Valley Forge functioned as the third of eight military encampments for the Continental Army’s main body, commanded by General George Washington. In September 1777, British forces had captured the American capital of Philadelphia. After failing to retake the city, Washington led his 12,000-person army into winter quarters at Valley Forge, located approximately 18 miles (29 km) northwest of Philadelphia. They remained there for six months, from December 19, 1777 to June 19, 1778. At Valley Forge, the Continentals struggled to manage a disastrous supply crisis while retraining and reorganizing their units. About 1,700 to 2,000 soldiers died due to disease, possibly exacerbated by malnutrition.
|Part of The American Revolutionary War|
Washington and Lafayette at Valley Forge
In 1777, Valley Forge consisted of a small proto-industrial community located at the juncture of the Valley Creek and the Schuylkill River. In 1742, Quaker industrialists established the Mount Joy Iron Forge. Largely thanks to capital improvements made by John Potts (of Pottstown, Pennsylvania) and his family over the following decades, the small community expanded the ironworks, established mills, and constructed new dwellings for residents. Surrounding the valley was a rich farmland, where mainly Welsh-Quaker farmers grew wheat, rye, hay, Indian corn, among other crops, and raised livestock including cattle, sheep, pigs, and barnyard fowl. Settlers of German and Swedish descent also lived nearby.
In the summer of 1777 the Continental Army’s quartermaster general, Thomas Mifflin, decided to station a portion of his army’s supplies in outbuildings around the forges, due to its variety of structures and secluded location between two prominent hills. Fearing such a concentration of military supplies would undoubtedly attract the British, the forge-ironmaster, William Dewees Jr., expressed concerns about the army’s proposal. Mifflin heeded Dewees concerns but established a magazine at Valley Forge anyway.
After the British landing at Head of Elk (present-day Elkton), Maryland on August 25, 1777, the British Army maneuvered out of the Chesapeake basin and towards Valley Forge. Following the Battle of Brandywine (September 11, 1777) and the abortive Battle of the Clouds (September 16), on September 18 several hundred soldiers under General Wilhelm von Knyphausen raided the supply magazine at Valley Forge. Despite the best efforts of Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Hamilton and Captain Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee, the two Continental army officers selected to evacuate the supplies from Valley Forge, Crown soldiers captured supplies, destroyed others, and burned down the forges and other buildings.
Political, strategic, and environmental factors all influenced the Continental Army’s decision to establish their encampment near Valley Forge, Pennsylvania in the winter of 1777-1778. Washington conferred with his officers to select the site that would be most advantageous to his army.
Washington first asked his generals where to quarter the Continental Army in the winter of 1777-1778 on October 29, 1777. In addition to suggestions from his officers, Washington also had to contend with the recommendations of politicians. Pennsylvania state legislators and the Continental Congress expected the Continental Army to select an encampment site that could protect the countryside around Philadelphia. Some members of the Continental Congress also believed that the army might be able to launch a winter campaign. Interested parties suggested other sites for an encampment, including Lancaster, Pennsylvania and Wilmington, Delaware. However, following the inconclusive Battle of Whitemarsh from December 5-8, increasing numbers of officers and politicians began to appreciate the need to defend the greater Philadelphia region from British incursions.
Considering these questions, an encampment at Valley Forge had notable advantages. Valley Forge’s high terrain meant that enemy attacks would be difficult. Its location allowed for soldiers to be readily detached to protect the countryside. Proximity to the Schuylkill River could facilitate supply movements down the river. Wide, open areas provided space for drilling and training. On December 19, Washington conducted his 12,000-person army to Valley Forge to establish the encampment.
The encampment was primarily situated along the high, flat ground east of Mount Joy and south of the Schuylkill River. In addition to a concentration of soldiers at Valley Forge, Washington ordered nearly 2,000 soldiers to encamp at Wilmington, Delaware. He posted the army’s mounted troops at Trenton, New Jersey, and additional outposts at Downingtown and Radnor, Pennsylvania, among other places. In the two winter encampments prior to Valley Forge, the Continental army had sheltered themselves in a combination of tents, constructed huts, civilian barns and other buildings. Valley Forge would mark the first time Washington ordered the army primarily concentrated into a more permanent post where they constructed their own shelters. This strategic shift encouraged a whole new host of problems for the American Patriots.
