"What is this you have been about to day?"
The New Jersey Brigade at the Battle of Monmouth

John U. Rees
© 2003


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“General Wayne's detachment is almost starving.”:
Provisioning Washington’s Army on the March, June 1778

Feeding troops in camp or garrison was sometimes troublesome, but provisioning an army on the move was often extremely difficult, especially when operating by detachments in close proximity to the enemy. One pound of beef or ¾ pound of pork, plus one pound of hard biscuit or one and ½ pounds flour formed the basic Continental Army ration at the time, with soft bread and vegetables being issued when available. Unfortunately, even before the June 1778 Monmouth campaign began there were problems with food supply. Major-General Nathanael Greene accepted the post of quartermaster-general in the midst of the December 1777 supply crisis, performing wonders under trying circumstances. Writing from Valley Forge on 31 May 1778, Greene requested teams for wagons to haul salt provisions to camp, noting that the army was "much more distressed for want of Provisions than forage." Shortages continued after the army marched into New Jersey. The Quartermaster-General informed Deputy-Quartermaster Moore Furman from Hopewell, "The Commissary comes with a grievious complaint - Not a barrel of flour in Camp and a monstrous family to supply. I must beg you to furnish [him] with all the Waggons you possibly can. The forage department is important but the Army must be fed at all events." And just the day before the Monmouth battle General George Washington discussed what seemed to be widespread shortages with Major-General Horatio Gates in New York, “I think you were right in reducing the rations of meat and increasing it in flour and rice. Our supplies of the former are scarce and difficult to obtain[,] of the latter they are plenty and easy.”1

Once procured, foodstuff depended upon transportation to haul it. General Washington wrote Quartermaster-General Greene on 17 May, "There are some reasons that induce a suspicion [the enemy] may intend for New York. In any case it is absolutely necessary we should be ready for an instant movement of the army. I have therefore to request you will strain every nerve to prepare without delay the necessary provisions in your department for that purpose. The most pressing and immediate object of your attention will be the procuring a large number of Waggons for transporting baggage provisions &c ..." Greene referred to his difficulties in a post-battle letter to Brigadier-General George Weedon. "The prodigeous quantity of business I had upon my hands and the great hurry in which we left the Valley Forge, deprived me of the opportunity of takeing a formal leave of you. However I dare say when you consider I had the whole machinary of the Army to put in motion, Supplies of all kinds to attend to; Camps to look out; Routes to fi[nd] orders of march to furnish the General officers ... I had a most terrible time of it through the Jerseys not a soul to assist me except the Brigade Q Masters until after the Battle of Monmouth."2

Anticipating an active campaign, General Washington directed on 27 May 1778 that "Commanding Officers of Brigades [are] ... to hold themselves in readiness to march, [they] are to apply immediately to the Quarter Master General for a sufficient number of Waggons to transport their Baggage and are to have their respective Brigades supplied as completely as possible with Camp Utensils and Necessaries of every kind requisite towards taking the Field. The Commissary will have a quantity of hard bread and salt meat prepared to issue to the Army when call'd for." Three days later, Major-General Charles Lee, whose division was composed of "Poors, Varnumes, and Huntingdons Brigades," was directed to "Begin your Marches at four oclock in the Morning at latest that they may be over before the heat of the day, and that the Soldiers may have time to Cook, refresh, and prepare for the ensuing day."3

In late May, Brigadier-General William Maxwell’s New Jersey troops were already suffering from food supply difficulties at their post across the river from Philadelphia. Writing on 5 June, Maxwell informed the commander in chief, "I have ... been much stinted with respect to Provisions in case I should have been in pursute of the Enemy, not being able to get at anytime yet more than two days on hand but mostly from hand to mouth." On 18 June, the British army completed their evacuation of Philadelphia and began moving toward New York. The Jersey Brigade commander immediately planned for feeding Continental troops and the militia as they pursued the enemy, writing to Major-General Philemon Dickinson on the 19th, "The Enemy set off late to day from Haddonfield & is coming on the Road to EvesHam ... the Militia should be [mov]ing as fast as possable ... and Provisions ought to be Collected so that it might be handy." By the 23rd, New Jersey militia operations were hampered by a lack of food; General Dickinson informed Maxwell "that the Enemy was in force on the other side of the Drawbridge and attempted to lay it” but had been turned back by other militia units, “I could not go then as my People had been Marching all day with out Provisions ..." Meanwhile the Jersey Continentals kept constantly on the move "hoping ... [to] Collect a number of prisoners." During these opertions, Major Richard Howell, 2nd New Jersey Regiment, was finding that "Provisions is extreamly difficult to procure as the Enemy have swept all before them ..." To allow his men maximum mobility, Major Howell noted on June 24th, "my Method is [to] Leave men behind to Cook & bring on [to] the rendezvous where we meet in the Evening."4

This soldier’s apparel and equipment could typify militia, long-term Continental troops, or Continental Army nine-month levies during the June Monmouth campaign. In his right hand he carries his mess squad’s light-weight tin or sheet-iron camp kettle, these kettles being the only cooking utensil issued to common soldiers. (John U. Rees, North Carolina Volunteers, Historic Stagville, Durham, N.C., April 1997.)

