George Washington and His Troops Winter at Valley Forge
With the winter setting in the prospects for campaigning being greatly diminished, General George Washington sought quarters for his men.
Washington and his troops had just fought what was to be the last major engagement of 1777 at the Battle of White Marsh (or Edge Hill). He devised to pull his troops from their present encampment in the White Marsh area (now Fort Washington State Park) and move to a more secure location for the coming winter. Though several locations were proposed, he selected Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, 18 miles (29 km) northwest of Philadelphia. It proved to be an excellent choice. Named for an iron forge on Valley Creek, the area was close enough to the British to keep their raiding and foraging parties out of the interior of Pennsylvania, yet far enough away to halt the threat of British surprise attacks. The high ground of Mount Joy and the adjoining elevated ground of Mount Misery combined with the Schuylkill River to the north, made the area easily defensible.
On December 19, 1777, when Washington's poorly fed, ill-equipped army, weary from long marches, struggled into Valley Forge, winds blew as the 12,000 Continentals prepared for winter's fury. Grounds for brigade encampments were selected, and defense lines were planned and begun. Though construction of more than a thousand huts provided shelter, it did little to offset the critical shortages that continually plagued the army.
The men were under cover within six weeks. The first properly constructed hut appeared in three days. One other hut, which required 80 logs, and whose timber had to be collected from miles away, went up in one week with the use of only one axe. The men described their lodgings as "cozy and comfortable quarters" and they were proud of the structures they had built. These huts provided sufficient protection from the moderately cold, but mainly wet and damp conditions of the mild, but typical Pennsylvania winter of 1777-78. Snow was limited, and small in amounts. Alternating freezing and melting of snow and ice made it impossible to keep dry and allowed for disease to fester.
Soldiers received irregular supplies of meat and bread, some getting their only nourishment from "firecake," a tasteless mixture of flour and water. Others made "soup" from burned leaves and chewed their leather boots. However, due to the talents of Baker General Christopher Ludwig, the men at Valley Forge more often than not received fresh baked soft bread, about one pound daily. So severe were conditions at times that Washington despaired "that unless some great and capital change suddenly takes place ... this Army must inevitably ... Starve, dissolve, or disperse, in order to obtain subsistence in the best manner they can." Animals fared no better. General Henry Knox, Washington's Chief of Artillery wrote that hundreds of horses either starved to death or died of exhaustion.
Clothing, too, was wholly inadequate. Long marches had destroyed shoes. Blankets were scarce. Tattered garments were seldom replaced. At one point these shortages caused nearly 4,000 men to be listed as unfit for duty.
Undernourished and poorly clothed, living in crowded, damp quarters, the army was ravaged by sickness and disease. Typhoid, jaundice, dysentery, and pneumonia were among the killers that felled as many as 2,000 men that winter. Although Washington repeatedly petitioned for relief, the Congress was unable to provide it, and the soldiers continued to suffer. Women, relatives of enlisted men, alleviated some of the suffering by providing valuable services such as laundry and nursing that the army desperately needed.
Upgrading military efficiency, morale, and discipline were as vital to the army's well-being as was its source of supply. The army had been handicapped in battle because unit training was administered from a variety of field manuals, making coordinated battle movements awkward and difficult. The soldiers were trained, but not uniformly. The task of developing and carrying out an effective training program fell to Baron Friedrich von Steuben. This skilled Prussian drill master, recently arrived from Europe, tirelessly drilled the soldiers.
A group of people called Regimental Camp Followers also help increase the morale of the soldiers and provided necessary support to the men. Camp Followers at Valley Forge consisted of the families, wives, children, mothers, and sisters of the soldiers. These camp followers often served as laundresses, cleaning and mending the uniforms of the soldiers. Washington understood a soldier would die quickly from disease if his uniform was dirty and threadbare. These women and children also provided the emotional support to a soldier, allowing them to remain at camp and continue on training and soldiering during the winter months. These women gained half the rations of soldiers, half the wages of a soldier as well as a half pension after the war—if they had done enough work. Children would receive quarter rations if enough work was done. Women were relegated to the back of the column when marching and were forbidden to ride on wagons. Camp followers faced the issues of disease along with the soldiers. While excellent scavengers, some women lost their lives on the battlefield trying to obtain goods from wounded or dead soldiers. At Valley Forge women averaged 1 to every 44 men, adding up to around 500 women.
Soon word of the British departure from Philadelphia brought a frenzied activity to the ranks of the Continental Army. On June 19, 1778, six months after its arrival, the army marched away from Valley Forge in pursuit of the British, who were moving toward New York. The ordeal had ended. The war would last for another five years, but for Washington, his men, and the nation to which they sought to give birth, a decisive victory had been won — a victory not of weapons but of will. No war took place here.
The Chevalier de Pontgibaud was born to the French nobility but ran afoul of the law and ended up in prison. He escaped and made his way to America where he volunteered for service in the Continental Army. He arrived at Valley Forge in December 1777 and published his observations after the war:
"That celebrated man - an ambassador who amused himself with science, which he adroitly made to assist him in his diplomatic work - said, when some friends came to Passy to condole with him on the fall of Philadelphia: 'You are mistaken; it is not the British army that has taken Philadelphia, but Philadelphia that has taken the British army.' The cunning old diplomatist was right. The capital of Pennsylvania had already done for the British what Capua did in a few months for the soldiers of Hannibal. The Americans the 'insurgents' as they were called - camped at Valley Forge; the British officers, who were in the city, gave themselves up to pleasure; there were continual balls and other amusements; the troops were idle and enervated by inaction, and the generals undertook nothing all the winter.
Soon I came in sight of the camp. My imagination had pictured an army with uniforms, the glitter of arms, standards, etc., in short, military pomp of all sorts; Instead of the imposing spectacle I expected, I saw, grouped together or standing alone, a few militiamen, poorly clad, and for the most part without shoes - many of them badly armed, but all well supplied with provisions, and I noticed that tea and sugar formed part of their rations. I did not then know that this was not unusual, and I laughed, for it made me think of the recruiting sergeants on the Quai de la Ferraille at Paris, who say to the yokels, 'You will want for nothing when you are in the regiment, but if bread should run short you must not mind eating cakes.' Here the soldiers had tea and sugar.
In passing through the camp I also noticed soldiers wearing cotton nightcaps under their hats, and some having for cloaks or greatcoats coarse woolen blankets, exactly like those provided for the patients in our French hospitals. I learned afterwards that these were the officers and generals.
Such, in strict truth, was, at the time I came amongst them, the appearance of this armed mob, the leader of whom was the man who has rendered the name of Washington famous; such were the colonists - unskilled warriors who learned in a few years how to conquer the finest troops that England could send against them. Such also, at the beginning of the War of Independence, was the state of want in the insurgent army, and such was the scarcity of money, and the poverty of that government, now so rich, powerful, and prosperous, that its notes, called Continental paper money, were nearly valueless. "
Soon I came in sight of the camp. My imagination had pictured an army with uniforms, the glitter of arms, standards, etc., in short, military pomp of all sorts; Instead of the imposing spectacle I expected, I saw, grouped together or standing alone, a few militiamen, poorly clad, and for the most part without shoes - many of them badly armed, but all well supplied with provisions, and I noticed that tea and sugar formed part of their rations.”— Chevalier de Pontgibaud