George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Nathanael Greene, 7 July 1780

Camp Precaness 7th July 1780.


I inclose your Excellency a copy of a letter from Colo. Biddle, containing a short state of the forage department; the train things are in; and the prospects that lay before us. This article is so necessary in all offensive operations, that nothing can be undertaken without it. I am sorry to find, that very few are impressed with its importance; and many entertain an opinion that it may be had upon the spur of occasion: this might be the case, was the demand but small, and that for no considerable time; but where the quantity is so great as will be necessary to afford a supply for such an Army as we have in contemplation to employ, measures ought to be taken with certainty to produce it, and nothing left to chance or accident. Should we engage in an important expedition, and leave this business upon a precarious and uncertain footing, ten to one but we shall be obliged to abandon, with disgrace, what might be accomplished had measures been taken to provide means equal to the end.

The articles of provision and forage are so necessary to an Army, that they determine all other considerations, in measures, either offensive, or defensive: history affords innumberable instances of sieges and expeditions of the highest importance failing for want of those articles; and they are always mentioned as matters of the first consideration in determining upon a plan of operations. We have frequently seen and felt the want of provision and forage, when our Army has been but small, and in many instances we have suffer’d for want of the former, when it might have been had, if the latter could have been supplied to have kept up the necessary transportation.

I am sensible your Excellency is fully impressed with the importance of this article; but I am very apprehensive that is not the case with those on whom we must depend for a supply; on the contrary, I am persuaded few know the importance, and still fewer attend to the consequences. People who are not well acquainted with the dependence of one thing upon another in an army, nor see how remote events depend upon present causes, are not apt to be sufficiently impressed to take proper measures seasonably upon such occasions; and however fully they may be convinced afterwards, it will be too late to prevent the misfortune.

The importance of the Quarter Master’s department, to the operations of an army, is either not sufficiently known, or not sufficiently attended to; which of the two is the case, I shall not undertake to determine. To raise an army, and not put the Staff Department upon a footing which will enable the General to operate, is like a Merchants building a Ship, and then refusing to rig her: the profits of the Merchant is not more dependent upon this, than the successes of an army depend upon a proper arrangement of those departments. Military operations are often governed by contingences, even where measures are taken upon the best grounds of information; but where both information and execution are upon an uncertain footing, and dependent upon a great variety of characters and tempers, with different interests, and different views, nothing is to be expected but disappointment. I see no preparations making, nor a prospect of any, either in the line of the Staff, or thro’ the medium of the States, that look like putting the army in a condition to operate offensively, or even to act, with security, upon a defensive plan; nor am I convinced that either administration, or the several States, consider the present preparation in the light of a serious intention to offensive operations.

There are many things, which will be necessary to provide for the army, that cannot be had upon the spur of occasion— such as forage, tents, knapsacks, Canteens, &c. Unless measures are taken to provide these articles, previous to the demand for them, a disappointment of the most serious nature will ensue. Tents are a very important article: we have no prospect of getting a competent number; and should our operations be long and tedious, the injury that the troops will suffer from a want of them, is not difficult to foresee. I would beg leave to suggest to your Excellency the propriety and necessity of applying to the associated Merchants in Philadelphia for a supply of this article. Tho’ that association did not take place for this purpose, yet their good intentions cannot be directed to a more necessary point than this propos’d. It will take a considerable time to provide them, with the utmost exertions; and therefore the business cannot be too early attended to.

The present channel, in which the public business is conducted, appears to be well calculated to produce disappointment; and if the object of Goverment had been to disgrace those at the heads of the great departments, no measures could have been better adapted to the purpose: for we can neither tell what is provided, or providing; nor are we able to give your Excellency the necessary information to take your measure upon. I am, with great respect, Your Excellency’s Most Obedient, Huml. Servant

Nath. Greene


DNA: Item 39, Letters from George Washington, PCC—Papers of the Continental Congress.


Camp Precaness July 6th 1780.

Dear General.

During my stay in Philada I did every thing in my power to obtain a knowledge of the Grain-forage procured by the States of Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia, and to have as large a part of the same, as I possibly could, drawn to Trenton, to be transported from thence to the Army; except what should be necessary for the teams employed on the communication.

The State of Pennsylvania has procured very little Grain-forage, nor are we to expect any from them till after harvest.

Delaware has procured some, and has passed a law to draw forth the remainder of what is required of them; but none has come on, and I have reason to fear that it will be delayed for want of money to pay the transportation to Trenton.

The Grain-forage of Maryland, and the State of Transportation is reported to me in the same manner as that of Delaware.

Colo. Finnie informs me, that in Virginia, near two hundred thousand bushels of Grain-forage, (chiefly Indian Corn) was collected by that State; of which I directed him to transport as large a part of 100,000 bushels as he possibly could to the Head of Elk, and to reserve the remainder for further orders; either for transportation by water directly to the places of operation, in case of the arrival of the french fleet; for the purposes of supplying any Troops that might act in that State; or otherwise as the service might require.

I find the transportation of Grain from Virginia by the Head of Elk is retarded by a variety of obstacles, and that it will come on to us but slowly, for want of Money to pay the transportation from Elk to Camp.

Such is the situation of my resources for Grain-forage, which I thought it my duty to represent to you, as we have no others to rely on till after harvest, and untill then chiefly depend on Grass and Hay.

I beg leave to suggest that in case the french Squadron should arrive, and be so stationed as to protect the navigation from Virginia to some landing in the vicinity of our Armies, a good supply of Corn might be drawn from Virginia; but measures should be immediately taken to carry that plan timely into execution. With great Respect, I am Your Huml. Servt

Clement Biddle


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