" >iron-making operation owned by two Quaker families, the Dewees and Pottses.
General Washington and his Troops arrive at Valley Forge
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
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.”
America’s Own Miracle of Fish
NOTE: Perhaps the humility and prayers of Washington and those of his men who were willing to suffer through the unbearable circumstances in order to fight with whatever might they could muster against the world’s most powerful army at the time, all for the cause of liberty, religious and political freedom… perhaps through the trial of their faith brought abundance as France joined the fight as an ally, bringing ample rations, and in addition, a miracle of fish most are unaware of if tradition holds true. Below, Tim Ballard, author of ‘The Washington Hypothesis‘, in an adaptation from his book, explains how an unlikely run of fish saved George Washington’s army:
While in Valley Forge, American soldiers suffered greatly, many even died, for lack of food. Congress heard their pleas but was helpless to provide. Washington warned Congress that if food did not arrive soon, his army faced three choices: “Starve—dissolve—or disperse.” With no mortal on earth able to come to their aid, prayer was the only option. Perhaps the soldiers remembered that the Lord had once before provided His hungry disciples with fish in a miraculous way. It was about to happen again.
Suddenly, in the midst of the winter famine, there was an unexpected warming of the weather, too early to accredit to springtime. The “false spring” tricked the shad fish into beginning their run up the Delaware River early. Thousands of shad—some described them as “prodigious in number,” others said they came in “Biblical proportions”—swam up the Delaware. The overabundance caused thousands more to make a turn up smaller streams and rivers, seeking any space to spawn. One of those rivers was the Schuylkill. At a certain bend in that river, the water rose only knee-deep—perfect for catching fish. And that very bend in the Schuylkill just happened to run right by Washington’s camp at Valley Forge.
The famine ended instantly, as thousands upon thousands of pounds of fish were caught and eaten. Hundreds of barrels were filled and salted down for future consumption. Even today, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service gives credence to the claim that the shad were responsible for “saving George Washington’s troops from starvation as they camped along the Schuylkill River at Valley Forge.”
Shortly after the miracle of the fish, Washington wrote the following from Valley Forge:
“Providence has a just claim to my humble and grateful thanks for its protection and direction of me through the many difficult and intricate scenes which this contest has produced, and for its constant interposition in our behalf when the clouds were heaviest and seemed ready to burst upon us. . . . Since our prospects have miraculously brightened, shall I attempt the description of the condition of the army, or even bear it in remembrance, further than as a memento of what is due to the great Author of all, the care and good that have been extended in relieving us in difficulties and distresses?”
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