The images are heartrending, dramatic and so powerful that they are embedded in the nation’s historical consciousness:
Bloody footprints in the snow left by bootless men. Near naked soldiers wrapped in thin blankets huddled around a smoky fire of green wood. The plaintive chant from the starving: “We want meat! We want meat!”
These are the indelible images of suffering and endurance associated with Valley Forge in the winter of 1777-78.
“An army of skeletons appeared before our eyes naked, starved, sick and discouraged,” wrote New York’s Gouverneur Morris of the Continental Congress.
The Marquis de Lafayette wrote: “The unfortunate soldiers were in want of everything; they had neither coats nor hats, nor shirts, nor shoes. Their feet and their legs froze until they were black, and it was often necessary to amputate them.”
A bitter George Washington — whose first concern was always his soldiers — would accuse the Congress of “little feeling for the naked and distressed soldiers. I feel superabundantly for them, and from my soul pity those miseries, which it is neither in my power to relieve or prevent.”
The suffering and sacrifices of the American soldiers at Valley Forge are familiar, iconic images, but there is another side of the picture. Valley Forge was where a new, confident, professional American army was born.
Three months of shortage and hardship were followed by three months of relative abundance that led to wonderful changes in the morale and fighting capabilities of the Continental Army.
France would enter the war on the side of the new nation. Valuable foreign volunteers and fresh replacements would trickle into camp.
Most important, it was at Valley Forge that a vigorous, systematic training regime transformed ragged amateur troops into a confident 18th century military organization capable of beating the Red Coats in the open field of battle.
Philadelphia was the largest city in the new nation. It became the de facto capital after representatives of the 13 colonies gathered there as the Continental Congress to demand their rights as Englishmen and later proclaim independence and battle the British.
Lethargic Maj. Gen. William Howe, commander of British forces in America, made his move on Philadelphia in September 1777 thinking that, perhaps, the capture of the rebel capital would end the war.
Howe loaded 15,000 troops on an armada of ships and sailed from New York City to Elkton, Maryland on the Chesapeake Bay. His forces then marched north on Philadelphia.
Washington attempted to block Howe along the banks of the Brandywine River but was outnumbered and outmaneuvered. Two weeks after Brandywine, Howe entered Philadelphia unopposed.
When told that the British had taken Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin, representing his nation in Paris, said, “No Sir, Philadelphia has taken the British.” As events turned out, Franklin’s clever quip contained a kernel of truth.
Washington attempted a bold surprise attack on the main British forces at Germantown on October 4. His plan was too complex and after some initial surprise and much confused fighting, the Americans were forced to retreat. Those remarkable amateur soldiers had marched about 35 miles and fought a four-hour battle in one day.
For several weeks American forces camped about 20 miles from Philadelphia in Whitemarsh along high hills that were ideal for defense. Howe tried to lure Washington from his impregnable position in December, but after a few minor skirmishes withdrew back to Philadelphia.
Some in Congress — now safely in York, Pa. — urged Washington to attack the British in Philadelphia, but the commander-in-chief realized it would be suicidal. His men were worn out and ill-equipped. Even before Valley Forge, there was a supply crisis. Many soldiers were already shoeless and their uniforms in tatters.
It was normal for 18th century armies to cease combat during the coldest months and take up “winter quarters.” Washington was looking for a place to rest his army that would “afford supplies of provisions, wood, water and forage, be secure from surprise and best calculated for covering the country from the ravages of the enemy.”
He sought the opinions of his generals on the best location for the winter encampment. There was no consensus, and Washington was forced to decide the matter alone.
On December 12th, the troops began the move from Whitemarsh to the west bank of the Schuylkill River at Valley Forge. It was a 13-mile march that was delayed and took eight days.
The troops crossed the Schuylkill on a wobbly, makeshift bridge in an area called the Gulph. They were forced to bivouac at the Gulph for several days after a snowstorm and several days of icy rain made roads impassable. On December 18th the soaked and miserable troops observed a Day of Thanksgiving declared by Congress for the American victory in October at Saratoga, N.Y.
Joseph Plumb Martin, a Connecticut Yankee, who wrote a fascinating account of his years in the Continental Army recalled that thanksgiving dinner decades later: “We had nothing to eat for two or three days previous except what the trees of the forests and fields afforded us, but we must now have what Congress said, a sumptuous Thanksgiving to close the year of high living. . . . it gave each man half a gill (about half a cup) of rice and a tablespoon of vinegar!”
On the 19th, the famished troops finally marched into Valley Forge. The ragged soldiers might have thought the worst was over, but they were wrong.
Valley Forge — 25 miles from the city — was a good choice. It is a high plateau that might have been designed by a military engineer. One side is protected by the river. Two shallow creeks provide natural barriers that would present problems for attacking cavalry and artillery. Any attackers would have to charge up-hill.
Where the Valley Creek entered the Schuylkill was a small village, giving the area its name. It contained a complete iron-making operation owned by two Quaker families, the Dewees and Pottses.
A cache of American military stores had been placed at Valley Forge. After the Battle of Brandywine the British had learned of the cache and raided the village, seizing the goods and burning houses. Arriving American troops found trees in the area but little else.