In a two-pronged race across New Jersey, the British columns took a northeasterly route from Philadelphia, while Washington's main army, having left Valley Forge on 19 June and crossing the Delaware River, attempted to intercept them. Sergeant Ebenezer Wild, 1st Massachusetts Regiment, Glover’s Brigade, described provisioning problems at Hopewell on June 23, “This morning at 5 o’clk the General [a drum call] was beat, & we turned out & got ready to march. About 7 o’clk we marched off, but left all our tents standing & our heavy baggage behind us. We marched about 10 miles, & halted on the road about 4 hours, & turned into a field to cook provision, & had orders to march at 11 o’clk at night …what little time we had to sleep we slept in the open field, which was only from 11 o’clk at night till 4 in the morning. The reason we did not march at 11 o’clk was because we could not get provision till late.” Difficulties continued. On the 26th, Varnum’s Brigade was sent forward under General Lee, but before they left, Sergeant Jeremiah Greenman, 2nd Rhode Island Regiment, noted that the main army, “pushed on … as far as a small town cal'd Crambury ware … we stayed three owers & drawed sum provision.” Sergeant Wild, also with Washington’s main army, wrote the same day “About half after --- o’clk we began our march and marched about 5 miles, and halted in the road & drew two days allowance of pork & flour. We cooked our provision. Between 4 & 5 o’clk we began our march again …” From “Cranbury 45 m[inutes] past 9 O'Clock A.M.” on 26 June, General Washington wrote the Marquis de Lafayette, “I am now arrived here with the Head of our line … The Troops here are suffering for want of provision, as well as those with you, and are under the necessity of halting, till they are refreshed.”5

Three detachments of picked men were sent forward on three successive days, 24 to 26 June. At least one of them seems to have taken provision wagons along, Lt. Col. Henry Dearborn, Cilley’s Battalion, Scott’s detachment, noting on the 25th, “this morning we march.d within 5 miles of the Enimy - & Halted & Drew Provision.” The same day as Dearborn’s diary entry, the detachment commanded by Lafayette pushed ahead to pursue the British but, by 26 June, this swiftly moving force was held back due to lack of food. Lt. Col. Alexander Hamilton wrote from "Robins Tavern 8 Miles from Allen Town 12 Oclock [AM] … We have halted the troops at this place. The enemy, by our last reports, were four miles from this (that is their rear) ... Our reason for halting is the extreme distress of the troops for want of provisions - General Wayne's detachment is almost starving - and seem both unwilling and unable to march further till they are supplied - If we do not receive an immediate supply, the whole purpose of our detachment must be frustrated ..." General Washington reassured Lafayette, “Dear Marquis: I received your favors of last night and this morning. I have given the most positive and pointed orders for provisions for your Detachment and am sorry that they have not arrived. In order that the Troops may be supplied, I wish you would always send up an Active Officer in time to the Commissary, who might never leave him till he obtained the necessary supplies. This will be attended with more certain relief than by writing by common expresses.” The commander in chief continued with some advice. “Tho giving the Enemy a stroke is a very desireable event, yet I would not wish you to be too precipitate in the measure or to distress your men by an over hasty march. The Weather is extremely warm and by a too great exertion in pushing the Troops, many of them will fall sick and be rendered entirely unfit for Service. I am etc.” In a 9:45 AM postscript Washington informed Lafayette, “Your provision is on the Road,” and an 8 PM missive directed the Marquis to move to Englishtown to join Lee’s and Scott’s troops, one reason being “that when the several detachments form a junction the supplies of provisions … will be rendered more easy and certain.”6

Bernardus Swartout, a gentleman-volunteer with Lee’s advance force, gives the only account found of food issued on the day of the Monmouth battle. At Englishtown on the morning of the 28th “We drew rum & provisions - were ordered to march - not having time to prepare our provisions or eating …” With the main army on the 27th, Sergeant Wild made no mention of food, having cooked two days’ rations on the previous day, but did record, “This morning at 5 o’clk the General beat. We got up fell in to our arms and were counted off in order to march. We drew a gill of whiskey a man, and about 7 o’clk we began our march, and marched about 4 miles & stopped in the road to rest and get water. After stopping about a half an hour we marched again about a mile further, and it being excessive hot, we halted again.” Water was always important, but alcohol, an intermittent part of the official ration, was particularly issued to soldiers undergoing strenuous duty or serving in harsh weather conditions. Troops on both sides desperately needed water before, during, and after the Battle of Monmouth. On the morning of the battle, General Lee’s advance force confronted the British at Monmouth Courthouse, then retreated back towards Englishtown. General Washington met part of Lee’s detachment as they approached. Confronting Grayson’s and Patton’s Additional Regiments, whose troops were “very much fatigued [the heat was recorded at 96 degrees], and had been ordered off to refresh themselves,” the commander in chief asked one officer “to take his men into a wood near at hand, as they were exceedingly heated and fatigued, and to draw some rum for them, and to keep them from straggling.” Writing the day after the battle, Maryland Colonel Otho Holland Williams noted, “The day was intensely hot and many of our men fainted by the way - vinegar & water kept me from a similar fate.” Williams wrote of June 29th, “the troops are now taking refreshment …”7

The first post-battle food issue was mentioned in the 30 June general order, which directed that “The troops are to be completed with Provision for tomorrow and have it cooked to day. The whole Army except Maxwell's Brigade is to move at two o'clock tomorrow morning, and every thing is to be in the most perfect readiness to night.” Since these were marching rations, two days provisions must have been doled out to all the troops early on the 28th.

