Presidents Day: Lessons in logistics from Washington and Lincoln

By John R. Bell

PRINT  |  E-MAIL

As the Defense Logistics Agency celebrates what much of the nation calls Presidents Day, it’s worth a look at the logistics difficulties Presidents Washington and Lincoln endured as they led the nation to victory in wartime without the benefit of DLA.

For George Washington, as general and commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, the lack of anything resembling DLA Troop Support during the American Revolution meant feeding and clothing his troops was a severe challenge. This was especially true during the winter the Army spent at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, in 1777-78, according to the University of Virginia’s Frank Grizzard Jr.

“The Continental Congress’s efforts to equip and feed its army were inadequate from the start," Grizzard writes. “The ... lack of an established supply system guaranteed that serious problems of procurement and distribution would ensue at least initially.”

Likewise, doing without the services of an ancestor to DLA Distribution meant that even after the Continental Army obtained a large supply of flour and hogs in 1775, it became hard to transport them as the war progressed and horses, carriages and boats were pressed into other wartime service, he notes.

Because Washington didn’t have the benefit of an organization akin to DLA Troop Support’s Clothing and Textiles supply chain, the American revolutionaries were in desperate need of winter clothing, especially in the early years of the war. In fact, Washington worried the cold was enough to cause retention problems in the Army. He wrote in his 1775 Circular to the General Officers:

“Blankets I am inform’d are now much wanted, and not to be got, how then shall we be able to keep Soldiers to their duty, already impatient to get home, when they come to feel the Severity of winter without proper Covering?”

To address these problems, Washington in March 1778 appointed a new quartermaster general, Army Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene. Greene’s “heroic efforts ... to reform the supply and transportation system” were key to the Continental Army’s survival that winter, Grizzard writes.

Helping the Americans’ cause was that the British also faced supply difficulties, according to U.S. Army Maj. John A. Tokar in a 1999 feature for Army Logistics (now Army Sustainment) magazine. “Ultimately, the lack of sufficient reserve supplies, combined with cautious generalship, insufficient transportation, widespread corruption, and the lack of a coherent strategy to maximize the potential support of British loyalists in the colonies, ensured British failure,” Tokar writes.

Failure was not an option for Abraham Lincoln nine decades later. Although Lincoln did not lead the U.S. military from the field as Washington did, he too faced problems supplying the Union Army during the Civil War.

A recent Smithsonian Institution interview with historian Sarah Weicksel of the University of Chicago notes that although the Union Army issued uniforms to its soldiers, they often fit poorly or were made of inferior materials — and so it was common for soldiers to pay for additional clothing sent from home or, if they could afford it, made by a tailor.

But even when troops could get clothing and equipment, the difficulties of transporting it by horseback, river boat, or the limited rail system often meant they had to abandon it.

“In some instances, knapsacks and extra clothing were loaded into government transports and sent closer to the site of the next encampment, allowing soldiers to move more quickly,” Weicksel notes. “In other instances, soldiers were ordered to abandon their excess clothing altogether. Such was the case for one Pennsylvania man, who was ordered to ‘throw away all our Cloathing and Blankets except one change of under shirts [and] one blanket, which we use for a Saddle Blanket.’ ”

Under Lincoln’s leadership, the Union addressed these challenges in part by creating the U.S. Military Railroad and by building a supply base in Petersburg, Virginia, according to the website of the Army Transportation Museum at Fort Eustis, Virginia. “These warehouses stored food, clothing, ammunition and other supplies delivered by hundreds of ships. Hospitals were erected for the care of Union soldiers, including one built for the civilian railroaders of the USMRR of ships,” the site notes.

For the president who led America to win its independence and the president who, less than a century later, preserved the union and made the first steps to end slavery, the value of a unified military logistics organization, with systems and expertise to supply the needs of the warfighter, was made plain by its absence.