The troops arrived at Valley Forge in time for Christmas, but there was no holiday feast. Already the men’s diaries spoke bitterly of a diet of “fire cakes and cold water.” A fire cake was simply a flour and water batter fried on a griddle. The morning after Christmas, the men awoke to find four additional inches of snow on the ground.
The first priority was the building of huts. An order issued by Washington spelled out the style and size of the Spartan quarters.
Every 12 men would share a 16×14 foot log hut with walls six and a half feet high. Each would have a stone fireplace. The roof would be of wood board. Most huts were built in a pit about two-feet below the ground. Generally, there was only a dirt floor and some sort of cloth covering for a door. The huts were drafty, damp, smoky and terribly unhealthy.
The primitive shelters were laid out in regular patterns to form streets. Officers built their huts behind the enlisted men’s cabins. These were similar in construction but, perhaps, not as crowded.
Housing the Army was fairly simple. Clothing and feeding the troops was a daunting challenge.
Transportation was the major stumbling block. The supplies were out there. Getting them to Valley Forge seemed impossible. Roads were rutted quagmires. It was difficult to recruit wagoneers. Continental money was nearly worthless, so Pennsylvania farmers often hid their horses and wagons rather than contract with the Army.
The man in charge of military transportation, Quartermaster General Thomas Mifflin hated his job. Mifflin was a wealthy Philadelphia merchant and a born politician who wanted glory on the battlefield not the headaches of transportation. He literally ignored the job.
It wasn’t until the spring when Washington’s most capable general, Nathanael Green, took over the quartermaster’s post that supplies began to move in decent quantity.
An Unhealthy Life
The first priority of the soldiers was keeping warm and dry. The troops faced a typical Delaware Valley winter with temperatures mostly in the 20s and 30s. There were 13 days of rain or snow during the first six weeks.
Illness, not musketballs, was the great killer. Dysentery and typhus were rampant. Many makeshift hospitals were set up in the region. The Army’s medical department used at least 50 barns, dwellings, churches or meetinghouses throughout a wide area of Eastern Pennsylvania as temporary hospitals. These places were mostly understaffed, fetid breeding grounds of disease. All were chronically short of medical supplies.
America’s first true military hospital — constructed for that purpose — was built at Yellow Springs, a popular health spa about 10 miles west of the encampment. About 300 sick men were accommodated in the large three-story wood structure. Washington once visited the Yellow Springs Hospital and stopped to exchange a few words with each patient. Dr. Bodo Otto, an elderly German and his two physician sons, ably ran the hospital until the end of the war.
Much of the sickness was traceable to unhealthy sanitation and poor personal hygiene. Washington constantly complained of the failure to clear the encampment of filth, which included rotting carcasses of horses. The commander-in-chief even issued orders concerning the use and care of privies, but men relieved themselves wherever they felt.
“Intolerable smells” finally prompted Washington to issue orders that soldiers who relieved themselves anywhere but in “a proper Necessary” were to receive five lashes.
In the absence of wells, water was drawn from the Schuylkill River and nearby creeks. Men and animals often relieved themselves upstream from where water for drinking was drawn.
One of Washington’s major worries was an outbreak of small pox. Inoculation was still relatively new and controversial, but the General was a firm believer in the procedure. The winter before at Morristown, N.J., he ordered inoculation for all those who had not already had the disease. A survey at Valley Forge showed many vulnerable soldiers. Some 3,000 to 4,000 men were vaccinated.
Knowing how unhealthy the congested the huts were, Washington ordered windows cut for circulation in the spring and even encouraged some to move from their squalid quarters into tents.
Just how many became seriously ill during the Valley Forge encampment and how many died of these illnesses is not known. Even in the mild weather of late spring, the medical department informed Washington that 1,000 men were too ill for combat. Those who died at camp or in hospitals has been estimated as high as 3,000.
In early March, the energetic and competent Gen. Nathanael Greene was appointed quartermaster general, and soon things improve rapidly. Greene got down to business by dispatching engineers to improve bridges and roads between Valley Forge and Lancaster. Wagons began arriving with clothing and food.
Also in early March a baking company of some 70 men headed by Philadelphia gingerbread baker Christopher Ludwig arrived at camp. The German-born patriot refused to profit from his labor. Eventually, each soldier got the daily pound of bread promised by Congress. Ludwig, himself, baked for the headquarters staff and often spoke with Washington.
In April great schools of shad surged up the Schuylkill River to spawn. Thousands were netted, and the soldiers gorged themselves. Hundreds of barrels were filled with salted shad for future use. One soldier wrote, “For almost a month the whole camp stank and men’s fingers were oily.”
Despite Washington’s daily orders, there was little real military discipline in the camp. General John Sullivan once commented, “This is not an Army; it’s a mob.”
There were no regular roll calls. Sizes of units that were supposed to be equal varied radically. Orders prohibiting gambling, fighting, selling Army equipment and wandering away from camp were routinely ignored.
