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On December 19, 1777, commander of the Continental Army George Washington, the future first president of the United States, leads his beleaguered troops into winter quarters at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.
Things could hardly have looked bleaker for Washington and the Continental Army as 1777 came to a close. The British had successfully occupied Philadelphia, leading some members of Congress to question Washington’s leadership abilities. No one knew better than Washington that the army was on the brink of collapse–in fact, he had defied Congress’ demand that he launch a mid-winter attack against the British at Philadelphia and instead fell back to Valley Forge to rest and refit his troops. Though he had hoped to provide his weary men with more nutritious food and badly needed winter clothing, Congress had been unable to provide money for fresh supplies. That Christmas Eve, the troops dined on a meal of rice and vinegar, and were forced to bind their bleeding frost-bitten feet with rags. “We have experienced little less than a famine in camp,” Washington wrote to Patrick Henry the following February.
READ MORE: Valley Forge: George Washington’s Most Dismal Christmas Ever
Desperate to keep the army intact, Washington tried to stem desertion by resorting to lashings as punishment and then threatening to shoot deserters on sight. For those soldiers who remained with him, Washington expressed deep gratitude and awe. He described men marching without clothes, blankets or shoes–leaving bloody trails in the snow–who displayed “patience and obedience which in my opinion can scarce be paralel’d.”
Meanwhile Washington faced the displeasure of Congress and rumors of plots to replace him with his typical stoicism and composure. On December 31, he wrote to the Marquis de Lafayette that he would continue “to observe one steady and uniform conduct, which I shall invariably pursue, while I have the honour to command, regardless of the Tongue of slander or the powers of detraction.” Furthermore, he told the press that if Congress could find someone better suited to lead the army that he would be more than happy to resign and return to private life at his Mount Vernon estate.
The winter at Valley Forge might have signaled the end of the American Revolution. Fortunately for the Continentals though, Washington did not give up. During this time Washington made several key additions to his officer corps, such as the Prussian General Friedrich von Steuben, who was tasked with implementing a new training regimen, and Nathanael Greene, who served as quartermaster general, relieving Washington of the duty of supply procurement. Washington, supported by a loyal officer corps, was now free to focus on strategies to beat the British. He was further buoyed by France’s agreement to join the revolutionaries in February 1778. (Washington was so happy with the news from his “powerful friend” France that, upon hearing the news, he pardoned two of his own soldiers who were awaiting execution for desertion.)
Once Washington’s detractors in Congress realized they could not sway his troops’ loyalty, they gave up on any secret plans to replace him. In March 1778, Washington led his troops, their bodies and supplies replenished and their confidence restored, out of Valley Forge to face the British again.
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.
The Marquis de Lafayette at Valley Forge
Learn more about the winter encampment at Valley Forge and its significance to the American Revolution.
The Marquis de Lafayette, who joined the Continental Army at age nineteen in the summer of 1777 as a volunteer Major General, spent most of December 1777 and January 1778 with George Washington and his Continental Army troops at their winter quarters at Valley Forge. During that long, harsh winter, the ill-equipped Americans suffered in many ways. Some went barefoot. Many did not have blankets to sleep under. Food was sometimes scarce and sufficient supplies rarely made it to the camp. Hundreds died after suffering from diseases such as influenza, typhus, typhoid fever, and dysentery.
Lafayette experienced his first action at the Battle of Brandywine on September 11, 1777, where he showed extreme courage under fire in leading an orderly retreat. The Frenchman was shot through the calf during the battle. After he recovered, Lafayette was given command of a division of troops.
At Valley Forge, Lafayette basked in his elevation to the post of commander of a division of troops. Lafayette freely spent his own money to buy uniforms and muskets for his men&mdashand lived among them during the coldest part of the winter. And despite pleas from his young wife and her family to return to France, Lafayette remained committed to the American cause as well as to the man he would come to consider his all-but-adopted father, George Washington. Lafayette demonstrated his unwavering loyalty to Washington during the Valley Forge encampment by helping Washington face down the so-called Conway Cabal, a never-hatched military-political plot aimed at forcing Washington to give up command of the Continental Army.
The aborted Conway Cabal included a plan to move Lafayette far away from Valley Forge. The Continental Congress&rsquos Board of War on January 28 ordered Lafayette to take the newly created Northern Army of the United States north, invade Canada, and return that territory to France. Lafayette discussed the idea with Washington in Valley Forge. Neither man liked the situation both only agreed reluctantly.
Lafayette asked for and received a series of concessions from Congress before he would accept the order to go north. He insisted that all of his orders come directly from George Washington, not through Congress via the Board of War. Lafayette also chose twenty French officers for his staff. Among those in the group: the French engineer Captain Pierre L'Enfant, who in 1791 would go on to design the city of Washington, D.C.
Lafayette headed north in the dead of winter, leaving York on February 3. Six days later he wrote to Washington from Flemington, New Jersey, describing what was becoming a very difficult mission: "I go on very slowly sometimes pierced by rain, sometimes covered with snow, and not thinking many handsome thoughts about the projected incursion into Canada." 1 En route, Lafayette and his men ran into other weather-related obstacles, including the wide and deep Susquehanna River which Lafayette said in his memoirs, was crossed "not without some danger" since it was "filled with floating masses of ice." 2
The men arrived at Albany, New York on February 17, where the group "experienced some disappointments." Instead of a force of 2,500 men as was promised, Lafayette found fewer than 1,200. In addition, promised supplies were not available. The troops, moreover, complained openly and bitterly about not being paid or clothed and provisioned properly.
