It is that time of year again: every 4th of July, television shows countless reruns of Revolutionary War movies. Mel Gibson has singlehandedly—or single-tomahawkedly—won the Battle of Cowpens a couple of dozen times in the last week. In addition, I am puzzled as to why anyone thought that the story of writing Declaration of Independence would make a good musical; if it had been up to me, 1776 would never have been filmed.
I don’t believe I have ever seen a movie—or even a good documentary—that actually addresses the real reason how a fledgling tiny nation managed to defeat the giant military power of Great Britain. Certainly, the assistance of France and Spain was crucial, but there is a single, fundamental factor in that war that is almost never addressed. Great Britain lost the war because of a giant failure in logistics.
Logistics? Who the hell cares about logistics? The answer is that anyone who wants to understand military history should be intensely interested in what Southern General Nathan Bedford Forrest called, “Gettin’ stuff". Or as General Barrow said far more eloquently, "Amateurs talk about tactics, but professionals study logistics."
When war erupted in the thirteen colonies, the British Army—despite being the European epitome of perfection—was caught completely off guard. Compared to the difficulty in fighting a war 3,000 miles away, fighting in Europe was relatively easy. The supply lines were short, the resupply points were well-known, and the continent was both well-populated and crisscrossed with good roads.
But sending and equipping a European army in the New World was to be the largest logistical effort, requiring more ships and men, than any conflict, anywhere in the world, for the next 150 years. This was a task so monumental that it was not surpassed until the Allies invaded North Africa in the Second World War!
England faced huge problems, the first of which was simple corruption. Many English merchants saw the war not as an existential threat, but as a golden opportunity for profit. Materials sent to the docks for shipment were officially allowed to be short by as much as 10%—Nor were there any requirements to deliver goods packaged to survive an ocean transit! Barrels in particular were a problem: early in the war, five ships left England for Boston, loaded with 7,000 barrels of flour (enough to feed 12,000 men for half a year). When the ships arrived, 5,000 barrels were condemned, leaving only enough flour for 47 days.
It is sad to think that many of the lessons from our country’s first war went unlearned for far more than decades. In the early days of World War Two, countless shiploads of canned food were shipped to the Pacific Islands, but lacking warehouses, the cases were simply stacked on the sandy beach just above the high tide mark. As soon as it rained, both the cardboard cartons and the cans' paper labels disintegrated, leaving mountains of assorted anonymous canned food rusting away.
Even if the food arrived at the docks in perfect condition to be shipped abroad, there was no assurance it would survive the long ocean voyage. In the fall of 1775, the British Army made a monumental effort to supply the Army with sufficient food to last the winter. Thirty-six ships were loaded with “some 500 tons of potatoes, sixty of onions, fifty of parsnips, forty of carrots, and twenty of raisins, as well as 4,000 sheep and hogs and 468,750 gallons of porter.” The food was packaged extremely well. Several tons of fresh sauerkraut was shipped in barrels equipped with a spring-loaded gas pressure valve to keep the barrels from exploding during the fermentation process.
Unfortunately, these careful preparations simply didn’t work. A violent storm hit the convoy, causing most of the ships to either return to England or to be diverted to Antigua. The few vessels that weathered the storm sailed up and down the American coast waiting for the storm to break so they could enter a harbor. Most of the cargo of the 13 ships that finally made it to port was condemned. Only 148 animals survived the trip: the rest starved to death and their carcasses were thrown overboard. (The sauerkraut survived, and so did some of the porter, the volume of the latter being somewhat diminished by thirsty sailors.)
Livestock routinely perished on the trip, in part because the British government frequently loaded supply ships bound for the new world with enough hay and grain to feed the animals for only twenty-one days. Unfortunately, the average crossing in good weather was forty days.
The trip no picnic for humans, either. In 1781, 2,400 soldiers left Europe for New York, but by the time the contingent arrived, 410 were sick and 66 had already perished. As one officer of the Guards testified, "There was continued destruction in the foretops, the pox above-board, the plague between decks, hell in the forecastle, the devil at the helm."
If soldiers couldn’t be supplied from England, they were expected to “live off the land”. This is military-speak for stealing from the locals. While this worked in some populated areas, in most locations there simply was not enough available food, particularly after the locals began hiding their resources.
Foraging parties could be sent out, but those were prime targets for the colonial forces. In order to protect these men, so many soldiers had to be added that the resulting large foraging parties consumed more food than they could gather. Eventually, the British lost more men in combat while foraging than during the large pitched conventional battles. While a few outposts were lucky (Redcoats on the South Carolina coast subsisted for months on alligators and oysters while drinking wine scavenged from a wrecked ship) the British campaign simply could not be sustained by living off the land.
Living off the land had other hazards. It was damn near impossible to win the “hearts and minds” of the colonists while you requisitioned—more military-speak for theft—their food and livestock. Even when the British army attempted to purchase provisions, the foraging parties frequently kept the money while simply stealing the food and livestock. (While the Redcoats may have been bad about thieving for supplies, the Hessians were absolute locusts—turning even Tories into ardent rebels as they laid waste to the countryside, including killing the owners of the food and livestock.)
The lack of effective logistics crippled the effectiveness of the British Army. English generals believed that armies needed at least six, but preferably twelve months of supply before they could initiate offensive operations. This meant that during a war that lasted eight years, only twice did the British Army start a campaign season with enough reserves to launch an offensive movement
It would not have been impossible for the British Army to win the war: a very aggressive strategy of holding the important forts, combined with simultaneously seeking out the rebel army and destroying it in prolonged engagements, might have succeeded. The lack of resources, however, forced the mighty British Army to fight a guerilla war—the only kind of war that the United States could possibly hope to win.
There is an old doggerel about "for want of a nail the battle was lost..." As it turned out, the newborn nation of the United States survived to become a new country for the simple reason that the most powerful nation on earth, a country that ruled the seas, simply could not ship enough food across an ocean to feed their army long enough to defeat us.
Napoleon lost at Waterloo because he could not send a message fifteen miles. Britain lost the Revolutionary War because—despite having the most powerful navy in the world—it could not ship enough flour across the Atlantic.