While brave, Continental troops possessed few skills in the art of 18th century warfare. They didn’t know how to march in ranks or maneuver on the battlefield. The bayonet — crucial to battlefield success — was used mostly to cook over a fire.
All this was about to change with the arrival in late February of Friedrich Wilhelm Ludolf Gerhard Augustin Stuebe, known to history as Baron von Steuben. The title was of his own making. He had served in the Prussian Army of Frederick the Great but rose no higher than captain. Now, at age 47, he was out of work and applying for military posts in several places. In Paris, Steuben impressed American envoys, Benjamin Franklin and Silas Deane, who provided the German with a glowing letter of recommendation. Some suggest that Franklin inflated Steuben’s military credentials and coached him on how best to get an appointment.
Like the Marquis de Lafayette, the Baron said the right words when he spoke to members of the Congress and the Board of War: He would serve without a salary. He did, however, want his expenses paid. Both the War Board and Washington liked the man’s modesty and viewed Steuben as a possible candidate for inspector general of the Army.
Steuben was appalled by what he observed during his first weeks at Valley Forge. Washington asked the German to study the situation and provide reports on camp defenses, troop morale and military readiness. Steuben’s reports were detailed and astute. In a short time, Steuben was named acting inspector general. His primary mission involved training, and he attacked the task with dedication and zeal.
Washington liked Steuben immediately even though the Prussian could not speak English. But he could speak French, and Washington appointed two of his French-speaking aides, Alexander Hamilton and John Laurens to work with the Prussian.
Steuben has been called history’s only popular drillmaster. The men loved his gruff manner, his cursing in broken English and his hands-on-style of demonstrating every move personally. He insisted that officers drill with their men, and he pared down the officers’ staffs of personal servants.
He created his own manual of arms and drill to fit the American situation. Simplicity was the keynote. The training started with a select group of 100. When these men knew what they were doing, he released them to teach others. Soon he was drilling large masses of entire regiments and brigades.
He constantly taught the use of the bayonet. He gave lessons in mounting guard and sentry duty. He insisted that every watch be synchronized with the headquarters’ clock. And page-by-page Steuben wrote in French an army drill book that was then translated into English. “Regulation for the Order of Discipline of the Troops of the United States” was then copied by an officer in each brigade.
Within weeks, everyone could see a new proficiency and new pride among the formerly dispirited men.
There were other factors coming together to boost morale and send sagging spirits soaring. Most important, France entered the war as an ally of the new nation. America got the good news in April. Great festivities were held in camp on May 5. Along with prayer, parading and gun salutes, each man was issued a gill of rum. French-made uniforms and military gear soon began arriving in camp.
Back in March, an extra month’s pay was issued to all in camp for having stuck it out through the miseries of the winter. Washington added a ration of rum for each soldier.
Farmers began bringing their produce to a camp market and fresh military units arrived at Valley Forge.
An Anti-Washington “Cabal” •
Most historians agree that the so-called “Conway Cabal” was not an organized effort to replace Washington with Gen. Horatio Gates, the victor of Saratoga or some other general.
But there were some in the Army who felt they were better qualified than the Virginian and several politicians were critical of his performance.
The so-called “cabal” was a lot of mutterings and niggling criticism that finally broke out in the open with the help of an arrogant Irish-born, French-reared soldier of fortune, Thomas Conway. He was recruited in France by Silas Deane and was granted the rank of brigadier general. Washington and many other American officers took an immediate dislike to the boastful Conway.
It seems that Conway along with English Army veterans Charles Lee and Gates all felt they had better military credentials than Washington and would make better commanders.
In fact, with the exception of brilliant but minor victories at Trenton and Princeton, Washington had lost all his battles with the British. On the other hand, Gates’ victory at Saratoga had resulted in the surrender of 6,000 British troops. In truth, Gen. Benedict Arnold and Daniel Morgan had saved the day at Saratoga with little help from Gates.
Washington’s civilian critics included Philadelphia physician and radical patriot Dr. Benjamin Rush; New Englanders John and Sam Adams and Elbridge Gerry. The man most responsible for the supply problems at Valley Forge, Thomas Mifflin, was another loud critic.
The whole anti-Washington movement was brought to a head when an aide to Gates, Gen. James Wilkinson, revealed over drinks, details of a certain letter to Gates from Conway that was highly critical of Washington.
Washington was informed of the Conway letter by Gen. William Alexander “Lord” Sterling. Conway’s letter allegedly stated, “Heaven has been determined to save your country; or a weak general and bad counselors would have ruined it.”
Washington confronted Conway with the insult, which brought Gates into the fray and eventually the whole thing became a matter for Congress.
In the end, Washington emerged stronger than ever.
About a year later, Wilkinson and Gates engaged in a pistol duel, in which neither was injured. Washington admirer John Cadwalader, a Pennsylvania militia leader, fought another duel with the obnoxious Conway hitting him in the mouth. Conway recovered and returned to France.
In truth, most of the officers and men suffering at Valley Forge worshipped Washington. Many historians say the leader’s calm, caring presence during those horrible winter months was the most important factor in preventing the Army from disintegrating.