Valley Forge. The name is instantly recognizable. The images we conjure are probably pretty similar, because we all know at least part of the story surrounding this most famous of places. They are images of suffering, intense hunger, disease, cold, and death. We see soldiers, feet wrapped in rags and their bodies shrouded in tattered uniforms or torn blankets, huddled around campfires in a desperate struggle to survive.
Valley Forge. The name is instantly appropriate. It was a crucible of fire, a place of harsh refinement that helped to strengthen the Army. In his book Washington’s Secret War, Thomas Fleming contends that the American Revolution was won here. Valley Forge is hallowed ground in American history, and many of the soldiers that walked it had no shoes to remove.
The Colonists’ fight for freedom had started to produce some good results. A huge victory at Saratoga in October of 1777, led by General Horatio Gates, stunned the British and gave the Army and the people a big boost in confidence. In addition, it convinced the French to openly align itself with the Colonies.
But not all the news was good. A month before Saratoga, General William Howe’s army had captured Philadelphia from General Washington’s outnumbered troops, forcing the fledging government to leave. After trying unsuccessfully to push the British out of the capital, Washington settled his forces 20 miles away, arriving there December 19, 1777. Washington chose Valley Forge with good reason. It was close enough to keep an eye on the British, but far enough away to discourage a full assault in the dead of winter.
But his troops were in bad shape. Food was scarce, the government had little money to pay for it, and the money they did have was largely worthless. Many citizens were undoubtedly wary of selling supplies to a government that, right now, could only pay with I.O.U.’s. The soldiers’ clothes were in tatters and, again, there was little money for replacements. And while the men would be able to build reasonable shelters, and the winter would be pretty average, the constantly damp conditions would turn the camp into a giant petri dish. Typhus, pneumonia, and other ailments would serve to decimate the Army, with mortality rates approaching 20%.
But such were the times, when a poverty-stricken (and sometimes divided) Congress, together with a suspicious (and sometimes divided) populace, served to put the nation’s Army on the anvil…an anvil that created an Army of fighting men.
Recommended Reading: Washington’s Secret War: The Hidden History of Valley Forge – See how General Washington really became a leader of men and country in Valley Forge…an outstanding read.