British loyalists in the colonies, ensured British failure. These factors forced the British Army to fight a guerilla war—the only kind of war that the upstart United States could hope to win.

The British experience in the American Revolutionary War holds particular relevance for today's military. Even though there have been enormous changes in military technology and organization over the last two centuries, U.S. forces still struggle with many of the same issues that plagued the British resupply effort. Logisticians in a force projection army still confront the challenge of supplying forces over enormous distances, overcoming resource constraints, and relying upon host nation support. Most importantly, military operations still suffer when logistics is not planned in detail.

British Logistics Organization in the 18th Century

In the late 18th century, Britain had a system to support its widely dispersed colonial armies, 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.

Three bureaucracies supported the colonial armies: the Treasury Department, the Navy Board, and the Ordnance Board. When hostilities began in North America, the Treasury Department had overall responsibility for supplying the army. A division of labor did exist, but it was not rigidly maintained, and there was some duplication of effort. In addition to overall coordination, the Treasury was responsible for food supplies, including forage for animals. The Navy Board was responsible for transport of infantry and cavalry soldiers, clothing, hospital supplies, and tents and other camping equipment. The Ordnance Board was responsible for artillery, guns, and other ordnance stores, including ammunition, and engineers.

The Treasury Department was not well prepared for the initial stages of war. The British Army at the time was primarily a colonial garrison force, and there was no general staff in England to serve as a central command. In fact, there were no army officers in the chain of command above the regimental level before the Revolutionary War. The result was a sharp learning curve for those appointed to staff positions in the various boards and departments created to support the army in the field. The Navy Board was slightly better organized than the Treasury, probably because of Britain's preeminence as a sea power.

The Quartermaster General and his department had existed in the British Army since 1689, and the Quartermaster Department was the army's senior service department. But unlike today, when quartermaster duties are strictly logistical in nature, the British Quartermaster General of the 18th century had other duties. He was primarily a "chief of staff" to the Commanding General, and supply issues were only one of his areas of concern. He also was responsible for coordinating all the other staff agencies (such as intelligence and operations) and served as a troop commander when the army went on the offensive. Obviously, it was difficult for him to devote the proper attention to matters of supply.

The Commissary was the next largest department in the service corps. The Commissary General was a civilian, and his staff in the colonies gradually expanded to about 300 men. Procurement of fresh food became the primary supply problem of the war for the British. Unfortunately, this department was traditionally rife with corruption, and the first Commissary General, Daniel Chamier, was not only dishonest but also incompetent. Chamier's biggest failing was an inability to report accurately the total number of individuals in the colonies who required rations. The Treasury could only base its ration acquisition and shipping requirements on the numbers supplied by Chamier. Largely through ineptitude, the total requirement sent to England by Chamier was routinely short by an average of 4,000 rations; it also failed to account for officers, wives, children, refugees, and others who were entitled to army-provided rations.

The Barracks Master General not only was responsible for ensuring that the troops were quartered properly in garrison, but he also had to provide them with the tents, cots, stoves, and other camping gear they needed to live in the field. He was responsible for providing fuel (first firewood, then, later in the war, coal). The Barracks Master General, like many of the army's service support corps, was likely to exploit his position for personal gain. Medical and Engineer departments rounded out the Commanding General's support staff in the colonies.

Corruption and Profiteering

Corruption and profiteering were rampant in many areas of the British logistics organization. The British Army's service corps had no shortage of unethical individuals in its ranks. However, many practices that we define as corrupt today were not crimes under British law, and they rarely were considered to be morally or ethically wrong in the 18th century.

Commissaries routinely kept the "fifth quarter" of butchered livestock for themselves, that being the head, hide, and tallow. These parts then would be sold for personal profit. Such sales were deemed acceptable, but they invariably led to more unscrupulous acts. A common practice among the contractors in England who provided food for shipment, as well as the commissaries in the colonies, was to furnish quantities of dry goods (such as flour or rice) that were less than the standard measure. Barrels of flour could be short as much as 10 percent. No record exists of what eventually happened to the millions of crates, boxes, barrels, bags, and other containers shipped to America. Much of their contents arrived in very poor condition and would have been disposed of, but one can assume that the commissaries sold much for profit.

Another policy heartily abused by the Commissary General and his men concerned captured cattle. Since fresh meat was in great demand, the army agreed to pay soldiers one dollar (1/2 pound sterling) per head for cattle brought to the commissaries for army use. However, the Commissary General routinely paid the soldiers the dollar they were owed from his own pocket and then sold the livestock to the army at market value, thus making a considerable personal profit.

Similarly, the practice of reimbursing civilians for commandeered provisions was converted into a moneymaking scheme for the men of the commissary. If the army in the field had to commandeer provisions from local farmers, the soldiers were supposed to provide each farmer with a receipt to take to the commissary for reimbursement. However, the locals rarely appeared to claim the money they were due, either because they were afraid or because they were convinced that reimbursement was unlikely. The commissaries then pocketed the money set aside for the farmers and reported the claims as paid.

Transportation was another source of corruption and profiteering in the British logistics system. A Parliamentary commission appointed to review the expenditure of public funds in 1781 discovered that the majority of wagons and horses hired to support the British Army in America were owned by officers in the Quartermaster General's department. These were the same officers who were responsible for doing the hiring, which by today's standards would constitute a clear violation of ethics. The total cost of land transport from 1777 to 1782 averaged over 200,000 pounds a year. The owner of 50 four-horse wagon teams could expect a profit of nearly 10,000 pounds annually, a very considerable sum for that time. Although this and other profitable practices were not necessarily crimes by 18th century stand-ards, there is evidence that many of the officers knew that what they were doing was improper. As historian R. Arthur Bowler observed, "They went to some lengths to conceal their ownership and even, when defending the system of hiring wagons before a board of general officers in New York in 1781, did not reveal their proprietal interest in the service."

Most major forms of profiteering and corruption were brought to a halt by 1780, but the damage had been done, and the precedents, once set, were hard to erase. Minor ethical transgressions continued to occur. For example, officers were not entitled to free rations while in garrison, but many made arrangements with the commissary agents to provide them, their families, and their friends with free food. When campaigning in the field, officers would subsist on army rations; however, the existing policy of garnishing their wages to pay for those rations was almost never followed. The danger was that, by allowing these seemingly minor abuses to persist, commanders opened the door to further transgressions. Soldiers and officers alike witnessed tacit approval of these actions, and some then were emboldened to attempt larger crimes. Minor infractions also had a negative impact on the morale of the fighting force, because the common British infantryman inevitably was aware of the large-scale profiteering of the quartermasters, as well as the fact that officers and their families routinely ate much better than he did.

Strategic Logistics and Host Nation Support

The problems of supplying the army from Great Britain were great, and the most serious challenge was that of providing food over such a tremendous distance. Cork, on the coast of Ireland, was the primary victualling port. This was chiefly because of its large natural harbor and its location (which was nearer to the American colonies than English ports), but also because the farms of Ireland were a major source of food. Southern Ireland also was an important recruiting center for the army, and thus it was easy to put troops aboard victuallers (food ships) for transport to America.

Contractors hired from throughout the British Isles were required to deliver their goods to the port already packaged for shipment. However, their packaging was often very poor, and the voyage to America was long, rough, and damp. Barrels routinely did not survive the journey, and if they did, they often were no longer strong enough to be moved onto wagons and shipped overland. Corruption and incompetence were problems with contractors in England, too, but they were not held responsible for their products once those products were delivered to Cork.

Initially, quality control was lacking. Flour barrels were frequently 5 to 6 percent lighter than the contractor advertised, and a 200-pound barrel of meat or pork could be short as much as 20 pounds. In one convoy in 1775, five ships departed with 7,000 barrels of flour; on arrival in Boston, 5,000 of those barrels were condemned. So instead of 12,000 men having bread for 5 months, that particular shipment was consumed in only 47 days! In 1778 alone, flour deficiencies amounted to over 640,000 pounds—enough to feed 20,000 soldiers for over a month. An attempt was made in 1776 to ship hard biscuits instead of flour, but the result was not promising: at best, rotten biscuits were mixed in with edible ones. The commissaries also were guilty of leaving good food to spoil on the docks, due either to mismanagement or lack of transportation.

That the Treasury was trying to do its best for the army was undeniable. In October 1775, the department undertook a remarkable effort to supply the army in Boston with enough quality fresh provisions to last through the winter, so that the soldiers would be well fed and rested for a spring campaign. The firm of Mure, Son & Atkinson was contracted to furnish enough fresh food to fill 36 ships. According to Bowler—

Besides the usual beef, pork, bread, [peas], and oatmeal, they loaded on board . . . some 500 tons of potatoes, sixty of onions, fifty of parsnips, forty of carrots, and twenty of raisins, as well as 4,000 sheep and hogs and 468,750 gallons of porter . . . Considerable care attended all this. The contractors noted that they had gone to great trouble to determine the best method of storing potatoes, and they were loaded very gently into the ships "so as not to bruise them." Onions were packed in hampers for the same reason, and as the several tons of sauerkraut being shipped would not have completed the fermentation process, each cask was fitted with a spring-loaded pressure relief valve. Finally, in recognition of the perils of shipping livestock, a premium of two shillings and sixpence was promised to the masters of the transports for each animal delivered alive.