The trip turned into a fiasco. Lafayette wrote a letter to Congress on February 20 stating that he was abandoning the mission. On March 13, Congress issued orders returning the young Frenchman to the main army in Pennsylvania. Washington wrote to Lafayette a week later saying it was his desire that Lafayette "will without loss of time return to camp, to resume the command of a division of this Army." 3
Lafayette left Albany for Valley Forge on March 31, 1778. He arrived late in April and learned that on February 6 the United States and France had signed a Treaty of Alliance, which created a formal military alliance between the two nations.
1. "Marqus de Lafayette to George Washington, 9 February 1778," Lafayette and the Age of the American Revolution: Selected Letters and Papers, 1776-1790, Vol. I, Stanley J. Idzerda et al., eds. (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1977), 287.
2. Lafayette, Marquis de. Memoirs, Correspondence and Manuscripts of General Lafayette Published by His Family. Vol. 1 (New York: Saunders and Otley, 1837), 39.
3. "George Washington to Marquis de Lafayette, 20 March 1778," Idzerda, et al., eds., 372.
An Uninvited Guest
“One day, I remember it well, the chilly winds whistled through the leafless trees, though the sky was cloudless and the sun shone brightly, he remained in his quarters nearly all the afternoon alone. “When he came out I noticed that his face was a shade paler than usual, and there seemed to be something on his mind of more than ordinary importance. Returning just after dusk, he dispatched an orderly to the quarters of the officer I mention who was presently in attendance.
“After a preliminary conversation of about half an hour, Washington, gazing upon his companion with that strange look of dignity which he alone could command, said to the latter: “‘I do not know whether it is owing to the anxiety of my mind, or what, but this afternoon as I was sitting at this table engaged in preparing a dispatch, something seemed to disturb me. Looking up, I beheld standing opposite me a singularly beautiful female. ‘So astonished was I, for I had given strict orders not to be disturbed that it was some moments before I found language to inquire into the cause of her presence. A second, a third, and even a fourth time did I repeat my question, but received no answer from my mysterious visitor except a slight raising of her eyes. By this time I felt strange sensations spreading through me. I would have risen but the riveted gaze of the being before me rendered volition impossible. I assayed once more to address her, but my tongue had become useless. Even thought itself had become paralyzed. A new influence, mysterious, potent, irresistible, took possession of me. All I could do was to gaze steadily, vacantly at my unknown visitant. Gradually the surrounding atmosphere seemed as though becoming filled with sensations, and luminous. Everything about me seemed to rarify, the mysterious visitor herself becoming more airy and yet more distinct to my sight than before. I now began to feel as one dying, or rather to experience the sensations which I have sometimes imagined accompany dissolution. I did not think, I did not reason, I did not move all were alike impossible. I was only conscious of gazing fixedly, vacantly at my companion.
The First Threat
Presently I heard a voice saying, “Son of the Republic, look and learn,” while at the same time my visitor extended her arm eastwardly. I now beheld a heavy white vapor at some distance rising fold upon fold. This gradually dissipated, and I looked upon a strange scene. Before me lay spread out in one vast plain all the countries of the world—Europe, Asia, Africa and America. I saw rolling and tossing between Europe and America the billows of the Atlantic, and between Asia and America lay the Pacific. “Son of the Republic,” said the same mysterious voice as before, “look and learn.” At that moment I beheld a dark, shadowy being, like an angel, standing, or rather floating in mid-air, between Europe and America, dipping water out of the ocean in the hollow of each hand, he sprinkled some upon America with his right hand, while with his left hand he cast some on Europe. Immediately a cloud raised from these countries, and joined in mid-ocean. For a while it remained stationary, and then moved slowly westward, until it enveloped America in its murky folds. Sharp flashes of lightning gleamed through it at intervals, and I heard the smothered groans and cries of the American people. A second time the angel dipped water from the ocean, and sprinkled it out as before. The dark cloud was then drawn back to the ocean, in whose heaving billows it sank from view.
The Second Threat
A third time I heard the mysterious voice saying, “Son of the Republic, look and learn,” I cast my eyes upon America and beheld villages and towns and cities springing up one after another until the whole land from the Atlantic to the Pacific was dotted with them. Again, I heard the mysterious voice say, “Son of the Republic, the end of the century cometh, look and learn.” “‘At this the dark shadowy angel turned his face southward, and from Africa I saw an ill-omened spectre approach our land. It flitted slowly over every town and city of the latter. The inhabitants presently set themselves in battle array against each other. As I continued looking I saw a bright angel, on whose brow rested a crown of light, on which was traced the word “Union,” bearing the American flag which he placed between the divided nation, and said, “Remember ye are brethren.” Instantly, the inhabitants, casting from them their weapons became friends once more, and united around the National Standard.
The Third Threat
“And again I heard the mysterious voice saying, “Son of the Republic, look and learn.” At this the dark, shadowy angel placed a trumpet to his mouth, and blew three distinct blasts and taking water from the ocean, he sprinkled it upon Europe, Asia and Africa. Then my eyes beheld a fearful scene: from each of these countries arose thick, black clouds that were soon joined into one. And throughout this mass there gleamed a dark red light by which I saw hordes of armed men, who, moving with the cloud, marched by land and sailed by sea to America, which country was enveloped in the volume of cloud. And I dimly saw these vast armies devastate the whole country and burn the villages, towns and cities that I beheld springing up. As my ears listened to the thundering of the cannon, clashing of swords, and the shouts and cries of millions in mortal combat, I heard again the mysterious voice saying, “Son of the Republic, look and learn.” When the voice had ceased, the dark shadowy angel placed his trumpet once more to his mouth, and blew a long and fearful blast.