The Valley Forge encampment became the Continental Army’s first large-scale construction of living quarters. While no accurate account exists for the exact number of log huts built, experts estimate a range between 1,300-1,600 structures. Brigadier General Louis Lebègue de Presle Duportail selected grounds for the brigade encampments and planned the defenses. Afterwards, brigadier generals appointed officers from each regiment to mark out the precise spot for every officer and all enlisted men’s huts. Despite commanders’ attempts at standardization, the huts varied in terms of size, materials, and construction techniques. Military historian John B. B. Trussell Jr. writes that many squads “dug their floors almost two feet below ground level,” to reduce wind exposure or the number of logs required for construction. In addition, some huts had thatched straw roofs, while others consisted of brush, canvas, or clapboards. In a letter to his wife Adrienne, Lafayette described the huts as “small barracks, which are scarcely more cheerful than dungeons.”
The Continental Army that marched into Valley Forge consisted of about 12,000 people—soldiers, artificers, women, and children. Throughout the winter, patriot commanders and legislators faced the challenge of supplying a population the size of a colonial city. In May and June 1777, the Continental Congress had authorized the reorganization of the supply department. Implementation of those changes never fully took effect, due to the fighting surrounding Philadelphia. Consequently, the supply chain had broken down even before the Continental Army arrived at Valley Forge. Washington chose the area partly for its strategic benefits, but wintertime road conditions impeded supply wagons en route to the encampment.
That winter, starvation killed perhaps as many as 1,500 horses, but soldiers fared better. Nonetheless, they suffered from continual, gnawing hunger due to inconsistent supplies. At Valley Forge, Washington ordered that soldiers’ rations include either one to one-and-a-half pounds of flour or bread, one pound of salted beef or fish, or three-quarters pound of salted pork, one gill of whiskey or spirits, or one-and-a-half pounds of flour or bread, a half-pound of bacon or salted pork, a half-pint of peas or beans, and one gill of whiskey or spirits. In practice, however, the army could not reliably supply the full ration. Perishable foods began to rot before reaching the troops, due to poor storage, transportation problems, or confusion regarding the supplies’ whereabouts. Other rations became lost or captured by the enemy. Traveling to market proved dangerous for some vendors. When combined with the Continental Army’s lack of hard currency, prices for perishable goods inflated. Therefore, during the first few days of constructing their huts, the Continentals primarily ate firecake, a tasteless mixture of flour and water cooked upon heated rocks. In his memoir, Joseph Plumb Martin wrote that “to go into the wild woods and build us habitations to stay (not to live) in, in such a weak, starved and naked condition, was appalling in the highest degree.” Resentment swelled within the ranks towards those deemed responsible for their hardship. The next day on December 23, Washington wrote Henry Laurens, the President of the Continental Congress. Washington related how his commanders had just exerted themselves with some difficulty to quell a “dangerous mutiny” fomenting, due to the lack of provision. Washington continued with a dire warning to Congress: “unless some great and capital change suddenly takes place in that line, this Army must inevitably be reduced to one or other of these three things, Starve, dissolve, or disperse, in order to obtain subsistence in the best manner they can.” While Washington dealt with serious circumstances, he may have exaggerated slightly to obtain a quicker response from the Continental Congress.
On January 7, Christopher Marshall related how “ten teams of oxen, fit for slaughtering, came into camp, driven by loyal Philadelphia women. They also brought 2,000 shirts, smuggled from the city, sewn under the eyes of the enemy.” While these women provided crucial assistance, most people remained relatively unaware of the Continental Army’s plight—”an unavoidable result of a general policy” to prevent such intelligence from reaching the British.
The Continental Army did not experience a particularly harsh winter at Valley Forge, but many soldiers remained unfit for duty, owing to the lack of proper clothing and uniforms (“naked” referred to a ragged or improperly attired individual). Years later, General Marquis de Lafayette recalled that “the unfortunate soldiers were in want of everything; they had neither coats, hats, shirts, nor shoes; their feet and legs froze till they had become almost black, and it was often necessary to amputate them.”
The army’s situation improved when a five-man congressional delegation arrived on January 24. The delegates consisted of “Francis Dana of Massachusetts, Nathaniel Folsom of New Hampshire, John Harvie of Virginia, Gouverneur Morris of New York, and Joseph Reed of Pennsylvania.” According to historian Wayne Bodle, they came to understand through their visit “how vulnerable the new army could be to logistical disruption, owing to its size, its organizational complexity, and its increasing mobility.” Washington and his aides convinced them to implement recommended reforms to the supply department. In March 1778, Congress also appointed Nathanael Greene as Quartermaster General, who reluctantly accepted at Washington’s behest. One of the Continental Army’s most able generals, Greene did not want an administrative position. Yet he and his staff better supplied the troops at a time when the weather began to improve, and with it, road conditions. The Schuylkill River also thawed, allowing the Continental Army to more easily to transport convoys from the main supply depot at Reading.
