Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Wartime Shortages

America's War of Independence - or, if you prefer, The Revolutionary War - was one in which the young United States faced perpetual deficits: a shortage of men, a shortage of money, and a shortage of material. One might add a shortage of political support among the colonists. The Continental Congress, and the governments of the individual colonies, took various steps to cope with this shortfall, e.g., printing paper money, borrowing money, and seeking the aid of the French. Another measure was the draft: the conscription or impressment of men to serve as soldiers. The word 'impressment' can also be broadened to describe the confiscation or other appropriation of property and material (food, horses, etc.). Historian John Maass notes:

The War of American Independence (1775–83) created an incessant demand for troops, weapons, provisions, and supplies in quantities most states could not readily provide. A relentless need to bring soldiers into the field, keep them in the ranks, and provide them with necessities to fight the enemy and prevail in the struggle for liberty were constant challenges for all of the nascent state governments, all of which lacked a sufficient financial foundation, manufacturing base, and logistical network to sustain a concerted war effort. North Carolina was particularly beset by these challenges. War with the Cherokees on the western frontier, persistent Loyalist hostility, and several British incursions beleaguered the state from the winter of 1776 to the end of the conflict. Financial concerns added to the considerable obstacles that confronted North Carolina upon independence, taxing its meager resources and disturbing the internal stability of its society and newly created political institutions.

A policy of conscription and impressment, however, could easily backfire. Given that one of the needs was more broad-based popular support for the war, confiscating property could easily turn citizens against the independence movement. Impressment of property, if it was to be successful, had to be done with the utmost delicacy, wisdom, and diplomacy. Those who did it well learned, e.g., that property could safely be taken from those who were firmly against the war, because there was no potential support from them anyway. Appropriating property from others needed to be done with expressions of regret, and with an eye toward distributing the burden fairly.

Conscription of men - the draft - was even more difficult, given the low level of information technology to accurately census the population. Men could easily hide or disguise their identities. In some cases, substitutes were hired to fill a conscription obligation. Those who served grudgingly often served poorly.

Given the deprivations faced by the Continental Congress - not only in terms of its armies in the field, but in terms of financing, staffing, and equipping them - the American War of Independence remains a historical David-and-Goliath narrative.