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Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, was the site of the camp of the American Continental Army over the winter of 1777–1778 in the American Revolutionary War. This was a time of great suffering for George Washington’s Army, but it was also a time of retraining and rejuvenation.
With the winter setting in, the prospects for further campaigning were greatly diminished, and Washington sought quarters for his men. Though several locations were proposed, he selected Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, 22 miles northwest of Philadelphia. It proved to be an excellent choice. Named for an iron forge on Valley Creek, the area was close enough to the British to keep their raiding and foraging parties out of the interior of Pennsylvania, yet far enough away to halt the threat of British surprise attacks. The high ground of Mount Joy and Mount Misery, combined with the Schuylkill River to the north, made the area easily defensible.
On December 19, 1777, when Washington’s poorly fed, ill-equipped army, weary from long marches, struggled into Valley Forge, winds blew as the 12,000 Continentals prepared for winter’s fury. Grounds for brigade encampments were selected, and defense lines were planned and begun. Within days of the army’s arrival, the Schuylkill River was covered with ice. Snow was six inches deep. Though construction of more than 1,000 huts provided shelter, it did little to offset the critical shortages that continually plagued the army.
Soldiers received irregular supplies of meat and bread, some getting their only nourishment from “firecake,” a tasteless mixture of flour and water. So severe were conditions at times that Washington despaired “that unless some great and capital change suddenly takes place … this Army must inevitably … Starve, dissolve, or disperse, in order to obtain subsistence in the best manner they can.” Animals fared no better. Gen. Henry Knox, Washington’s Chief of Artillery, wrote that hundreds of horses either starved to death or died of exhaustion.
Clothing, too, was wholly inadequate. Long marches had destroyed shoes. Blankets were scarce. Tattered garments were seldom replaced. At one point these shortages caused nearly 4,000 men to be listed as unfit for duty.
Undernourished and poorly clothed, living in crowded, damp quarters, the army was ravaged by sickness and disease. Typhus, typhoid, dysentery, and pneumonia were among the killers that felled as many as 2,000 men that winter. Although Washington repeatedly petitioned for relief, the Congress was unable to provide it, and the soldiers continued to suffer. Women, relatives of enlisted men, alleviated some of the suffering by providing valuable services such as laundry and nursing that the army desperately needed.
Upgrading military efficiency, morale, and discipline were as vital to the army’s well-being as was its source of supply. The army had been handicapped in battle because unit training was administered from a variety of field manuals, making coordinated battle movements awkward and difficult. The soldiers were trained, but not uniformly. The task of developing and carrying out an effective training program fell to Baron Friedrich von Steuben. This skilled Prussian drill master, recently arrived from Europe, tirelessly drilled and scolded the regiments into an effective fighting force. Intensive daily training, coupled with von Steuben’s forceful manner, instilled in the men renewed confidence in themselves and their ability to succeed.
Soon word of the British departure from Philadelphia brought a frenzied activity to the ranks of the Continental Army. On June 19, 1778, six months after its arrival, the army marched away from Valley Forge in pursuit of the British who were moving toward New York. An ordeal had ended. The war would last for another five years, but for Washington, his men, and the nation to which they sought to give birth, a decisive victory had been won — a victory not of weapons but of will.
Baron (Freiherr) Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben
Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben was a onetime member of the elite General Staff of Frederick the Great, King of Prussia. No longer in the Prussian Army, indeed without employment of any kind, von Steuben offered his military skills to the patriot cause. When he arrived at Valley Forge from France on February 23, 1778, he was armed with a letter of introduction from Benjamin Franklin. General Washington saw great promise in the Prussian and almost immediately assigned him the duties of Acting Inspector General with the task of developing and carrying out 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 aides often worked late into the night, translating his work into English. The translations were in turn copied and passed to the individual regiments and companies that carried out the prescribed drill the following day.
Von Steuben shocked many American officers by breaking tradition to work directly with the men. One officer wrote of von Steuben’s “peculiar grace” as he took “under his direction a squad of men in the capacity of drill sergeant.” From dawn to dusk his familiar voice was heard in camp above the sounds of marching men and shouted commands. Soon companies, regiments, then brigades moved smartly from line to column, column to line; loaded muskets with precision; and drove imaginary redcoats from the field by skillful charges with the bayonet. When the Continental Army paraded on May 6, 1778, to celebrate the French alliance with America, von Steuben received the honor of organizing the day’s activities. On that day the Grand Parade became a showplace for the united American army. Cannons boomed in salute. Thousands of muskets fired the ceremonial “feu de joie,” a running fire that passed up and down the double ranks of infantrymen. Cheers echoed across the fields. The good drilling order and imposing appearance that the troops presented during the Alliance Day ceremonies demonstrated their remarkable progress in improving their abilities as a unified, fighting force capable of defeating the British Army. Washington, with von Steuben’s aid, had made an army of the Continental troops. With their French allies, the Americans could now proceed with the war.
- ^ Bodle, Wayne The Valley Forge Winter, Penn State Press, 2002 ISBN 0-271-02526-3
- ^ text incorporated from www.nps.gov/vafo which is in the public domain