"Foraging" by armies; what was it like?

I was reading recently about the American Revolution, and it mentioned that both sides avoided battle at a certain point in time, and went foraging for some months.

In the days before modern logistics, such foraging was obviously essential for any army, especially one far from its home base of operations. But what was it like? I always imagined Roman armies, Continental European armies in hostile territories, etc., simply bullying the locals into giving them whatever food or other supplies they needed (or killing them if they refused).

But what about Washington’s army? They were ostensibly in friendly territory (despite the widely varying opinions of Colonials about secession), so I don’t imagine them being quite as brutal. Did they beg for food from patriots? Offer them paper currency in exchange for the goods? Or did they bully people into complying? Likewise, am I right re: the Romans/etc.–did they take whatever they liked, or did they try to deal with locals in a fair manner in order to get needed supplies?

All three at various times.

When your army is starving, you do whatever is necessary, and Washington’s army flirted with starvation on a regular basis. If the citizens were unwilling, the goods were taken at gunpoint and paid for with IOUs.

From my readings about the Civil War, Union and Confederate troops both would pretty much just take what they needed from the local populace. And I do mean Confederates would be taking food and such from Southerners and Union troops taking food and such from Northerners.

Most soldiers didn’t like the job, and the people certainly didn’t like it, but it was just seen as “one of those things” that had to be done in times when you were running low on supplies.

War was a lot different back then, supplying troops in the field was much more difficult and the infrastructure of many countries (the United States being a good example) was not properly equipped to keep troops in the field supplied full-time.

Fast forward to WWII and things are a lot different. The quartermaster corps in WWII was enormous, the amount of supplies that U.S. soldiers had sent to them at an almost constant rate was simply staggering (not that this stopped some entrepreneurial types from acquiring higher quality cigarettes/booze/food etc from local sources.) You just didn’t have that kind of organization present in the armies that fought the American Civil War.

Obviously you tried to keep the men properly supplied, but due to the technology of the time, sometimes it just didn’t work out, and you had to send them foraging. I don’t think anyone involved was happy to send men out to essentially steal from the local populace, but without food and supplies an Army can’t march, and at the time it was just understood that the populace would have to bear some of that burden when a marching army came through.

I would imagine the American Revolution was fairly similar, although I do not know for sure. I have read that Washington more or less stole some boats from local owners when he needed them for his Army.

Union foragers were not treated gently when they met Confederate troops:


More on foraging during the Civil War:


The book and movie Cold Mountain, which I consider a well-researched work of fiction, portrays this very vividly. I mention this because the OP asks “what was it like” and for me seeing or reading a vivid but historically accurate fictional account sometimes answers that question better than straight facts.

Nor from buying eggs at 3 cents a piece, then selling them at 2 cents apiece for a 1 cent profit.

And isn’t it kind of silly for generals to write each other letters threatening to shoot each others’ troops? Isn’t that what they were doing, anyway? Why would soldiers out on a foraging raid be any less fair game than in any other circumstance?

With a business plan like that, no wonder they had to steal thier food at gunpoint.:slight_smile:

The troops in the quoted text had their throats cut, which suggests they surrendered and then were killed rather then killed in combat. I presume the normal proceedure during the Civil War was to take captured soldiers as POWs.

Whoosh. :wink:
Everyone has a share.

But, you see, everybody is part of the syndicate, so we all have a share.

And, of course, you make your money on volume.

For anyone curious about foraging furing the Civil War, the records of the Southern Claims Commission are a good primary resource. After the War, the Commission was set up to allow Southerners whose sympathies were demonstrably pro-Union to recover for items foraged by the Union Army. The sworn testimony to be found in those records provides some vivid pictures of the realities of foraging.

Fixed link: Southern Claims Commission.

I don’t know how it was in the 18th or 19th centuries, but in ancient times it was usually the cavalry that did the foraging for the army. Some great turning points in history have come about because the cavalry was away foraging. For instance, at Marathon, 490 BC, the battle that “saved western civilization”, the Athenians waited until the Persian cavalry went off to forage, and won a decisive victory over the Persian infantry. At Adrianople in AD 378, “the beginning of the end of the Roman Empire”, the Visigothic cavalry was away foraging so the Romans didn’t figure it into their plans; when the cavalry suddenly appeared it struck a devastating blow to the unprepared Roman infantry from which the Empire never recovered.

It varied.

Up until the time of the American Civil War, foraging was the way war was done. Historical research and records from Way Back When indicate that well-farmed countryside could easily sustain a couple of passing armies a year.

Farmers being farmers, they were able to provide for their families fairly easily.

By the time of the Napoleonic Wars, and so the ACW, the (Union) Army moved away from foraging towards a Commissary system. Oddly, Sherman’s Memoirs are a good source for information on this.

He calculated that each 1,200 man regiment ate through one thee-ton (six mule!) commissary wagon a day. With three regiments to a Brigade, three Brigades to a Corps, each Corps would require 27 wagons per day. (This does not allow for the artillery or cavalry units. Nor for the nine pounds of forage required peer day for each animal.)

In any case Sherman said a well-established corps would carry 20 days rations with them. That is 540 three-ton wagons in the train (and so more than 3,000 mules). The numbers take an alarming turn.

So why then did armies take up the burden of the commissary system over more traditional foraging? Efficiency. Compare First Bull Run with later fights. Soldiers who have to forage are too busy finding the odd chicken to do much else. Soldiers who have everything they need in train are free to fight.

At Waterloo, the British Army was spread hither-and-fro before the battle. When Napoleon began to move, he gave the order ‘The Army is to concentrate.’ Meaning that all those units were to move out of farmhouses all over the countryside and become soldiers again.

Does that help?

In the Revolutionary War, the Patriots had the advantage of plenty of known Tory sympathizers, whom the locals were very glad to point out to foraging parties, I am sure.

Frederick the Great would eat potatos while on public display, to discourage the notion that they are poisonous. I’ts more difficult for a foraging army to dig up or destroy a crop of potatos than a field of wheat.

Those cords worn on the shoulders on some uniforms? They’re called forageres, which was their original purpose. Sometimes you’ll read claptrap about how some king threatened a company with hanging so they started to wear ropes in defiance.

It’s worth noting that World War I was a war of stagnation, particularly in the West, and so the logistics of resupply were a lot easier. The existence of rail made a difference too.

Thanks everyone! A much better picture of it all, now.

One question: was foraging organized in any way, with distribution within the army of acquired food? Would a surplus to put with the official stores? Or was it just every unit for itself? If so, at what level (company, platoon, etc.) were units on their own as far as getting enough to eat?