How Procurement Saved the American Revolution
As we prepare to celebrate the 4th of July in the United States, we have a lot to be grateful for. We are grateful for the simple things like peak of summer traditions: fireworks, grilling, and parades. We are also grateful that in the many years since the Declaration of Independence was signed our relationship with Britain has improved. We’d be awfully sorry not to be able to work with our British colleagues and partners.
All that being said, is the 4th of July a reason to be grateful for procurement? Absolutely. Procurement played more of a role in the American Revolutionary War than most people probably realize.
Generally speaking, the Colonies (as we were known back then) were a key point in the British commercial supply chain. The mercantile system was based on having colonies that would become exclusive trading partners. The Colonies sent materials such as fish, grain, and lumber to the West Indies in exchange for sugar, molasses, and rum, which were sent to Britain.1 Whether it was for materials made or grown in the Colonies, or the other markets we afforded them access to, there is no doubting that we were worth fighting for. When tensions started to rise because the British were exacting more in trade and taxes than the colonists felt they received in return, tensions hit a boiling point. And we think we have supply chain risk today…
When it comes to the fighting itself, George Washington’s army only stood as long as he could procure enough supplies to feed, clothe, and house it. He barely managed to do so in the hard winter of 1776 but somehow came through. “He successfully procured supplies and dispatched men to recruit new members of the militia,which was successful in part due to British and Hessian mistreatment of New Jersey and Pennsylvania residents.”2 In other words, the British over-exercised their leverage and were no longer a trading partner of choice.
Revolutionary era procurement was also not without intrigue. With the odds often against him, Washington became more strategic in combating the British. “He had army procurement officers make false purchases of large quantities of supplies in places picked to convince the British that a sizable rebel force was massing. Washington even had fake military facilities built. In all this he managed to make the British believe that his three-thousand-man army outside Philadelphia was forty thousand strong.”3
Even all those years ago, Washington recognized the importance of procurement to an operation, as did his enemy. He leveraged the British Army’s expectations in order to mislead them about his troops’ size and location. If he had been a CEO, you can be sure that his CPO would not have had to fight for a seat at the executive table.
1. "The American Economy Prior to the Revolutionary War," HistoryCentral.com, Accessed on July 3 2014.
2. "George Washington’s Crossing of the Delaware River," Wikipedia, Accessed July 3, 2014.
3. "Intelligence Operations in the American Revolutionary War," Wikipedia, Accessed July 3, 2014.
If procurement is used in its widest sense - procuring the assistance of the French - then the argument has a smidgin of validity.
Human endurance won the wars, the US was all but bankrupt. The army was not paid or fed on a regular basis, by 1778 it was almost naked - literally and when it wintered at Morristown it had to build its own accommodation, stealing equipment as a matter of necessity to do so.
Over 16% of Americans could not afford any celebration for this year.
The simple things of fireworks, bands and barbecues are all expensive, with musical instruments costing hundreds of dollars, fireworks and barbecues costly both to the environment and to the pocket. Odd choices of the simple things.
Martin - thank you for your comments, both here and on LinkedIn.
I agree with you that all wars are ultimately won by human determination in the face of obstacles, both expected and unanticipated. That being said, there were a number of contributing factors to the outcome of the Revolutionary War. That would include my story of George Washington and his PO tactics - shared as a color piece at the outset of a holiday weekend.
Triangle trade between England and the colonies also involved human trafficking, which all of the colonies and England benefited from. triangular trade. noun. 1. American History. a pattern of colonial commerce in which slaves were bought on the African Gold Coast with New England rum and then traded in the West Indies for sugar or molasses, which was brought back to New England to be manufactured into rum. I don't think to many patriotic procurement professionals would be wanting to use this particular historic example as the foundation of their thinking about supply chains.