“‘Instantly a light as of a thousand suns shone down from above me, and pierced and broke into fragments the dark cloud which enveloped America. At the same moment the angel upon whose head still shone the word Union, and who bore our national flag in one hand and a sword in the other, descended from the heavens attended by legions of white spirits. These immediately joined the inhabitants of America, who I perceived were well-nigh overcome, but who immediately taking courage again, closed up their broken ranks and renewed the battle. Again, amid the fearful noise of the conflict, I heard the mysterious voice saying, “Son of the Republic, look and learn.” As the voice ceased, the shadowy angel for the last time dipped water from the ocean and sprinkled it upon America. Instantly the dark cloud rolled back, together with the armies it had brought, leaving the inhabitants of the land victorious. “‘Then once more I beheld the villages, towns and cities springing up where I had seen them before, while the bright angel, planting the azure standard he had brought in the midst of them, cried with a loud voice: “While the stars remain, and the heavens send down dew upon the earth, so long shall the Union last.” And taking from his brow the crown on which blazoned the word “Union,” he placed it upon the Standard while the people, kneeling down, said, “Amen.”
“‘The scene instantly began to fade and dissolve, and I at last saw nothing but the rising, curling vapor I at first beheld. This also disappearing, I found myself once more gazing upon the mysterious visitor, who, in the same voice I had heard before, said, “Son of the Republic, what you have seen is thus interpreted: Three great perils will come upon the Republic. The most fearful is the third (The comment on his word ‘third’ is: “The help against the THIRD peril comes in the shape of Divine Assistance. Apparently the Second Advent)…. passing which the whole world united shall not prevail against her. Let every child of the Republic learn to live for his God, his land and Union.” With these words the vision vanished, and I started from my seat and felt that I had seen a vision wherein had been shown to me the birth, progress, and destiny of the United States.’ “Such, my friends,” concluded the venerable narrator, “were the words I heard from Washington’s own lips, and America will do well to profit by them.”
While the Continental forces were gathered in small shelters at Valley Forge, the British were holding a "Meschianza" in Philadelphia.
Baron von Steuben
Valley Forge was a critical period for the Continental Army, not the least because the Baron von Steuben instituted a series of reforms that helped professionalize the army and make them better soldiers.
Valley Forge National Historic Park
Valley Forge was the site of the 1777-78 winter encampment of the Continental Army. The park commemorates the sacrifices and perseverance of the Revolutionary War generation.
Throughout the American Revolution, General George Washington often remarked that he would rather be home at Mount Vernon. Despite his wishes, Washington managed to return to his home on the Potomac only once between his acceptance of his appointment as the Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army in 1775 and the American victory at Yorktown in 1781. Even under the most trying conditions, including his army's winter encampments, Washington remained with his soldiers.
During the winter of 1777 to 1778, Washington camped with his troops at Valley Forge, nearly twenty miles north of Philadelphia. Images of bloody footprints in the snow, soldiers huddled around lonely campfires, and Washington on his knees, praying that his army might survive often come to mind when people hear the words "Valley Forge." But truer images of the place would show General Washington using the time between December 1777 and June 1778 to train his men and to fight to maintain his position as the head of the Continental Army.
Washington chose Valley Forge as the winter encampment for his 11,000 men along with approximately 500 women and children who accompanied them for several reasons. First, the lay of the land made Valley Forge a natural fortress. The army's camp sat high on a plateau at the top of a series of hills that protected it. The soldiers lived in huts built on the plateau and continued training on the parade ground at its center. Secondly, Valley Forge was far enough away from the rich farmland north of Philadelphia to prevent the army from becoming a burden on the local population. Lastly, Valley Forge was close enough to the occupied capital of Philadelphia for the Continental Army to keep an eye on the British and prevent any surprise attacks on settlements in the countryside. As Washington explained, if the army was farther away, then "many of our friends would be exposed to all the miseries of the most insulting and wanton depredation." 1
As his army marched into Valley Forge on December 19, Washington hoped that his officers and soldiers, with "one heart" and "one mind," would surmount the troubles that lay ahead of them. 2 The lack of proper clothing was a significant problem. While Washington knew most of his men were fit for duty, he calculated that at least a third of them had no shoes. Many did not have a decent coat to protect against the constant rain that plagued the camp.
Campaign 1776 piece on Valley Forge produced in partnership with Mount Vernon
Washington ordered his soldiers to build wooden huts for themselves, twelve by twelve feet each, and then search the countryside for straw to use as bedding. He hoped this would keep them warm since there were not enough blankets for everyone. Even worse, his quartermaster reported that he had just twenty-five barrels of flour and only a little salt pork to feed the entire army. As Washington explained in a letter to Henry Laurens, the President of the Continental Congress, unless something was done quickly, "this Army might dissolve." 3
Promising to "share in the hardship" and "partake of every inconvenience," Washington moved with his closest aides into a two-story stone house near Valley Forge Creek. 4 He spent much of his time writing to Congress, demanding more supplies for his men, while defending himself against charges of incompetence and dictatorial ambitions. He complained of a "malignant faction," led by Horatio Gates, the hero of Saratoga, Thomas Mifflin, the nation's former Quartermaster General, and Thomas Conway, a French soldier of Irish descent, who had recently been named to the Board of War by Congress. 5 They had been given the authority to oversee the war effort on equal terms with the Commander in Chief.
