Previous Quartermaster Commandants

James O'Hara
6th Quartermaster School Commandant
April 1792 - May 1796

6th Quartermaster Commandant - James O'Hara

JAMES O'HARA, ingenious businessman, Revolutionary soldier, and Quartermaster General, was one of the staff officers who assisted General Anthony Wayne in winning the first major victory over the enemies of the struggling American republic in the uncertain days following the Revolution.

While supporting Wayne and his troops in this departure from the example of failure set in the ill-fated St. Clair campaign of 1791, 0 'Hara has shared the fate of many later supply officers in that he has seldom been considered in discussions of the Battle of Fallen Timbers and accompanying military operations.

Born in Ireland, O'Hara was educated at the seminary of St. Sulpice in Paris. With the influence of a relative, was commissioned an ensign in the British navy. He soon left the sea, however, to study business methods as a clerk in a ship-broker's office, with the ultimate goal of emigrating to the American colonies to seek new opportunities.

In 1772 he arrived in Philadelphia and almost immediately plunged into the colonial business world, serving an Eastern firm as an Indian trader at Fort Pitt. Devereaux Smith and Ephraim Douglas, of Pittsburgh, employed him in December 1773 for the purpose of carrying on trade with the Indians in the wilderness of western Virginia. O'Hara's native business ability, coupled with his knowledge of French and the ease with which he learned the various Indian dialects, was more than sufficient to win him a position as an Indian agent for the colonial government. He was appointed in March 1774 and continued in this capacity until the outbreak of the Revolution.

O'Hara enlisted a private soldier, but when his military background became known he was thought to be fit for command and was commissioned Captain of a company of volunteers. He outfitted them himself and furnished the boats with which they reached their assigned post on the frontier Kanawba, which they garrisoned and provisioned until the year 1779.

O'Hara was then appointed "Commissary" of the general hospital at Carlisle, Pennsylvania, serving in this position in the year 1780. Immediately following his service at Carlisle, the former line captain was designated assistant quartermaster under General Nathanael Greene, past Quartermaster General, who had been placed in command of the southern army. In this new assignment O'Hara, with the help of Robert Elliot (later an army contractor), rented warehouses at Carlisle and Philadelphia, collected supplies, and provided transportation for the army of the south. A memorandum book in possession of his descendants traces his service with this force, indicating that he was at the scenes of most of General Greene's major engagements. When the last battle of note in South Carolina was fought, at Eutaw Springs, on September 8, 1781, O'Hara had seen the final combat duty of his Revolutionary career. He continued with the army, however, until 1783, when he left for Philadelphia in the company of General Anthony Wayne.

Despite the end of the War, the Indians of Northwest Territory, with the support of British officials in Canada, had refused to bury the hatchet. This made necessary to garrison a chain of western posts, which O'Hara, again the private businessman, now undertook to supply with provisions. These forts, which reached far into the interior wilderness, presented almost insurmountable transportation problems, particularly in the winter, and it is therefore not surprising that his work of supplying salt beef and flour was reported to have been performed only "tolerably well" during the year 1785. With the expiration of O'Hara's contract the duty was turned over to Tumbull, Marmie & Company for a year, resulting in the near starvation of the frontier troops. Again, in 1787, O'Hara had the contract and it was "better performed than any before."

In July 1788 the contract was awarded to another firm and O'Hara ended his association as supplier to the Army until he was appointed Quartermaster General.

Alarmed by the decisive defeat of General St. Clair's army by the Indians, O'Hara, John Wilkins, Jr. (who later succeeded him as Quartermaster General), and other men, signed a petition to Governor Thomas Mifflin of Pennsylvania requesting more reliable protection from the emboldened savages. The need for a new, efficient, and aggressive commanding general pointed to the designation of Anthony Wayne, the hero of Stony Point, who was named to the top post on March 5, 1792.

O'Hara was appointed Quartermaster General on 19 April 1792. He was not a general officer. His military rank was nowhere defined, but as he was, by law, entitled to the pay and privileges of a lieutenant colonel, he was often referred as "Colonel" O'Hara and was a member of the general staff He signed his correspondence, "James O'Hara, Q.M.G."

