THE SUBSISTENCE DEPARTMENT

From the Revolution to the Civil War

Alan Aronson

For as long as the United States has fielded armies it has had to feed them. From King Phillip's War to the Revolution the American landscape had experienced armies campaigning, men struggling and dying, with a nascent nation shaped by the outcome. These armies were not of the magnitude of those raised in the Civil War but they were representative of their time and place and were raised and supported with as much effort and expenditure of resources as any modern force.

Provision of these colonial armies was a haphazard affair unless they fell under the control of the British commissariat. Most of the time, however, the men ate whatever they could carry with them or obtain through their skills as hunters. Foraging from the local population played a small part since most pre-revolutionary campaigns were mounted against hostile Indians and in disputed areas of low population density.

Once the Revolution developed into a traditional war wherein large armies campaigned against one another, a formal system of provisioning these forces had to be implemented. It was natural that the familiar commissary and quartermaster systems of the British Army be adopted and adapted to the Continental forces. A Commissary General of Subsistence and Purchases was appointed whose chief responsibility was to enter into contracts with suppliers of the ration. These contractors would then deliver the requisite provisions to specific posts. The need for the position of Commissary General was evident early on, it being created by a resolution of the Second Continental Congress in June of 1775.

Even though the armies were fed, our most popular representation of Revolutionary War supply is the winter of 77/78 at Valley Forge. Here history paints a picture of the threadbare, barefoot and hungry soldier shivering on picket duty. In this instance and others there were supply problems leading to scarcity and hardship. Our case in hand, Valley Forge, was an instance where the system failed for several reasons, of which, lack of food in the colonies was not one.

Washington's army consumed 500 head of cattle and 400 barrels of flour per week in campaign. The cattle raising Middle Department around Philadelphia was occupied by British forces at this time disrupting meat supplies from this area. Additionally, British control of the Delaware River meant that bacon and barrelled pork from Virginia could not reach Washington's troops. This transportation problem also stopped the supply of salt sorely needed to preserve the meats processed in the fall of 1777.

These problems had been anticipated by the Commissary Department and it was expecting to ship an adequate supply of beef from New England. Meat purchases in the Eastern Department, however, were suspended through the late fall in order to reorganize the Commissary Department in that area. Even under reorganization, the Deputy Commissary General in the East, Samuel Grey, was so incompetent as to be virtually ineffective. With the shortages the cry of "No Meat, No Meat!" rose from the crude log huts of Valley Forge on Christmas of 1777.

Other reasons for spot shortages arose during the war; some as a result of the commissary system, others not. Teamsters, not under military control would dump their loads by the roadside if payment for their services was delayed. Farmers would not deliver produce to the camps for fear, justifiably so, that the transportation deficient army would requisition their teams and wagons.

Economics also played a role. Payment for goods in promissory notes drawn on a government whose future seemed doubtful was unpopular. Ofttimes the farmers would sell their goods to sutlers for hard cash rather than to commissary agents. a competition which also drove the cost of feeding the army ever higher. Yet, in spite of the difficulties faced by commissary officers, the army was fed, not always in a timely fashion nor with rations as palatable and of the quantity desired by the troops, but fed nonetheless. For six years the civilians and soldiers of the commissariat learned their craft and then, with the stroke of a pen, they were no more.

The end of many wars brings a great weariness, a desire to eliminate all residue of conflict and all things military. A return to normalcy was the desire of the country following the Revolution, we had driven the British from our shores and no enemy was in sight. All energies were directed inward, to the frontier. Governmental thought and policy was dominated by the belief that the maintenance of a standing army was not compatible with the principles of democracy. The abolishment of the commissariat in 1781 was to be the first step in disbanding the army, an action never realized as it soon became apparent that an army would be required to act as an internal police force as well as to protect the westward migration. This army, small as it was, still needed to be supplied and fed. Responsibility for acquiring and enforcing the requisite contracts was transferred to the the Treasury. Logic behind this action may have been that contracts involving the disbursement of funds should be administered from the source of those funds.

