Thursday, June 6, 2013


George Washington at Valley Forge 

In the fall of 1777, General George Washington's Continental Army moved south from New Jersey to defend the capital of Philadelphia from the advancing forces of General William Howe. Clashing at Brandywine on September 11, Washington was decisively defeated, leading the Continental Congress to flee the city. Fifteen days later, after outmaneuvering Washington, Howe entered Philadelphia unopposed. Seeking to regain the initiative, Washington struck at Germantown on October 4, but was again defeated. With the campaign season ending and cold weather rapidly approaching, Washington moved his army into winter quarters.
For his winter encampment, Washington selected Valley Forge on the Schuylkill River approximately 20 miles northwest of Philadelphia. With its high ground and position near the river, Valley Forge was easily defensible, but still close enough to the city for Washington to maintain pressure on the British. Despite the defeats of the fall, the 12,000 men of the Continental Army were in good spirits when they marched into Valley Forge on December 19, 1777. Under the direction of the army's engineers, the men began constructing over 2,000 log huts laid out along military streets. In addition, defensive trenches and five redoubts were built to protect the encampment. To facilitate re-supply of the army, a bridge was erected over the Schuylkill.
The winter at Valley Forge generally conjures images of half-naked, starving soldiers battling the elements. This was not the case. This imagery is largely the result of early, romanticized interpretations of the encampment story which were meant to serve as a parable about American perseverance. Though far from ideal, the conditions of the encampment were on par with the Continental soldier's routine privations. During the early months of the encampment, supplies and provisions were scarce, but available. Soldiers made due with subsistence meals such as "firecake," a mixture of water and flour. While a lack of clothing caused suffering among some the men, many were fully uniformed with the best equipped units used for foraging and patrols.
During the early months at Valley Forge, Washington lobbied to improve the army's supply situation with some success. To supplement those supplies received from Congress, Washington sent Brigadier General Anthony Wayne to New Jersey in February 1778, to gather food and cattle for the men. A month later, Wayne returned with 50 head of cattle and 30 horses. With the arrival of warmer weather in March, disease began strike at the army. Over the next three months, influenza, typhus, typhoid, and dysentery all erupted within the encampment.
Of the 2,000 men who died at Valley Forge, over two-thirds were killed by disease. These outbreaks were eventually contained through sanitation regulations, inoculations, and the work of surgeons. (
The winter of 1777-8 was the low point of America's struggle for independence. The troubles began the previous August when the British fleet unloaded a force of Redcoats at the top of the Chesapeake Bay with the objective of capturing the American capital at Philadelphia. The Americans were routed by the British at the Battle of Brandywine on September 11, leaving Philadelphia undefended. Members of the Continental Congress fled the city: first to Lancaster and then to York where they reestablished the capital.
The British entered Philadelphia on September 26. The Continental Army suffered another defeat at the Battle of Germantown just north of Philadelphia on Oct. 4.
General Washington led his weary and demoralized army to Valley Forge a few miles away where they would camp for the winter and prepare for battle with the return of warm weather. Conditions in the camp were horrendous. Forced to live in damp, crowded quarters, Washington's army of approximately 12,000 suffered from a lack of adequate clothing and food. Diseases such as typhoid, dysentery, typhus and pneumonia ran rampant. Morale plummeted.
General Washington was in despair as he watched his army disintegrate. However, as time progressed, a transformation occurred. Under Washington's inspired leadership, conditions improved: more food, equipment and new recruits reached the camp lifting spirits. Most importantly, the training efforts of Baron von Steuben increased discipline and reinvigorated pride among the troops. A former member of the General Staff of the Prussian Army, Steuben arrived in camp in February bearing a letter of introduction from Benjamin Franklin whom he had met in Paris Washington immediately assigned the seasoned soldier the task of training his army. Drilling started immediately. From dawn to dusk individual soldiers, companies, regiments and battalions were incessantly schooled in the art of war. What had been a ragtag and undisciplined collection of individuals became a cohesive fighting force.
Out of this terrible winter emerged a new Army, confident and ready to do battle. On June 19, 1778 the British abandoned Philadelphia and marched back to New York City. Washington led his Continental Army in pursuit. The subsequent battle at Monmouth, New Jersey ended in a draw. The War for Independence would last another five years, but a major victory of the spirit had been won during the winter at Valley Forge.
Early into the six-month encampment, there was hunger, disease, and despair. Raw weather stung and numbed the soldiers. Empty stomachs were common. Cries of "beef" echoed throughout the camp. The future promised only more desperation and starvation. Some couldn't take the cold, hunger, and uncertainty any longer. There were dozens of desertions. Disease debilitated. Death descended in droves. But by February the weather eased somewhat — moving from brutal to merely miserable. In March, General Nathanael Greene was appointed head of the dismal Commissary Department and magically food and supplies started to trickle in. By April, Baron von Steuben, a quirky mercenary who was not really a baron, began to magically transform threadbare troops into a fighting force.
Also in April, the Conway Cabal, a plot to remove George Washington from power, was quashed for good. May, brought news of the French Alliance, and with it the military and financial support of France. On June 19, 1778, exactly six months after they Americans arrived, a new army anxious to fight the British streamed out of Valley Forge toward New Jersey. They had been transformed from Rebel into a Mature Army. At Valley Forge, we read of words like "sacrifice" and conjure up images of bloody footprints, but the concept of suffering for freedom isn't easily understood.

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