As Quartermaster General his duties, although not light, were restricted in scope, confined mainly to transportation and distribution of supplies, and only incidentally concerned with the related fields of contracting, manufacture, and procurement. On the other hand he was required to handle activities which are no longer the responsibility of the Quartermaster Corps, such as the transportation and distribution of ordnance supplies and the construction of boats and buildings. These commitments also entailed the hiring, paying, and feeding of civilian artificers and the employment of private teamsters and boatmen.

In the beginning of O'Hara's tour as Quartermaster General his sphere was negatively defined and delimited by the Act of May 8, 1792. This legislation, concerning certain alterations in the Treasury and War Departments, stated that the Treasury should make "all purchases and contracts for supplying the Army with provisions, clothing, supplies in the Quartermaster's Department, military stores, Indian goods, and all other supplies or articles for the use of the Department of War . . ." A month after his appointment O'Hara arrived in Pittsburgh in company with General Wayne and there began a two-year period filled partly with training and logistical preparation and partly with diplomatic negotiations, indecision, and caution on the part of higher authority. As the work of assembling and retraining the remnants of St. Clair's army began, the staff found itself struggling with serious difficulties in recruiting, prevention of desertion, and inadequacy of supply. In the field of supply Quartermaster General O'Hara began immediately to apply his best efforts and utmost energy. He had already insured the prompt shipment of brass cannon arid sheet iron from the Philadelphia depot. He now fashioned the sheet iron into camp kettles, which were essential in feeding the army of the eighteenth century. He made arrangements for construction of magazines (or storehouses), granaries, and sheds for dry forage to be erected in each of the Western posts, which were to develop in a northerly line up into the Indian territory. Horses were purchased and men sought who could build and maintain suitable wagons and boats. For transport between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, main dependence was placed on civilian teamsters who either contracted in the East for hauling or who just happened to be going in the direction of army supplies moving along at some intermediate point in the road. This early trail ran through Chester and Lancaster counties, over the Blue Ridge mountains to Shippensburg and Bedford, and from there through the hills of western Pennsylvania to Pittsburgh.

During the preparatory years of 1792-1794 O'Hara conscientiously patrolled the Philadelphia-Pittsburgh route. This, however, was only a part of the supply line and the chief quartermaster also attempted to oversee the leg from Pittsburgh down the Ohio River to Fort Washington (present site of Cincinnati) and the additional land haul up the chain of frontier posts which eventually reached over 150 miles northward into the Ohio country. The responsibility would have taxed the ingenuity of a modern quartermaster in a jeep and on broad, paved roads. O'Hara traveled by boat or on horseback.

After the first summer, Wayne, feeling that he could better control his men if out of the environment of the roaring frontier town of Pittsburgh, moved. with the aid of flatboats and barges built by the Quartermaster, to a location twenty-seven miles down the Ohio. He named the site Legionville in honor of the Legion of the United States, the name of the new Army, which had been reorganized into units similar to a present-day combat team, with a composite of arms in each unit, or sub-Legion. At the new camp equipment was constantly in short supply, not so much because of its slowness in arriving as because of its poor quality, which caused heavy losses through wear and breakage.

While Wayne had been drilling and equipping the main force at Pittsburgh and Legionville, his second in command, General James Wilkinson, at Fort Washington, was reorganizing several hundred soldiers of the old St. Clair command, with an eye to establishing one or more posts between Forts Hamilton (twenty-six miles north of Cincinnati) and Jefferson (five miles south of present-day Greenville, Ohio). Wilkinson also planned to lay in three or four months' supplies at each post north of Fort Washington. One of his accomplishments in the spring of 1792 was the winning of a major skirmish against the Indians and the resultant building of Fort St. Clair, in which he constructed a deep storage bin. This post, forty-seven miles north of Fort Washington, lightened O'Hara 's burden in days to come by serving as a valuable storehouse and stockade when the entire Legion advanced northward.

