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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Ten Glorious Days!

December 25th, 1776 through January 3rd, 1777: ten pivotal, and glorious, days in American History.

The second half of 1776 very nearly saw the British and their Hessian allies crush the newly independent United States. Some of the American troops on Long Island learned of the Declaration of Independence while they were within sight of the British fleet anchored in New York Harbor. A few weeks later the British would overwhelm the American defenses on Long Island, triggering the first in a series of retreats that would see Washington’s Army nearly melt away; when the remnants finally crossed the Delaware River into Pennsylvania, Washington had immediately available only about 10% of the force he had in August. But “The Old Fox” did not give up. He set to work reconstituting his army, calling in detachments, seeing to it the sick and wounded were nursed back to health, persuading troops to stay with the colors, calling upon Congress and the states for reinforcements, and restoring morale: he ordered Thomas Paine’s The American Crisis read to the troops.

These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value.

Washington knew that having an army was not enough: in the dark times at the end of 1776, he had to DO something with that army to give his countrymen hope. He knew he could not confront the enemy on even terms, but he also knew that the British and their Hessian allies had grown complacent in victory. He looked for a weakness, and found it across the River: in Trenton, New Jersey.

The Hessian brigade stationed in Trenton was alert, disciplined, and well trained, but it was increasingly isolated. On the night of December 25th, 1776, in a blinding snowstorm, Washington personally led his most reliable units across the ice-choked Delaware and on toward Trenton. None of the supporting attacking columns managed to cross the river, but Washington drove the main force on, and just after dawn on December 26th his men surged around Trenton. After a short, sharp fight most of the garrison surrendered. Only a few Hessian jaegers and British dragoons escaped, because they fled at the first alarm. Now isolated himself, but having won a precious victory, Washington withdrew back across the Delaware before the British could counterattack.


The enemy response bordered on panic. The British command pulled in their far-flung garrisons across New Jersey and assumed a defensive posture, giving Washington total freedom of movement. Seeing another opportunity, Washington crossed the Delaware again and took up defensive positions along Assunpink Creek, just south of Trenton. When her learned that British General Charles Cornwallis was on the march toward Trenton, Washington deployed a screening force to the north to find and delay Cornwallis: this force included the First Continental Regiment, commanded by Colonel Edward Hand. Once the enemy appeared just south of Princeton Hand took command of the screening force; falling back from covered position to covered position his men slowed the British to crawl and inflicted galling casualties, buying time for the main force to improve the defenses on Assunpink Creek. As night fell Hand’s force fell back through Trenton and scrambled across the only bridge. The British attempted to seize the bridge, but the attackers were swept away by a storm of musket and cannon fire. Cornwallis’ force settled in for the night, prepared to renew the attack in the morning.


Washington had learned a great deal since Long Island. He knew Cornwallis would attempt to outflank him in the morning, and he knew that maneuver would probably succeed. So, he left a small force to keep the watch fires lit, make noise, and fire the occasional cannon; with the rest of his army Washington quietly marched away in the dead of a pitch black night, slipped around Cornwallis’ flank, and marched northwards toward Princeton.

Cornwallis had been so confident he had summoned most of the Princeton garrison, under Colonel Charles Mahwood, to march to Trenton. Part of Washington’s force, under Hugh Mercer, ran into Mahwood’s men, and a fierce fight ensued. Mercer was killed, his brigade broken, and Mahwood nearly broke the American line, but Washington rallied his men, and the line held long enough for another force, including Hand’s riflemen, to fall upon the British left flank. Mahwood’s units broke and ran, and while some of Washington’s force hunted them down, the rest moved into Princeton to capture the rest of the garrison. When Cornwallis finally arrived at Princeton, Washington’s force was on the road to the relative safety of the rugged terrain around Morristown with prisoners, captured guns, and loot in tow.


In ten days what seemed to be a defeated force had turned the tables, knocking two brigades out of the enemy order of battle, but more importantly breathing new life into the American cause and sowing fear in the hearts of their enemies. The New Jersey militia came out in swarms, and the British soldier had to endure a long, bitter winter marked by cold, hunger, and constant danger. In order to feed themselves, the British and Hessians would have to venture out into the Jersey countryside, where they knew their enemies were waiting in ambush. There would be many more battles to come.

To see the Ten Glorious Days from the perspective of one of the participants, check out Times That Try Men’s Souls!

Artwork by Ben Kloeppersmith

Washington Crossing State Park:

The Old Barracks Museum, Trenton:

Princeton Battlefield Society: