George Washington Papers

To George Washington from William Buchanan, 4 March 1778

From William Buchanan

York Town [Pa.] 4th March 1778


On the 14th Ulto I had the Honour of recieving your Excellency’s Letter, in Baltimore.1 Both my duty and Inclination prompted me to answer it much sooner, but a severe Fit of Sickness, out of which I am even yet but very imperfectly recovered, has ⟨here⟩to prevented me—Words can not pain the Distress I feel in being at the Head of a Department, the Deficiencies in which, have occasioned your Excellency so much Uneasiness, and been so detrimental to the Service. To add to my Unhappiness, all the Exertions in my Power to use, have not enabled me to give a more exact or pleasing Account of our future Prospects in the victualling Department, than is contained in the inclosed—It was drawn up in Obedience to an order of the Board of War, requiring me to give an Account of the present State of the several Departments in the purchasing Business, and the Reasons of the Want of Vigour and Misfortunes in each, and is the best, indeed, the only Answer in my Power to give to your Enquiries respecting our Expectations in the Spring2—I take Pride in copying from your Excellcy and suspending Imputations—The Enquiry into the Deficiencies of the Purchasing Department, now on Foot at my Request,3 will, I flatter my⟨self⟩ fix them properly, and remove many which have been thrown out on this Subject, with as little Candour as Judgment. I have the Honr to be—yr Excellencys mo. Obdt & very hble servt

Wm Buchanan C: G. of P.


2The enclosure, also dated 4 Mar., reads: “In Obedience to the Orders of your Honble Board of the 9th Feby The several Deputy Commissaries are required to send with all possible Dispatch the several Returns, Letters &c. by you pointed out as necessary in the Enquiry ordered by Congress to be made into the Deficiencies of the purchasing Departments. Your orders as far as they relate to myself, should have been much sooner obeyed, had I not been laid up by a severe Fit of Sickness, which prevented my returning to my Office before the 2d Instt, and from which I am yet but imperfectly recovered—I could wish the Papers and Information in my Possession, were of such a Nature as would enable me to give a more exact and satisfactory Account of the State of each Department of the purchasing Business, and the Reasons of the Want of Vigour and Misfortunes in each—But they are so general and unsatisfactory that I can add but very little to the Answer, which on a similar Enquiry, I made to the Board of War, on the 20th Decr last—Having since received no Returns except from the Western Department, I can even yet do no more than recapitulate the Substance thereof, adding thereto such new Difficulties as have arisen, and the Alterations which have since happened—In doing this I shall extract my Information from Letters, most of which have been laid before your Board as they arrived.

“In The Southern Department, the Commissary complains that he has been greatly embarrassed in his duty of purchasing Provisions laying up Stores and Magazines for the Army and forwarding Supplies to it by—The Practices of a Set of People, who are scattered over the whole Country and make it their Business to speculate in the different Articles necessary for the Support of the Army—Not only with a View of making a Profit out of the Commissary, but for the Purposes of Exportation and to exchange with Foreigners for Salt and other foreign Commodities—Mr Aylett assures me that he knows a recent Instance wherein a Person possessed of Pork, who, by bartering with a Bermudian for Salt, had got at the Rate of £90. per Bbl for it—From this it is clear, that such Purchasers will always be preferred to the Commissary—The Service in this Department has also been materially injured for Want of timely and proper Supplies of Salt and Cash, and the Commissary has met with many Difficulties in procuring proper Assistants—Men used to Business can not be induced to enter into his Employ—The Salary liberal as it is bearing no Proportion to the Expences of travelling and living or to the Profits which are daily made in other Employments—Mr Aylett has also been greatly distressed for some Mode of transporting Stores within his own Department, and to the grand Army—The Bay and Rivers are and for some time past have been extremely insecure—Besides, such are the Profits arising on a Trade carried on in small Vessels to the Islands, that they have enabled those concerned in it to engross all the Craft and Seamen, and to bid so high for every Requisite of Water Carriage as to put them out of the Commissary’s Reach—As to Land Carriage, He has found it impossible to procure it in any Proportion to the Distance and the Quantities to be transported.

“In this Department I am informed of about 10,000 Bbls of Pork, 2 @ 300,000 lb. Bacon and large Quantities of Biscuit and Pease being purchased for the Publick—There is also in it for Sale, great Quantities of Pork and Bacon, but, at the extravagant Price of £16 @ £20. per Bbl for Pork and 3/ @ 3/9 per lb. for Bacon—I am very apprehensive, unless the Route which I took the Liberty of recommending to Congress is established or some other Plan adopted to secure a Mode of transporting them, that the Stores above mentioned will be of but little Service to the Army.

“From the Nature and Situation of the Western Department, it was never expected that it could possibly render much Assistance to the others—Indeed the Commissary thereof complains that he has found some Difficulty in supplying the Troops within itself in Consequence of his long Detention at York waiting for money, by which great Part of a critical Season was lost—He is also embarrassed by the Loss of his Boats, and the Want of Carriages and Salt—The latter I hope to supply him with in Time.

