December 18, 2023 at 10:39 a.m.

Winter Quarters at Valley Forge

December 19, 1777: the American Revolution is two-and-a-half years old; it has been a year-and-a-half since the colonies declared their independence.  The war hasn't been going well for the Patriots and commander-in-chief General George Washington.

The British sent a fleet from New York City and landed an army in Maryland that had marched into Pennsylvania; defeated Washington at the battles of Brandywine and Paoli; captured two American forts along the Delaware; and occupied Philadelphia.

Congress had fled to Yorktown (now called York). Washington had tried to force them out of Philadelphia but his surprise attack at Germantown had failed, and he had been forced to retreat to Valley Forge, about twenty miles outside Philadelphia. 

The weather was getting worse, and Washington's men were tired; their equipment, worn out.  In this farming community named after an iron force that was located in a nearby valley, he prayed for the strength to continue despite shortages of food, clothing, and blankets and rampant episodes of disease. 

More soldiers end up dying at Valley Forge than in any single battle during the Revolution. 

In many respects, the survival at Valley Forge is even more important than the military victories that would follow.
December 19, 1777: the American Revolution is two-and-a-half years old; it has been a year-and-a-half since the colonies declared their independence. The war hasn't been going well for the Patriots and commander-in-chief General George Washington. The British sent a fleet from New York City and landed an army in Maryland that had marched into Pennsylvania; defeated Washington at the battles of Brandywine and Paoli; captured two American forts along the Delaware; and occupied Philadelphia. Congress had fled to Yorktown (now called York). Washington had tried to force them out of Philadelphia but his surprise attack at Germantown had failed, and he had been forced to retreat to Valley Forge, about twenty miles outside Philadelphia. The weather was getting worse, and Washington's men were tired; their equipment, worn out. In this farming community named after an iron force that was located in a nearby valley, he prayed for the strength to continue despite shortages of food, clothing, and blankets and rampant episodes of disease. More soldiers end up dying at Valley Forge than in any single battle during the Revolution. In many respects, the survival at Valley Forge is even more important than the military victories that would follow.

Jennifer Baker, DAR Vesuvius Furnace Chapter | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

Winter Quarters at Valley Forge

Compiled by Jennifer Baker, DAR Vesuvius Furnace Chapter

When the Continental Congress named George Washington head of the nascent United States Army in 1775 and charged him with throwing off the shackles of the greatest empire on earth, the tall Virginian had discontinued keeping a personal journal lest it fall into enemy hands. We are thus left with only the writings of his closest aides for glimpses of Washington’s innermost thoughts and feelings over eight years of war. As Christmas approached during that dismal winter at Valley Forge two years after his appointment, one of those aides, the 33-year-old Philadelphian Tench Tilghman, certainly echoed the General’s nostalgia for a much happier holiday only one year earlier.

“I wish we could put [the British] in mind…of what happened this time twelvemonth,” Tilghman wrote to one of Washington’s commanding generals. And, indeed, it is difficult to overestimate the impact the previous year’s Christmas raids on Trenton and Princeton had on the psyche and morale of the Continental Army and its Commander in Chief. Not even the resounding defeats Americans had suffered across the intervening months—at Brandywine Creek, at Paoli, at Germantown, at the Forts Mifflin and Mercer—could dull the luster of that marvelous memory.

On December 19, 1777, commander of the Continental Army George Washington, the future first president of the United States, lead his beleaguered troops into winter quarters at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. Things could hardly have looked bleaker for Washington and the Continental Army as 1777 came to a close. The British had successfully occupied Philadelphia, leading some members of Congress to question Washington’s leadership abilities. No one knew better than Washington that the army was on the brink of collapse–in fact, he had defied Congress’ demand that he launch a mid-winter attack against the British at Philadelphia and instead fell back to Valley Forge to rest and refit his troops. Though he had hoped to provide his weary men with more nutritious food and badly needed winter clothing, Congress had been unable to provide money for fresh supplies. That Christmas Eve, the troops dined on a meal of rice and vinegar and were forced to bind their bleeding frost-bitten feet with rags. “We have experienced little less than a famine in camp,” Washington wrote to Patrick Henry the following February.

Desperate to keep the army intact, Washington tried to stem desertion by resorting to lashings as punishment and then threatening to shoot deserters on sight. For those soldiers who remained with him, Washington expressed deep gratitude and awe. He described men marching without clothes, blankets or shoes–leaving bloody trails in the snow–who displayed “patience and obedience which in my opinion can scarce be paralel’d.”

Washington blamed the civilian authorities for the wretched state of affairs. He was convinced “beyond a doubt” that if the Continental Congress and the Pennsylvania state legislators did not rapidly comply with his multiple requests for food, clothes, medicine, and blankets, “unless some great and capital change suddenly takes place in the [supply] line, this Army must inevitably be reduced to one or other of these three things. Starve, dissolve, or disperse, in order to obtain subsistence in the best manner they can.”

Starve, dissolve or disperse. It was the gauntlet thrown. How low Washington and his army had fallen in a mere 12 months.

Meanwhile Washington faced the displeasure of Congress and rumors of plots to replace him with his typical stoicism and composure. On December 31, he wrote to the Marquis de Lafayette that he would continue “to observe one steady and uniform conduct, which I shall invariably pursue, while I have the honour to command, regardless of the Tongue of slander or the powers of detraction.” Furthermore, he told the press that if Congress could find someone better suited to lead the army that he would be more than happy to resign and return to private life at his Mount Vernon estate.

The winter at Valley Forge might have signaled the end of the American Revolution. Fortunately for the Continentals though, Washington did not give up. During this time Washington made several key additions to his officer corps, such as the Prussian General Friedrich von Steuben, who was tasked with implementing a new training regimen, and Nathanael Greene, who served as quartermaster general, relieving Washington of the duty of supply procurement. Washington, supported by a loyal officer corps, was now free to focus on strategies to beat the British. He was further buoyed by France’s agreement to join the revolutionaries in February 1778. (Washington was so happy with the news from his “powerful friend” France that, upon hearing the news, he pardoned two of his own soldiers who were awaiting execution for desertion.)

Once Washington’s detractors in Congress realized they could not sway his troops’ loyalty, they gave up on any secret plans to replace him. In March 1778, Washington led his troops, their bodies and supplies replenished and their confidence restored, out of Valley Forge to face the British again.



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