Survival of the Strong: George Washington and the Continental Army at Valley Forge
The sting of defeat mixed with the bitter cold December air to create a contrasting image of desperation and determination as the soldiers of General George Washington’s Continental Army dragged their bloody, shoeless feet across the wintery Pennsylvania ground. Over the previous months, the Continentals had fought hard, but that did not stop them from being overpowered and beaten by the British on the battlefields of Brandywine, Paoli, and Germantown. As a result of these setbacks, the American capital of Philadelphia was now in British hands. All of this and more was very much on the minds of Washington and his weary, hungry, ragged soldiers as they marched to winter quarters at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. The next six months would be a test of strength and survival for the Continentals, but the army that entered Valley Forge in December 1777 would leave it in June 1778 as a transformed fighting force. Valley Forge not only helped make the Continental Army more strong and confident, but it also epitomized the indispensable leadership of General Washington to the American cause and shined a light on the invaluable service rendered by several other faithful soldiers of liberty.
Located some twenty miles north of Philadelphia, General Washington selected Valley Forge to be the home for his roughly 12,000 soldiers and the 500 women and children who followed them during the winter of 1777/1778. Situated on a high plateau at the top of a series of protective hills, the encampment was defensible and also had the advantage of allowing the Continentals to watch over the British occupying Philadelphia. While the site offered access to essentials like clean water and firewood, what the Continental Army lacked in supplies would contribute to Washington’s description of Valley Forge as “a dreary kind of place and uncomfortably provided.”
The shortage of proper clothing, blankets, food, and other vital items necessary for an army to survive the harsh winter elements were perpetually hard to come by for Washington’s troops. As Private Joseph Plumb Martin, who had entered the war at the age of 15, would later write, the army was “in a truly forlorn condition,-no clothing, no provisions, and as disheartened as need be.” The Marquis de Lafayette, a French aristocrat who had sailed from Europe at the age of 19 to join the Americans in their fight for liberty, recorded that “the unfortunate soldiers … had neither coats, nor hats, nor shirts, nor shoes; their feet and legs froze till they grew black, and it was often necessary to amputate them.” Washington even calculated that at least a third of his men had no shoes. The lack of footwear, socks, and coats thereby left as many as 3,000 of his troops unfit for service.
General Washington and his soldiers bearing the bitter cold of winter at Valley Forge. (Photo Credit: Pixels.com)
For those soldiers who were fit for service, there was much work to be done. Washington’s men were formed into construction squads and ordered to build wooden huts for themselves. Working together, they ultimately built some 1,500 to 2,000 log huts, measuring approximately 14 feet by 16 feet, in parallel lines to house the army and its followers. Because of the shortage of blankets, men were also sent to scour the countryside for straw to be used as bedding in order to help keep poorly supplied soldiers warm in their huts.
Although the “little city” of huts at Valley Forge helped combat the effects of winter and the constant rain that plagued the camp, the shortages of food, proper clothing, and unsanitary conditions contributed to the spread of deadly diseases like typhus and smallpox among the troops. It is estimated that more than 2,000 soldiers died as a result of disease, starvation, and other hardships that afflicted Washington’s army at Valley Forge.
Despite the uneasy existence his men faced, General Washington vowed to “share in the hardship” and “partake of every inconvenience” endured by his troops. From his headquarters near Valley Forge creek, a two-story stone home which also housed between 20 and 25 of his officers and servant staff, Washington cultivated a sense of unity and perseverance that helped keep his army together throughout the ordeal. Although overburdened by the need for basic necessities like food and clothing, there was never a mass desertion or mutiny by the troops during the army’s stay at the encampment. That fact alone stands as one of the greatest testaments to Washington’s leadership at Valley Forge.
General George Washington at Valley Forge. (Photo Credit: Encyclopædia Britannica)
Although the Continental Army did ultimately hold together at Valley Forge, during the actual experience, Washington greatly feared that it “might dissolve.” At one point, his quartermaster even reported that he had only 25 barrels of flour and a small amount of salt pork to feed the entire army. Because of shortages like this, much of Washington’s time at Valley Forge was spent writing to Congress, urgently demanding desperately needed supplies for his men. It was a fight for survival and the commander was forced to assign two of his most trusted young generals, Nathanael Greene and Anthony Wayne, to take up the task of picking apart the countryside to search for horses, cattle, sheep, and hogs. Greene was later named the army’s new quartermaster general. Through his efforts, a more efficient system was put in place to bring supplies into camp, which significantly helped to improve conditions at Valley Forge by early spring.
As if Washington did not already have enough to worry about, he also had to devote energy to counter threats to his authority as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army. Coined the “Conway Cabal” by later historians, evidence suggests that a group of army officers and members of congress set their sights on removing Washington from command and replacing him with Major General Horatio Gates. In October 1777, Gates had presided over the defeat and capture of British General John Burgoyne’s army at Saratoga, New York. During that same period, Washington’s army had suffered a series of defeats culminating in the loss of Philadelphia. While some plotted and others wondered whether the Continental Army might be in better hands with Gates in control, however, a great many more came to fear for the fate of the American cause if Washington was gone.
