By: Gary J Verdes
The images are heartrending, dramatic and so powerful that they are embedded in the nation’s historical consciousness:
Bloody footprints in the snow left by bootless men. Near naked soldiers wrapped in thin blankets huddled around a smoky fire of green wood. The plaintive chant from the starving: “We want meat! We want meat!” These are the indelible images of suffering and endurance associated with Valley Forge in the winter of 1777-78. “An army of skeletons appeared before our eyes naked, starved, sick and discouraged,” wrote New York’s Gouverneur Morris of the Continental Congress. The Marquis de Lafayette wrote: “The unfortunate soldiers were in want of everything; they had neither coats nor hats, nor shirts, nor shoes. Their feet and their legs froze until they were black, and it was often necessary to amputate them.” A bitter George Washington — whose first concern was always his soldiers — would accuse the Congress of “little feeling for the naked and distressed soldiers. I feel superabundantly for them, and from my soul pity those miseries, which it is neither in my power to relieve or prevent.” The suffering and sacrifices of the American soldiers at Valley Forge are familiar, iconic images, but there is another side of the picture. Valley Forge was where a new, confident, professional American army was born. Three months of shortage and hardship were followed by three months of relative abundance that led to wonderful changes in the morale and fighting capabilities of the Continental Army. France would enter the war on the side of the new nation. Valuable foreign volunteers and fresh replacements would trickle into camp. Most important, it was at Valley Forge that a vigorous, systematic training regime transformed ragged amateur troops into a confident 18th century military organization capable of beating the Red Coats in the open field of battle.
Valley Forge was an encampment of the Continental Army in Pennsylvania, just about 20 miles south of Philadelphia. General Washington’s troops stayed there from December of 1777 to June of 1778. In 1776, George Washington and his troops crossed the mighty Delaware River. They then fought the Battle of Trenton which decided whether or not General Washington and his troops would stay at Valley Forge. The first three months that the troops spent at Valley Forge were most definitely the hardest. The troops did not have proper clothing. Many soldiers went without boots and some did not even have other articles of warm clothing. For the first couple of months the troops were there, they began to make log cabins out of wood. It was very hard to put 11,000 men into a wood lot south of Philadelphia. The troops who camped at Valley Forge for those three months often got sick from the cold. They were also hungry most of the time. It was very hard to survive; one troop expressed it through his words, “half the army are naked, and almost the whole army go barefoot.” The men at Valley Forge did not have many other supplies either. The men were short on guns which many men provided themselves. They were also short on food and money. Some of the officers there did not get paid because the Continental Congress did not have the money to pay them. The troops needed money to buy the proper supplies. During that difficult winter at Valley Forge, the troops learned discipline. Baron Augustus von Steuben came over from Europe and helped the Continental Army in their strategies for training. He helped General Washington in drilling the troops. Valley Forge turned out to be a good thing for the Continental Army. General Washington and his troops stay at Valley Forge was probably one of the most important events in the Continental Army’s existence.
“Naked and starving as they are we cannot enough admire the incomparable patience and fidelity of the soldiery.” –General George Washington at Valley Forge, February 16, 1778
“Let it be told to the future world, that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive, that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet and to repulse it.”
–The Crisis by Thomas Paine