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.

5 thoughts on “What happened at Valley Forge?

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