With O'Hara remaining at Legionville, it fell to one of the deputy quartermasters, John Belli, to furnish Wilkinson's advance contingent with militia essentials. Distance and lack of proper communications frequently led to failure on the part of O'Hara in getting funds to Belli at a time when they were urgently needed. On one occasion Wilkinson succeeded in routing a strong band of armed savages, but at the cost of a number of vitally needed horses. Belli was without money to buy a string of replacements, and the transportation of food and forage to advanced posts halted completely by this turn of events, Wilkinson ordered the payment made by means of sight drafts on the Secretary of War. The incident was not unique, as the deputy quartermaster said: I hope the quartermaster general will in future supply me with sums equal to the demands in this quarter; for, sir, I have already spent a great many uneasy hours for want of funds

Back in the East, in considering the War Department money requirements for the year 1793, Congress had estimated that the Quartermaster's Department would need $100,000. Unlike the Act of 1792, the new legislation spelled out a definition of the Quartermaster's province. The appropriation was to pay for:

Pack-horses and forage, tents, boats, &c.; also, the transportation of the recruits, ordnance and military stores, and all the articles of the Quartermaster's Department, the purchase of axes, camp-kettles, pack-saddles, iron, fuel, boards, nails, paint, company books, stationery, &c.; also the pay and subsistence of artificers employed in the said Department.

Of particular and personal interest to 0 'Hara was the provision that the Quartermaster General's salary should be $100 per month.

While the Legion prepared for offensive operations, in the period between May and September 1793, three commissioners were treating with the Indians in an effort to negotiate peace. As the peace talks moved toward failure, O 'Hara had built ninety-five flatboats and a barge with which Wayne moved the major portion of the Legion to a site near Fort Washington which he called Hobson's Choice. In October Wayne moved the entire main body of the Legion to a position six miles north of Fort Jefferson, where Fort Greenville was built and used as winter quarters. The army was moving up the chain toward the Indian stronghold, but the decision was forced upon the General to winter here because the contractors were unable to furnish rations in any more advanced position. President Washington, who was in constant communication with Wayne, refused to risk the defeat which could ensue if the Legion advanced into a winter campaign where provisions and forage might fail.

The delinquent contractors were the perennials Elliot and Williams, who again held the contract for 1793 and 1794. Although at the time of assuming the obligation they had painted an optimistic picture of their abilities, they were in reality men who had neither the capital nor the understanding necessary to carry out an undertaking of this magnitude. Wayne had specified that 270,000 rations should be stored in advance during the year 1793; instead, the contractors were hard pressed to meet the daily needs of the troops. Procurement and transportation of rations had to be supplemented by the efforts of the soldiers in growing and storing food and forage and of the Quartermaster in augmenting the animal train and making emergency purchases.

There is no evidence that O'Hara failed to provide the quartermaster articles included in his field of responsibility. With Major Craig behind him in Pittsburgh shipping boatloads of equipment down the river, he organized an efficient supply line and established storage facilities along the chain of posts reaching into the Indian country. At Fort Greenville, for example, he erected separate buildings inside the fortified walls for his own and the contractors' supplies, for artificers' shops, and for a "laboratory" the eighteenth century name applied to an ordnance depot. In December Fort Recovery was built on the site of St. Clair's defeat, twenty-three miles north of Port Jefferson; stores were stacked inside and horses and cattle driven within the walls to await the corning of a spring offensive.

After a relatively uneventful winter, renewed efforts were made to bring the Legion and its supplies up to the standard Wayne felt necessary for a successful strike. O'Hara traveled to Philadelphia for the purpose of expediting supplies at each point of purchase or trans-shipment. While in Philadelphia he was forced to write to Craig that he had delayed in forwarding supplies to Pittsburgh because the new appropriations bill had to become law before he was in a position to buy anything. This had now been remedied and he was forwarding sheets of bar iron, stationery, and tents. He also sent his other deputy Belli, $15,000 and a promise of immediate supplies clothing for the advanced troops. In July 1794 Wayne made one final attempt to treat with the enemy, but waited in vain for an answer. He decided to march. Advancing rapidly into Indian country past Fort Recovery and far north to the Maumee River, he added one more link to the chain when he built Fort Defiance.

As early as the 16th of August transportation difficulties were already becoming severe and the Army was placed on a half ration of flour. Wayne advanced on the 18th of August to a position ten miles from the main Indian force, which had fallen back to bivouac in the vicinity of the British Fort Miamis near the Maumee's mouth, where the city of Toledo now stands. Wayne struck two days later, relying on the mounted troops to roll up the Indians' left flank and using his foot soldiers to pour in volleys of lead and follow through with the bayonet tactics he had so carefully drilled into them during the preceding two years. Within forty minutes, between 1,500 and 2,000 red warriors were crushed and scattered and the Battle of Fallen Timbers took its place among major American victories.

