48. How did Washington Feed the Army in its Darkest Hour?

Two words: Joseph Trumbull.

Who Was He?

The Trumbull family from Connecticut played an important role during the Revolution as befitted its status in the Nutmeg State at the time, led by Jonathan, the father who served as Governor from 1776 to 1784 and was an ardent supporter of the rebel cause. His youngest and most famous son, the artist John, served under Washington and earned renown through his paintbrush. Another son, Jonathan Jr., ably performed the duties of paymaster for Washington’s army. It was, however, the oldest son who arguably performed the greatest service to the young nation, particularly when the cause of American independence teetered on the edge of total failure in late 1776. That was Joseph, who served as the first commissary general of the Continental Army, with the rank and pay of colonel, from July 19, 1775 to August 2, 1777. He secured that congressional appointment through Washington’s influence after coming to the latter’s attention as commissary general for Connecticut’s military forces in early 1775. Born in Lebanon, Connecticut, Trumbull was a Harvard graduate and successful merchant like his father before him, had served in the Connecticut General Assembly, and been elected to the First Continental Congress in 1774 as an alternate delegate. Perhaps most importantly, his reputation was that of an honest man.

What Did He Do?

Trumbull was thirty-eight years old when appointed Commissary General of Stores and Provisions and by all accounts served admirably in that position. He was remarkably successful at creating a system by which the states supplied the army and was highly regarded by his military peers. His commander-in-chief observed: “Few armies if any have been better and more plentifully supplied than the troops under Mr. Trumbull’s care.”

Trumbull’s effort to feed Washington’s troops in late 1776 encountered significant challenges. The army was unable to obtain supplies from New Jersey after retreating across the Delaware River in early December, and it could not forage in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where it had settled. The army’s commissary officers reported that local farmers would not sell nor millers grind if they were to be paid in Continental dollars. The staples of the soldier’s diet at this point were largely hard bread or biscuit and heavily salted meat, and with the means of supplying these so limited in the middle states, Trumbull was forced to bring them in from a considerable distance: flour from Virginia grain plantations and salt meat from New England. He even moved to New England in the fall of 1776, over Washington’s objections, as that region remained the best source of supply for provisions, clothing, and money.

Historian Richard Ketchum writes of Trumbull’s efforts at this time that “the indefatigable commissary general…was making some progress by darting here and there, gathering up whatever he could lay hands upon, but…was continually hampered by a shortage of funds for these purposes.” According to one scholar, Trumbull “performed as well as circumstances permitted,” and those circumstances included “a group of deputy commissioners discontented almost from the beginning of their service at Congress’ refusal to allow them compensation on the basis of their purchases.” Unfortunately, Trumbull’s successors would be less successful in their efforts than he was. Venality reared its ugly head as the army’s supply system became tainted with corruption and profiteering.  As the conflict progressed, the difficulties encountered in keeping the troops adequately supplied became a greater impediment to their ability to prosecute the war.

Trumbull resigned as commissary general when Congress reorganized that office into two branches, one for purchases and the other for issues, but he served as commissioner of the congressionally created Board of War until his resignation in April 1778 due to ill health. He returned to Lebanon, Connecticut, where he died three months later at age forty-one.

Summing Up

The importance of the efforts made by the army’s first commissary general to feed American soldiers and his proficiency in performing that task were such that Trumbull arguably kept the army in being. The Continentals were desperately short of various supplies by the time they crossed the Delaware River on Christmas night 1776 to attack the Hessian brigade occupying Trenton, but food was not one of those missing items. At this pivotal moment, Joseph Trumbull quite literally sustained these troops—and perhaps the Patriot enterprise—for each soldier who traversed the ice-laden waterway was provided with a three-day supply of rations before embarking on perhaps the most important offensive Washington’s army ever undertook.

This post is adapted from chapter 3 of my first book, Rescuing the Revolution: Unsung Patriot Heroes and the Ten Crucial Days of America’s War for Independence (Knox Press, 2016).