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Life at Valley Forge (1777–1778, by Albigence Waldo)

LIFE AT VALLEY FORGE (1777–1778, by Albigence Waldo)


General Washington's army, already exhausted from battles, long marches, and a persistent dearth of supplies, arrived at Valley Forge, Pa., on 19 December 1777. The winter was a difficult one, and the land offered little in the way of shelter or food. The diary of the surgeon, Washington's personal physician, Albigence Waldo, is graphic testimony of the hardships endured by the amateur Continental Army throughout the long winter. The woes were seemingly endless. A dozen men were forced to share a 16´ × 14´ log hut with dirt floors and little more than cloth rags to serve as doors. Because there were no nearby wells, water had to be brought from the Schuylkill River and nearby creeks where the soldiers and their animals often relieved themselves. Disease was so rampant that Washington ordered his men inoculated against smallpox, a controversial and much-distrusted procedure. Accounts of the winter's death toll vary, with some estimates as high as three thousand. What emerged from that suffering, however, was a newly hardened, more disciplined Continental Army than the British had ever encountered, one that had at last undertaken a strict training regimen and was now prepared to meet its enemy openly on the field of conflict.

Laura M.Miller,
Vanderbilt University

See also Valley Forge .

Dec. 12th [1777]. —A Bridge of Waggons made across the Schuylkill last Night consisting of 36 waggons, with a bridge of Rails between each. Some Skirmishing over the River. Militia and draggoons brought into Camp several Prisoners. Sun Set.—We are order'd to march over the River—It snows—I'm Sick—eat nothing—No Whiskey–No Baggage—Lord—Lord—Lord. The Army were 'till Sun Rise crossing the River—some at the Waggon Bridge, & some at the Raft Bridge below. Cold & Uncomfortable.

Dec. 13th. —The Army march'd three miles from the West side the River and encamp'd near a place call'd the Gulph and not an improper name neither—For this Gulph seems well adapted by its situation to keep us from the pleasure & enjoyments of this World, or being conversant with any body in it—It is an excellent place to raise the Ideas of a Philosopher beyond the glutted thoughts and Reflexions of an Epicurian. His Reflexions will be as different from the Common Reflexions of Mankind as if he were unconnected with the world, and only conversant with material beings. It cannot be that our Superiors are about to hold consult[t]ation with Spirits infinitely beneath their Order—by bringing us into these utmost regions of the Terraqueous Sphere. No—it is, upon consideration, for many good purposes since we are to Winter here—1st There is plenty of Wood & Water. 2dly There are but few families for the soldiery to Steal from—tho' far be it from a Soldier to Steal—4ly There are warm sides of Hills to erect huts on. 5ly They will be heavenly Minded like Jonah when in the belly of a great Fish. 6ly. They will not become home Sick as is sometimes the Case when Men live in the Open World—since the reflections which must naturally arise from their present habitation, will lead them to the more noble thoughts of employing their leizure hours in filling their knapsacks with such materials as may be necessary on the Jorney to another Home.

Dec. 14th. —Prisoners & Deserters are continually coming in. The Army who have been surprisingly healthy hitherto—now begin to grow sickly from the continued fatigues they have suffered this Campaign. Yet they still show spirit of Alacrity & Contentment not to be expected from so young Troops. I am Sick—discontented—and out of humour. Poor food—hard lodging—Cold Weather—fatigue—Nasty Cloaths—nasty Cookery—Vomit half my time—smoak'd out of my senses—the Devil's in't—I can't Endure it—Why are we sent here to starve and freeze—What sweet Felicities have I left at home;—A charming Wife—pretty Children—Good Beds—good food—good Cookery—all agreeable—all harmonious. Here, all Confusion—smoke Cold—hunger & filthyness—A pox on my bad luck. Here comes a bowl of beef soup—full of burnt leaves and dirt, sickish enough to make a hector spue,—away with it Boys—I'll live like the Chameleon upon Air. Poh! Poh! crys Patience within me—you talk like a fool. Your being sick Covers your mind with a Melanchollic Gloom, which makes every thing about you appear gloomy. See the poor Soldier, when in health—with what chearfullness he meets his foes and encounters every hardship—if barefoot—he labours thro' the Mud & Cold with a Song in his mouth extolling War & Washington—if his food be bad—he eats it notwithstanding with seeming content—blesses God for a good Stomach—and Whis[t]les it into digestion. But harkee Patience—a moment—There comes a Soldier—His bare feet are seen thro' his worn out Shoes—his legs nearly naked from the tatter'd remains of an only pair of stockings—his Breeches not sufficient to cover his Nakedness—his Shirt hanging in Strings—his hair dishevell'd—his face meagre—his whole appearance pictures a person forsaken & discouraged. He comes, and crys with an air of wretchedness & dispair—I am Sick—my feet lame—my legs are sore—my body cover'd with this tormenting Itch—my Cloaths are worn out—my Constitution is broken—my former Activity is exhausted by fatigue—hunger & Cold—I fail fast I shall soon be no more! and all the reward I shall get will be—"Poor Will is dead." …

Dec. 18th. —Universal Thanksgiving—a Roasted Pig at Night. God be thanked for my health which I have pretty well recovered. How much better should I feel, were I assured my family were in health—But the same good Being who graciously preserves me—is able to preserve them—& bring me to the ardently wish'd for enjoyment of them again.

