Evacuation Day Logistics

By Colin Williams DLA Historian

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Hand-colored wood engraving titled Evacuation of New York by the British, Nov. 25,1783.
Hand-colored wood engraving titled Evacuation of New York by the British, Nov. 25,1783.
Hand-colored wood engraving titled Evacuation of New York by the British, Nov. 25,1783.
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Hand-colored wood engraving titled Evacuation of New York by the British, Nov. 25,1783.
Photo By: Library of Congress
VIRIN: 190301-D-YE683-007
There was nothing resembling the Defense Logistics Agency during the American Revolution, but logistics still played a defining role. This was especially true as the war ended and the British prepared to leave New York City in the fall of 1783 after occupying it for seven years.

The message from the British that they would strive to evacuate Nov. 25 that year was a great relief to the Continental Congress. It had long struggled to provide Patriot forces clothing, food and fuel for heat and cooking, relying on loans from France and state donations in the absence of tariffs or income tax. Those warfighter needs, now fulfilled by DLA Troop Support, DLA Energy and DLA Disposition Services, were handled by leaders on the ground with any means available.

Funds were so lacking that in March 1783 several aggrieved officers planned to leave their posts and march on Congress in protest of its reversal on a promise of lifetime pay. However, Gen. George Washington persuaded them to back down.

So when the news of a tentative peace treaty reached Congress later that year, it decommissioned all units south of the Hudson Valley except a small garrison in western Pennsylvania. This way, the young American government would have fewer than 2,500 troops to support after the British evacuated and winter approached.

U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Henry Knox portrait by American artist Gilbert Stuart.
U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Henry Knox portrait by American artist Gilbert Stuart.
U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Henry Knox portrait by American artist Gilbert Stuart.
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U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Henry Knox portrait by American artist Gilbert Stuart.
Photo By: Image Courtesy The Athenaeum
VIRIN: 190301-D-YE683-010
The commander of the British forces in New York, British army Lt. Gen. Guy Carleton, had his own logistics problems. In addition to a now-enlarged force, he had to evacuate tens of thousands of Loyalists who didn’t want to live under the new American government. Conscience compelled him to include the city’s black freedmen as well, as many had escaped their Patriot masters under promise of British protection. Needing space for Loyalist property, military supplies and almost 60,000 people, Carleton could not depart until transports arrived from various parts of the Empire. Not knowing when that would be, he could not tell Washington when his troops could re-enter the city.   

While Carleton waited on transports, U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Henry Knox, Washington’s commander in the north, worried about staging his forces for the coming winter. Knox operated out of West Point, New York, on the Hudson River. An ideal position for maintaining pressure on the British in both New York City and Canada, West Point had long been a Patriot stronghold. 

Quartermaster Gen. Timothy Pickering portrait by American painter Charles Willson Peale.
Quartermaster Gen. Timothy Pickering portrait by American painter Charles Willson Peale.
Quartermaster Gen. Timothy Pickering portrait by American painter Charles Willson Peale.
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Quartermaster Gen. Timothy Pickering portrait by American painter Charles Willson Peale.
Photo By: Image Courtesy Independence Nati
VIRIN: 190301-D-YE683-011
Unfortunately for Knox, barracks on the post could house only one regiment. More troubling, years of building fortifications and burning firewood had denuded the area of trees. Not knowing how many troops he needed to keep at the ready, Knox wrote Quartermaster Gen. Timothy Pickering. On Pickering’s recommendation, Knox sent two regiments to huts in Connecticut, keeping the 4th Massachusetts at West Point and converging the rest of his force at King’s Bridge, north of Manhattan. While the Connecticut huts were close to a wood source and numerous enough to house two regiments, they were in poor repair and far from the British.

Howard Pyle drawing of the Continental Army marching down the Old Bowery, New York, Nov. 25, 1783.
Howard Pyle drawing of the Continental Army marching down the Old Bowery, New York, Nov. 25, 1783.
Howard Pyle drawing of the Continental Army marching down the Old Bowery, New York, Nov. 25, 1783.
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Howard Pyle drawing of the Continental Army marching down the Old Bowery, New York, Nov. 25, 1783.
Photo By: Library of Congress
VIRIN: 190301-D-YE683-008
Keeping even one regiment at West Point required a lot of firewood. To get it, Knox sent soldiers whose enlistments were about to expire to a hillside 6 miles away. There the soldiers cut down trees, removed their branches and rolled them to the base of the hill. Horse-drawn sleighs contracted by Pickering’s agents dragged the logs to the Hudson and loaded them onto flat-bottomed boats built on the spot. Soldiers with nautical backgrounds then manned the boats downriver to the landing at West Point, where other teams pulled the logs uphill to the barracks. 

Knox and Pickering worried about other preparations for the 4th Massachusetts. Experience at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, and seven other winter encampments had taught them the need to provision troops with cold-weather clothing and sustenance as well as firewood. While contracts with local businessmen would keep soldiers fed through the winter, Knox informed Washington Oct. 15 that his men were “in a wretched situation for [lack of] warm underclothes, having only ... their overalls and waistcoats purchased by themselves last spring.” Although Knox and Pickering never fully resolved the clothing shortage, they were at least able to eliminate the need for forage by keeping no horses at West Point.

Knox gave command of his troops at King’s Bridge to Army Brig. Gen. Henry Jackson. Coming from four separate corps and numbering almost a thousand, these troops were unsure of the reception they would face. Both the retreating redcoats and the Loyalists who remained in the city posed potential, if unlikely, threats.
Lithograph of “Evacuation Day” and Washington’s Triumphal Entry in New York City, Nov. 25th, 1783 by E.P. & L. Restein
Lithograph of “Evacuation Day” and Washington’s Triumphal Entry in New York City, Nov. 25th, 1783 by E.P. & L. Restein
Lithograph of “Evacuation Day” and Washington’s Triumphal Entry in New York City, Nov. 25th, 1783 by E.P. & L. Restein
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Lithograph of “Evacuation Day” and Washington’s Triumphal Entry in New York City, Nov. 25th, 1783 by E.P. & L. Restein
Photo By: Image Courtesy Library of Congre
VIRIN: 190301-D-YE683-009
Fortunately for both sides, the British departed peacefully Nov. 25 and the few Loyalists who remained were too intimidated to contest the Patriots’ arrival. After securing the city and escorting Washington and New York Gov. George Clinton, Jackson turned in his cannon, released a third of his command and found lodging for the rest. 

With the British gone, Washington announced that he was resigning his commission. Leaving what remained of his army in the capable hands of Knox and Pickering, he departed for Annapolis, Maryland, to resign his commission before Congress. His last days in command had been dictated not by military force but by the arrival of British transports and the acquisition of firewood for his troops. 

The evacuation and American re-entry of New York City, despite occurring before the United States had an executive branch, much less a Defense Logistics Agency, included logistical challenges that are recognizable today.