For Want of a Nail: Did Bad British Logistics Lose America for the Crown?

It is a cliché in the military that amateurs talk about tactics and professionals talk about logistics, but behind many clichés lay hard truths. While there are several reasons the British lost the American War of Independence, poor logistics may have doomed them from the start.

In some respects the British war in the Americas was a masterpiece of strategic logistics. Within 15 months of “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World” the British Empire had assembled the largest land and naval expeditionary force in history and projected it across the Atlantic Ocean. But at the local level, that force quickly ran into trouble.

First and foremost, British military logistics were not centralized. The British Treasury Department was responsible for supplying food and forage. The Navy Board was responsible for oceanic transportation, and the Ordnance Board has responsibility for supplying artillery and munitions. The position of Quartermaster General had responsibility for logistics oversight for the Army, but also served as a Chief of Staff, so his focus was not entirely on logistical problems. To make matters worse, the Army’s Commissary Department was notoriously corrupt. In this time period it was expected that Army Commissaries, who were civilians, would profit from their service; in fact it was not uncommon, perhaps even expected, that people would fleece the government whenever possible. Efforts by suppliers to cut corners, compounded by official corruption, combined with a harsh trans-Atlantic voyage, meant that much if not most of the food shipped to the Americas from Great Britain was lost or spoiled en route. This forced the British Army in North America to forage.

Once the British cleared American forces from Long Island and Manhattan and penetrated the rich farmlands of New Jersey, it was hoped that the bounty from New Jersey and occupied New York would solve British food supply problems. Washington’s daring raid on Trenton proved the folly of dispersing garrisons across New Jersey, and the newly-emboldened Jersey Militia and Continental Army made life nearly unbearable for the British and their Hessian allies. Foraging expeditions turned into running battles, and the British were forced to commit larger and larger forces to efforts to simply seize stock of flour. To make matters worse, depredations committed by British and Hessian troops while foraging provided excellent fodder for American propaganda, and convinced many Americans to get off the fence and support the patriot cause.

The scarcity of supplies of all kind, and the primitive conditions prevalent in North America, forced General John Burgoyne into one of the greatest British disasters of the war: his surrender at Saratoga. In his plan to attack out of Canada and down the Hudson Valley, Burgoyne had envisioned enlisting thousands of horses and wagons which simply never materialized. His campaign of 1777 was marked by fits and starts: he would surge forward and win a tactical victory, and then halt for weeks to lick his wounds and gather supplies while his American foes gathered forces, destroyed roads, and prepared defenses. Burgoyne lost 10% of his force in the Battle of Bennington, which was essentially a foraging expedition gone disastrously wrong. By the time he drew near to objective at Albany, his force was weakened and depleted, and he was faced with a very strong American position manned by patriots who knew their foe was on the ropes. After his surrender at Saratoga his men marched into captivity in tattered clothes, while the French court was convinced it was time to join the American cause.

Arguably the only way the British could have won the war was by cutting loose from their logistics base and pursuing Washington’s Army in a war of maneuver and forcing it into a decisive battle. In this case the superior British training, discipline, and firepower might have won the day, but the British Army was simply not equipped to sustain itself away from rivers and ports. Such a daring move risked the British main force itself being isolated and withering on the vine, just as Burgoyne’s force had done.

surrenderIn the final act of the War, General Cornwallis dashed across Virginia in an example of what a British force could accomplish if it cut loose from its logistical tail. Unfortunately for Cornwallis, the French Navy for once achieved local superiority over the Royal Navy, and Cornwallis found himself with his back to the York River. He was forced to slaughter his horses to preserve his very limited stocks of food, and his troops were weakened by the effects of malaria. With no relief in sight, a dwindling force, and a growing American-French force pounding his defenses, Cornwallis was forced to surrender, and the Crown was forced to the negotiating table.

The British Army in the Americas suffered from numerous challenges during the American Revolution. But throughout the war, from the generals unable to pursue a winning strategy to the privates with grumbling stomachs, logistical problems would be a constant reminder of the challenges of fighting an implacable foe far, far from home.

You can learn more about the fight for American Independence in the Gideon Hawke Series.

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