Rank & Precedence make a good deal of disturbance & confusion in the American Army. The Army are poorly supplied with Provision, occationed it is said by the Neglect of the Commissary of Purchases. Much talk among Officers about discharges. Money has become of too little consequence.…

Dec. 22st. —Preparations made for hutts. Provision Scarce. Mr. Ellis went homeward—sent a Letter to my Wife. Heartily wish myself at home—my Skin & eyes are almost spoil'd with continual smoke.

A general cry thro' the Camp this Evening among the Soldiers—"No Meat!—No Meat!"—the Distant vales Echo'd back the melancholly sound—"No Meat! No Meat!" Immitating the noise of Crows & Owls, also, made a part of the confessed Musick.

What have you got for our Dinners Boys? "Nothing but Fire Cake & Water, Sir." At night—"Gentlemen the Supper is ready." What is your Supper, Lads? "Fire Cake & Water Sir."

Dec. 22d. —Lay excessive Cold & uncomfortable last Night—my eyes are started out from their Orbits like a Rabbit's eyes, occation'd by a great Cold—and Smoke.

What have you got for Breakfast, Lads? "Fire Cake & Water, Sir." The Lord send that our Commissary of Purchases may live on, Fire Cake & Water.…

Our Division are under Marching Orders this morning. I am ashamed to say it, but I am tempted to steal Fowls if I could find them—or even a whole Hog—for I feel as if I could eat one. But the Impoverish'd Country about us, affords but little matter to employ a Thief—or keep a Clever Fellow in good humour—But why do I talk of hunger & hard usage, when so many in the World have not even fire Cake & Water to eat.…

Dec. 23d. —The Party that went out last evening not Return'd to Day. This evening an excellent Player on the Violin in that soft kind of Musick, which is so finely adapted to stirr up the tender Passions, while he was playing in the next Tent to mine, these kind of soft Airs—it immediately called up in remembrance all the endearing expressions—the Tender Sentiments—the sympathetic friendship that has given so much satisfaction and sensible pleasure to me from the first time I gained the heart & affections of the tenderest of the Fair.…

Dec. 24th. —Party of the 22d returned. Hutts go on Slowly—Cold & Smoke make us fret. But mankind are always fretting, even if they have more than their proportion of the Blessings of Life. We are never Easy—allways repining at the Providence of an Allwise & Benevolent Being—Blaming Our Coutry—or faulting our Friends. But I don't know of any thing that vexes a man's Soul more than hot smoke continually blowing into his Eyes—& when he attempts to avoid it, is met by a cold and piercing Wind.…

Dec. 25th, Christmas. —We are still in Tents—when we ought to be in huts—the poor Sick, suffer much in Tents this cold Weather—But we now treat them differently from what they used to be at home, under the inspection of Old Women & Doct. Bolus Linctus. We give them Mutton & Groggy—and a Capital Medicine once in a While—to start the Disease from its foundation at once. We avoid—Piddling Pills, Powders, Bolus's Linctus's—Cordials—and all such insignificant matters whose powers are Only render'd important by causing the Patient to vomit up his money instead of his disease. But very few of the sick Men Die.

Dec. 26th. —Party of the 22d not Return'd. The Enemy have been some Days the west Schuylkill from Opposite the City to Derby—There intentions not yet known. The City is at present pretty Clear of them—Why don't his Excellency rush in & retake the City, in which he will doubtless find much Plunder?—Because he knows better than to leave his Post and be catch'd like a … fool cooped up in the City. He has always acted wisely hitherto—His conduct when closely scrutinised is uncensurable. Were his Inferior Generals as skillfull as him self—we should have the grandest Choir of Officers ever God made.…

Dec. 28th. —Yesterday upwards of fifty Officers in Gen1Green's Division resigned their Commissions—Six or Seven of our Regiment are doing the like to-day. All this is occation'd by Officers Families being so much neglected at home on account of Provisions. Their Wages will not by considerable, purchase a few trifling Comfortables here in Camp, & maintain their families at home, while such extravagant prices are demanded for the common necessaries of Life—What then have they to purchase Cloaths and other necessaries with? It is a Melancholly reflection that what is of the most universal importance, is most universally, neglected—I mean keeping up the Credit of Money.

The present Circumstances of the Soldier is better by far than the Officer—for the family of the Soldier is provided for at the public expence if the Articles they want are above the common price—but the Officer's family, are obliged not only to beg in the most humble manner for the necessaries of Life—but also to pay for them afterwards at the most exhorbitant rates—and even in this manner, many of them who depend entirely on their Money, cannot procure half the material comforts that are wanted in a family—this produces continual letters of complaint from home.…

Dec. 31st. —Ajutant Selden learn'd me how to Darn Stockings—to make them look like knit work—first work the Thread in a parallel manner, then catch these over & over as above.…

1778. January 1st.New Year. I am alive. I am well.

Hutts go on briskly, and our Camp begins to appear like a spacious City.…

Bought an embroidered Jacket.

How much we affect to appear of consequence by a superfluous Dress,—and yet Custom—(that law which none may fight against) has rendered this absolutely necessary & commendable. An Officer frequently fails of being duly noticed, merely from the want of a genteel Dress.…

Sunday, Jan. 4th. —Properly accouter'd I went to work at Masonry—None of my Mess were to dictate me—and before Night (being found with Mortar & Stone) I almost compleated a genteel Chimney to my Magnificent Hutt—however, as we had short allowance of food & no Grogg—my back ached before Night.

I was call'd to relieve a Soldier tho't to be dying—he expir'd before I reach'd the Hutt. He was an Indian—an excellent Soldier—and an obedient good natur'd fellow.…

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