Providence and Perseverance: America's Miraculous Victory in the Revolutionary War
Two weeks after the Declaration of Independence was adopted, John Page, a Virginia statesman, wrote to Thomas Jefferson, the primary author of that profound foundational document, “God preserve the United States. We know the Race is not to the swift nor the Battle to the Strong. Do you not think an Angel rides in the Whirlwind and directs this Storm?” Page was far from alone in sensing the presence and guidance of Providence in the affairs of the United States during the American Revolution.
In a struggle against the mightiest empire in the world, the aid of Providence was surly needed. It was also well understood that enormous sacrifices would be required in order to forge a new nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that every human being is created equal. As the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence acknowledged by signing their names to that document, “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” Although everything could be lost should the Americans fail in their fight to secure independence from Great Britain, those truly committed to the cause accepted that the fate and future happiness of unborn millions depended upon their willingness to persevere in the struggle. As John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail, “I am well aware of the toil, and blood, and treasure that it will cost us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these states. Yet, through all the gloom, I can see the rays of ravishing light and glory. I can see that the end is more than worth all the means, and that prosperity will triumph in that day’s transaction. . . .”
Benjamin Franklin (left) and John Adams (center) reviewing a draft of the Declaration of Independence as penned by the hand of Thomas Jefferson (standing at right). President Abraham Lincoln later called the Declaration the “immortal emblem of Humanity,” believing its sacred words perfectly captured what the nation stood for: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The heaviest burden in the fight to secure American independence fell upon the shoulders of General George Washington and the soldiers of the Continental Army. Not only were they up against the strongest military machine on the earth, but they also faced constant starvation and disease, chronic shortages of shoes and clothing, little or no pay for their service, and an endless supply of other hardships over the course of eight trying years. The words and personal accounts of those men are eternal reminders of how much our forefathers suffered and sacrificed in order to win the Revolutionary War.
The Warriors Who Won American Independence
From his time treating American soldiers stricken with smallpox while conducing operations against the British in Canada, Doctor Lewis Beebe left behind this account: “The most shocking of all spectacles was to see a large barn crowded full of men with this disorder, many of which could not see, speak, or walk—one, nay two, had large maggots, an inch long, crawl out of their ears. [Pustules] were on almost every part of the body. No mortal will ever believe what these suffered unless they were eyewitnesses. It was almost sufficient to excite the pity of brutes.”
Simon Fobes was one of the many American soldiers afflicted with smallpox during the Revolutionary War. He somehow managed to survive the illness while behind the bars of a prison in Quebec as a prisoner of war. As Fobes described the experience, “When the pock was coming out in seventy to eighty of our number, a fever very high and no water to drink, the men drank their own urine which made the fever rage too violently to be endured. Our flesh seemed a mass of corruption. At the same time, we were covered with vermin. When we were a little recovered, we were moved back to our former prison without any cleansing or changing of our apparel. Our clothing was stiff with corrupted matter.”
The winter of 1777/1778 was one of the most desperate hours of the war for General George Washington and the soldiers of the Continental Army as they struggled for survival at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. In addition to the severe shortages of vital supplies like food, clothing, and blankets, the army's stay at Valley Forge was made even worse by the rampant spread of diseases like dysentery, influenza, and pleurisy. Because such a large number of men lacking proper clothing and nutrition were crammed into flimsily constructed huts, many soldiers also contracted pneumonia. “Our troops. How miserable. The skeleton of an army presents itself to our eyes in a naked, starving condition out of health and out of spirits,” recorded Congressional delegate Gouverneur Morris after his arrival at Valley Forge. As Dr. Albigence Waldo of Connecticut described the horrific conditions, “Poor food - hard lodging - cold weather - fatigue - nasty clothes - nasty cookery - vomit half my time - smoke out of my senses - the devil’s in it - I can’t endure it . . . There comes a soldier, his bare feet are seen through his worn-out shoes, his legs nearly naked from the tattered remains of an only pair of stockings; his breeches not sufficient to cover his nakedness; his shirt hanging in strings; his hair disheveled; his face meager; his whole appearance pictures a person forsaken and discouraged.”
General George Washington leading the ragged soldiers of the Continental Army to Valley Forge in December 1777. As the legendary American writer Washington Irving described this scene in his biography of George Washington, “Sad and dreary was the march to Valley Forge, uncheered by the recollection of any recent triumph… Hungry and cold were the poor fellows who had so long been keeping the field … provisions were scant, clothing was worn out, and so badly were they off for shoes, that the footsteps of many might be tracked in blood.” (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
As bad as it was at Valley Forge, that experience wasn’t even the worst winter of the war for the soldiers of the Continental Army. Like usual, the army faced shortages of clothing, food, and other essentials, but what really aggravated the stay in Morristown, New Jersey during the winter of 1779/1780 was the arrival of one of the most punishing winters in American history. As historian Bruce Chadwick records, “From November 1779 until the spring of 1780, New Jersey would be pounded by twenty-six snowstorms, six of blizzard proportions. It was so cold in the region that January remained freezing during all but two days.” Joseph Plumb Martin, who had also been with the army at Valley Forge, was one of the suffering soldiers who endured this frigid trial at Morristown. In his words, “We were absolutely, literally starved. I do solemnly declare that I did not put a single morsel of [food] into my mouth for four days and as many nights, except a little black birch bark which I gnawed off a stick of wood, if that can be called [food]. I saw several of the men roast their shoes and eat them.”
“The bravery of good soldiers consists in enduring hardships and fatigue with patience,” observed Doctor Lewis Beebe. That certainly proved to be the case for General George Washington and the soldiers of the Continental Army. Through their unwavering perseverance, against all the odds, they bested the British on the battlefield and secured independence for the United States. In reflecting on the long, difficult road that ended in victory for America, General Washington did not believe that the triumph was due to him or his soldiers alone. Providence was America’s indispensable partner. As Washington professed in his farewell address to the army, “The singular interpositions of Providence in our feeble condition were such, as could scarcely escape the attention of the most unobserving, while the unparalleled perseverance of the Armies of the United States, through almost every possible suffering and discouragement, for the space of eight long years, was little short of a standing Miracle.”
All Honor to America's Founding Generation of Heroes
Because of the selflessness, fortitude, and patriotism exhibited by soldiers like George Washington and Joseph Plumb Martin, statesman like John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, and countless other figures who fought and struggled to win American independence and to establish a free republic, the United States was able to become what President Abraham Lincoln later called “the last best hope of earth.” To all those mighty founding figures who risked everything to give life to the United States of America, we owe a debt of gratitude that can never be repaid.
Angel in the Whirlwind: The Triumph of the American Revolution by Benson Bobrick
George Washington: A Biography by Washington Irving
National Archives: Washington's Farewell Address to the Army
National Park Service: Lincoln on the Declaration of Independence