For the next two decades the contract system was implemented. No longer would Commissary officers contract for and receive the supplies, allowing some semblance of control over the process. Under the new system the Superintendent of Finances and, later, the Board of Treasury would advertise for supplies on a yearly basis. Low bidder would then contract to deliver the specified rations and forage to specific points or army posts. Central depots and receiving officers were unknown, the ration arrived in the hands of the soldier directly from the civilian contractor.

The ration itself was a basic meat and bread diet consisting of one pound beef or three quarters pound of pork (both salted as a general rule), one pound of bread or flour and one gill of rum. For every one hundred men there also was a daily issue of one quart of salt, two quarts of vinegar, 2 pounds of soap and one pound of candles. It is quite obvious that should a soldier desire any variety from these staple he would have to raise vegetables, become proficient at hunting, befriend members of the local populace, if any, or obtain luxuries at the post sutler. The sutler was an entrepreneur, a private shopkeeper who tended to charge high prices for the small extras so desired by the soldiers. Throughout the early history of the U.S. Army the sutler occupied a unique position. Since most army posts were far from civilization, the men had no recourse but to supplement army issue with sutler goods. While some of this class were dishonest, most were merely small businessmen risking capital on the uncertain return of a soldier's pay. The most common complaint being of high prices was somewhat understandable considering the potential loss from theft and bad debt (soldiers deserted and died with great frequency). Sutlers were not regulated yet they occupied their position (Not an honored one in history it seems; the word sutler is derived from the Dutch word "soetelen" meaning "to undertake low offices") at the good will of the commanding officer. Even though they possessed a monopoly it was unwise for them to ill treat their customers since retribution could ofttimes mean total loss of inventory at the hands of the soldiers.

In 1798 the responsibility for the feeding of the army was returned to the Secretary of War. The contracting process, however, remained the same as it had been since the close of the Revolution. The winning contractor in a low bid process was required to maintain, on hand at each assigned post, enough rations to feed the garrison for three months. In more distant posts on the frontier the amount on hand had to be six months worth of rations. Since the bid process was tied to a specific geographic area or individual location a potential for loss existed in the event that troops were moved or reassigned. In such case the government could, should it be convenient, chose to move the contractor's supplies or could, just as easily, recontract at the next post leaving the old contractor with months' worth of rations.

Should the contractor fail to supply rations in a timely or adequate fashion the commanding officer was authorized to purchase sufficient supplies and charge their cost to the contractor's account or against the bond submitted by the contractor. This might be a solution if the contractor was still in the area or if he was even in business. The profile of such contractors was aptly described as an adventurer rather than as a businessman. Considering that such individuals not only had to risk capital but ofttimes had to transport the supplies into the untamed and hostile reaches of America's frontier, the occupation and subjugation of which was the young army's reason for existence, it is no wonder that the timid found other occupation. Once the contractor arrived at the post he had to store and issue the ration and still make a reasonable return on investment.

It is therefore not puzzling that, at signs of danger, such men would tend to cut their losses and cease operations just when the army most needed their supplies. Better loss of contract that loss of fortune and, maybe, life itself. Not having either transport or supply under military discipline or control there was little recourse for the army but to find alternate sources of supply, if possible. Lt. Colonel Thomas S. Jesup, the future Quartermaster General of the army, declared the entire system "madness", this on the eve of the War of 1812.

It was fortunate that the war, on the whole, was a naval war. The small peacetime army was wholly unready for active campaigning. All subsistence contracts had been made for an entire year before the outbreak of hostilities. To add to the confusion, new military districts were created in 1813 which did not correspond to the districts utilized for supply. In an attempt to remedy the situation, the post of Commissary General of Purchase was created under the Secretary of War. A distinction of duties was enumerated between this official and the Quartermaster Department, the former effecting purchases and contracts while the latter handled distribution. In actuality the different responsibilities blurred in the face of wartime realities.

