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home : community : education January 26, 2022

1/10/2022 9:47:00 AM
Valley Forge and the Winter of 1777 - 1778

Roy Lightfoot
Catawba Valley SAR

Many books, and essays have been written about the subject of Valley Forge, and exactly how horrific it truly was the winter of 1777 – 1778. Most likely, nothing new or anything the reader did not already know will be written here. However, what the author intends to do is to offer an insight into the mind of the common soldier as he sees it.

Everyone knows that in December 1777, General George Washington had moved the 12,000 members of the Continental Army into winter quarters at Valley Forge after the victory in September at Saratoga, and the defeats at Brandywine, Paoli, and Germantown, Pennsylvania in October, and the Patriot capital, Philadelphia, had fallen into British hands. The army suffered from cold, hunger, and fatigue, but now the low morale of the troops played a factor after this disastrous campaign. Washington himself described Valley Forge as “a dreary kind of place and uncomfortably provided.” This location was only twenty miles from Philadelphia, and the British, and although it presented a strategic, defensible stronghold in eastern Pennsylvania, the army was ill-prepared for an encampment which would last for six long months. With the advantages of the access of clean water, and firewood, also came the disadvantages of their basic needs of food, and clothing, and the diseases which ran rampant throughout the camp. In addition to the main army, there were also smaller numbers of African American and Native American soldiers, and many women and children, including officers’ wives and families. While there, the soldiers built makeshift huts, however, shortages of food, clothing, and blankets as well as the unsanitary conditions all contributed to disease, exhaustion, and the spiraling of their morale. As many as 3,000 of the soldiers were unfit for service because of only a lack of clothing including shoes, socks, and coats.

What kept those people there in such deplorable conditions? What made them stay, and not run for home? Hope? Faith? A sense of duty? Washington begged the Continental Congress, and the state governors for assistance, and finally resorted to sending soldiers under General Nathanael Greene on foraging parties into the countryside. With all previously mentioned, and with Washington’s military authority being questioned, because of his steady leadership he was able to maintain control of the troops, and there was never a mass desertion or a mutiny.

Two men played pivotal roles with keeping the troops together and focused and not running for home. Even though the troops faced these horrible conditions, The Marquis de Lafayette, and Baron von Steuben ensured and encouraged the men to remember what they were there for. Lafayette had been with the troops from the beginning at Valley Forge. He engaged the men directly and became noted for enduring the same hardships with them. He was esteemed for his bravery for which he became popular with the Continentals and was very well-known for his personal dedication to Washington, and the American Cause. Von Steuben arrived in February 1778, and was immediately appointed as unofficial Inspector General by Washington. He sought to bring a uniformity to the soldiers, and although these men had seen combat, they lacked the military training to pose an effective threat against the British. Through a system of drill he developed, he taught them maneuvers that furnished the skills to rival the well-trained British soldiers. Along with this, and his previous experience in the Seven Years War with the Prussian army, he oversaw the training of this “rag-tag” army so desperately needed. By the end of the Valley Forge encampment, the army had experienced a complete and significant transformation to an orderly and disciplined fighting force. Just a few weeks before leaving Valley Forge in June 1778, news reached the Americans of the French alliance in May. With the news, came a revitalization of this reorganized and uniformly trained army causing them to forge ahead, and display their professionalism, and discipline at the Battle of Monmouth, 28 June 1778. Without Valley Forge, and the reshaping of Washington’s Army, the Americans’ dedication, endurance, and resilience would not have been forged, and independence might not have been gained.

What Lafayette and von Steuben showed the Continental army, and still show us today, is this: leaders must lead from within. If you want your “troops” to follow you, you must experience what they experience. Good leaders are not born, they are made. Sometimes, nay, ALL the time, you must “suit up, and show up” in order to be successful, and it takes all of us to achieve our goals. These two “foreigners” showed the troops that and show us that.

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