Washington railed against the threesome, dubbed the "Conway Cabal" by later historians. Washington was able to shore up his support in Congress by his gracious reception of delegates who visited the camp in January and February. They realized that Washington respected them as the leaders of the nation and had no intention of launching a coup. They in turn listened to his suggestions for improving recruitment, reorganizing state regiments, and keeping the best officers in the army.
As he fought to maintain his position as the Commander-in-Chief, Washington received key support from several officers. General Henry Knox wholeheartedly agreed with his choice of Valley Forge as the army's winter encampment and built fortifications on its hills to defend against British attacks. Two younger generals&mdashNathanael Greene and Anthony Wayne&mdashtook on the humiliating task of scouring the countryside for horses, cattle, sheep, and hogs for the Continental Army at their commanding general's request.
The Marquis de Lafayette, a young French nobleman, organized officers from France, Poland, and other European nations into the Corps d'Étrangers. Baron Friedrich von Steuben, a Prussian military officer, provided important training for the American troops. As the drillmaster of Valley Forge, he taught the soldiers how to use the bayonet, and most importantly, how to re-form lines quickly in the midst of battle. Washington also received help from his wife Martha who arrived from Mount Vernon in February. She took over the management of his household, helped with his correspondence, and cheered him by entertaining guests.
By the early spring conditions at Valley Forge greatly improved. Washington appointed General Greene as the new Quartermaster General and he set up an efficient operation for bringing supplies into the camp. The rainy weather continued to be a problem, but the mood of the camp brightened when news of the Franco-American alliance arrived in May. Washington ordered his troops to line the parade ground and shoot off their guns one by one in celebration.
Finally, on June 19, the Continental Army&mdashbetter trained and more determined than ever&mdashmarched out of Valley Forge. Washington, who proved his leadership, remained their commander. Together they headed for New Jersey where they would make a stand against the British army, on its way from Philadelphia to New York, at Monmouth Courthouse.
1. George Washington, "General Orders, December 17, 1777," The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, Vol. 10, ed. John C. Fitzpatrick (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1934), 168.
Bodle, Wayne K. and Thibaut, Jacqueline. Valley Forge Historical Research Report, Three Volumes. Valley Forge: National Park Service, 1982.
Buchanan, John. The Road to Valley Forge: How Washington Built the Army that Won the Revolution. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2004.
Fleming, Thomas. Washington's Secret War: The Hidden History of Valley Forge. New York: Smithsonian Books, 2005.
George Washington leads troops into winter quarters at Valley Forge - HISTORY
General Washington formally took field command of the Continental Army surrounding Boston on July 3, 1775. He immediately began to organize and train the troops and his natural aggressiveness was soon on display. He quickly dispatched General Henry Knox to Fort Ticonderoga to bring siege guns captured there in May 1775 to Boston to use against the British.
Once the heavy guns were in place on Dorchester Heights overlooking Boston Harbor, the English commander, General William Howe evacuated the town on March 17, 1776.
We had achieved our first great victory. The British Army eventually ended up in New York, but Washington had anticipated that move and he was there to greet them when they arrived.
Washington’s army was outnumbered and outgeneraled and lost both Long Island and Manhattan to the English over the course of about two months in late summer 1776.
Retreating through New Jersey towards Philadelphia, Washington and the remnants of the army crossed into Pennsylvania in December 1776.
George Washington and the Continental Army’s Path to Victory
John Trumbull. “The Surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown.” Yale University Art Gallery.
General Washington formally took field command of the Continental Army surrounding Boston on July 3, 1775. He immediately began to organize and train the troops and his natural aggressiveness was soon on display.
He quickly dispatched General Henry Knox to Fort Ticonderoga to bring siege guns captured there in May 1775 to Boston to use against the British. Once the heavy guns were in place on Dorchester Heights overlooking Boston Harbor, the English commander, General William Howe evacuated the town on March 17, 1776. We had achieved our first great victory.
The British Army eventually ended up in New York, but Washington had anticipated that move and he was there to greet them when they arrived. Washington’s army was outnumbered and outgeneraled and lost both Long Island and Manhattan to the English over the course of about two months in late summer 1776.
Retreating through New Jersey towards Philadelphia, Washington and the remnants of the army crossed into Pennsylvania in December 1776. At that point, General Washington’s command had dwindled down to roughly 4,000 poorly clad and poorly fed men. Thinking the end was near, General Howe retired to the warmth of his house in New York City and placed his soldiers in winter quarters. But Howe did not know George Washington.
Seizing this opportunity, Washington famously crossed the Delaware River on Christmas day and decisively defeated a contingent of Hessians at Trenton, New Jersey. Just ten days later, on January 3, 1777, he soundly defeated a regiment of British regulars at Princeton, this time saving the day with an incredibly brave charge into the fray to rally the troops.
Washington’s heroic perseverance and incredible will had kept the army together as a formidable fighting force, and his daring and field generalship in these two victories at the close of this first campaign saved the American cause.
In the spring, Howe decided to attack Philadelphia, the largest city in the colonies and where the Continental Congress was meeting. Washington, aggressive as ever, moved to intercept him but was defeated at Brandywine and again at Germantown, and the British occupied Philadelphia on September 26, 1777.
Although Washington’s Continentals lost these two battles, they stood up to the Redcoats like never before, a fact both sides recognized. More importantly, Washington had once again held the army together in a second lengthy campaign.
In December 1777, General Washington moved his ragged army into winter quarters at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, just 20 miles outside of the city. While the British refreshed and retooled and stayed warm, the Americans shivered and starved in crude wood huts.