Environmental & Disease ConditionsEdit
With the fourth largest population in (former) British North America, maintaining cleanliness remained a challenge for the Continental Army. Scabies broke out due to the filthy conditions within the encampment, as did other, deadlier ailments. The army had a limited water supply for cooking, washing, and bathing. Dead horse remains often lay unburied, and Washington found the smell of some places intolerable. Neither plumbing nor a standardized system of trash collection existed. To combat the spread of contagion, Washington commanded soldiers to burn tar or “the Powder of a Musquet Cartridge” in the huts everyday, to cleanse the air of putrefaction. On May 27, Washington had ordered his soldiers remove the mud-and-straw chinking from huts “to render them as airy as possible.” Due to an imperfect understanding of disease transmission, however, these actions would not have produced the desired results. No one had yet discovered germ theory.
Subsequently, outbreaks of typhoid and dysentery spread through contaminated food and water. Soldiers contracted influenza and pneumonia, while still others succumbed to typhus, caused by body lice. Although the inconsistent delivery of food rations did not cause starvation, it probably exacerbated the health of ailing soldiers. Some patients might have suffered from more than one ailment. In total, about 1,700-2,000 troops died during the Valley Forge encampment, mostly at general hospitals located in six different towns. Valley Forge had the highest mortality rate of any Continental Army encampment, and even most military engagements. The death toll for civilians connected to Valley Forge remains unknown.
Despite the mortality rate, Washington did curb the spread of smallpox, which had plagued the Continental Army since the American Revolution had begun in 1775. In January 1777, Washington had ordered mass inoculation of his troops, but a year later at Valley Forge, smallpox broke out again. An investigation uncovered that three to four thousand of their troops had not gotten inoculated, despite having long-term enlistments. So, Washington ordered inoculations for any soldiers vulnerable to the disease.
A precursor to vaccination (introduced by Edward Jenner in 1798), inoculation gave the patient a milder form of smallpox with better recovery rates than if the patient had acquired the disease naturally. The procedure provided lifetime immunity from a disease with a roughly fifteen to thirty-three percent mortality rate. In June 1778, when the Continental Army marched out of Valley Forge, they had completed “the first large-scale, state-sponsored immunization campaign in history.” By continuing the inoculation program for new recruits, Washington better maintained military strength among the regular, Continental Army troops throughout the remainder of the war.
While each hut housed a squad of twelve enlisted soldiers, sometimes soldiers’ families joined them to share that space as well. Throughout the encampment period, Mary Ludwig Hays and approximately 250-400 other women had followed their soldier husbands or sweethearts to Valley Forge, sometimes with children in tow. Washington once wrote that “the multitude of women in particular, especially those who are pregnant, or have children, are a clog upon every movement.” Yet women on the ration proved invaluable, whether on the march or at an encampment like Valley Forge. They often earned income either by laundering clothes or by nursing troops, which kept soldiers cleaner and healthier. In turn, this made the troops appear more professional and disciplined.
Lucy Flucker Knox, Catharine Littlefield "Caty" Greene, and other senior officers’ wives journeyed to Valley Forge at the behest of their husbands. On 22 December, Martha Washington predicted that her husband would send for her as soon as his army went into winter quarter, and that “if he does I must go.” Indeed she did, traveling in wartime with an unknown party of enslaved servants over poor roads, reaching her destination in early February. Washington’s aide-de-camp Colonel Richard Kidder Meade met her at the Susquehanna ferry dock to escort her into the encampment. Over the next six months, Martha hosted political leaders and military officials, managing domestic staff within the confined space of Washington’s Headquarters.
Contrary to popular perceptions, Valley Forge had a high percentage of racial and ethnic diversity, since Washington’s army comprised individuals from all thirteen states. About thirty percent of Continental soldiers at Valley Forge did not speak English as their first language. Many soldiers and commanders hailed from German-speaking communities, as with Pennsylvania-born Brigadier General Peter Muhlenberg. Still others spoke Scottish- or Irish-Gaelic, and a few descended from French-speaking Huguenot and Dutch-speaking communities in New York State. Local residents sometimes conversed in Welsh. Several senior officers in the Continental Army originally came from France, Prussia, Poland, Ireland, and Hungary.
