Veterans Day 2022: Gratitude for America's Faithful Guardians
“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.” So wrote Washington Irving as he detailed the conditions that the soldiers of General George Washington’s Continental Army faced as they marched to their winter encampment at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania in December 1777. Among the soldiers who made that brutal march was a recently turned 16-year-old private from Connecticut named Joseph Plumb Martin. His personal account of the march to Valley Forge and his early experiences there is one of the countless reminders of the innumerable hardships that the common American soldier endured during the Revolutionary War:
The army was now not only starved but naked; the greatest part were not only shirtless and barefoot, but destitute of all other clothing, especially blankets. I procured a small piece of raw cowhide and made myself a pair of moccasins, which kept my feet (while they lasted) from the frozen ground, although, as I well remember, the hard edges so galled my ankles while on a march that it was with much difficulty and pain that I could wear them afterwards. But the only alternative I had was to endure this inconvenience or go barefoot, as hundreds of my companions had to, till they might be tracked by their blood upon the rough, frozen ground. But hunger, nakedness, and sore shins were not the only difficulties we had at that time to encounter; we had hard duty to perform and little or no strength to perform it with….
We arrived at the Valley Forge in the evening. It was dark, there was no water to be found, and I was perishing with thirst. I searched for water till I was weary, and came to my tent without finding any; fatigue and thirst, joined with hunger, almost made me desperate. I felt at that instant as if I would have taken victuals or drink from the best friend I had on earth by force…. Just after I arrived at my tent, two soldiers, whom I did not know, passed by. They had some water in their canteens which they told me they had found a good distance off, but could not direct me to the place, as it was very dark…. At length I persuaded them to sell me a drink for three pence, Pennsylvania currency, which was every cent of property I could then call my own, so great was the necessity I was then reduced to.”
From December 1777 to June 1778, the American experience at Valley Forge was an enormous test of survival for General George Washington, Joseph Plumb Martin, and every soldier in the Continental Army. As Washington himself put it:
No history now extant can furnish an instance of an army’s suffering such uncommon hardships as ours has done. To see men without clothes to cover their nakedness, without blankets to lie on, without shoes (for the want of which their marches might be traced by the blood from their feet), and almost as often without provisions as with them, marching through the frost and snow, and at Christmas taking up their winter quarters within a day’s march from the enemy, without a house or hut to cover them till they could be built, and submitting to it without a murmur, is a proof of patience and obedience which in my opinion can scarce be paralleled.”
Through the leadership of General Washington, who willingly shared in every hardship with his men, the fortitude of the common American soldier, and the indispensable contributions of many others, the Continental Army did survive at Valley Forge and emerged from it as a more disciplined and professional fighting force. Although there would be many more despairing moments in the war, Washington and his troops endlessly persevered together year after year until American Independence was finally secured in 1783. Through perseverance and spirit, they changed the world forever, and for the better.
When reading first-hand accounts of those such as Joseph Plumb Martin and George Washington, one must feel nothing but endless gratitude for the warriors who exhibited so much fortitude, selflessness, and patriotism in the fight that gave our nation her life. For warriors such as this, and the preceding generations who have nobly followed in their footsteps to defend the nation, we owe a debt that can never fully be repaid. As a small token of our thanks, we can continue to reflect each day on how blessed we are to live in a land that offers so many precious freedoms that are easy to take for granted, always honoring those who put themselves in harms way to secure and sustain those freedoms. As the great author G. K. Chesterton reminds us, "When it comes to life the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude." By living with grateful hearts, thereby acknowledging the many sacrifices that have been made for us, we honor those who have served our nation in one of the highest ways possible.
To read more about the American experience at Valley Forge, please read, Survival of the Strong - George Washington and the Continental Army at Valley Forge.
American Battlefield Trust: Joseph Plumb Martin - Voice of the Common American Soldier.
Museum of the American Revolution: March to Valley Forge.
The Real George Washington By Jay A. Parry.
This Is Why We Stand: Survival of the Strong - George Washington and the Continental Army at Valley Forge.