That terrible winter, thanks to a bickering and seemingly indifferent Congress, about 2,500 of the 10,000 troops died of exposure and hunger. On December 22, 1777, Washington wrote to Henry Laurens, then President of the Continental Congress, “unless more vigorous exertions and better regulations take place in that line (supplies) and immediately, this army must dissolve.”
As befitting the great commander that he was, General Washington remained at Valley Forge with his troops throughout this long winter. Without General Washington’s entreaties to Congress and his steadfast leadership with the soldiers, the Army would never have survived the ordeal. But we did have Washington, and we did survive.
In 1778, hearing of our Treaty of Alliance with France, Sir Henry Clinton, the new British commander, evacuated Philadelphia on June 18 and moved his army back to New York. Washington was not content to simply let him go and attacked the rear guard at Monmouth Courthouse, New Jersey on June 28, 1778. Although the battle started poorly for the Americans, Washington again saved the day and the fight ended in a draw.
This engagement would prove to be the last major battle in the north of the American Revolution. By July, the British were back in New York City and the Continental Army was back in White Plains, New York. Impressively, after this grueling two-year campaign, Washington’s troops had essentially fought the most formidable army and navy in the world to a stalemate.
The focus of the war then shifted to the south from 1779-1781, but Clinton and his army remained in New York and Washington was forced to stay close by to keep an eye on them. Then, in the fall of 1780, the French finally sent a 5,000-man contingent to aid the Americans.
In August 1781, when a British force under Lord Cornwallis headed towards the James Peninsula in Virginia, Washington saw an opportunity. He quickly moved the Continental Army and our French allies to confront this force. While maintaining a ruse to fool Clinton into thinking the main Continental Army was still nearby, Washington headed south. The result was the incredible victory and capture of the entire army of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown.
Although some fighting continued for another year, the American Revolution was essentially over. Washington had done what seemed unthinkable just a few short years before. He had defeated the British army.
So why should the accomplishments of General Washington and the Continental Army matter to us today? In short, General Washington and the Continental Army gave us our independence from England and allowed our great country to be born. All the inspirational words in the Declaration of Independence and all the wishes of our political leaders would not have mounted to anything more than words if our brave soldiers had not been victorious. All Americans are indebted to these fine men for their efforts.
1776 by David McCullough is one of the most enjoyable books to read about the struggles General Washington had to overcome early in the American Revolution. Published in 2005, it is highly recommended.
The American Revolution Museum at Yorktown is a wonderful place to visit. Operated by the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, it has a fantastic museum and numerous outdoor exhibits.
Until next time, may your motto be “Ducit Amor Patriae,” Love of country leads me.
George Washington leads troops into winter quarters at Valley Forge - HISTORY
George Washington, circa 1796, after Gilbert Stuart’s Lansdowne Portrait, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation
A s one of the most famous men in American history, George Washington continues to inspire people today. Known well for his military ability, Washington was able to shape, train and lead the initially inexperienced Continental Army to victory over Britain in the Revolutionary War. Washington, a man of principle, honor and discipline, was very successful in the political realm as well. He served in the Virginia legislature, and as a delegate to both Continental Congresses, presided over the writing of the United States Constitution, and served as the nation’s first President, holding two terms in office from 1789 – 1797. So, who was George Washington? What made him such a great leader and an inspiration to the generations well beyond his own?
What was George Washington’s early life like?
Not a lot is known about George Washington’s childhood – most of the information we have about his early life is from his own writings, which started around the age of sixteen. Washington was born at Pope’s Creek in Westmoreland County, Virginia on February 22, 1732. He was the first child born to Augustine Washington and his second wife, Mary Ball, but he had two half brothers and a half sister from his father’s former marriage. In 1743, Augustine Washington died when George was just eleven years old.
Brass surveyor’s compass with case, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation
How Washington was educated early on is somewhat of a mystery, but at some point after his father’s death George’s half brother Lawrence took on oversight of his education and became a mentor to him. Washington was ambitious from the start, cultivating a close relationship with the wealthy and influential Fairfax family and becoming a surveyor on the Virginia frontier by his late teens. This career guaranteed adventure and experience for young Washington, and the position allowed George to begin purchasing land of his own. This began Washington’s keen interest in acquiring grants of land in the frontier.
Survey of 330 Acres in Augusta County for Edward Hogan, George Washington, November 1749, public domain
In 1751, Washington’s half brother Lawrence was suffering from the effects of tuberculosis. George and his brother traveled to Barbados, hoping the climate would improve Lawrence’s health. While there, Washington contracted smallpox but recovered in time. This was to be George’s only trip out of North America.
Where did Washington get his military start?
Major-General Braddock's death at the Battle of the Monongahela, 9 July 1755, unknown artist, 19th century, public domain
Sadly, Lawrence died shortly after the brothers’ return to America. George was appointed by Governor Dinwiddie to serve in a part of his brother Lawrence’s military capacity. Washington received the rank of major with this appointment. Eager to prove himself, Washington volunteered for a dangerous mission in the Ohio territory in 1753. He was to deliver a warning from Governor Dinwiddie to the French. Washington soon returned to Virginia, reporting that the French refused to heed the message and evacuate Ohio lands. Washington, newly promoted to lieutenant colonel, once again traveled to the northern frontier in spring of 1754, where a series of skirmishes resulted in the death of Joseph Jumonville, a French officer. Washington, now a colonel, and his men continued work on a fort they were building at Great Meadows, Pennsylvania. The French, in retaliation for the death of Jumonville, surrounded and attacked the fort in July, leaving Washington no option but to surrender Fort Necessity. These events set the stage for armed conflict between France and Great Britain for control over the Ohio region. War was formally declared in 1756, becoming known in America as the French and Indian War and called the Seven Years’ War in Britain.
