The 13 Colonies
“Few people know the predicament that we are in, on a thousand accounts,” sighed a discouraged George Washington in a letter in January 1776. Washington added that he often thought how much happier he would have been, if instead of accepting the command to lead the American Revolutionary War, he had instead enlisted in the ranks or, if his conscience could have allowed it, “retired to the back country and lived in a wigwam.”
Not exactly the inspired, hope filled speech that we expect from the commander in chief of a young republic as he led one of the most monumental campaigns in human history. And that was in January 1776. George had another six long tough years before the final Battle of Yorktown in October 1781. What had so disheartened our fearless leader? Why did a wigwam in West Virginia look so appealing?
As the fighting began, George, his military staff, and Congress, quickly began to understand the reality of a small, disorganized group of colonies that had challenged one of the most powerful empires in the world. The thirteen colonies had spirit and ideals, but lacked almost everything else required for success in 18th century warfare: a stable currency to purchase supplies and pay troops, ironworks for the extensive production of cannons, mortars, and terribly lethal bayonets, sufficient textiles and leather for tents, uniforms, blankets, shoes and boots, and the raw ingredients and mills for gunpowder. The colonists, whose wealth lay in agriculture and natural resource production, faced serious shortages of these supplies throughout the War. These were the supplies that the Spanish and Hispanic Americans began providing in 1776, and continued to provide throughout the American Revolutionary War.
The colonies were colonies, deliberately kept in economic backwardness by policies and legislation dictated by London. The British Parliament’s Currency Act of 1764 prohibited the North American colonies from minting coins or printing currency. Gold deposits were not discovered until well after the Revolutionary War. Without local currency, the colonies usually relied on Spanish specie, called pieces of eight, pesos, or “Mexicans,” since so much of the late 18th century Spanish mineral wealth was from the well-developed mining operations in Mexico. Congress authorized the first Continental currency, designated as two million in Spanish milled dollars, in June of 1775. The Continental currency quickly began to lose value and to inflate, and by the 1779, the currency was at 1/25th of its value.
Over 95% of the colonists worked in agriculture, compared to less than 2% of us today. While agriculture and the proto-industrial production in the rural economies enabled a high standard of living for the 18th century, this economic structure could not support sustained warfare. The Navigation Acts of 1750 limited iron production in the colonies to pig iron. Pig iron is processed raw iron, with a very high carbon content that makes it brittle and useful only in limited applications, lacking the gleaming tensile strength required for fatally efficient bayonets or to withstand explosive cannon fire. Rifles were handcrafted throughout the colonies, particularly in Pennsylvania, but not in sufficient quantities for an Army.
Gunpowder was in short supply throughout the war. Domestic production began quickly, but the colonies were also dependent on imported commodities of sulfur and saltpeter. While historians bicker as to the percentage of domestic production versus imports, all agree that the colonists and Continental Army were desperate for gunpowder throughout the entire Revolutionary War, and that almost all of the gunpowder or its critical components were imported. Historians estimate that 80% to 90% of all the powder available to supply the Revolution during the first two and a half years was imported
Uniforms, clothing, shoes, tents, and blankets were also in short supply, contributing to the terrible toll of casualties of the Continental Army: eight times the number of men died of non-combat causes than were killed in the fighting. The death toll was exacerbated by the nightmarish smallpox epidemic that raged during the War, but the shortages of warm clothing, decent food, and adequate shelter were contributing factors. In 1776 George wrote that our Army would face the powerful British on the battlefield “without any money in our treasury, powder in our magazines, arms in our stores…and by and by, when we shall be called upon to take the field, shall not have a tent to lie in.”
By 1781, the country was wearying of the long rebellion. The currency had collapsed. Supplies could not be transported overland without hard currency payments in advance. The sick were without medicine and food, and the troops were without clothing. Serious mutinies over pay and supplies darkened the ranks. George wrote in April 1781 to one of his young staff officers sent on another fund-raising mission, “but why need I run into the detail, when it may be declared in a word, that we are at the end of our tether [rope], and that now or never our deliverance must come.”
Deliverance did come, as deliverance had arrived throughout the war, from the Spanish and Hispanic-Americans. Supplies of gunpowder, muskets, bayonets, cannons, mortars, cannon balls, bullets, clothing, uniforms, shoes, tents, blankets, ships rigging and sails were financed by the Spanish and smuggled to the Continental Army from Spain, Mexico, and Cuba. The colonies received favorable trade status in Havana early in the war, allowing them to sell commodities such as flour in exchange for desperately needed silver. During that desperate year, it was also the Spanish and Cubans who funded the Battle of Yorktown, delivering an emergency collection of silver and gold from Havana, Cuba with the French fleet sailing up from the Caribbean.
When George learned that the French fleet bringing the funds from Cuba and additional troops to support the Battle of Yorktown had arrived in August 1781, the dignified but stressed General was seen jumping up and down with joy and waving his hat. Finally, George was having a good day.