< Valley Forge

A Winter at Valley Forge

Valley Forge National Park

Valley Forge, Pa.

August 2nd, 1999

As Map namewe travel through this land, looking for its history, we could not pass up an opportunity to stop at one of the high points in the beginning of our country. The year was 1777, The United States had existed for only a year. The Continental Congress had established itself in Philadelphia. General Washington found himself in command of a undisciplined and untrained army made up of brigades from the different States, each with its own commander. It was not an army without experience. It was fresh from the disastrous attempt to stop the British from taking Philadelphia at the battle of Brandywine and later at Georgetown. Philadelphia had fallen and the Congress had fled to York. The summer's campaigns had left the Continental Army short on food and supplies. Washington made the decision to dig in for the winter just 18 miles out of Philadelphia on the Schuylkill River in an area named for an iron forge on Valley Creek nearby. Thus began the famous winter at Valley Forge. Washington rode into Valley Forgeimage-07 on December 19, 1777, with twelve thousand troops, a few dozen cannons and not much more. Within days, the waters of the Schuylkill river were frozen and six inches of snow lay on the ground. The army, organized according to their brigades, set about building what would finally be over a thousand huts. While wandering the grounds in the warm sunlight of August, it was hard to picture the cold and wet of the winter. To imagine thousands of men huddled in these little huts for months on end. It fell to the individual states to support their own brigades, so those furthest away such as the Carolinas suffered most while the Pennsylvania brigade fared much better. Food, clothing, shoes and blankets were always in short supply. Cold and hunger prevailed throughout the winter. Illness quickly spread through the cramped quarters filled with weakened men. Soon theimage-01 makeshift hospitals were filled to capacity. There was no medicine and few to care for the sick. Many considered being taken to the hospital a one way trip. By the end of the winter over 2000 of his men has perished from malnutrition and disease and another 4000 had deserted. The few scattered farm houses in the area were converted to military use, with Washington setting up his headquarters at the Issac Potts House. The modest two story stone building stands today as a museum to the Military commander it served. We strolled through the park surrounding the house trying to picture the hustle and bustle of a headquarters piled with snow all around. The rooms are laid out much as they would have been during that winter. From here, Washington planned to hold his band of untrained farmers together until image-05spring when he knew he must face and defeat the professionally trained British army or watch the colonies be forced back under British rule. The situation was desperate, the prospects bleak, when, into the midst of the misery rode one of America's unsung heroes. On a cold February morning, the tall Prussian officer stood before Washington with a letter of introduction signed by Benjamin Franklin. He had been a one time member of the General Staff of Frederick the Great, king of Prussia, but had found himself unemployed in France when Ben Franklin talked him into joining the Continental cause. Fredrich Wilhelm von Steuben brought with him a wealth of knowledge which Washington saw as a possible answer to one of his biggest challenges. He immediately appointed von Steuben acting Inspector General with he task of developing an effective training program. Numerous obstacles threatened success. No standard American training manuals existed and von Steuben himself spoke little English. Undaunted, he drafted his own manual in French, His aids often worked late into the night translating his work into English which in turn was passed out to the individual regiments. image-10As we passed to the rear of the house we met Marc Brier, dressed in the traditional uniform of the Continental soldier. He explained that "Von Steuben even shocked some of his fellow officers when he hand picked 100 men from the field to personally train as a unit." This unit quickly became the model by which other training was measured. Day and night, von Steuben's commanding voice could be heard in camp, directing, correcting and re-directing. As regiments and then brigades began to pull together in a single fighting force, pride and enthusiasm re-emerged among the ranks and spirit of the army was rekindled. As spring arrived new supplies and more men poured into the valley and there was now a new alliance with France to bolster their flagging spirits. On June 19, 1778, Washington marched out of Valley Forge in search of the image-09 British. He found Lt. Gen. Sir Henry Clenton's British forces at Monmonth in New Jersey. The report of some local rebel-rousers approaching brought smiles to the British officers faces, but these smiles quickly faded as they saw the snappy formations of regiments quickly moving into formation. As the battle concluded, only the American officers were smiling. The British had lost the day, as they would eventually lose the war. The turning point in this most significant part of American History was the lessons learned while suffering the winter at Valley Forge.

* * * THE END * * *