What happened at Valley Forge?

“Valley Forge” is another of those iconic phrases used to describe American history that fewer Americans understand than one might think. It is hardly ever explained; “Valley Forge,” someone will say, using the two words to convey worlds of meaning. The Revolution is Yorktown, Washington Crossing the Delaware, and Valley Forge.

Of those three moments in the war, Valley Forge at least conjures up a concrete image: barefoot soldiers leaving footprints of blood in the snow. We are urged to study the bravery and devotion of those patriots, and with good reason. But first, some important questions must be answered. Why on earth was the Continental Army in such bad shape during the winter encampment of 1777-8? Was it incompetence on the part of their commander, General Washington, or unconcern? Or was it just the way the Americans experienced the war, always worse off than the British army?

Let’s start at the beginning. In the fall of 1777, the British had taken Philadelphia, the American capital. Washington’s army had attempted to stop the British, led by General Howe, at the Brandywine River, but failed. Now the British Army occupied Philadelphia, and settled in there for the winter.

The Continental Army, as it had the previous winter, wanted to stay close to the British during the winter hiatus. That way, when fighting resumed in the spring, the Continentals would be ready to stop the British from any further moves. Washington decided to make winter camp at Valley Forge.

Remember, at that time there was no shudder of doom at the very name of Valley Forge. And in fact, it was a good location. Valley Forge was in a settled area, where local people could provide food and clothing if they wished (Washington never forced locals to contribute), and it was the area where the British would have gone outside Philadelphia to forage for food. Cities weren’t like they are today, with abundant food through the winter. The British Army would quickly go through the stores of food in town, and would want to go into the countryside to hunt game, just as the people of Philadelphia would have done. Washington made that a lot harder. Valley Forge was also very well situated for defense, making it very difficult for the British to pull off an off-season surprise attack.

So his army began to build cabins. It was December, and while there was never a lot of snow—our mental image of huge drifts freezing the men is incorrect—it was constantly wet and cold. The Continentals were worn out from their fall campaign, low on supplies, and wearing pretty tattered clothes. Their marching had torn apart their shoes. And while it was never easy for Congress to supply the army (it levied no taxes and had no power over the colonies), it was now impossible for Congress to do anything to help. Congress, meeting in Philadelphia, had been forced to flee when the town fell. Washington’s army was on its own.

The local people could do little to help. The British had raided their towns before the end of the fall campaign, taking their stores of food and ammunition and burning some houses.

So the Continental soldiers began building their cabins, which they did very quickly. Shelter was not so much a problem as food and clothing. The army quartermaster, Thomas Mifflin, did a terrible job finding supplies for the men. He was replaced by General Nathanael Green, who did a much better job of coaxing contributions from local people and doing deals with merchants in unoccupied cities. The soldiers never actually starved, but the food they got was often lacking in nutrition, and there was never enough. Weak and dispirited, the man let all rules of hygiene go, leaving the rotting carcasses of horses (dead from fatigue and little food) lay throughout the camp and refusing to use latrines (relieving themselves throughout the camp). The poor diet and bad hygiene made it easier for soldiers to get sick, and dysentery, typhus,  and other camp diseases took many lives.

The stench of bodily waste and rotting horses finally drove Washington to issue an order than any man seen not using a latrine would get five lashes of the whip. Washington was very  much a part of the camp. He did not retreat to officers’ quarters. He visited the makeshift hospitals and walked the camps daily. He also had 3-4,000 men vaccinated against smallpox at a time when most people did not believe in vaccination because they did not understand this medical innovation.

He also took their side. Washington wrote a letter on December 23, 1777, describing the terrible state of the men—and angrily blasting the ridiculous attitude of some “Gentlemen” who ignore their hardships:

“[W]e find Gentlemen …reprobating the [decision to make a winter camp rather than attack Philadelphia] as much as if they thought Men [the Soldiery] were made of Stocks or Stones and equally insensible of frost and Snow and moreover, as if they conceived it [easily] practicable for an inferior Army under the disadvantages I have describ’d ours to be to confine a superior one (in all respects well appointed, and provided for a Winters Campaign) within the City of Phila., and [to protect] the States of Pensa., Jersey, &ca. but what makes this matter still more extraordinary in my eye is, that these very Gentn. who were well apprized of the nakedness of the Troops …advised me, near a Month ago, to postpone the execution of a Plan, I was about to adopt  for seizing Cloathes… [they] think a Winters Campaign and the covering these States from the Invasion of an Enemy so easy a business. I can assure those Gentlemen that it is a much easier and less distressing thing to draw remonstrances in a comfortable room by a good fire side than to occupy a cold bleak hill and sleep under frost and Snow without Cloaths or Blankets; however, although they seem to have little feeling for the naked, and distressed Soldier, I feel superabundantly for them, and from my Soul pity those miseries, wch. it is neither in my power to relieve or prevent…”