Following the surrender at Fort Necessity, Washington resigned his appointment with the Virginia regiment and leased his sister-in-law’s Mount Vernon estate near Alexandria, Virginia. But the call of duty and a desire to increase his military experience soon led George to volunteer as an aide to British General Edward Braddock, who had been sent from Britain to lead an expedition to remove the French from their fort in Ohio territory. Washington, whose greatest desire was to acquire a regular commission in the British army, closely observed Braddock and his British regular troops as they prepared for the expedition. Braddock’s troops set out in the spring of 1755, and along their slow progress northward, met French and Indian troops unexpectedly. The bloody battle that ensued devastated the British forces. Washington bravely rallied the defeated troops and organized the retreat. He was lauded as a hero and quickly became the commander of all of Virginia’s military forces. His earlier work in Ohio territory and his response to the disastrous Braddock mission had made Washington well known in America and Europe. Washington was well on his way to fame in our nation’s history books!
What did Washington do upon return from the frontier?
Martha Dandridge Custis Washington, Eliphalet Frazer Andrews, 1878, public domain
After the French and Indian War, Washington settled into life as a country gentleman. Washington carefully calculated all of his decisions, including his marriage to the wealthy widow Martha Dandridge Custis in January of 1759. With this marriage, Washington’s social standing and wealth skyrocketed, making him one of the most affluent and influential men in Virginia. George and Martha had no children of their own, but together raised her two children from her previous marriage, John Parke Custis (“Jackie”) and Martha Parke Custis (“Patsy”). The family took up residence at Mount Vernon where Washington applied himself to expanding his holdings. He purchased thousands of acres around Mount Vernon and was granted a tract on the frontier for his service in the French and Indian War.
When did George Washington begin his political career?
Washington came from a family of local importance. His great-grandfather, grandfather and father served as justices of the peace. His half brother Lawrence represented Fairfax County in the Virginia legislature. Anxious to enter the political realm himself, Washington decided to run for a seat in the Virginia House of Burgesses. After two disappointing defeats, Washington was finally elected in 1758 to represent Frederick County. In 1760, he was appointed as a justice of the peace in Fairfax County, Virginia, a role he fulfilled for fourteen years.
What was Washington’s role in the events leading up to the American Revolution?
Washington disagreed with Britain’s taxation of the colonies and was frustrated by their attempts to prevent American colonists from exploring and settling on the newly acquired frontier lands. He became increasingly involved in the resistance after the Townshend Acts of 1767. With his friend and colleague George Mason, Washington proposed a boycott of English goods in Virginia, hoping that the British would see good sense and repeal the Townshend Acts. In August 1774, Washington was selected as a delegate to the First Continental Congress, where he supported action against what he saw as British tyranny. At wit’s end after the bloodshed at the Battles of Lexington and Concord in April of 1775, the colonies went to war with Britain. Demonstrating his devotion to the Patriot cause, Washington arrived at the Second Continental Congress in full military uniform. In June of 1775 during this second meeting of the congress, the Continental Army was created. Because of his social and political standing, his military experience, and his status as a Virginian, Washington was selected as major general and commander-in-chief.
The Bloody Massacre Perpetrated in King Street Boston on March 5th, 1770, copper engraving by Paul Revere modeled on a drawing by Henry Pelham, 1770, public domain
What were some of Washington’s successes and failures as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army?
Washington took command of his army during an ongoing siege of Boston in July 1775. He eventually forced the British to withdraw from the city. Washington then moved his troops to New York City.
When British General William Howe set out to capture New York City in August of 1776, Washington and his troops fought valiantly. Outmaneuvered, Washington’s army was defeated. Using the darkness for cover, Washington drew back across the East River at night. After his retreat across New Jersey, Washington planned a surprise attack on Hessian troops in Trenton on Christmas night in 1776. Although the British assumed that the campaign season was over for the winter, Washington led his army across the icy Delaware River, capturing around 1,000 Hessians. Another victory followed against British regulars at Princeton in early January. The defeated British troops withdrew to the area around New York City.
Hessian troops in British pay in the United States War of Independence, C. Ziegler after Conrad Gessner, 1799, public domain
From the pinnacle of success in New Jersey, Washington went on to suffer several defeats. General Howe outmaneuvered him at the Battle of Brandywine in September of 1777, and Washington’s attack on the British garrison at Germantown in early October was a disaster. On the up side, these battles kept General Howe engaged so that he was not able to support British General Burgoyne in a series of battles near Saratoga, New York. Trapped there, Burgoyne was forced to surrender his entire army to the Continental forces. The American victory at Saratoga was a major turning point in the war. France, encouraged that the Americans had potential to win the war, formally allied with the United States. This made the war between America and Britain a more global conflict. The Spanish and Dutch eventually joined the action as well.
General George Washington and a Committee of Congress at Valley Forge, Winter 1777-78. Copy of engraving after W. H. Powell, published 1866, 1931 – 1932, public domain
In December 1777, Washington's army went into winter quarters at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. Disease, exposure to the elements and lack of supplies caused deaths in camp that numbered in the thousands. Despite hardships, the time at Valley Forge brought about positive changes as well. A critical training program was implemented by Baron von Steuben of Prussia, which turned the troops into a polished, organized unit.
