The United States Navy Supply Corps considers the appointment of Tench Francis, Jr. on February 23, 1795 as the head of the U. S. Navy Office of Purveyor of Supplies as its official “birthday.” Truth be told, though, the Corps is actually the outgrowth of the Continental Congress’ creation of a Maritime Committee responsible for overseeing the construction and equipping of warships. Famed Navy luminary John Paul Jones, upset with the lack of support he was receiving for the construction and outfitting of the frigate Ranger, complained to the Maritime Committee, who in turn appointed Colonel John Langdon to supervise the process. It was Jones’ insistence on accurate record-keeping, particularly of inventories of needed spare parts, that led to the establishment of Board of Admiralty charged with keeping accounts of transactions involving equipment, clothing, provisions, and other stores and reporting their findings to Congress.
But telling the Board to keep track of such matters and seeing to it that their recommendations were followed on board ships were two different matters. Little attention was paid by clerks to maintaining supply records, and things were even worse for ships at sea, where all sorts of transactions were taking place that were not noted in any way. As the Board tried to compensate for these shortcomings by reverse-engineering the accounting procedures, it eventually collapsed under the work load and was disbanded in 1781.
The need for a true Naval power became more obvious following the Revolutionary War, and Congress recognized the need for “shipboard business managers,” or Pursers—but Pursers had always been viewed upon with some suspicion because it was taken for granted they were making profits through price-gouging their captive audience of Sailors. For their part, Pursers had the task of ensuring that a multitude of items the Sailors needed for everyday existence were on hand, but though they were officers, they were paid less than regular officers of the line. Add in the fact that the salary they did receive was subsidized by the sale of the goods they carried, and you can understand why many were suspicious of just how much profit was really being made.
This all began to change with the appointment of Francis in 1795, who brought all Navy Pursers under one authority. Soon, Congressional legislation limited the profits that Purser’s could earn to one percent, down from two-and-a-half percent, and followed it up with investigations into the executions of funds in the military. Although this fueled some resentment, in the long run it was a positive for the Navy Supply Corps because it brought about a serious dedication to accuracy, propriety, and efficiency—trademark qualities displayed by the Corps to this day.