The soldiers were not alone, though we picture them in complete, miserable isolation. They were helped by women and even children, wives and children of soldiers who were known as “camp followers.” Some women decided to join their husbands in the off-season, when there was less work to do at the farm at home, and their ceaseless, voluntary labor and care saved many men. Women and older children did laundry, worked in hospitals, foraged for food, cooked, wrote letters, and generally eased the suffering at camp even as they shared in it. It is estimated that about 500 women and children camped at Valley Forge, raising spirits and preventing more deaths.

In the spring of 1778, an unsung hero arrived at camp. Christopher Ludwig was a baker in Philadelphia who came to Valley Forge with 60-70 men and started baking. He used his own supplies and ovens, and he refused to take payment. He baked bread night and day so that every soldier would get the daily pound of fresh bread he had been promised by Congress. Fish also started running, and the soldiers went fishing every day to round out their meager diet.

They needed the extra food. The Baron von Steuben had arrived in February to drill the army, and he was untiring in his efforts to get them ready to face the British army and win a set battle. The tired and still under-nourished men withstood hours of training and were much improved by May, when they heard the marvelous news that France had joined the war on their side.

When at last it came time to break camp, the Continental Army was still mostly intact. The hordes of desertions even the most optimistic observer would have expected had not taken place, and while there had been many deaths (we don’t know how many; some say 3,000 men) from disease, those who were left were relatively well-fed and very well-trained, and ready for a spring campaign. The survivors were also even more loyal to their commander. Washington had shared their terrible experiences, living in a cabin and suffering cold and hunger and endangering himself by visiting the sick. His wife Martha had been a camp follower, serving not only her husband but enlisted men as well, working alongside other American women to relieve the suffering of the soldiers.

The British left Philadelphia in June. Now that France was in the war, they feared a French naval attack from the east far more than an American attack inland, and they removed to New York. Washington broke camp in June, leaving Valley Forge for a site closer to Philadelphia, but he dispatched men to go back to Valley Forge and clean it up. This kind of consideration for local people was unheard of, and endeared the general to the common American people.

The Continentals re-occupied Philadelphia once the British left, then followed the army and waged battle at Monmouth Courthouse on June 28. The newly trained Continentals were fighting well, but bad leadership by General Lee was costing them the battle until Washington found out Lee was retreating. Furious, he overtook Lee and led the men back into the attack, forcing a British retreat.

It wasn’t quite a win, but it was a powerful affirmation for the Continental army that had suffered so much at Valley Forge. We see that camping there was not some terrible mistake, Washington was not an uncaring ogre, and the men were not abandoned in their suffering. Valley Forge was a good location, Washington was a good leader, and hundreds of average Americans volunteered to help their army. It was really the hardship of having the capital of Philadelphia occupied, and Congress scattered, that ensured a terrible winter camp for the army in 1777-8.

The bad news is that the next winter camp of 1778-9 was even worse. This time the Continentals were in two places: part of the army led by Washington camped in Middlebrook, New Jersey (to guard against the British leaving New York to the south), and had a fairly easy winter camp. But the part led by General Putnam encamped in Connecticut (to keep the British from leaving New York to the east) had a terrible winter. The usual lack of supplies was causing problems, but the army felt experienced enough to deal with this when suddenly, one of the biggest blizzards in New England history struck in December. Foraging was impossible, and the cabins could not keep out the cold. It was a terrible winter camp that made Valley Forge seem bearable.

Why don’t we remember “Putnam in Connecticut” like we remember “Valley Forge”? Maybe it’s because Washington wasn’t in Connecticut, and we only remember our biggest heroes. But the next time you’re near Danbury, Connecticut, pay a visit to Putnam State Park and remember all the heroes of our war for independence.

Why did Washington cross the Delaware?

We all learn this phrase—Washington crossing the Delaware—in school in the U.S., but few of us remember what it refers to. It was actually a key moment in the Revolutionary War.