For a detailed discussion of Revolutionary soldiers’ provisions and food supply see John Rees’s military food columns in the quarterly newsletter Food History News (back issues and subscriptions available online. Several food-related articles and a complete list of Food History News military food columns can be viewed online.


1. 1778 Continental Army ration. The food allotment was set at Valley Forge on 16 April, "A ration for the future, shall consist of 1 1/2 lb. flour or bread ... 1 lb. of Beef or Fish, or 3/4 lb. Pork, and one gill of whiskey or Spirits, or 1 1/2 lb. Flour or Bread, 1/2 lb. Pork, or Bacon, 1/2 pint Pease, or Beans, one gill of Whiskey or Spirits.” Four months later the allotment was amended, “That the whole army may be served with the same ration the Commissary Genl. is, till further orders, to issue as follows: One pound 1/4 flour, or soft bread, or 1 lb. of hard bread; 18 oz. beef, fresh or salt; 1 lb. pork, or 1 lb. of fish, & 2 oz. butter; a gill of rum or whiskey, when to be had; the usual allowance of soap and Candles.” George Weedon, Valley Forge Orderly Book of General George Weedon of the Continental Army under Command of Genl. George Washington, in the Campaign of 1777-8 (New York, N.Y., 1971), 291. General orders, 6 August 1778, "Jacob Turner's Book", Walter Clark, ed., The State Records of North Carolina, XII, 1777-1778 (Wilmington, N.C., 1993), 526. Nathanael Greene to Henry Hollingsworth, 31 May 1778, Richard K. Showman, ed., The Papers of General Nathanael Greene, vol. II (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1980), p. 417. Greene to Moore Furman, 23 June 1778, Richard K. Showman, ed., The Papers of General Nathanael Greene, vol. II (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1980), p. 443. Washington to Horatio Gates, 27 June 1778, John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources 1745-1799, vol. 12 (Washington, D.C., 1934), 139 (hereafter cited as Fitzpatrick, WGW).

2. George Washington to Nathanael Greene, 17 May 1778, Richard K. Showman, ed., The Papers of General Nathanael Greene, vol. II (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1980), pp. 392-393. Greene to George Weedon, , Richard K. Showman, ed., The Papers of General Nathanael Greene, vol. II (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1980), pp. 472-473.

3. General orders, 27 May 1778, Washington's "Instructions to Major General Lee," 30 May 1778, Fitzpatrick, WGW, vol. 11, (1934), 463-464, 489-490.

4. William Maxwell to Washington, 5 June 1778; Maxwell to Philemon Dickinson, 19 June 1778, George Washington Papers, Presidential Papers Microfilm (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1961), series 4, reel 49, (hereafter cited as GW Papers). Maxwell (from Maidenhead, New Jersey, 9 A.M.) to Washington, 24 June 1778; Richard Howell to Maxwell, 24 June 1778, ibid., series 4, reel 50.

5. "Journal of Ebenezer Wild," Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 2nd series, vol. VI (Boston, Ma., 1891), 108-111 (hereafter cited as "Journal of Ebenezer Wild," PMHS). Robert C. Bray and Paul E. Bushnell, eds., Diary of a Common Soldier in the American Revolution: An Annotated Edition of the Military Journal of Jeremiah Greenman, (DeKalb, Il., 1978), 120-124. Washington to Lafayette, 26 June 1778, Fitzpatrick, WGW, vol. 12, (1934), 121-122.

6. Lloyd A. Brown and Howard H. Peckham, eds., Revolutionary War Journals of Henry Dearborn, 1775-1783 (Chicago: The Caxton Club, 1939; reprinted Bowie, Md.: Heritage Books, Inc., 1994), 123-126. Alexander Hamilton to Washington, 26 June 1778, GW Papers, series 4, reel 50. Washington to Lafayette, 26 June 1778 (two letters), Fitzpatrick, WGW, vol. 12, (1934), 121-122.

7. Bernardus Swartout Diary (2nd New York Regiment), 10 November 1777-9 June 1783, Bernardus Swartout Papers, New-York Historical Society, 4. "Journal of Ebenezer Wild," PMHS, 108-111. Testimony of Lt. Col. Tilghman, "Proceedings of a General Court Martial ... for the Trial of Major General Lee. July 4th, 1778 ...," The Lee Papers, vol. III, 1778-1782, Collections of the New-York Historical Society for the Year 1873 (New York, 1874), 79-80. O.H. Holland Williams to Phil Thomas, 29 June 1778, General Otho Holland Williams Papers, Maryland Historical Society. Courtesy of Michael Adelberg and Garry W. Stone.

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Appendix O