“In his Return of the 31st Decr, since which time I have not heard from him, he gives the following as the then State of his Stores (viz.) 25,847½ lb. Salt Beef, 21,338¾ lb. Flour, 15,064 lb. Salt Pork, 243 lb. Bacon, 10 Sheep, 389 fat Cattle, 33 Bus. Indian Corn 181 Bus. 1 6/7 Gill Salt.

“The Commissary of the Middle Department had in the Execution of his Office to struggle with the Difficulties arising from the ruinous Practice of Speculation, and the Want of timely and proper Supplies of Cash and Salt—The very great Scarcity of the latter, together with this Department’s being greatly exhausted in the Article of Meat, by supporting a large Army so long with very little Assistance from the others, has greatly impeded the laying up Stores of salted Provisions—In Addition to these Difficulties the Commissy complains of the Disaffection which reigns among the People in many Parts of his District, and the consequent bad Credit of our Currency—He likewise finds many Difficulties in employing and retaining Men of Business at the Pay allowed them—The Interruption of Navigation and the Difficulty of procuring Land Carriage have been severely felt in this Department—To the latter, and to the Susquehannah’s having been impassable during great part of the Winter, the temporary Wants of the Army are to be principally attributed.

“Mr Blaine’s Late Letters only give in general, an Information of the most alarming Scarcity of Meats, and promise a sufficiency of Flour—By Letters from some of his Assistants and other Means I learn that there are from 15 @ 20,000 Bbls Flour bought in Chester County—Large Quantities of Bread and Flour at Baltimore. At the same Place about 100 Bbls of Pork & Beef and between 4 @ 500,000 lb. of dry Fish At George Town and in that District 400 Bbls Pork and Beef—In York Town 12,000 lb. Beef and 30 Bbls do, 3000 lb. Pork, 60 Bullocks, 1,200 Bbls Flour, 75 Hhds Rum and 7 of Whiskey—There has passed through this Town lately upwards of 300 Head of Cattle and 500 Hogs, besides 20,000 lb. of salt Beef and Pork, sent to Camp. 20,000 lb. of Beef and Pork laying on the Banks of the Susquehannah waitg until it is passable.

“The Eastern Department has in common with the others suffered the Inconveniencies arising from Forestalling and engrossing, from a Want of a timely Supply of Cash, from the Difficulty of engaging proper People in the Service, and from the bad Credit of our money The latter had gone so far last Fall, that Mr Colt declares the Continental Currency had ceased to be a Medium of Trade—The Farmers and others refused to part with their Commodities for it, and required to be paid in Articles which he could not procure—In Addition to these, the Business of this Department was greatly injured by it’s being left without a Commissary for a long time at a very critical Season—In Consequence of this the Farmers not expecting a Market, neglected to fatten their Cattle and Hogs which are therefore scarce and dear But Mr Champion, who is lately appointed Purchaser of Live-Stock has great Hopes of remedying this Evil—The same Spirit of Adventur which has engrossed the Vessels and Seamen of the South, prevails equally in the East and throws many Difficulties in Mr Colts Way.

“My Letters from this Department do not enable me to give any Information concerning the present State of it, except, that our Expectations thence are to be confined to the Article of fat Cattle—Mr Colt finds some Difficulty in procuring the other Articles of Supply for the Troops and Prisoners within the Department— Mr Champion informs me of his having sent on to Camp 130 Head of Cattle and of his Expectations of sending more.

“Mr Cuyler the Commissy of the Northern Department has been retarded much in his Business, for want of a timely Supply of money and by an unhappy delay in recieving the publick Salt stored in the Eastern Department—The latter is totally and the former in a great Measure removed—Yet I have no Expectation of Assistance from him, as on his being lately re’urged on the Subject of Supplies and Returns he answers “The intended Expedition to Canada engages my whole Attention, and every Person employed under me which will greatly defer the settling our Accounts I shall however get ready as soon as possible” This therefore is all the Information I have respecting the present State of this Department.

“Thus Sir, unless I was to proceed on mere Conjecture or Report either to charge or exculpate the Deputy Commissaries, or to anticipate what may fall to my Share in the Defects alledged against the purchasing Departments, I have given as full an Account of the Difficulties, which each have laboured under, and the State and expectations of Supplies from each, as is in my Power—I hope the several Commissaries will by their speedy Obedience to your Order of the 9th Ulto, more clearly point out the same, and shew from whence the Calamities already so severely felt, and still to be dreaded have arisen—Whether from Neglect, Incompetence or unavoidable Misfortune” (DLC:GW).

3In a letter to Henry Laurens of 26 Jan., Buchanan had requested “an early Enquiry into my Official Conduct, and the Expenditure of the publick money, so far as relates to it’s passing through my hands” (DNA:PCC, item 78). On 9 Feb., Congress ordered “That the Board of War be directed forthwith to enquire into the causes of the deficiencies in the department of the purchasing commissaries, and report to Congress” (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789. 34 vols. Washington, D.C., 1904–37. description ends , 10:141). The investigation had been not completed when Buchanan offered his resignation to Laurens on 20 Mar. (DNA:PCC, item 78).

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