It was traditional in the 18th century for armies to stop fighting during the winter as rain and snow and constant freezing and thawing made roads impassable. This made it extremely difficult for men, horses, and cannons to continue campaigning not to mention delivering supplies to an army in the field. On December 19, 1777, General George Washington led his army of 11, 000 men and nearly 500 women and children into winter camp at Valley Forge, 20 miles northwest of Philadelphia. The site chosen by Washington lay on top of a plateau at the top of a series of Hills, which provided natural protection. Washington chose this site for a number of reasons. From Valley Forge, Washington was close enough to keep pressure on the British army in Philadelphia while far enough away to prevent a surprise attack on his own army. Secondly, Valley Forge was far enough away from the fertile farmland north of Philadelphia so that his army did not become a burden on the local population. Lastly, the Continental army was able to protect the outlying parts of Pennsylvania including York, where the Continental Congress had fled to when the British captured Philadelphia.
Common perception of Valley Forge is of starving, demoralized, bedraggled soldiers clothed in rags, leaving bloody footprints in the snow, as they huddled around pathetic campfires while Washington prayed on his knees for a miracle. Yet out of this desperate situation, enthusiasm for the Patriot cause among the Continentals increased and determination for victory took hold among these heroic men. In reality while conditions were at times difficult in Valley Forge, this was nothing unusual for hardship was typical in the Continental army. Instead, Washington used the time from December 1777 to June 1778 to train his men and solidify his position as the Commander-in-Chief of the American army.
Food, Clothing & Shelter
A lack of adequate clothing was a significant problem for the army but the situation was not as desperate as has often been portrayed. About a third of Washington’s army was not fit for duty by March 1778, as they did not have proper shoes or decent winter coats to protect them against the constant winter rain. However many of the soldiers did have a full uniform and these men often took the places of those who were unable to dress properly on patrols which foraged for supplies or defended the camp. Likewise, in the early months of the encampment food was regularly available. Records show that in the month of January 1778, the average Soldier received an average daily ration of ½ pound of beef. By March, however Washington’s quartermaster reported that he had just to 25 barrels of flour and a little salt pork to feed the entire army. To alleviate the immediate problems of winter weather and shortages of clothing, Washington ordered his men to construct log shelters. Officers divided the men into construction teams and ordered them to build 14ft by 16ft huts using local trees cut down for the purpose. Between 1300 and 1600 huts were built in parallel lines throughout the camp.
The Flow of Supplies Improves
The soldiers also built a bridge over the nearby Schuylkill River. The bridge proved valuable for bringing additional supplies for the army. Patrols set out to forage among the farms on the north side of the river and a market was established within the camp so that farmers could come and sell their produce to the army. Washington continued to write almost daily to Congress begging for additional supplies of weapons, ammunition, clothing, medicine, and food. By early spring, conditions had improved especially after Washington appointed Nathaniel Green as his new quartermaster and the delivery of supplies to the camp became more efficient.
Disease Kills Many
The number of soldiers within the camp fluctuated constantly, from around 12,000 in December to almost 20,000 by late spring when the army began to prepare for the campaign season. Soldiers in the Continental army came from all thirteen colonies and from across Europe. The army also enrolled Native Americans and free and enslaved Africans. Those from far-flung geographical areas were exposed to diseases to which they had immunity. During the encampment, almost 2,000 men died from diseases such as influenza, typhoid, pneumonia, and dysentery. Contrary to popular opinion, most of these men actually died during the warmer months of March April and May when supplies have become more abundant. Doctors, nurses, and local civilians did the best to treat the sick but despite the presence of so many shelters, sanitary conditions were poor throughout the camp. While in the camp Washington ordered his men to be inoculated against smallpox, which he once described as a threat greater than the enemy.
The Continental Army Improves
Despite these difficulties, the army developed greatly during its time in camp and the accomplishments it achieved would have far-reaching consequences. The greatest of these achievements was the development of the Continental army into a more capable and effective fighting force under the instruction of Baron von Steuben, a Prussian who once served in the French army. One of the myths of Valley Forge is that the Army lacked confidence. While they when not supplied well, they were not downtrodden. After all, Horatio Gates had just beaten the British at Saratoga triggering direct French support for the war effort. The army had on occasions, proven itself capable of defeating British and Hessian forces however; they lacked the ability to execute complex large-scale maneuvers. After assessing the army, von Steuben realized the Continentals needed more training and discipline but he also understood that they would not tolerate harsh discipline, which was common in European armies. Instead, he showed the men, through hands-on lessons, the benefits of retraining. Battle hardened soldiers were then keen to learn new military skills when they saw immediate results. By spring 1778, the army moved with greater precision and executed commands with greater efficiency.
For Washington personally his time at Valley Forge cemented his position as Commander-in-Chief. During the army’s time in camp a group of officers and Congressmen, known as the Conway Cabal, publicly criticized Washington for the defeat at Brandywine and the loss of Philadelphia. They argued that Horatio Gates, the “Hero of Saratoga” was a better choice to lead the army. In the meantime, Washington was able to persuade a delegation from Congress to visit the camp. These Congressmen left the camp with a better understanding of the logistical difficulties the army faced and were more sympathetic to the army's requirements. Furthermore, they were satisfied that Washington did not pose a threat to Congress. With old, and new found, friends in Congress, the Conway Cabal dissolved and the careers of its leaders ended in disgrace. Congress then approved the reorganization of the army to create a more streamlined force.
By spring 1778, conditions at Valley Forge had greatly improved. Finally, on 19 June, the Continental army better trained and with renewed determination left Valley Forge. Washington, who had consolidated his position as its commander, led them to New Jersey where they would make a stand against the British on their way from Philadelphia to New York at Monmouth Courthouse.
Washington and Lafayette at Valley Forge by John Ward Dunsmore, 1907.
The March to Valley Forge by William B. T. Trego, 1883.
Wax figure of George Washington, aged 45, at Valley Forge reconstructed using computer imaging and forensic science.
Replica cabins and oven at Valley Forge National Park.