Valley Forge Winter Quarters, Pennsylvania

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Valley Forge Winter Quarters, Pennsylvania

VALLEY FORGE WINTER QUARTERS, PENNSYLVANIA. 19 December 1777 to 19 June 1778. The men that marched into Valley Forge, and into legend, on 19 December 1777 were tired, hungry, and very poorly clad. They had lost the battles of Brandywine and Germantown, and seen their capitol occupied, but had just faced down General William Howe at Whitemarsh (5-8 December 1777), daring him to assault. Carried with them was a "collective intransigence" that held the force together against the enemy, even in the face of neglect by their fellow Americans. General George Weedon wrote on 17 December 1777 that the men's zeal for their country was unabated and that they seemed determined to turn hardships into diversion. The day after arriving at Valley Forge, General Jedediah Huntington wrote "the Army is well disposed and will try to make the best of it." More than a quarter of the army was now composed of New England brigades, whose morale was high, for they had seen the greatest American triumph to date—the surrender of Burgoyne at Saratoga.

Winter quarters had been discussed at a council of war on 29 October 1777, but a decision regarding their establishment was deferred. The commander in chief, General George Washington, never wrote his reasons for choosing Valley Forge as the winter quarters for his army, but he had held several councils of war considering the options of staying in the field, attacking the British, or going into quarters. The last was the eventual selection, but his generals mostly favored wintering at Wilmington, Delaware, or pulling back into Pennsylvania to a line from Reading to Lancaster. This would have exposed much of the productive part of the state to enemy ravaging, angered both the state and Continental governments, and been difficult with the number of refugees and army sick already in those areas.

Wilmington could be surprised by British forces coming down the river, or Howe could move westward into Pennsylvania, cutting off supply stores and easily capturing thousands of Americans in hospitals. The British general might even move into Chester County and isolate the Continental force in the Delmarva peninsula. Despite this, Washington decided to split his force, and on 19 December he sent William Smallwood with two brigades to Wilmington, where they remained until late May 1778.

On making the decision for Valley Forge, Washington sent his men to a relatively unsettled triangular area of small farms and woodlands, about two miles long and a mile and a quarter wide. About eighteen miles in a straight line to Philadelphia but longer by road, the high ground could be fortified and would serve to protect most of the state from the ravages of the enemy. It was well located, strategically, and out of the way of the bulk of the civilian population. These sterling military qualities were lost on the troops who huddled in makeshift shelters until they could complete their log huts. On 25 December Major General Johann de Kalb called it the worst part of Pennsylvania, and considered that the advice to station the army there arose from a private interest, or people whose intention was the ruin of the cause.

In the view of the troops, they lacked everything they needed, except trees to cut for shelters, but even axes were in short supply. Washington ordered that the camp be carefully laid out and that log huts, measuring fourteen by sixteen feet, be constructed for every twelve enlisted men. These were mostly completed by the middle of January 1778. However, archeological work has discovered that many of the huts were not constructed in accordance with Washington's instructions.


According to historian John Buchanan: "At Valley Forge the problem was the all-important logistical system" which had disintegrated so pitifully that the "army almost perished at Valley Forge" (pp. 286-287). The soldiers had been hungry for weeks and poorly clad for months. The reasons for this were many, but a series of failures by the Continental Congress were at the forefront. It can be fairly said that throughout the war, the army suffered more by neglect from fellow Americans than from any enemy activities.

The major responsibility of the quartermaster department was to meet the army's transportation needs, but Congressional price restrictions made private teamsters reluctant to haul cargoes for the army. In October 1777, Quartermaster General Thomas Mifflin resigned, and his post was left empty for nearly five months. His chief deputy was incapable of bringing order as winter came on and roads were turned into quagmires.

The commissary department purchased food, and the clothier department purchased and distributed clothing. Both departments were dependent on the quartermaster department for transportation of their goods. Congress had reorganized the commissary department in the summer of 1777, and Joseph Trumbull, then the highly competent commissary. resigned—as did most of his deputies. Trumbull's replacement, William Buchanan, tried and failed to fulfill the office, and after another Congressional reorganization of the department, Buchanan was replaced with Jeremiah Wadsworth in April 1778, who was far more effective.

