Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, located on the west bank of the Schuylkill River about twenty miles northwest of Philadelphia, served as the Continental army's main encampment from 19 December 1777 to 19 June 1778. Although Valley Forge has become a national symbol of patriotic fortitude and perseverance in the face of adversity, George Washington—while not excluding "altogether the idea of patriotism"—sought during this sixmonth period to make his army increasingly professional in attitude and abilities as the only way that it could endure in "a long and bloody War."
In determining the disposition of the Continental army for the winter of 1777–1778, Washington faced a choice of difficulties. Most of his general officers recommended establishing winter quarters at some distance from British-occupied Philadelphia—either in the vicinity of Lancaster and Reading, Pennsylvania, or at Wilmington, Delaware—so that the troops could be rested, reequipped, and trained for the next campaign. Pennsylvania political leaders and the Continental Congress, however, pressed Washington to position his army much closer to the city in order to protect the local populace from British depredations. Ever sensitive to public opinion and needs, Washington decided in mid-December 1778 to encamp at Valley Forge. He did so because it was far enough from Philadelphia to guard against a surprise attack and near enough to cover much of Pennsylvania, while also supporting Continental and militia patrols operating against British foragers and partisans in the intervening no-man's-land.
Washington was aware that his decision to give priority to civilian concerns imposed additional hardships on his officers and men. Instead of being quartered in substantial buildings, they lived in tents during their first weeks at Valley Forge while constructing primitive log huts that provided basic protection against winter weather but few creature comforts. The troops also were more vulnerable to the bad effects of the ongoing supply crisis than had they been dispersed in more remote areas. The near collapse of the commissary department in the wake of an ill-conceived congressional reform effort and the breakdown of the transportation system due to bad weather and worse management brought the army to the brink of starvation for several days in December and again in February. Lack of shoes and clothing further reduced the army's combat readiness. On 23 December 1777 Washington reported 2,898 of about 11,000 rank and file in camp as unfit to do duty for that reason. A month later the number was nearly four thousand.
Washington acted vigorously to relieve immediate supply crises by applying to civil authorities at all levels for assistance and dispatching long-range foraging parties. He was equally active in seeking more far-reaching remedies. When a congressional investigation committee arrived at camp in late January, Washington was ready with a comprehensive set of recommendations designed to put the army on a firmer professional footing, including the drafting of soldiers, half-pay pensions and honorary rewards for officers, regimental reorganization, and various measures to strengthen the quartermaster, commissary, clothier, and other administrative departments. Congress adopted many of those ideas in some form during the winter and spring, and its appointments of Nathanael Greene (1742–1786) as quartermaster general on 2 March 1778 and Jeremiah Wadsworth (1743–1804) as commissary general of purchases on 9 April 1778 revitalized those departments.
As the Continental army prepared at Valley Forge for the new spring campaign, it became significantly more adept in battlefield maneuver under the guidance of a recently arrived Prussian officer, Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben (1730–1794). He devised a simple uniform system of drill particularly suited to American circumstances and trained the main army in it. Steuben also began introducing European administrative procedures and helped to instill stronger discipline and professional pride in the lower ranks.
The progress that the Continental army continued to make during the next two campaigns in the science of military administration was halted in the winter of 1779–1780 by a severe national financial crisis and the worst weather in recent memory. Encamped once again among log huts at Jockey Hollow near Morristown, New Jersey, about thirty miles from the British army in New York City, the troops endured at least twenty-three snowstorms over four months, including an early January blizzard that left four-to-six-foot drifts. Critical shortages of clothing and food again brought the army to the edge of dissolution, which Washington avoided by rationing shoes and assigning local magistrates quotas for cattle and grain.
In the long war of attrition that the American revolutionaries fought, Valley Forge and Jockey Hollow were notable low points where materiel and morale ran perilously thin. Washington's solution was to stabilize the army by introducing professional methods and standards while assuring civilians of the army's willingness to sacrifice for their protection. That balancing act worked well enough to keep an effective military force in the field until the war could be won with French help.
Bodle, Wayne K. The Valley Forge Winter: Civilians and Soldiers in War. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002.
Carp, E. Wayne. To Starve the Army at Pleasure: Continental Army Administration and American Political Culture, 1775–1783. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984.
Morristown: A History and Guide, Morristown National Historical Park, New Jersey. Washington, D.C.: Division of Publications, National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, 1983.
Wright, Robert K., Jr. The Continental Army. Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, U.S. Army, 1983.
Philander D. Chase
VALLEY FORGE, Continental army encampment during the winter and spring of 1777–1778, is situated on the west bank of the Schuylkill River, in Chester County, Pa., about twenty-five miles northwest of Philadelphia.
After the American defeats at Brandywine, Paoli, and Germantown and after the British had occupied Philadelphia (then the national capital), Gen. George Washington led 11,000 regular troops to Valley Forge to take up winter quarters. The site provided convenient access to key roads, nearby military supplies, local farmlands, and a nearby health resort that could serve as a hospital for troops. Some officers also thought that the sloping hills, flanked by the Schuylkill and supported in the rear by the high, winding, wooded gorge of Valley Creek, could be made impregnable against attack. As a further safeguard, picket parties were detached to watch the movement of the British.
The encampment at Valley Forge was plagued by bad weather and poor conditions. An unexpectedly early winter, with heavy snows and abnormally freezing weather during Christmas week, prevented the delivery of regular supplies. A January thaw brought mud so deep on the roads that hundreds of army wagons had to be abandoned. Even when transport was available, the Continental Congress's neglect of the army and the commisary officers' failure to forward food, clothing, and supplies by the most available routes added to the troops' sufferings. At one point Washington reported that he had almost 3,000 men who were unfit for duty because they were barefoot "and otherwise naked." On several occasions, he expressed his fears that only extraordinary efforts could prevent the army from disbanding. Many soldiers deserted; the civilian governor of Philadelphia, Joseph Galloway, stated that more than 2,000 deserters had asked for his help. Camp fever—probably typhus—and smallpox were epidemic during the army's stay at Valley Forge, and medical supplies were lacking. About 2,500 men died and were buried in unmarked graves.
Despite the difficulties, however, the encampment at Valley Forge proved an important turning point for the Continental Army. Marquis de Lafayette, a French aristocrat who embraced the American cause, suggested new practices in training and command that helped boost the troops' morale. At the same time, Baron Friedrich von Steuben introduced efficient drilling techniques that improved military discipline. The formal Franco-American alliance, news of which reached Valley Forge in May 1778, resulted in improved equipment and supplies for the soldiers. All told, efforts like these helped reduce desertions and solidify a core military force in the Continental Army.
Bill, Alfred Hoyt. Valley Forge: The Making of an Army. New York: Harper, 1952.
Boyle, Joseph Lee. Writings from the Valley Forge Encampment of the Continental Army. Bowie, Md.: Heritage Books, 2000.
Harry EmersonWildes/s. b.