We needed lots of ‘stuff’ to win the Revolution
When the Revolution began, our most immediate challenge was finding all the supplies (stuff) necessary to prosecute the war.
The “stuff” did we need?
Virtually everything required to feed, clothe, and arm our soldiers and sailors (lucky we didn’t have an air force yet), and meeting this challenge suddenly became the primarily task of 13 completely separate governments. Solders required muskets, flints, lead balls, gun powder, blankets, shoes, stockings, coats, shirts, breeches, knapsacks, canteens and hats. The frustrating issue of supply – where all this vital stuff would come from — is never addressed in movies and novels.
Regarding food, even well-armed soldiers can’t fight on empty stomachs, so there was always the nightmarish, sometimes impossible task of procuring large enough quantities of unspoiled grains, peas, pork and beef, tea, and yes, tobacco and rum.
Authorized state agents continually strove to locate all these necessities, plus provide salt, pepper, and flour for bread. Scouts and moving armies, such the Sullivan-Clinton expedition, did relieve the supply pressure somewhat by shooting and eating anything that didn’t outrun them, and gathering apples, corn, and various berries in season.
How do we know what supplies came from where?
We can thank several long-past New York state Comptrollers. In 1895, state Comptroller James Roberts, moving old papers to enlarge his office, rediscovered a large cache of long-forgotten wartime documents relating to New York’s Revolutionary War Quartermaster’s Department.
Roberts and several successors organized and republished these documents in several large volumes collectively titled, “New York in the Revolution as Colony and State.”
The final volume of 1904, known both as “The Supplement” which it is, and “Volume II” which it isn’t, tells the story of our state’s challenge to feed, clothe, and supply our approximately 43,645 soldiers, listed under the categories “Military Stores”, “Clothing” and “Provisions.”
In May 1777, New York state Convention Representatives at Kingston appointed John Lasher, Esq., Commissioner of Military Stores with rank of colonel.
Lasher and his assistants were directed to locate and purchase gun slings, hatchets, powder, lead, cartridges, cartridge boxes for holding 24 rounds, flints, muskets, bayonets, pistols (for officers), for which he received an initial budget of L24,563 pounds.
County by county, local Committees of Safety confiscated from “those disaffected to our cause” all sorts of long and short arms. One-hundred-six arms, for example, were collected from Westchester County Tories alone.
Duchess County delivered 431.
Back here, Sir John Johnson and his Loyalist supporters were forced to surrender their arms to the cause. We also hid guns from the British — on July 6, 1777, for example, one Daniel Tier received three pounds for “bringing up fifty-one gun barrels and fifty-two ramrods from Hackensack, buried at Mr. Sloot’s in the Grove.”
Obtaining gun powder was most critical. Our state government even encouraged people to make their own. In March 1776, it paid 34 pounds to print and distribute 3,000 40-page pamphlets on how to make gun powder.
Financed by Congress during May 1776, Henry Wisner and Moses Philips erected a successful powder mill in Ulster County, and by June 1777 this one mill alone produced 14,737 pounds. Privateers smuggled powder from France but sometimes lost cargoes to British confiscation.
Flintlocks fired reliably only with very good flints.
In December 1775, Isaac Fonda, one of the ‘storekeepers’ of the commissary department, received 28,500 flints, 3,000 of which, along with 600 musket balls, were destined for our own Tryon County Militia.
Lead was the most difficult item to obtain. People even melted pewter tableware and fishing sinkers — no tire weights available back then — to mold musket balls, and our Provincial Congress issued orders to confiscate all window weights, as Comptroller Robert’s rediscovered documents reveal, citizens were paid for their weights by the pound, and the lead was distributed to county militias and army units.
During 1776 for example, our Tryon County Committee received 600 pounds, and a year later, 400 more, possibly expended at the 1777 Battle of Oriskany.
Documentation regarding how many pounds of weights each homeowner contributed — willingly or otherwise — and what sums they were reimbursed, exists.
New York City Hall’s lead roof and other public and private roofs were stripped: physical evidence supports the legend that old Fort Johnson’s roof was also stripped “to get the lead out.”
Our state government confiscated hundreds of Loyalist horses, oxen and mules, plus purchased every horse farmers would sell.
Jelles Fonda, official Tryon County “Horse Purchaser”, managed to procure 80 assorted horses right here at home. Sellers were given official “Horse Notes” redeemable later — maybe.
Clothing, linen, shirts and blankets were both imported from France and woven domestically. Indeed linen-clad Americans partly owed their success in summer campaigns to their clothing’s lightness, compared to the redcoat’s heavy, uncomfortable woolens.
Shoemakers were exempt from military duty as long as they produced shoes.
“State Clothier” John Henry was frustrated by moths, which constantly chewed away at stores of woolen socks. Our valley, truly one of the revolution’s bread baskets, was constantly raided to destroy our rich grain harvests and the mills grinding it.
This brief article can hardly reveal the extent of our supply problems or the herculean efforts to relieve them, but while the British initially doubted we had the “stuff” to fight, we proved them wrong, and somehow also managed to scrape together enough material “stuff” as well as fortitude to win.