All this hard work was for naught, as one of the worst storms in years struck the convoy. Many of the ships were forced to turn back to England, others were diverted to Antigua, and still others spent weeks sailing up and down the eastern seaboard of America waiting for the weather to break while their cargoes rotted. American privateers also took their toll.

Only 13 ships eventually made it to Boston, and very little of their cargoes survived. Only the preserved food (sauerkraut, vinegar, and porter [a type of beer]) survived intact. Most of the other provisions were rotten, damaged, or dead (only 148 of the livestock survived). Out of 856 horses shipped, only 532 survived the voyage. This convoy marked the last time that Britain attempted to ship fresh food and livestock to its army. The demand for supplies was not too much for British shipping to accommodate, but under the combined effects of bad weather and profiteering, the supply system broke down.

Living Off the Land

Because shipment of many commodities from Britain was deemed impracticable, the army resorted to local sources for fresh food, fodder, and transportation. Although British logisticians performed significantly better than their American counterparts, their shortcomings had a much greater impact on the course of the war. The undying hope of the British Government that its army could subsist locally in America stemmed, in part, from the success the British had during the Seven Years' War (known in North America as the French and Indian War) from 1756 to 1763. Most of the support for the army during that conflict had been acquired locally, and shipment of supplies from Britain was limited. The Treasury had organized a system of subcontractors throughout Canada (then French) and the colonies, and had not even appointed a Commissary General.

During the Revolutionary War, conditions were quite different. The enemy was more determined, and the British overestimated both the amount of loyalist support and their own ability to cultivate it. At the beginning of the war in New England, acquiring subsistence locally (by foraging) was impossible once the rebels laid siege to the British garrison in Boston. After the main British army occupied New York in the summer of 1776, hopes that the troops could live off the abundant farmlands of New Jersey and Long Island were soon crushed. Foraging parties sent into eastern Long Island met with resistance and ended up consuming more supplies than they could gather.

George Washington's Christmas counterattack at Trenton, New Jersey, in 1776 ended all British hopes of gathering supplies from New Jersey farms. The logistics battle really began in earnest as a result of the British defeat at Trenton. After the British occupied Philadelphia a year later, their logistics situation looked promising at first. Pennsylvania farms were bountiful, and the British hoped to find abundant loyalist help, but again that support dried up. The continuing hope that enough provisions and supplies could be procured within the colonies must have stemmed, in part, from the belief held by many in the British Government and Army that it was only a matter of time before the rebels came to their senses and returned to British rule.

Flour was needed for making fresh bread, and other grains and vegetables were important to the soldiers' diet. Fresh meat, however, outranked nearly all other foodstuffs. Units in the field went to great lengths to obtain fresh beef, pork, mutton, poultry, and other meats. The policy of paying individuals for captured cattle was only one procurement method. In one instance, British soldiers reported subsisting on alligators and oysters, complemented by Madeira wine they found on a shipwreck off the South Carolina coast.

Probably of equal significance to meat (at least to the infantryman) was alcohol. Copious amounts of porter were shipped initially, but eventually a spruce beer brewery was established in the colonies. At the discretion of the commander, soldiers were authorized one pint per day in garrison and two pints per day in the field. Fresh ingredients in the beer were thought to offset the likelihood of contracting scurvy. Rum also was available, from the West Indies, and was rationed at two quarts for every six men. The rum presumably was used to purify drinking water, but it certainly was abused to some degree.

British efforts to subsist locally could have been more successful if they had developed a coherent strategy to use loyalist support. Loyalists in the colonies accounted for perhaps half the population and were typically conservative, cautious, and pacifist. Many of the more fundamental religious sects were largely loyalist, or at least neutral. They were not ideal conscripts for military serv-ice, but they could have served as a greater source of logistics support. The army repeatedly misjudged not only their character, but also the overall amount of popular support for the Crown in a given area of operations.

The army was not able to resupply its troops solely from Great Britain, and that possibility was never seriously considered by the Government. The army could not sustain itself strictly with what it obtained locally, either, but a proper balance was never achieved. The formidable logistics hurdles, coupled with the inconsistent and inefficient civilian hierarchy, ensured that whatever momentum British generals were able to generate would be extremely difficult for them to maintain.


