Thursday, December 17, 2009

Supplying the Troops at Valley Forge

In the movie version of Steinbeck’s East of Eden, Cal, played by the incomparable James Dean, wants to know if growing beans will make money when America is in World War I.

Question: Is war good for business?
Answer from a family business acquaintance: The best there is!

Generally, business prospers in war. Included are contractors, suppliers, manufacturers. It isn’t just for obtaining food, but all kinds of commodities that people want and are in short supply.

The winter of 1777 that our troops spent at Valley Forge certainly made money for some people, but not the soldiers. They were literally starving. But many people in the supply chain made lots of money, particularly contractors. These worked in a state of confusion and avarice. It was very difficult to find competent administrators for the quartermaster corps. Both the army and Congress despaired of ever finding an honest contractor.

In the Revolutionary War, nobody wanted to fight in the winter. Harsh weather, impassible roads, and a lack of supplies had Washington convinced that he didn’t want to “winter” his troops at Valley Forge, 25 mile northwest of Philadelphia. He just wanted to leave the whole area. But in 1777 the Pennsylvania Assembly wanted Washington’s troops to remain as a defensive maneuver. So the soldiers marched into a frozen wilderness. What they found was no shelter, no winter clothing, shortage of food and water, no sanitation, and constant threat of disease. A more unsuitable location could not have been found.

Washington’s first priority was bringing some rough shelter into the camp, and a basic food supply. Washington now had to rely on contractors, who knew every trick in the book.

As for delivery of food, critical from the beginning, much of it was of poor or downright dangerous quality. Some food was blatantly traded to the British, who paid in hard currency rather than accepting paper money. Attempts to install price controls only drove prices to below market value. Some farmers would not trade with the army at all; they found better markets at other locations to be far more lucrative.

With administration in confusion, constant inefficiency, and contractor dishonesty, it was no wonder that soldiers were starving. The whole situation was a disaster. It was a miracle that troops tolerated the conditions throughout this winter. It wasn’t even that severe, just normal for the time of year.

Contractor problems have always persisted. In all fairness, it’s got to be remembered that a lot of the quartermastering had to be done very quickly with little supervision. The supervisor has to ideally be a combination manager, accountant, and often engineer; above all, a wheeler dealer. Who is trained for all that?

In the current Iraq war, we have heard many times about Cheney-Halliburton contract problems. Private business suddenly working in a military setting creates special problems.

How many four-star generals come from a background of the quartermaster corps?

Fifty years ago, Blake Edwards cast Cary Grant and Tony Curtis in a light, very amusing movie, Operation Petticoat, set in the Philippines in 1941. Everything is confused; everyone is trying to deal with supplies the best way they can, which is generally no way at all. But junior officer Curtis has a flair for quartermastering. He is clever and at times quite dishonest. He delivers one line which suits his role perfectly: “In confusion lies profit”.

Washington needed the skills of a Tony Curtis character desperately at Valley Forge. Curtis would have outsmarted every contractor hands down. Probably he would have stolen enough money, and not the paper kind either, to obtain enough food and labor to make the soldiers’ lives more tolerable. For him, enemies were those who wouldn’t trade what he needed. – Renata Breisacher Mulry

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