How did the American Revolution end?
Plan of the Siege of Yorktown, 1781, Sebastian Bauman, 1887, public domain
From his position in New York, Washington heard of the planned arrival of Admiral de Grasse’s French fleet in the Chesapeake Bay in 1781. Combining forces with four regiments of French soldiers commanded by the Comte de Rochambeau, Washington quickly marched south to attack General Cornwallis, who was encamped at Yorktown, Virginia. The Americans and French arrived at Yorktown on September 28, 1781, formed a semi-circle around the entrenchments and prepared to lay siege to the British. Finding himself surrounded, Cornwallis abandoned a line of four redoubts that were immediately occupied by continental troops. The Americans began formal siege operations on the eastern side of Yorktown on September 30. On October 14, the Americans and French stormed two redoubts in front of their trenches, making the position of the British in Yorktown indefensible. Cornwallis tried to move his troops across the York River to Gloucester, but a sudden strong storm prevented it. With no sign of relief from British General Clinton, Cornwallis surrendered to American and French forces on October 19.
The Treaty of Paris, signed in September 1783, recognized the independence of the United States. Washington disbanded his army on November 2. The British evacuated New York City on November 25 and Washington and the governor took possession. Washington told his officers goodbye on December 4, and on December 23, 1783, he resigned his commission as commander-in-chief. Some people feel that this was the most magnanimous moment of Washington’s life because he could have made himself the most powerful man in America. Instead, he returned home and took up the life of a citizen.
What did George Washington do after the American Revolution was over?
When the war was done, Washington retired to his beloved Mount Vernon. In 1784, he once again pursued his interest in the western frontier, traveling and exploring through the region. Knowing that the Articles of Confederation were fraught with weaknesses, Washington participated in the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787, where he was unanimously elected president of the Convention. The support he showed there inspired many to vote for ratification, and subsequently the new United States Constitution was ratified by all thirteen states.
Mount Vernon, Francis Jukes, 1800, public domain
In 1789, Washington was elected the first president of the United States, earning the distinction of being the only president to have received one hundred percent of the electoral vote. Washington was re-elected in the 1792 election. In March of 1797, Washington retired from the presidency and returned to Mount Vernon. He devoted most of his time to farming and other business interests for the remainder of his life. Following a brief illness, Washington died at home on December 14, 1799, at age 67.
Join or Die Political Cartoon, Benjamin Franklin, 1754, public domain
American commander, General George Washington, 18th-century illustration, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation
Why was Valley Forge important in the Revolutionary War?
The particularly severe winter of 1777-1778 proved to be a great trial for the American army, and of the 11,000 soldiers stationed at Valley Forge, hundreds died from disease. However, the suffering troops were held together by loyalty to the Patriot cause and to General Washington, who stayed with his men.
Likewise, what were the problems at Valley Forge? At Valley Forge, there were shortages of everything from food to clothing to medicine. Washington's men were sick from disease, hunger, and exposure. The Continental Army camped in crude log cabins and endured cold conditions while the Redcoats warmed themselves in colonial homes.
One may also ask, why was Valley Forge a turning point in the war?
Barely a week later, they forced the British from the field in the Battle of Monmouth. The Valley Forge encampment proved to be a turning point in the Revolutionary War, testing the mettle of George Washington and his troops and paving the way for their ultimate victory in the war for American independence.
Who helped at Valley Forge?
On December 19, 1777, commander of the Continental Army George Washington, the future first president of the United States, leads his beleaguered troops into winter quarters at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. Things could hardly have looked bleaker for Washington and the Continental Army as 1777 came to a close.
Frozen rivers, knee-deep snows, sleet, frigid temperatures, and other winter miseries helped shape the story of George Washington's life.
The Allegheny River, 1753
With tensions between the French and British over control of the Ohio Valley rapidly rising, a 21-year-old George Washington was sent on a dangerous diplomatic mission into the French-controlled wilderness beyond the Appalachians. Reaching Fort Le Beouf on December 11, 1753, Washington delivered the British demand that the French vacate the contested Ohio Valley to Jacques Le Gardeur, the French commander. After being politely rebuffed, Washington and his traveling companion, Christopher Gist, began the long journey back through the wilderness to Virginia.
On December 29, 1753, the two reached the Allegheny River which was filled with large chunks of floating ice. Gist and Washington built a raft of logs and then tried to maneuver the rough craft through the ice-clogged waters. Almost halfway across the river, Washington was thrown into the icy waters after their raft struck an ice pack. Nearly hypothermic, Washington pulled himself back on the raft with the aid of Gist.
Struggling against the ice and water, numb and exhausted, the two were unable to successfully reach either shore. They decided to abandon the raft and wade through the freezing water to a nearby island, where they spent a miserable night in the severe weather. By morning, the river was frozen solid, and the two battered survivors walked their way to safety.
The Delaware River, 1776
After suffering a series of stinging defeats, Washington's Continental Army had retreated south of the Delaware River at the onset of winter in 1776. Rather than skulk off to winters quarters, Washington decided to attack an isolated garrison of Hessian troops who were stationed on the far side of the river at Trenton, New Jersey. To surprise the Hessians, Washington ordered a night-time crossing on Christmas Day, 1776. The famous crossing was made infinitely worse by the large blocks of ice floating in the river and the terrible nor' easter that pelted his men with snow and sleet. The freezing temperatures and ice-choked river delayed the crossing by several hours, but Washington remained determined to proceed with the attack which led to a complete rout of the Hessian force the following morning at the Battle of Trenton. In assessing the American casualties for this stunning victory, more American men succumbed from the elements than were killed by Hessian bullets.
Valley Forge, 1777-1778
When you think of cold and miserable winters, Valley Forge easily comes to mind. It was here, over the winter of 1777 and 1778, that 11,000 of Washington's Continental Army faced one of its most trying episodes. While rain, snow, and cold temperatures afflicted the army, the situation was made far worse by the lack of shelter, blankets, winter coats, and even shoes. It has been estimated that a third of Washington's army at Valley Forge lacked viable footwear. Washington ordered his soldiers to build wooden huts for themselves and search the countryside for straw to use as bedding. He hoped this would keep them warm since there were not enough blankets for everyone.
Despite the terrible weather and poor condition of his troops, Washington used his time at Valley Forge wisely. Through the services of Baron Von Steuben and others, Washington aggressively drilled his force at the winter encampment. =By the start of the 1778 campaigning season, the Continental Army was a far better drilled and prepared for combat.
Housebound and Frustrated
George Washington was not one to be deterred by a little winter weather, but on occasion, the snows were so deep that the great man was largely trapped within his Mount Vernon home. George Washington Parke Custis recounted an interesting story about his step-grandfather, &ldquoIn winter, when stress of weather prevented his [George Washington] taking his usual exercise, he was in the habit of walking for an hour in the eastern portico of the mansion, before retiring to rest. As that portico is more than ninety feet in length, this walk would comprise several miles.&rdquo
Of all the terrible winters that Washington faced during his lifetime, the frozen winter of 1779 and 1780 might have been the worst. While Valley Forge has become synonymous with winter misery during the Revolutionary War, by all historical accounts the winter encampment at Morristown, New Jersey was far worse. Trapped by one of the worst winters on record, Washington's Continentals lacked food, clothes, and sufficient shelter. To further complicate the situation, the icy roads made it almost impossible to bring regular supplies to the suffering soldiers. The situation grew so dire that several regiments mutinied and Washington despaired for the future of the Revolutionary cause.
In a March 18, 1780 letter to the Marquis de Lafayette, Washington wrote that "The oldest people now living in this Country do not remember so hard a Winter as the one we are now emerging from. In a word, the severity of the frost exceeded anything of the kind that had ever been experienced in this climate before."
The Winter Patriots
Learn more about Washington's crossing of the Delaware River and the fateful battles of Trenton and Princeton.
Q. I recently read a family history account that said: "As children, we heard our grand parents tell about this Holland Dutch family who came to American before the Revolutionary War. We still like to remember that the Potts family fought in the Revolution and that it was Isaac Potts who sheltered George Washington at Valley Forge, in Schuylkill Township, Chester County Pennsylvania on December 1777. Washington and his army of about 11,000 men were into winter quarters at this place and spent a severe winter. One grandmother Delilah Potts (Funk) used to say that several of the Potts brothers had iron forges and worked together. The forge in the valley was called "The Valley Forge" to distinguish it from others. This Valley Forge was only a dwelling and a forge." Can you lend any credence to this story?
Billie Potts, Seattle, Washington
A. The land which later occupied the Continental Army during the winter of 1777-1778 was originally part of the "Manor of Mount Joy" which was 7,800 acres of land granted to Letitia Penn Aubrey and her husband William Aubrey by her father William Penn, on October 24, 1701 for an annual rent of one beaver skin. They gradually sold off the property, selling the last 175 acres in 1730 to Daniel Walker, Stephen Evans, and Joseph Williams. This partnership soon became the "Mount Joy Forge," later becoming more commonly known as "Valley Forge." This was a complete ironworks: finery, chafery, bloomery, and a slitting mill. Pig iron was converted to billets iron billets into bars cast iron into wrought iron and manufactured finished metal products. In the 1750's a sawmill was added and in 1757, the entire property was purchased by a prominent Quaker ironmaster, John Potts. He eventually added a gristmill to the property several years later.
Potts, Hackley & Potts was the firm operating the forge by 1767 &mdash consisting of Joseph and David Potts (John Potts' sons) and their cousin, Thomas Hackley. On May 10, 1768 the forge was conveyed solely to Joseph. Isaac Potts, another son, became owner of the gristmill by 1773, and soon after built his stone house along Valley Creek near the Schuylkill River. David Potts built a summer residence himself nearby &mdash he lived in Philadelphia &mdash but this house was acquired by William Dewees, his brother-in-law, and Isaac Potts and William Dewees entered into a partnership owning the forge.
The forge on Valley Creek was a source of military materials with the arrival of war, and despite his being a Quaker, Dewees became a colonel in the militia and he and Isaac Potts devoted a large part of the production from the forge was for the war effort. The production of munitions from this location was cause for the British to make it a stop on their way to Philadelphia in 1777. On September 11, 1777, following the Battle of Brandywine, a contingent of British forces reached Valley Forge on September 18th. Reinforcements arrived on the 20th and that morning, they carried off the "rebel stores" and burned the forge and all the structures except the gristmill. (Which incidentally survived until 1843 when it was destroyed by fire.)
General Washington arrived at Valley Forge on December 19, 1777 with his troops. Other generals had found housing in various farms around the encampment area, and Washington found his own in the home of Isaac Potts, which he rented from its current tenant, Mrs. Deborah Hewes for a hundred pounds in Pennsylvania currency. Mrs. Hewes, whose first husband had been one of Isaac's brothers, moved in with the Dewees family.