The main problem throughout the war, however, was the deficiencies of the contract system; it made no difference where the purchasing authority lay if the troops lacked for food. Contractors bid on contracts which covered the entire provisioning process, from obtaining the food from the factory, transporting it and actually issuing it to the individual soldier. In reality, a successful contractor was more speculator and entrepeneur with sufficient funds and contacts to subsidize and obtain a large share of the Army's business. Once won, however, these businessmen would subcontract the actual work to one or a series of smaller contractors, but only after skimming their share off the top. Where the government may be paying twelve cents per diem per ration the local supplier may only be working on an eight cent margin out of which he must also make a profit. The result of such a process was low grade provisions, insufficient inventory and, oftimes, actual shortage.

To illustrate, the following is communication from Colonel Winder, commander of Fort Niagra, to his superior, Brigadier General Smyth:

"We are literally starving on this end of the line for bread; and unless the supply is more abundant, the contractors will be answerable for consequences more fatal to their country than treason."

Smyth immediately ordered supplies forwarded to Niagra through his Quartermaster with the admonition:

"Please be advised to consider this order as one of the most preemptory kind. Fort Niagra, if invested a week, must surrender from hunger"

Attempts were made at staff level to tighten up supply but the inability to control civilian contractors still created difficulties.

In the Winter of 1813/14 the Northwestern army suffered under a scarcity of provisions, the troops in Detroit were in a starving condition. It was only through the intervention of General Harrison in purchasing provision that tragedy was averted. Even so, the General had to suffer the indignity of an inquiry from the House of Representatives when contractors complained of his actions.

The serious nature of the supply problem was finally recognized in the halls of government and in the Fall of 1814 Congress requested an analysis of the existing system by the Secretary of War, James Munroe. Munroe, in turn, submitted reports from his senior military men including Winifred Scott.

The tenor of the reports was to condemn the contractor system completely. The main concern put forth was that contractors, being civilian, had no responsibility, other than pecuniary, to the Military. With no authority over his food supply an general could develop the most complex plans which could then be completely ruined by the failure of the contractor to provide the necessary food for his troops. While it was true that such contractors had to provide surety, remedy for failure lay in the uncertain and distant hands of civilian courts and did not undo the damage suffered to strategic goals.

An additional concern, again related to the Military's lack of authority over these contractors, was security. While the supplier of provisions was privy to all the movements of the army out of necessity, there was no assurance that this information would not be passed to the enemy for profit.

The final complaint was to quality of goods provided. Contractors were in business to make a profit which created the temptation to provide the lowest quality or cheapest possible provisions. No mechanism was in place at the receiving end to inspect what was provided. In many cases, the contractor actually issued rations to the troops.

The result of Monroe's report was a bill authorizing a Commissary Department. As the bill reached its final stages, however, President Madison sent, to Congress, the text of the Treaty of Ghent which ended the war. The Commissary bill died with the end of the session, pressures to subsist a wartime army having abated.

The Army had but a couple of years before the syupply system was, agian, put to the test and found wanting. This time to the South. At this time the Seminole Indains of Florida began demonstrating hostile intentions towards Georgia, at that time our country's southernmost frontier, Florida still belonging to Spain.

The frontier posts were again subject to starvation and supply due to the failures of the contractor system; this failure, in many cases, hindering planned operations by both regular troops and militia. General Gaines, cammander in Hartford, Georgia, was reduced to the measure of borrowing $10,000 from the Governor of Georgia to supply his forces. Quartermasters were reduced to purchasing corn from the local Indians to feed the troops.

Andrew Jackson's campaign, early in 1818, was only successful due to his anticipation of contractor failure and his improvisation of commissary functions for his army by having supplies shipped in from New Orleans.

During this period Congress was not unaware of the problems. Representative Williams from tennessee requested, through a resolution, a report on the subsistence of the forces operating against the Seminoles (A portion of the militia suffering privations were Williams' constituents). The report from Calhoun, then Secretary of War, was a severe condemnation of the General Contractor for the District as well as the system as a whole.