Although Native and/or African American men supported the Continental Army as drovers, waggoneers, and laborers, others fought as soldiers, particularly from Rhode Island and Massachusetts. The smallest of the states, Rhode Island had difficulty meeting recruitment quotas for white men, spurring Brigadier General James Mitchell Varnum to suggest the enlistment of enslaved men for his 1st Rhode Island Regiment. Over a four-month period in 1778, the Rhode Island General Assembly allowed for their recruitment. In exchange for enlisting, soldiers of the 1st Rhode Island Regiment gained immediate emancipation, and their former owners received financial compensation equal to the enslaved person’s commoditized market value. By January 1778, nearly ten percent of Washington’s effective force consisted of African American troops.
Commanders brought free and enslaved servants with them into the encampment, usually African Americans. Washington’s military family included his enslaved manservant William Lee, as well as enslaved cooks Hannah Till and her husband Isaac. William Lee had married Margaret Thomas, a free woman with black and white ancestry who worked as a laundress at Washington’s Headquarters. Hannah’s owner Reverend John Mason lent her out to Washington, but Hannah secured an arrangement whereby she eventually bought her freedom in June 1780. Although Isaac secured a similar arrangement, he disappears from the historical record after a few years, and it’s not known if he obtained his freedom.
By Spring 1778, Wappinger warriors, a delegation of the Oneida and Tuscarora, and Colonel Joseph Louis Cook of the St. Regis Mohawk had all joined the troops at Valley Forge. Most served as scouts against British raiding parties in the area, and in May 1778, they fought under Lafayette at the Battle of Barren Hill. In oral histories, however, a prominent Oneida woman named Polly Cooper also brought “hundreds of bushels of white corn” to hungry troops, teaching them how to process it for safe consumption. During the American Revolution, most Native American nations sided with the British, partly due to fears that American Patriots would expand westward if they won independence. Yet some Native Americans did support the Patriots “due to personal ties, shared religious beliefs,” or past mistreatment by the British. When the Oneida and Tuscarora allied themselves with the American Patriots, the civil war between British and American colonials spilled over into a civil war between the Six Nations of the Haudenosaunee or Iroquois Confederacy.
Among the challenges befalling the Continental Army during the Valley Forge winter included poor organization. Two years of revolutionary war, shuffling leadership, and uneven recruitment resulted in irregular unit organization and strength. During the Valley Forge encampment, the army was reorganized into five divisions under Major Generals Charles Lee, Marquis de Lafayette, Johan de Kalb, and William Alexander “Lord Stirling,” with Brigadier General Anthony Wayne serving in place of Mifflin. Thanks to the widespread reorganization, unit strength and the terms of service became more standardized, improving the Continental army’s efficiency.
Although Washington enjoyed support among enlisted soldiers, commissioned officers and congressional officials were not as enthusiastic. During the Valley Forge winter, Washington’s detractors attacked his leadership ability in both private correspondence and in popular publications. One anonymous letter in January 1778 disparaged Washington. It read, “The proper methods of attacking, beating, and conquering the Enemy has never as yet been adapted by the Commander in [Chief].”
While historians disagree as to the seriousness of the threat to Washington’s leadership during the Valley Forge winter, the most organized of these threats (albeit loosely-organized) was the so-called Conway Cabal. The Conway Cabal involved an attempt by a handful of military officers and American politicians to replace Washington with Major General Horatio Gates as the head of the Continental army. The movement was nominally led by Thomas Conway, a foreign Continental army general and critic of Washington’s leadership. If the cabal ever posed any real threat to Washington’s leadership, a series of leaks and embarrassing exposures in the fall and winter of 1777 and 1778 dissolved the threat. Thanks to the demise of the so-called Conway Cabal, following the Valley Forge encampment George Washington’s reputation in the American war effort improved.
Increasing military efficiency, morale, and discipline improved the army's well-being with better supply of food and arms. The Continental Army had been hindered in battle because units administered training from a variety of field manuals, making coordinated battle movements awkward and difficult. They struggled with basic formations and lacked uniformity, thanks to multiple drilling techniques taught in various ways by different officers. The task of developing and carrying out an effective training program fell to Baron Friedrich de Steuben, a Prussian drill master who had recently arrived from Europe.
He drilled the soldiers, improving their battle and formation techniques. Under Steuben’s leadership, the Continentals practiced volley fire, improved maneuverability, standardized their march paces, exercised skirmishing operations, and drilled bayonet proficiency. These new efforts to train and discipline the army also improved morale among the soldiers more generally.
Initially, France remained reluctant to directly involve themselves in the war against Great Britain. In part, they worried that revolutionary fervor might spread into their own empire (it did by 1789), but they also did not think the American colonists could win. However, the October 1777 surrender of British General John Burgoyne’s army at Saratoga, New York “won for Americans the assistance they needed from other foreign powers.” France and the United States subsequently signed a treaty on 6 February 1778, creating a military alliance between the two countries.