The defeat of Little Turtle almost before the gates of the English garrison by no means ended the Legion's subsistence difficulties. During the building of Fort Wayne, which was completed on October 21st, and on the march back to Greenville after burning the Indian villages and stores, the army came closer to starvation than at any time previously. Horses died at the rate of four or five a day, the flour ration was cut in half, and the beef was of a poor quality. Soon the flour supply, which was described as "musty," was exhausted and the beef was almost gone. Wayne once again looked to O'Hara for salvation, telling him to canvass all forts from Washington northward, sending all of the contractors' stores that he could find and using every means of transportation, either of his own department or that of the contractors. O 'Hara responded with his usual ingenuity and energy and the force was supplied with food in time to prevent disaster.

As a result of the campaign, on August 3, 1795, the Treaty of Greenville was concluded, with the Indians relinquishing valuable land northwest of the Ohio. James O'Hara was one of the signatories, and, considering his work finished, expressed a desire to resign from the Legion and return to private business. Hs request was denied, however, and it was not until July 1, 1796, a month before John Wilkins, Jr., became Quartermaster General, that he was allowed to leave the Army. On the day after his second separation from his country's military service he again became contractor for subsisting the western troops and for purchasing Indian supplies. He continued in this occupation until 1802, but at the same time built a saw mill and planned a glass factory in which he accepted Isaac Craig as a partner. The glass works was a success both financially and esthetically, as it provided ample profits for O'Hara and Craig in the early nineteenth century, and its products are in constant demand today by collectors.

O'Hara was now a master of transportation and produced some astonishing results in that field in the next few years. One of the posts he contracted to supply for the Army was at Oswego, New York, where he discovered he could buy salt from works nearby. Salt was a rare and expensive item in Pittsburgh and points beyond, so he began to pack his provisions for Oswego in barrels suitable for salt, with the barrels reserved to his own use. He then bought and packed salt for transport down through an amazing network of boats, portages, wagon hauls, and finally down French Creek and the Allegheny to Pittsburgh, where he made a handsome profit. He had established a new route that cut in half the price of salt in the West.

He next conceived the idea of building, at Pittsburgh, sea-going ships, to be floated down the Ohio loaded with the products of his glass works for sale along the way. In New Orleans he would pick up loads of cotton, fit the ships with masts and sails, transport the cotton to England, and there purchase manufactured goods to be sold at a profit in New York or New Orleans. He was open to offers for the boats and cargo at any point on the route. O 'Hara continued in this trade for some years, as evidenced by the fact that one of his vessels, the General Butler, was captured by the Spanish in 1807.

One of the few failures of his life came when he was defeated for Congress in 1804, but in the same year he became a director of a branch of the Bank of Pennsylvania, of which John Wilkins, Jr., was the president. O'Hara later rose to the presidency of the institution himself.

He was once a benefactor and once a victim and recipient of aid in a sequence of financial upsets. In 181l he befriended John Henry Hopkins, later Bishop of Vermont, taking him in as a partner and operator of an iron works which he financed at Ligonier. The business failed. Hopkins was panic-stricken and, as a full partner, saw a life of indebtedness hanging over his head. O'Hara voluntarily paid all the debts to the undying gratitude of the future Bishop. In the depression which followed the War of 1812 O'Hara himself was near financial disaster and a friend, James Ross, in a sense returned the favor owed by Hopkins when he came to his aid and saved not only O 'Hara's estate but many public institutions of Pittsburgh which might have failed without O'H ara's continuing support.

James O''Hara led an enviable life of public service;combining military accomplishments in the Revolution and the Indian campaigns with sweeping contributions to the development of business and building of Pittsburgh and the development of the West. As an example of the esteem in which he was held by his fellow citizens, an instance is cited when, during the Whisky Rebellion, a band of rioters were rampaging through Pittsburgh, burning the houses of supporters of the whisky tax. They were about to put the torch to one building when it was discovered that it was adjacent to O'Hara's. Rather than risk the danger of setting fire to the home of a man who was absent fighting the Indians with General Wayne, the wild "whisky boys" agreed among themselves simply to pull down the house next door rather than risk damage to the O'Hara home.

When James 0 'Hara died at his residence in Pittsburgh, on December 21, 1819, it was said that "the tears of the rich and the poor of the entire town fell upon his grave."

This page was last updated on: November 30, 2020