The challenges encountered in conducting the transport of provisions, supplies, ordnance, and troop reinforcements were enormous. Insufficient shipping was the primary cause of food shortages suffered by the British Army. Most ships were contracted and controlled by the respective government boards. Many were old, not seaworthy, and manned by merchant crews. The departments often could not cooperate, and in their zeal to acquire more shipping assets they bid against each other and drove prices higher. Many British merchants did not want to lease their ships to the war effort because it was not profitable for them. They could not find return tonnage, and their ships could wait as long as 8 weeks before they were unloaded in American ports. The Netherlands and Germany were scoured for available ships, and many were subsequently hired. French merchant ships were available early in the war, but the British held the quality of those vessels in contempt and would not consider their use.

The voyage from Cork to America was long and dangerous for man and animal alike. As one officer of the Guards testified, "There was continued destruction in the foretops, the pox above-board, the plague between decks, hell in the forecastle, the devil at the helm." Many soldiers became sick and even died from scurvy and smallpox. To cite one example, out of a contingent of 2,400 German soldiers who left Europe for New York in 1781, 410 were sick upon arrival and 66 were dead. Many horses suffered a similar fate. In 1777, live horses were thrown overboard as a "humane alternative" to watching them die from hunger and thirst; they had been provided with only 3 weeks of forage for a journey that lasted 40 days in good weather.

Impact of Logistics on Operations

British commanders believed that large reserves of food, fodder, and other supplies were vital, so the absence of sufficient quantities of those items must be viewed as the greatest failing of the British supply system. The generals felt that they needed at least 6, but preferably 12, months of supplies in reserve before they could begin an offensive campaign. But over the course of the 8-year war, they began only two campaign seasons with what they considered to be the necessary amounts of supplies. Furthermore, when supply reserves dropped below the 2-month level, which they often did, British generals stopped thinking about offensive action and began to plan evacuation. Abandoning a garrison was no simple task, due primarily to the shortage of transportation. Since the army never had enough ships to move the entire force in one lift, withdrawals had to be planned in detail and carefully executed.

The British Army repeatedly attempted to subsist through the practice of foraging, but it was never entirely successful for several reasons. Foraging was no longer part of conventional strategy. It was time consuming and tiring, and many British soldiers considered it to be beneath them. Foraging parties required a covering force, which was a further drain on manpower and consumed even more supplies. To compound the problem, many foraging expeditions produced little or nothing, which not only was demoralizing but also placed a further drain on supplies.

Conventional tacticians of the time did not trust living off the land, because it could be bad for morale and could lead to looting, unauthorized foraging, and desertion. Under the 18th century concept of limited war (at least the British model), civilians from whom supplies were taken were supposed to be reimbursed. But it often was easier to take what was needed by force. Such pillaging alienated Americans who were sympathetic to the British or neutral. Worst of all, foraging exposed great numbers of British soldiers to guerilla warfare, including ambushes and snipers. Foraging parties grew as large as 5,000 men, but they habitually were harassed by small parties of rebels. British losses in these types of skirmishes soon equaled those suffered in the larger pitched battles.

Nearly every time the British Army appeared ready to strike a decisive blow at the rebelling Americans, it seemed that a shortage of reserve supplies and a lack of faith in resupply prevented action. British generals, particularly William Howe and Henry Clinton, were not willing to gamble their forces in offensive campaigns without considerable supplies in reserve. The failure of the Government to provide the armies with adequate provisions was not due to neglect but to a logistics system that was inadequate and poorly managed. In defense of British generalship, gambling with their armies on extended campaigns with meager provisions and no guarantee of when the next shipment was coming was a large risk indeed. Howe and Clinton could not afford to lose the army, for there were no replacements in England.

An aggressive offensive war was the only type that was going to retain the colonies for Britain. To have any hope of victory, the British had to seek out the rebel army and defeat it. Yet far too often their soldiers were forced to sit and wait or, worse, to evacuate a position, garrison, or city that had already been gained through difficult fighting. The effect that logistics deficiencies had on these decisions to wait or pull back is undeniable. The battles of Trenton in 1776 and Saratoga in 1777 clearly demonstrated how the long delays caused by insufficient supplies and the resulting caution shown by commanders allowed the rebels repeatedly to concentrate their forces at critical locations or to avoid a potentially crushing defeat.

Supply shortages affected the conduct of the war in many ways. Most importantly, shortages diverted troops from their primary task (fighting) because they had to forage the countryside in order to survive. Foraging operations were time consuming and increased the already high level of stress on both soldiers and leaders. The number of soldiers who died or were wounded on foraging missions was a very real byproduct of logistics deficiencies. Questionable generalship, corruption and profiteering, and a largely hostile American population also had far-ranging implications for an army that could not afford to occupy port cities and wait for the enemy to capitulate.