The result of this report as well as that of other information requested was the creation and passage of a bill entitled "An Act to Regulate the Staff of the Army". This Act called for the creation of the position of Commissary general of Subsistence with the rank of Colonel of Ordnance. The Commissary General was authorized to appoint assitants from within the ranks of junior officers of the Line.

Once the old supply contracts had expired, new ones could be established under a system which, in theory, was to be radically different from the old. Under the new system:

- All provisions would be supplied utilizing a bidding procedure controlled by the Army and driven by the actual needs of that Army communicated through Staff.

- Supplies delivered would be inspected by Commissary officers and had to meet all specifications.

- Transport and issue of supplies would be under control of the Army.

- Of the greatest importance was that the Army's food supply would be controlled by the Army from main depot onward.

On April 30, 1818, George Gibson of Pennsylvania was appointed Commissary General. He was to serve for forty three years dying in office on September 29, 1861. This was, in some way appropriate, Gibson spent four decades bringing the Commissary Department to the place where its small cadre of officers could feed McDowell's army at Bull Run and then instruct a whole new group of young volunteer officers to supply the great armies that fought across the continent. Gibson's life may have parenthetically enclosed the antebellum years but his legacy was an organization that contributed greatly to Union victory.

The Commissary Department was created by the stroke of a pen but it take far more than a signature to change a system completely around. As a start, the existing contract did not expire until June 1, 1819 and little could be done; just as well, it had been thirty nine years since the army operated with a staff member devoted to the purchase of subisistence. A great wealth of knowledge and experience had been lost. The corollary was that a great amount of negative experience had been gained. It wasn't, however, as simple as creating a mirror image of the old contract system to right all the wrongs. Great thought had to be given to the matter and the discussions that followed the Act of 1818 showed how seriously those in leadership considered the matter.

Andrew Jackson, through the mails, presented his thoughts to Gibson. This advice was not to be taken lightly from the country's greatest military hero and it wasn't. Secretary of War Calhoun's report of December 1818, most assuredly written in close consultation with Gibson incorporates many of Jackson's observations and suggestions.

The main point made by Jackson is timeless, it applies today as well as it did one hundred and fifty years ago. Jackson stated that the American fighting man is different from any other. He comes from a country that provides amply for even the lowest and whose diet was abundant and varied. To remove him physically from a free and open society and subject him to military discipline was shock enough but to be niggardly in the area of rations, whether it be quantity or quality, could be fatal to morale. Calhoun echoed this sentiment in arguing for an improvement of the ration:

"However well qualified for war in other respects, in the mere capacity of bearing privations we are inferior to most nations, An American would starve on what a Tartar would live with comfort"

Calhoun stressed that the habits of civilain life, especially as it related to food should be continued.

"Our losses, in the late and Revolutionary Wars, from this cause, were probably greater than from the sword. However well qualified for war in other respects, in the mere capacity of bearing privations we are inferior to most nations."

He struck out against the past evils of the contract system by bemoaning the fact that a wealthy country such as the United States, with people living in plenty should starve and poison its defenders. Finally, he brought the large picture forward stating, what now was obvious, the Army must rely on itself for its own lifeblood.

"Too much care cannot be bestowed on these important subjects; for let the military system be ever so perfect in other particulars, any considerable deficiency in these must, in all great military operations, expose an army to the greatest disasters. All human efforts must, of necessity, be limited by means of subsistence. Food sustains the immense machinery of war, and gives the impulse to all of its operations; and if this essential be withdrawn, even but for a few days, the whole must cease to act."

The ration was increased in 1818 by the authorization of a larger vegetable component. Additionally, fresh beef was mandated at least twice per week. Other changes were made resulting in a more varied diet for the common soldier.

