A Book Review

Bowler, Arthur R. Logisitics and the Failure of the British Army in America. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1975.

Famously, the American Rebels suffered greatly from lack of food and supplies during the winter of 1777-8 at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.  In dire straights, the Continental Army almost disintegrated due to poor quartermaster services and inadequate transportation capability to provided critically needed food rations to the army encampment.

While not to the same degree as the Continental Army, Arthur Bowler argues that the British Army also suffered from breakdowns in their logistical systems and lack of food and supplies, especially in the critical campaign seasons of 1776 and 1778.  Bowler’s book is a “must read” for those who seek to understand the strategic and operational situation facing British military commanders.

Bowler argues that historians have overly emphasized British Commanding General Sir Henry Clinton’s cautious tendencies.  While he might have been naturally concerned about losing Britain’s largest army and most important base in New York City, Bowler makes the case that Clinton had inadequate supplies to mount offensive operations.  It was this lack of supplies, not leadership initiative that kept Clinton’s army close to its base in New York City.

As almost all British food and supplies had to be procurred in Europe and shipped to North America, this argument is highly plausible.  The British controlled little territory and were unable to buy large quantities of food locally. In fact, even forage for horses had to be shipped from England, limiting the number of cavalry units.

Further the British Treasury department called the Commissionary was in charge of providing food, not the military.  Frequently miscommunications and misunderstandings between Treasury, the Navy and the Army led to food shortages.  Unbelievably, Royal Navy ships impressed sailors manning “victuallers”, the 18th Century name for Treasury’s supply ships.  In one case, wholesale Royal Navy impressment stranded an entire victualler fleet for lack of sailors spoiling its cargo.  Further complicating the supply situation, the Treasury Department relied on private contractors to provide the foodstuffs.  In some cases, the contractors failed to deliver on time with the required quantities.  The importantce and use of contractors is not a new phenomenon nor issues having issues with their performance!

In addition to issues with organizing logistics across the Atlantic Ocean, the British commisionary also faced complex logitcially planning which was far beyond the capabilities of his administrative leadership.  In addition, both petty and more signficant corruption also hampered the delivery of need supplies. It was not until late in the war when other factors limited military operations, that British supplies were adequate.

While never as riviting as battle accounts, the “tried and true” military maxim that “supply wins wars” is a major factor in the outcome of the American Revolution. I encourage historians before writing on Revolutionary campaigns and battles to read Butler’s book to better understand the British supply situation.