Lessons From the British Experience

The lessons offered by the British experience in the American Revolutionary War for modern military strategy and logistics planning and operations are numerous. Strategic lift of forces and supplies into the theater of operations remains the most immediate concern for a deploying army. Current U.S. military strategy is based on force projection, which often rests on the assumption that there will be sufficient time to build up supplies and combat power before hostilities begin. The British did not have sufficient time to build up supplies, given the limitations of their logistics organization, and British generals never felt that they had sufficient stores to campaign effectively against the rebels.

The British experience also provides lessons in the use of host nation support and the transportation of bulk cargo. The British expected to benefit from loyalist support in the colonies; they counted on what we call host nation support. Today, the U.S. military bases a significant amount of its force projection strategy on the premise that host nation support will be available to augment the logistics assets that can be brought into the theater. This has been demonstrated in every military action of the 1990's, from the Gulf War through the current Balkan engagements. The ability to gather intelligence about available local assets and the disposition of the population to provide support has advanced significantly in 200 years, but the primary lesson should not be lost: the United States cannot assume automatically that host nation support will be provided willingly by every nation from which it intends to stage military operations.

Transportation managers still wrestle with packaging certain commodities, and, when depending on civilian support, they may see the negative influence of the profit margin on supply operations. A modern example was the shipping of airdrop cushioning material ("honeycomb") for use in the Bosnian humanitarian airdrop mission, Operation Provide Promise, in 1993 to 1994. The cushioning material is very bulky, yet so lightweight that civilian shipping agents and trucking companies routinely would not accept it at normal rates. This is a direct parallel to some of the problems encountered by the British during the Revolutionary War. Merchant shipping agents routinely rejected contracts from the Treasury Board because certain cargo, such as animal fodder, was too light to be profitable.

A broader critique of the British inability to integrate strategy and logistics successfully shows that they did not recognize the importance of such modern logistics tenets as responsiveness. Despite overcoming enormous geographical obstacles and displaying occasional flashes of logistics brilliance, the flaws in the administrative system contributed greatly to Britain's failure. In the final analysis, British logisticians lacked responsiveness; they consistently failed to get the right supplies, men, and equipment to the right place at the right time. At the strategic level, the system lacked flexibility. When shipping prices rose or certain commodities were temporarily unavailable, for example, the ministers of the various departments seemed incapable of developing alternative solutions. These same ministers (and others in positions of influence) often were petty and unable to work together for the common good of the deployed army.

Modern logistics doctrine emphasizes the importance of centralized planning and decentralized execution for support tasks. FM 100-16, Army Operational Support, perceptively notes that "too much centralization often results in rigidity and sluggish response, while too little often causes waste and inefficient use of critical resources." This was a tenet that the British never grasped, for they were always highly centralized in their logistics planning and execution. Instead of using the positive qualities of centralization to their advantage, they robbed their units in the field of critical flexibility and responsiveness by not decentralizing at all. Moreover, a limited duplication of assets and management not only is justified when executing military operations but is mandatory to mission success.

Weighed against its modern counterparts, 18th century logistics operations would appear to be relatively simple. The challenges faced by the British from 1775 to 1783, however, were not of lesser significance than today's logistics hurdles, just of a different nature. Instead of having to maintain high-technology weapons and manage supersonic transportation assets, the suppliers of that time had to contend with ships at the mercy of winds and currents and the challenge of providing fresh rations without the benefit of canning or refrigeration. At the height of the war in 1780, Britain was maintaining over 92,000 troops overseas, including those in Florida and the Caribbean, and the majority of those soldiers had to be fed and equipped from the British Isles. This was at a time when it could take 3 months to receive an answer to a simple communication or request. Delivery of certain items often took more than a year.

Many of the challenges faced by the British during the 8 years of war in the colonies have not changed significantly in two centuries. Operations still suffer when logistics is not planned in detail. Corruption and unethical behavior, although not as significant in today's force, still can have a negative impact on an army's ability to fight. These problems inevitably are compounded when operating in a theater where the supply system cannot rely on host nation support, or at least on a population that is friendly or neutral. These irrefutable facts make the study of British logistics during the Revolutionary War particularly rewarding to any logistician in today's military, and the lessons derived from that war can be educational on many levels. Logistics greatly influenced the outcome of the Revolutionary War. While not the primary cause of British defeat, its impact was, without question, significant. ALOG

Major John A. Tokar is the Support Operations Officer for the 24th Corps Support Group, Fort Stewart, Georgia. He is a graduate of the Quartermaster Officer Basic and Advanced Courses, the Combined Arms and Services Staff School, the Army Command and General Staff College, and the School of Advanced Military Studies.