Clothier General James Mease also failed to produce the desired results. His performance is shown by the phrase that was coined in the army to describe the chronic disease of inadequate clothing: "the Meases." Alexander Hamilton noted that, as early as September 1777, Washington had sent him to collect blankets and clothing from citizens as the "distressed situation of the army for want of blankets and many necessary articles of clothing, is truly deplorable … if unremoved, would involve the ruin of the army, and perhaps the ruin of America" (Hamilton Papers, vol. 1, pp. 330-331). Things were much worse in December, and the storied "bloody footprints" in the snow were a reality. Although imports, captures, and domestic production reduced the clothing problems, as late as 6 June 1778 there were still 805 men in camp "destitute of Cloaths & Necessaries."

The army went through two starving times: right after they arrived at Valley Forge, and mid-February 1778, which was the worst. The average daily consumption in December was over 33,600 pounds of bread and flour and 34,500 pounds of meat. All of this had to be purchased at varying distances from camp, then transported via wagon or on the hoof to the army through roads that were almost impassable. The shortage of grain meant that the animals got only such grain that the men didn't eat, and hard work and lack of adequate forage therefore killed hundreds of horses, worsening the transportation problems.

Mid-February marked the most desperate time in the camp. On 16 February Washington wrote to Governor George Clinton that "For some days past, there has been little less than a famine in camp. A part of the army has been a week, without any kind of flesh, and the rest three or four days. Naked and starving as they are, we cannot enough admire the incomparable patience and fidelity of the soldiery." On that same day a delegate to Congress, Francis Dana, reported: "Sunday morning colonel Brewer's regiment rose in a body and proceeded to general Patterson's quarters … laid before him their complaints, and threatened to quit the army. By a prudent conduct he quieted them…. The same spirit was rising in other regiments, but has been happily suppressed for the present by the prudence of some of their officers. But no prudence or management, without meat, can satisfy the hungry man."

Henry Lee, Nathanael Greene, and Anthony Wayne were sent out on major foraging expeditions to find what they could in New Jersey, Southeastern Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland. Had it not been for the food supplies they brought in, the army would almost certainly have dissolved. Better weather, the appointment of Greene as quartermaster general in March, and the arrival of food supplies from more distant states, after repeated appeals from Washington, eased the supply problems. Also by April, Congress realized that its parsimony the year before had nearly wrecked the army, and moved to the other extreme of pouring money into supply operations.

The 1777 campaign had produced thousands of wounded and sick soldiers. These were sent to temporary hospitals and then on to makeshift facilities, often in church buildings in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. On 22 December, reports showed 3,948 men as sick absent. While the majority of the absentees were in Pennsylvania or New Jersey, many were from the brigades who joined after Saratoga and had been left in other states. As late as 6 June 3,158 ailing men were present at Valley Forge. A high proportion of those had been made ill from the ongoing smallpox inoculation program that Washington had initiated in January.

The hospital department was also short of food and clothing and lacked medical supplies. The total number of soldiers who died during the six month encampment will never be accurately known, but it was approximately 1,800 to 1,900. Most died at hospitals miles or states away from Valley Forge. Poor recordkeeping stifled accuracy. The records of the Reading, Pennsylvania, hospital from September 1777 through 16 April 1778 showed 132 men "dead and deserted" without specifying which had occurred in any individual instance.

As soon as the 1777 campaign ended, hundreds of officers submitted requests to resign, some from camp, others from their hometowns, to which they had returned on furloughs. Many were in poor health or had significant personal issues, but some just wanted to get out of the army. Numerous resignations were accepted, which allowed the winnowing out of the weak and half-hearted, leaving a more professional corps of officers. As most regiments were grossly short of privates, the loss of many officers did not seem to have had serious consequences. The officers who remained were cheered when, on 15 May, Congress promised those who continued until the end of the war would receive half-pay for seven years after the end of the struggle.


The Continental Army has sometimes been depicted as so ignorant of military training that they had to walk into Valley Forge in Indian file. This was far from accurate. The troops had been training since the beginning of the war, and Washington regularly emphasized to the officers they were to oversee training every day the weather allowed. Yet despite this training, different officers used different methods and techniques of maneuver, which led to confusion and inefficiency in maneuvers.