One year earlier, the fight for American Independence had seemed all but over in December 1776. As the famous writer and Patriot Thomas Paine had famously written in The American Crisis,“These are the times that try men’s souls.” It was during this dark period that Washington went on on to conduct one of the most audacious campaigns in military history, guiding his soldiers to two major victories in the span of ten days that saved the Revolution from ruin. The Trenton-Princeton Campaign epitomized everything that made Washington such a resolute and inspiring leader. Who else possessed the sense of duty, character, spirit, and perseverance needed to bear the weight of the war on their shoulders and keep soldiers committed to the struggle in the face of the greatest military power in the world? As storied Washington biographer James Thomas Flexner put it, “The answer was that there was no one else.”
General Washington and his soldiers crossing the ice-chocked Delaware River in the middle of a severe winter storm on Christmas night 1776. After making it over to New Jersey, Washington and his band of 2,400 soldiers marched ten difficult miles to reach the town of Trenton, where they routed a garrison of 1,500 Hessian mercenaries on the morning of December 26. (Photo Credit: Mort Künstler)
In response to the Conway Cabal, Washington’s trusted generals ultimately stepped up to defend their commander, sending letters to Congress in support of him. The movement to remove the Commander-in-Chief eventually dissolved as the winter wore on. As Flexner concluded, “Washington was recognized as the indispensable man.”
Another invaluable figure that emerged during the Continental Army’s stay at Valley Forge was Baron Friedrich von Steuben. A Prussian military officer who claimed to have served on the general staff of the battlefield legend, Frederick the Great, Steuben arrived at Valley Forge in February 1778 and was tasked with using his experience to provide Washington’s soldiers with much needed professional training. In his role as drillmaster at Valley Forge, he performed supremely well and achieved incredible results through his intensive hands on drilling. Steuben instilled the soldiers of the Continental Army with the discipline and skills that they needed to maneuver more effectively on the battlefield and to fight as a unified army. He also wrote the first official United States infantry manual in French, which was translated by two of Washington’s most trusted young staff officers, John Laurens and Alexander Hamilton.
Steuben was not the only foreigner who proved to be a decisive difference maker at Valley Forge. Following in the footsteps of his Commander-in-Chief, the Marquis de Lafayette, who had recently been placed in command of a division of troops, stood shoulder to shoulder with his men through every ordeal. Not only did he live among his soldiers during the coldest part of winter, but Lafayette also freely spent his own money to purchase uniforms and muskets for his warriors. There was much to admire about the young Frenchman, especially his faithfulness to the American cause and his unwavering loyalty to General Washington. Lafayette was one of Washington’s most fervent defenders during the Conway Cabal. The two would ultimately develop such a close bond that Lafayette came to consider Washington as his all-but-adopted father. Additionally, under Lafayette’s direction, fellow officers from France, Poland, and other European nations serving in the Continental Army were organized into the Corps d’Étrangers.
Washington and Lafayette at Valley Forge. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Finally, it is also important to note the contributions of Martha Washington and several other wives of top officers in the army who traveled to Valley Forge to join their husbands. By sharing in the struggle and helping to keep spirits high, they fulfilled their own duties to the cause. As the secretary of Baron von Steuben noted, “In the midst of all our distress there were some bright sides of the picture which Valley Forge exhibited…Mrs. Washington had the courage to follow her husband to that dismal abode…” In addition to these leading ladies, there was also some 250 to 400 women present at Valley Forge. They too did what was needed, serving as nurses, laundering and mending clothes, and performing other duties necessary to maintain the army’s survival.
Toward the end of the army’s stay at Valley Forge, monumental news arrived that was sure to change the very landscape of the struggle against the British Crown. In May 1778, the Continentals learned that earlier that year France and the United States had forged a military alliance pledged to American Independence. From here on out, the Continentals would have a powerful ally to help wage war against the British Crown. After all they had suffered, this announcement was cause for widespread jubilation at Valley Forge. According to one historian, in honor of the alliance, “Washington ordered his troops to line the parade ground and shoot off their guns one by one in celebration.”
After a grueling six month test of strength and survival, General Washington and his revitalized Continental Army finally marched out of Valley Forge on June 19, 1778. Through hard training and drilling, the Continentals had been molded into supremely sharper soldiers. Moving with a new sense of confidence, Washington’s men were eager to demonstrate their new fighting skills against the enemy. They got their chance very quickly, battling the British Army near Monmouth Court House in Freehold, New Jersey on June 28. After an exhausting day of fighting in hundred-degree heat, the Redcoats ultimately slipped away that night, leaving the field to the Continental Army. For Washington and his troops, the Battle of Monmouth was a proud victory, serving as confirmation that their many sufferings at Valley Forge had indeed transformed them into more formidable fighters.
George Washington leading the Continental Army at the Battle of Monmouth on June 28, 1778. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The strong had survived at Valley Forge. Guided by their indispensable leader, General George Washington, those stout survivors would continue to fight until American Independence was finally secured.
American Battlefield Trust: Winter at Valley Forge.
George Washington's Mount Vernon: Conway Cabal.
George Washington's Mount Vernon: The Marquis de Lafayette at Valley Forge.
George Washington's Mount Vernon: Valley Forge.
Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story by Wilfred M. McClay.
National Park Service: Valley Forge - Lt Col Alexander Hamilton.
National Park Service: The Women Present at Valley Forge.
National Park Service: Overview of Valley Forge History and Significance.
This Is Why We Stand: Stand and Fight - George Washington and the Battle of Monmouth.
This Is Why We Stand: To Save the Revolution - George Washington and the Trenton-Princeton Campaign.
Washington: The Indispensable Man by James Thomas Flexner.