Washington’s Continental Army had been retreating almost from the moment it was formed. From August  to October 1776 Washington had been steadily chased out of New York, from Long Island north to Manhattan and then across the Hudson River at the northernmost point of Manhattan to New Jersey. From November through December 7, Washington’s army was hounded by the British all the way through New Jersey, with the Continentals finally crossing the Delaware River from New Jersey into Pennsylvania.

At this point, the Continental Army seemed like it might be permanently beaten. The British saw no threat, and set up winter camps at Bordentown, Trenton, and Princeton in New Jersey.

In the 18th century, armies shut down operations for the winter months, as marching was difficult, food supplies low, and surprise hard to come by. The Continental Army followed this custom too, and would likely have made camp where it was in Pennsylvania without any further action had Washington not believed that the army desperately needed a victory, not only for its own morale, but for the sake of the fledgling nation.

He decided to make a surprise attack on the Hessian forces fighting for Britain at Trenton. His army would attack on Christmas Day.

In December 1776 Washington had around 4-6,000 soldiers in his army, although about 1,700 of those men were too sick to fight. The continual retreats had forced the army to leave behind valuable supplies of food and munitions. Two American generals, Gates and Lee, were nearby, and were ordered by Congress to join forces with Washington’s frail army in Pennsylvania, but  neither did so. They each had their reasons, which included the thought that if they could pull off a great victory while Washington languished, one of them might be made commander-in-chief of the American forces.

Another problem for Washington was that many of the soldiers’ enlistments were up on December 31. They would be free to go home at that point, and why wouldn’t they?

Washington had to act quickly and boldly. One step he took to encourage men who might be leaving on the 31st to stay was to have Thomas Paine’s new pamphlet, The American Crisis, read aloud to the army. This is the familiar text we all know the first sentence of:

“These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.”

Hoping that these stirring ideas and his own brave example would do their work, Washington prepared for the attack on Trenton. Early on Christmas Day the army went to the ferry landing on the Delaware and began the long process of being taken across the river as silently as possible. Washington was in the first boat, and found a good landing site for the rest of the men.

You have most likely seen this painting:

It is called “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” and it is a mighty representation of tattered men fording the icy river, Washington standing tall and determined with the new flag behind him. The only real problem with this is Washington standing so tall—tall enough to throw off the balance of the boat and capsize it. He likely sat in the boat with the rest of the men. Otherwise, I think the tattered clothing and preoccupation of the men, few of whom are looking up from their oars, with getting safely across the river are very realistic.

It was not until 3 AM on December 26 that the entire Continental Army got safely across the river. It was snowing and sleeting. Washington broke the army into two columns, leading one with General Nathaniel Greene and putting General John Sullivan in charge of the other. They took parallel paths to Trenton, and fell on the Hessian camp, where some men were sleeping and others still drunkenly celebrating the holiday. No Americans were killed; the camp was taken, and 110 Hessians were killed or wounded. Precious muskets, powder, and bullets were seized, and the Continentals took 1,000 prisoners back with them into Pennsylvania—they did not stay in New Jersey to be attacked by the British at Princeton.

The victory did just what Washington had intended: it raised the morale of the soldiers and the nation. He was not concerned with the jockeying for leadership of Lee and Gates, but his victory sealed his role as commander-in-chief of the army. On December 27, the Continental Congress gave Washington special powers to recruit soldiers and get supplies from the states, to appoint officers, run the army, and arrest any citizens who did not take Continental currency as payment. Washington used these powers for six months, then relinquished them.

A last note on crossing the Delaware and the capture of Trenton: when Washington wrote to Congress with his report on the state of the Army on December 31, he said that “free Negroes who have served in the Army, are very much dissatisfied at being discarded.” Washington allowed those black Americans who wanted to re-enlist to do so. He had originally forbid any black Americans, free or enslaved, to serve in the Continental Army. Like the Union generals who would follow his footsteps 87 years later, Washington learned to see the courage and humanity of enslaved black Americans by virtue of black soldiers’ valor and determination in battle.

So, Washington crossed the Delaware from Pennsylvania to surprise-attack the Hessians at Trenton, New Jersey on Christmas Day, thus keeping the army and the nation’s hopes alive for another season of campaigning in the spring and summer of 1777. It was a very important success, and one that deserves to be remembered in full.