The contributions of Friedrich Steuben have sometimes been magnified, but his arrival at Valley Forge on 23 February was a major turning point. A soldier of fortune, he initially impressed Washington because he did not demand pay or rank. All he asked was that his expenses be paid. After a few weeks of review, Steuben began to train a model company consisting of the commander in chief's Guard of Virginians, with 100 men from other states annexed to it. On 8 April Adjutant General Alexander Scammell wrote

He [Steuben] has undertaken the Discipline of the army & shows himself to be a perfect Master of it, not only in the grand manieuvres but in every Minutia—to see … with a grace particular to himself, to take under his direction, a Squad, or ten or twelve men in Capacity of a Drill [Sergeant] induce the Officers & men to admire him—and improve exceeding fast under his Instructions.

The men and officers learned the new close order drill that Steuben introduced, and this was followed by the manual of arms and use of the bayonet. The seasoned and dedicated veterans understood the need for firm leadership and coordinated responses to orders, which probably helped the successful spread of the discipline. Washington was so impressed that he recommended Steuben be appointed inspector general with the rank of major general, and Congress agreed with alacrity.

Though some historians believe that the Battle of Monmouth was did not prove the efficacy and importance of Steuben's reforms, his contemporaries showed great respect for the training he provided and the improvements he accomplished. On 6 December 1785, Horatio Gates wrote to Steuben regarding his plans to leave America. "I am distressed at your determination to leave this country. The soldiers part with their military father, when you go from them; they never knew a regular system of discipline until you came and taught it them."


Washington was blessed by the relative inactivity of the enemy. For all of March the army could not muster 4,000 privates fit for duty. The low point was on 7 March, when only 3,301 rank and file were available, another 3,796 soldiers who were sick but present for duty, and 2,028 were unfit for duty due to lack of shoes and clothing. Had Howe attacked with his superior numbers, the main Continental army would likely have suffered a stunning defeat. The British did send out regular patrols, particularly to protect citizens bringing food into the city to sell, and also to cut wood and forage for themselves. There were frequent skirmishes and several small-scale actions: at Quinton's Bridge, New Jersey, on 18 March; Hancock's Bridge, New Jersey, on 21 March; and Crooked Billet, Pennsylvania on 1 May 1778, but there were no major engagements.

By April things were much improved at Valley Forge and the best news of all arrived in early May, when news of the treaties with France arrived. Washington stated "I believe no event was ever received with more heartfelt joy." The treaty of amity and commerce, which opened French ports and several in the West Indies to American ships, and the treaty of alliance had been signed on 6 February. French recognition of American independence made war with Britain inevitable, and it was so by mid-June. This brought into effect the treaty of alliance, the purpose of which was to maintain the independence of the United States.

An elaborate ceremony was planned for 6 May with a feu de joie—three volleys of musket fire by the complete army, three rounds of artillery fire, and, as Private Elijah Fisher recounted it, "three Chears for the King of France and three for the Friendly Powers of Europe and three Chears for the Thirteen United States of Amarica." All American prisoners in the provost jail were released, and all the officers were invited by Washington to dine with him. The afternoon was spent in joviality and toasts.

Two weeks later the Marquis de Lafayette led a detachment of several thousand men out of camp, and narrowly escaped annihilation at Barren Hill, Pennsylvania, but Steuben's training program bore its first fruit and the force evaded the enemy. When the British abandoned Philadelphia in June, Washington led a revitalized army from Valley Forge to chase Henry Clinton across New Jersey in the Monmouth campaign.

The renewed army enchanted Chaplain David Griffith, who returned from furlough and wrote on 3 June "The Army is … but very differently circumstanced; things seem much mended for the better. Everything wears the appearance of neatness and order…. The strictest attention is paid to discipline since the appointment of the new Inspector-General, the Baron Steuben (A Prussian), and I think the whole army is much improved in that particular."

SEE ALSO Commissaries of the Continental Army; Steuben, Friedrich Wilhelm von; Washington, George.


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                              revised by Joseph Lee Boyle

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Valley Forge Winter Quarters, Pennsylvania

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