George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Charles Pettit, 10 September 1778

From Charles Pettit

Camp, White Plains 10th Septr 1778


The Scarcity of Forage, and the Reluctance with which the Farmers part with what they have to spare, has, for some Time past, filled me with more alarming Apprehensions than I have felt on account of any other Branch of the Quarter Master’s Department. The necessary Consumption of Forage, not only in and about the Army, but for the numerous Teams employed in the inland Transportation of Provisions and Stores, has so far exhausted the Resourse⟨s⟩ of former Crops that every Farmer in the Middle States discerns that the Demand for Grain is equal, if not more than equal, to all that can possibly be furnished, and of course that the Purchasers, whether for publick or private Use, must of necessity pay whatever Price shall be insisted on. The Discretion of each Individual is therefore the only Boundary to the Price demanded. Hence we find it impossible, without the Interposition of legislative Authority, to adhere steadily to any fixed Price, and at the same Time obtain the necessary Supplies. For although many of the better disposed among the Farmers would be willing to sell their Forage at the present current Prices if they were not apprehensive their more avaricious Neighbours would obtain a higher Price for theirs; yet while they see Prices constantly rising and unbounded, they are unwilling to preclude themselves from the Advantages which Experie⟨nce⟩ has taught them may be obtained by with-holding their Commodities from the present Market. This increases the Avidity of the Demand, and of course obliges the Purchase⟨r⟩ to submit to the Terms imposed by the Seller. The enormo⟨us⟩ Increase of the Publick Expenditures, though perhaps the greatest, is but one of the Evils which must attend the permitting the Prices of Grain to continue rising witho⟨ut⟩ any other Limitation than the capricious Discretion of the Sellers of it. The Mischief is increased both in Size and Velocity by every Step it advances, and must, if permitted to continue, produce the most pernicious Consequences. On the other Hand, if the Legislatures of the respective States will give us their Aid, by fixing a Table of Prices between Individuals and the Publick, & establishing a legal Mode, as well for the obtaining at such Prices what each Individual can spare, as for ascertaining the Quantity which may be taken in Case of Dispute; I imagine the Quantity of Grain in the Country will be found more adequate to the Demand than present Appearances indicate.

From the Scarcity, whether real or artificial, which we now feel, and have for some Time past experienced in the States northward of Chesapeak Bay, we have been under a Necessity of drawing considerable Quantities of Grain from Virginia, Maryland and Delaware; the Transportation of which not only enhances the Price, but, by employing more Teams in the publick Service, increases the Consumption. If therefore the Inhabitants of the States more contiguous to the Army could be induced to deliver, in a short Time, what they can with Propriety spare, it would not only enable us to form our Magazines in due Season, but might authorize us to relax our Demand on the distant Places from whence Supplies are transported at so great an Expence.

I take the Liberty of troubling your Excellency with these Facts and Observations, together with a Letter from Colonel Biddle, Commissary Genl of Forage, which is inclosed herewith,1 on a Confidence that a Representation of the Matter from your Excellency to the Legislatures of the respective States, either immediatly or through Congress, will be the most likely way to have the Business speedily and effectually attended to, and to procure it that Dispatch which it’s Importance demands. I have the Honour to be, with the greatest Respect, Your Excellency’s most obedient & most humble Servant

Chas Pettit A.Q.M.G.

LS, DLC:GW; copy, M-Ar: Revolution Letters, 1778; copy, R-Ar: Letters to the Governor; copy, PHarH: Records of Pennsylvania’s Revolutionary Governments, 1775–1790; copy, Nj-Ar: Miscellaneous Correspondence; copy, DNA:PCC, item 192; LB, Ct: Trumbull Papers. The copies were enclosed in GW to Jeremiah Dummer Powell, to William Greene, to George Bryan, and to William Livingston, 22 Sept., and GW to Henry Laurens, 23 September. Another copy (see Hastings, Clinton Papers description begins Hugh Hastings and J. A. Holden, eds. Public Papers of George Clinton, First Governor of New York, 1777–1795, 1801–1804. 10 vols. 1899–1914. Reprint. New York, 1973. description ends , 4:22–24) was enclosed in GW’s letter to George Clinton of 22 Sept., and a copy (not identified) was enclosed in GW’s letter to Jonathan Trumbull, Sr., of that date.

1Clement Biddle had written to Pettit on 6 Sept. that “The Consumption of Forage is so great and from the distance it is brought subject to so many delays and disapointments that I wish to fall on every method that will be most likely to ensure a certain & regular Supply—At this time we draw considerable quantities of Corn and Oats from Virginia and Maryland by the way of the head of Elk to Trenton & thence by land to this Camp—the same from the Delaware States—and these supplies must be continued as long as the Season will permit, the middle States being much drained. however I think much more might be drawn from Pennsylvania Jersey, York and Connecticut if the Legislatures of those States would take effectual measures to bring out their Hay & Grain for the use of the Army, and we shall have Occasion for all that can possibly be spared from each of those States to subsist our Horses.” He pointed out that his agents in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York, and Connecticut all complained “of the great prices demanded … and all agree that from various Causes the Forage is not brought to market. the absence of the Militia in service in some places has been one Cause of their not threshing and in many the Expectation of a rising price induces them to keep it back—some Measures are necessary to bring them to thresh & deliver all that can be spared for the use of the Army.” Noting that “limiting a generous price beyond which they would not have an Expectation of a rise would have a good Effect,” Biddle proposed that GW “should be informed of this and be requested to write to the different Legislatures to take the most Effectual Measures to assist my Agents in the different Districts in the Collection of Forage, by limiting the prices & enforcing a Delivery of the Hay & Grain that can be spared at stated periods, also in furnishing Carriages to hawl the same in their respective States to such places as it may be wanted at.” Biddle also suggested that “it may be necessary to make an application to the Legislatures of Delaware, Maryland & Virginia on the same Occasion as the Conveniency of water Carriage from & the greater Abundance of Corn & Oats in those states as well as the insufficiency of Grain in the Others will make it necessary to draw largely from them.” Biddle agreed with Pettit that “Ox Teams would be a great relief if they Could be procured as the Oxen could be subsisted on Grass & a very little Hay,” but he warned, “There is so little Grain thresh’d in this & the adjoining States & our present situation requiring immediate supplies, there is no time to be lost in adopting some method to get the Farmers to work” (DLC:GW).

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