America’s Long Winter

washington at valley forge

A painting of George Washington praying at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania (The Prayer at Valley Forge by Arnold Friberg 1975)  Legend has it that a local farmer named Issac Potts saw George Washington alone with his horse kneeling in prayer in the midst of the hardship at Valley Forge.  This image of Washington in prayer was replicated in various paintings throughout the years.

By December of 1777, the fate of America rested with General George Washington and the Continental Army.  As the Revolutionary War for independence continued, the Continental Army had gone through another period where the army could have unraveled and the cause lost.  Fresh off of a new campaign where the British had defeated the Americans at two key battles and occupied Philadelphia, the Continental Army was once again pressed into difficult circumstances.

As was the custom during this time due to the difficulty of moving men and materials in cold conditions, the two armies took up quarters to wait out the winter.  Washington needed to find a good defensive position to protect his men that was close enough to monitor the British but not too close that the army would be vulnerable to a surprise British attack. He choose Valley Forge, Pennsylvania about twenty miles north of Philadelphia.  Washington arrived with between 11,000 and 12,000 soldiers along with approximately 500 woman and children.  The Continental Army began the difficult task of constructing simple barracks and surviving the harsh winter conditions.

The time the Continental Army spent at Valley Forge was a pivotal moment in American history.  All the elements of the army’s collapse were present.  The under supplied Americans were cold, hungry and lacking basic winter clothing.  Washington estimated that about one-third of his men did not have shoes.  Disease was the biggest concern.  Of the approximately 2,000 men who did not survive Valley Forge, about two-thirds died because of diseases while others died because of cold and starvation.  Washington not only had to worry about supplying his army but of desertions by his soldiers or even a mutiny.  There were also some in the Continental Congress that discussed removing Washington from command.

valley forge barracks

Image of a barracks at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania

The Continental Army survived Valley Forge and so did the American Revolution.  George Washington implemented strict discipline against any wayward soldiers.  He reassigned officers to tasks oriented towards the management of the camp, thus freeing himself to concentrate on war strategy.  One such officer was the Prussian Baron Friedrich von Steuben who went to work training the army on advanced battle tactics and who also implemented policies to improve hygiene in the camp.  Another important officer was Nathanael Greene who set up a system to get supplies moving into camp.  By early spring 1778, supplies came to Valley Forge and conditions improved.

The American fortunes improved again in May 1778 when the French declared their recognition of the United States as a sovereign power.  By June of 1778, the British evacuated Philadelphia in anticipation of French intervention.  After six months at Valley Forge the renewed Continental Army departed with perhaps 8,000 soldiers and headed towards New Jersey to once again engage the British.

In the end it was the soldiers themselves that kept the American Revolution moving forward. Their willingness to endure terrible conditions and continue in the fight is why Valley Forge is looked at with such reverence.  As the Valley Forge National Historic Park states on its website, “Few places evoke the spirit of patriotism and independence, represent individual and collective sacrifice, or demonstrate the resolve, tenacity and determination of the people of the United States to be free as does Valley Forge.”

George Washington wrote many letters to the Continental Congress and other figures to try and secure desperately needed supplies during his time at Valley Forge.  One such letter to New York Governor George Clinton shows the state of the Continental Army during its time at Valley Forge:

To Governor George Clinton
Head Quarters, Valley Forge, February 16, 1778

Dear Sir: It is with great reluctance, I trouble you on a subject, which does not fall within your province; but it is a subject that occasions me more distress, than I have felt, since the commencement of the war; and which loudly demands the most zealous exertions of every person of weight and authority, who is interested in the success of our affairs. I mean the present dreadful situation of the army for want of provisions, and the miserable prospects before us, with respect to futurity. It is more alarming than you will probably conceive, for, to form a just idea, it were necessary to be on the spot. For some days past, there has been little less, than a famine in camp. A part of the army has been a week, without any kind of flesh, and the rest for three or four days. Naked and starving as they are, we cannot enough admire the incomparable patience and fidelity of the soldiery, that they have not been ere this excited by their sufferings, to a general mutiny or dispersion. Strong symptoms, however, discontent have appeared in particular instances; and nothing but the most active efforts every where can long avert so shocking a catastrophe.

Our present sufferings are not all. There is no foundation laid for any adequate relief hereafter. All the magazines provided in the States of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland, and all the immediate additional supplies they seem capable of affording, will not be sufficient to support the army more than a month longer, if so long. Very little has been done to the Eastward, and as little to the Southward; and whatever we have a right to expect from those quarters, must necessarily be very remote; and is indeed more precarious, than could be wished. When the forementioned supplies are exhausted, what a terrible crisis must ensue, unless all the energy of the Continent is exerted to provide a timely remedy?

Impressed with this idea, I am, on my part, putting every engine to work, that I can possibly think of, to prevent the fatal consequences, we have so great a reason to apprehend. I am calling upon all those, whose stations and influence enable them to contribute their aid upon so important an occasion; and from your well known zeal, I expect every thing within the compass of your power, and that the abilities and resources of the state over which you preside, will admit. I am sensible of the disadvantages it labours under, from having been so long the scene of war, and that it must be exceedingly drained by the great demands to which it has been subject. But, tho’ you may not be able to contribute materially to our relief, you can perhaps do something towards it; and any assistance, however trifling in itself, will be of great moment at so critical a juncture, and will conduce to keeping the army together till the Commissary’s department can be put upon a better footing, and effectual measures concerted to secure a permanent and competent supply. What methods you can take, you will be the best judge of; but, if you can devise any means to procure a quantity of cattle, or other kind of flesh, for the use of this army, to be at camp in the course of a month, you will render a most essential service to the common cause. I have the honor etc.

G. Washington

You may also enjoying reading:

December 1776: The Month That Saved America

The Fog That Saved An Army

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Protected by WP Anti Spam