In response, Great Britain declared war on France five weeks later, on March 17.
On May 6, having already received word of the French Alliance, Washington ordered the Continental Army to perform a Grand Feu de Joie, a formal ceremony consisting of a rapid and sequential firing of guns down the ranks. Continental officer George Ewing wrote that the troops then shouted, “three cheers and Long live the King of France after this…three cheers and shout of God Save the friendly Powers of Europe…and cheers and a shout of God Save the American States.” Each soldier received an extra gill of rum (about four ounces) to enjoy that day, and after the troop’s dismissal, Washington and other officers drank many patriotic toasts and concluded the day “with harmless Mirth and jollity.”
They had cause for celebration. As empires, both France and Great Britain had territory around the world that required protection. Sir Henry Clinton replaced General Sir William Howe as British Commander-in-Chief of Land Forces in North America, and had to divert troops from Philadelphia to the Crown’s valuable West Indies possessions. The British also feared a French naval blockade of Philadelphia, so in June, Clinton abandoned it for New York City—a loyalist stronghold. On June 18, Washington and his troops marched after them, with the remainders vacating Valley Forge one day later—exactly six months after the Continental Army had arrived.
Battle of MonmouthEdit
Following the formal declaration of the Franco-American alliance, the British decided to abandon Pennsylvania, fearing they could not continue to occupy to both Philadelphia and New York City. On June 18, 1778, the British army completed its evacuation of Philadelphia, and began the long overland march through New Jersey towards New York City. The next day, the Continental Army marched out of Valley Forge in pursuit of their enemy. As they marched through south and central New Jersey, the British destroyed property and confiscated supplies and food, inspiring growing enmity among the area’s civilians. Meanwhile, small-scale cooperative operations between the Continentals and New Jersey militia constantly harassed and exhausted the British forces.
The armies met on the morning of June 28, beginning the Battle of Monmouth. Continental soldiers under the command of General Charles Lee engaged the British,in approximately five hours of continuous fighting in a ferocious heat. That night, British commander Sir Henry Clinton moved his army out of Freehold and resumed their march to Manhattan. Both sides claimed elements of victory. The British army completed its march to New York City, while the Continental Army had forced a battle and performed admirably overall. The standardized training instilled in veterans and new recruits at Valley Forge improved their performance on the battlefield.
Myth & MemoryEdit
Valley Forge long occupied a prominent place in American storytelling and memory. The image of Valley Forge as a site of terrible suffering and unshakeable perseverance emerged years after the encampment ended.
One of the most enduring myths about the Valley Forge encampment concerned the weather. Valley Forge has long been portrayed in stories and pictures as blanketed in snow or coated in ice. In such stories, exposure and frostbite supposedly claimed the lives of many soldiers. While amputations did occur, no corroborating sources claim that death occurred from the freezing temperatures alone. Rather, at Valley Forge snowfall was infrequent, above-freezing temperatures were regular, and ice was uncommon. Stories of harsh winter largely originate from the 1779-1780 winter encampment at Jockey Hollow, near Morristown, New Jersey. The winter of 1779-1780 was reportedly one of the worst of the century, and its stories and images have seeped into the American consciousness about Valley Forge.
One of the most popular Valley Forge legends is that of Washington kneeling in the snow praying for his army’s salvation. The image has been popularized in paintings, in newspapers, and at one point President Ronald Reagan even repeated it. Yet no contemporary evidence exists suggesting such a prayer ever occurred. The story first appeared in an 1804 article by Mason Locke Weems, an itinerant minister, popular folklorist, and Washington biographer. In Weems’s story, a neutral Quaker named Isaac Potts discovered Washington at prayer, relayed the story to his wife, and then declares his support for the American cause. However, Isaac Potts did not live near Valley Forge during the encampment period, and did not wed his wife until 1803. Despite these dubious origins, many have repeated the story over the years.
Valley Forge Historical MapsEdit
- Bodo Otto (Senior Surgeon of the Continental Army)
- Upper Merion Township, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania
- USS Valley Forge
- Valley Forge Pilgrimage
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- Valley Forge Military Academy and College
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- Weedon, George (1902). Valley Forge Orderly Book of General George Weedon of the Continental Army Under Command of Genl. George Washington: In the Campaign of 1777-8, Describing the Events of the Battles of Brandywine, Warren Tavern, Germantown, and Whitemarsh, and of the Camps at Neshaminy, Wilmington, Pennypacker's Mills, Skippack, Whitemarsh, & Valley Forge. Dodd, Mead. Check date values in:
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