The basic structure of the embryo Subsistence Department was quite simple. The Commissary General was based in Washington and would oversee the entire Department; estimating expenditures on an annual basis, provide funds to his assistants for purchase of supplies and maintain all records from the field. He would have two Deputy Commissarys who would oversee the main Depots. They would contract for such provisions as would be required. All such would be inspected upon receipt, failure of such inspection resulting in penalties on the contractor. Failure to deliver quantity would result in open market purchase of the requisite items to be charged back to the failed contractor. Remedies were now available and, properly applied, could be swift and sure. The military function would not, in theory, suffer as a result of civilian actions or lack thereof.

Supplies would then be forwarded to individual posts using the services of the Quartermaster Department. At the individual posts, assistant Commissaries would receive these supplies from the Quartermaster Department and be responsible for storage and issue to the troops. In posts where no Commissary was assigned and officer would be appointed to act in that capacity.

Thus a system was created wherein the food supply was under Military control from source to stomach. The mechanism appeared capable of working in peacetime; the question was, would it work in the chaotic atmosphere of war. Congress itself was not sure and, in its legislation creating the Department, set a five year limit. The law governing its existence would have to be reexamined and renewed five years hence. It wasn't until 1835 that the Department was made a permanent department within the Army Staff structure. During this period, however, it had more than demonstrated its capacity, effecting considerable savings year by year while providing quality provisions for the troops.

Within a year of achieving its tenure this small organization was put to the test in the Second Seminole Wars. This conflict stretched the system to the breaking point since the two senior officers of the Commissary Departmnet were in Washington while the remaining Deputy was with the Army in Florida. This required the principal depots to be administered by assistant Commissaries who lacked the requisite experience for such duty, having been drawn from the line. In time of war this would also have the effect of weakening the officer corps just when junior officers would be at a premium.

To correct the problem Congress authorized five aditional staff for the Commissary Department. Two Majors were already in place. A Lt. Colonel was added, another officer with the rank of Quartermaster and three more with the ranks of Assistant Quartermaster. Congress backpeddaled slightly in that the latter three were not allowed to be separated from the line, being required to maintain their regimental commissions. The act, however, had the effect of providing a measure of stability and permanence in a Department that soon would be tested.

This test came eight years later following failed negotiations with Mexico and General Taylor's subsequent advance to the Rio Grande. At the beginning of the Mexican War the Commissary Department consisted of six officers; Gibson, his Assistant Commissary General of Subsistance, two Majors and three other officers who, together, purchased the ration and administered the depots. Issues to the troops, in the Regular Army, were handled by designated lieutenants in each regiment.

Expansion of the Army by the influx of volunteer regiments required an expansion of the responsibilities of the Commissary Department. The framework was in place, all that was necessary was to expand it. After a false start by Congress in June of 1846 wherein Brigade and regimental Commissarys were mandated, an unsatisfactory arrangement, the Regular Army system was implemented throughout by 1847.

The Commissary Department was required to purchase the component parts of the ration by contract. These contracts were generally made 6 - 18 months in advance, prudent practice for a static peacetime military establishment but decidedly impractical for the burgeoning army preparing to invade Mexico, hundreds and, sometimes, thousands of miles from the main sources of supply. This forced the implementation of a method long advocated by Gibson,; that of open market purchase. He felt, quite rightly, that, where it was feasible, commissarys should be able to purchase provisions from the surrounding countryside. The additional cost that may be incurred would more than be balanced by the savings in storage and transportation costs as well as assuring that the Army would be adequately provided for. Even though opponents of this practice warned of potential abuse, circumstances created the necessity for its implementation.

This open market purchase meant, of course, that the ration could not always be followed to the letter; corn, for example, was an easy and convenient substitute for other missing parts if the issue. Another example; potatoes were furnished in the ration as an antiscoubic but when the potato crop failed Gibson recommended dried apples as a substitute.

The trrops suplemented their monotonous food with whatever they could barter or buy from the inhabitants of the land they traversed. Even though there was grumbling about the food, no campaign was impacted by failure of the food supply as in the First Seminole War. Lessons were learned and the yound commissaries were prepared to use this knowledge a decade and half later.