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History's Headlines: Jacob Weiss, founding father as deputy quartermaster

“An army moves on its stomach” is a phrase attributed to military leaders from Julius Cesar to Washington to Napoleon. But Jacob Weiss, the Northampton County man who served as deputy quartermaster general for Washington’s Army from 1778 to 1780  and as the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s assistant deputy quartermaster from 1781 to 1783, knew it also moved on blankets, flour, axes, canteen straps and lots of reams of paper. Thanks to Weiss’ letters in the archives of the Lehigh County Historical Society, which were published in 1956 in the society’s Proceedings, it is possible to get an interesting look at the world of 18th century military procurement in the Continental Army- the future U.S. Army. As English was not yet a standardized language, Weiss’ spelling seems erratic to the modern reader.

Weiss (1750-1839) was born in Philadelphia, one of 11 children of John Jacob Weiss and Rebecca Cock (Cox) Weiss. His father was a doctor from Wurttemberg, in the Holy Roman Empire, his mother was of Swedish descent. In 1749 they joined the Moravian Church in Philadelphia. As a physician, the senior Weiss was well educated and saw that his son was as well. Weiss is better known in Pennsylvania history for founding the town of Weissport and his role in aiding in the discovery of anthracite coal in the 1780s. It was to Weiss that Philip Ginter, who had discovered the coal, took it. Weiss carried it to Philadelphia and with several prominent gentlemen decided it was indeed what in the future would be known as “black diamonds.”

Michael Knies, Assistant Professor of History and Special Collections Librarian at the University of Scranton, in his book “Coal on the Lehigh 1790-1827” tells how Weiss and his partners organized the Lehigh Coal Mine Company that tried and failed (largely due to lack of transportation and interest of Philadelphians) to market the anthracite. Of those original investors only Weiss, living to the age of 88, survived to see his vision of anthracite coal’s future come true thanks to Josiah White and Erskine Hazard’s Lehigh Canal.

But all that was far in the future in the 1770s when Weiss, in his mid-20s, was ordered to try and make some sense out of the muddle that was the Continental Army’s Quartermaster’s service. Washington was more than aware of why the post was important. But he failed to account for the rivalry among the states in Congress getting contracts for their constituents, the problem of suppliers who did not always put patriotism ahead of profits, and supply officers who had only the barest notion of what was really needed.

On August 14, 1775 Washington appointed Thomas Mifflin, future governor of Pennsylvania, as Quartermaster General. But in June of 1776, on being commissioned a brigadier-general, he resigned. The following October Congress re-appointed him at Washington’s request. Following the Battle of Trenton in December, 1776, Mifflin asked to be relieved of the job but was turned down. Following the capture of Philadelphia by the British on October 8, 1777, Mifflin resigned again. Congress refused to accept his resignation. A congressional investigation was launched into Mifflin’s tenure, but no record of wrongdoing was discovered.

On March 2, 1778 Congress turned the job over to General Nathaniel Greene, who hated it almost as much as Mifflin. It was in May of that year that Weiss took on the job of deputy quartermaster general. A year later he was still having trouble getting brigade officers to tell him clearly exactly what they needed. “You must not wonder at the different orders that come from me.… ‘tis enough to puzzle a Priest to know what an Army is constantly wanting,” he wrote a friend.

Weiss’s letters begin on June 8, 1778 from Valley Forge. Apparently the “poplar Chest” that had the papers from his predecessor he needed was missing. “This Box no doubt will be found,” he wrote Alexander Hamilton, who was then serving as Washington’s aide de camp. Weiss’s letter book contains no letter from Washington himself, who Weiss almost always refers to in his correspondence as “His Excellency.”

“It must have been sent away from Col. Hoppers in a mistake and as it now some time since, twill be hard for him to recollect if he has taken no Memorandum: where it has been sent to. This I am confident that I delivered him the Box or Chest; and that in the afternoon of said day as above mentioned, and to which I can further testify.”

Weiss’s days were spent moving to army camps in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and Rhode Island.  At the same time, he was writing constantly to his contacts in the army, wanting to let them know supplies were on the move. “The Bearer George Seitz will deliver you Twenty Old Tents which want repair, for which I have his Receipt. you’ll please to satisfy him,” he wrote to a Col. Abeel, a subordinate. Then there were the 2,931 canteens, which he said he had counted, “fit for service and thirty-one unfit.” The canteens of course would need canteen straps, 3,000 of them. “You will please to have (straps) made and forwarded to the Army without delay…they are much wanted for the strapping of canteens that come to hand and can’t be Issued for the Want of them.”

Weiss traveled to a camp in White Plains, New York on August 27, 1778 and noticed a shortage of cooking kettles and ordered Colonel Abeel to get some sent to the camp. At the same camp he receives a letter from a Col. Baron De Arnt, apparently a foreign professional soldier who came to join Washington’s army, who wonders where his trunks from Europe are.  “Am astonished you had no Account of your Baggage,” writes Weiss. He tells the Baron he will send a letter to the officer at Valley Forge to look into it. He advises contacting “Mr. Funk, Tavern Keeper in Second and Race Street in Philadelphia,” where the Baron last stayed, for an explanation.

In the fall of1778 there are requests for horse shoes, nails, rod iron, and more canteen straps. Officers are complaining that they do not have enough wafers for their letters. In that pre-envelope era, they used small, flour saturated paper to hold folded letters together before mailing. “Needles are much wanted and did not come as per last invoice,” he adds to Abeel.

On February 12, 1775 Weiss sends a letter to a supplier named Richard Burchan, wondering what happened to the blankets he was supposed to deliver to Col. Hay at a camp in New Jersey. He reminds Burchan he had loaned him “fifty Dollars toward your expenses…for which you are accountable to me.” It is a letter of May 26, 1779 where Weiss finely loses all his patience with Col. Abeel. Word has gotten back to him that his subordinate is telling tales to a Mr. Loxley behind his back that Weiss is somehow a bully and incompetent.

On July 12, 1779 Weiss informed his superiors that he wishes to relocate to Easton and feels he would be more useful there working as quartermaster for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. It took a while for the process to go through but on September 13, 1780 he was established at Easton for the state. His wife and children were with Weiss at last, for which he tells superiors he is grateful. Weiss spent the remainder of the war largely seeing to horses that were purchased from local farmers and others for the army. He notes in several letters that many of them lacked proper forage and that they were sent to Allentown under the direction of Colonel David Deshler to fatten them up on a diet of chopped rye. But some horses, Weiss noted, were beyond redemption. He noted that several were so weak the militia had to hold them up to get them to stand. Several farmers did indeed turn over many in fine shape. But in one case 40 of them died before they ever reached camp.

It was in February 1781 that General Washington had issued an order to send flour and other goods to Morristown N.J., where the troops where wintering while awaiting the arrival of the French army. Weiss immediately, after noting in a letter that the roads were frozen and perfect for sledding, organized “at least 20 four horse teams to carry Flour and Forage” to Morristown. Many of them came from Allentown and Macungie or as he spelled it Macungy. Weiss’s last letter is dated December 8, 1781 asking that forage for public’s horses in the care of Mr. Leonard Bidleman be seen to.

In 1783 with the end of the war Weiss resigned his post in the Quartermaster Service and purchased a property in what would become Carbon County at Fort Allen, the site of a French and Indian War era stockade built by Benjamin Franklin, where he developed a lumber business. And then Philip Ginter found coal.

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