Valley Forge

December 19, 1777 to June 19, 1778

The 12,000 men and women of the Continental Army who arrived in Valley Forge on December 19, 1777 with Commander In Chief, General George Washington, were half-starved and no longer believed they could win a war of independence from Britain. The Patriot Army had lost the Battle at Brandywine on September 11, 1777 and the Battle of Germantown on October 4, 1777. They had been forced to retreat at both battles. This left them discouraged.

Valley Forge is on the Schuylkill River about 25 miles west of Philadelphia in Chester County, Pennsylvania. General Washington probably decided to move his troops to Valley Forge, because it was near Philadelphia where the Continental Congress met. It was also in a small valley where they would be more protected from the weather. Even as they arrived, a light snow fell.

The People of Valley Forge
There were about 12,000 men who arrived with General Washington that December day. The men's ages ranged from eleven to sixteen years old, but some were in their 50s and 60s. Most of the soldiers were white, but there were some blacks and Indians to serve with the Continental Army.

There were also foreign officers who spent the winter in Valley Forge. They came as volunteers to train the young soldiers who were undisciplined.

On February 23, Friedrich Wilhelm Ludolf Gerhard Augustin, known as the Baron von Steuben, arrived at Valley Forge and volunteered his military skills to train the Continental Army to be more professional and disciplined. He had posed as a baron and former lieutenant general in the army of King Frederich of Prussia, but was only a captain and was not a noble. Historical records do show that he was an excellent soldier. General Washington made him Acting Inspector. He spent the rest of the winter and spring training, disciplining, and reorganizing the army.

Von Steuben taught Washington's troops how to maneuver in the field and how to use bayonets properly. He was very strict with the Americans and knew little English, and drilled the soldiers for hours cursing at them. But the Americans appreciated his devotion, and he taught them well.

The Marquis de Lafayette, a Frenchman, also volunteered his services to the Patriot cause. In December 1777 Lafayette was given command of a division from Virginia. Later he was made commander of even more troops. The French Army sent Louis Lebèque de Presle Duportail, an engineer who designed the Valley Forge encampment.

Baron de Kalb was commissioned as a major general after he left Valley Forge.

Nathanael Greene was Quarter Master General and worked hard to bring in more supplies. Brigadier General Henry Knox

There were also women at Valley Forge. Many of them came with their husbands and worked along with the troops. They cooked, washed clothing and cleaned the huts. Some even accepted work as nurses. The officers' wives probably stayed in their homes and kept to themselves.

Food and Supplies
The Continental Army was always very short on food, clothing, equipment and other supplies. The Continental Congress and the individual colonies were responsible for supplying the things the soldiers needed. There were lots of reasons that this didn't always happen. The newly formed Congress wasn't organized and many of the men were busy fighting battles themselves. The money minted by the Congress began to have little value. Sometimes the British would capture the supply wagons headed for the Patriot camps.

One source said the army needed 34,577 pounds of meat and 168 barrels of flour each day. The soldiers ate dried meat, salted meat, apples, pears, beans, peas, and corn.

When the shortages became bad in December and February, Quarter Master General Greene sent men out to round up cattle and other food items they could find in the neighboring area. General Greene encouraged the nearby farmers to sell their produce to his soldiers. He published this list of food wanted in the Pennsylvania Packet and on flyers that were distributed:

Fresh Pork, Fat Turkey, Goose, Rough skinned Potatoes, Turnips, Indian Meal, Sour-Crout, Leaf Tobacco, New Milk, Cyder, and Small Beer

Each man carried his weapon, usually a musket, and a cartridge box for ammunition. If he didn't own a musket, he would carry a powder horn, hunting bag and bullet pouch. He carried his extra clothing if he had any, a blanket, plate, spoon and cup in his haversack (backpack). Sometimes they had to share their cooking and eating utensils and there were several soldiers sharing the same water canteen. Many soldiers had to go barefoot or wear only one layer of clothing.

Except for officers, the soldiers slept in six-foot square tents made of canvas. The canvasses were weak and cracked and didn't provide a lot of protection from the cold snowy weather. Some officers lived in nearby farmhouses or in huts built in the encampment. Those who lived in farmhouses moved back to Valley Forge to be closer to their men. The huts provided better shelter than the tents, but during the long winter they also started to fall apart and exposed the men to the cold.

Because the shelter did not protect the men from the cold and the wind, they became sick with fevers, pneumonia, diarrhea, and dysentery. The older soldiers were bothered by rheumatism.

Sickness and Disease
Each brigade had its own hospital, but with the poor conditions many men became sick. Because of the cold, the men could not bathe and poor hygiene caused even more problems. The hospitals were not big enough and there weren't enough medical supplies to care for all the sick men.

Small pox, typhoid and pneumonia were the causes of many deaths. Out of the 12,000 men who arrived in Valley Forge, 3,000 soldiers died and another 2,000 left because they were so sick.

Free Time and Recreation
There isn't much you can do in the middle of winter with without proper shelter and clothing, but the troops found things to do to pass the time. Even General Washington was known to join his officers in a game of cricket. They even were treated to professional plays, including Joseph Addison's "Cato." To keep their spirits up, the soldiers would sing.

Often the men were sent out of the encampment to look for more enlistments or to find food. Sometimes they were just given leaves where they could go and rest, sometimes even to their home states. In the diary of Jeremiah Greenman, he writes, "all ye spayr officers sent home to recrute a nother regiment & sum on furlow."

When General Washington learned on May 5, 1778 that the French had decided to join forces with the Colonists, he gave the men a day off "to set apart a day for gratefully acknowledging the divine Goodness."

Free Time and Recreation
Six months after they arrived in Valley Forge, on June 19, 1778, Commander In Chief General George Washington and his Continental Army left Valley Forge. Nine days later they were in Monmouth, New Jersey where they were victorious in battle against the British. The Army would then march to Yorktown where British Major General Cornwallis and his troops would surrender to General Washington's Valley Forge survivors. The Battle of Yorktown was the final battle of the war.

Commander In Chief, George Washington, the man
When supplies and food were almost gone, General Washington wrote in a letter to Governor Clinton of Pennsylvania, "As naked and as starving as they are, we cannot enough admire the incomparable patience and fidelity of the solider."

General Washington is remembered as a man of prayer. He prayed for his troops. One prayer for his troops has been recorded:

Tis Pride with these old men
To tell what they have seen.
Twill be Pride, when we are old,
To say that in our youth
We heard the tales they told
And looked on them in their truth.
Valley Forge was yet the darkest hour
Before the dawn yet
the Continental Army never did give up.

General George Washington is remembered as the Father of our Country. His respect for his fellow man didn't start when he became President, but when he fought side by side with his troops. He was a man of prayer and knew answers to his prayers.

Today Valley Forge is an historical park established in 1976. Landmarks and the remains of the encampment have been preserved. with many markers and mementos of the historic winter, including the remains of fortifications. Valley Forge symbolizes the American heroism of revolutionaries. Even though they lived under horrible conditions, they continued to train to become better soldiers.