American Revolution: Winter at Valley Forge

The Continental Army arriving at Valley Forge
General George Washington at Valley Forge. Photograph Courtesy of the National Park Service

The encampment at Valley Forge took place from December 19, 1777 through June 19, 1778 and served as winter quarters for General George Washington's Continental Army. Having suffered a string of defeats that fall, including losing the capital of Philadelphia to the British, the Americans made camp for the winter outside of the city. While at Valley Forge, the army endured a chronic supply crisis but largely remained as well fed and clothed as it did during the previous campaigning season.

During the winter, it benefited from the arrival of Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben who implemented a new training regimen which transformed the men in the ranks from inexperienced amateurs into disciplined soldiers capable of standing up against the British. When Washington's men departed in June 1778, they were an improved army from the one that had arrived months earlier.

A Difficult Autumn

In the fall of 1777, Washington's army moved south from New Jersey to defend the capital of Philadelphia from the advancing forces of General William Howe. Clashing at Brandywine on September 11, Washington was decisively defeated, leading the Continental Congress to flee the city. Fifteen days later, after outmaneuvering Washington, Howe entered Philadelphia unopposed. Seeking to regain the initiative, Washington struck at Germantown on October 4. In a hard-fought battle, the Americans came close to victory but again suffered defeat.

Selecting a Site

With the campaign season ending and cold weather rapidly approaching, Washington moved his army into winter quarters. For his winter encampment, Washington selected Valley Forge on the Schuylkill River approximately 20 miles northwest of Philadelphia. With its high ground and position near the river, Valley Forge was easily defensible, but still close enough to the city for Washington to maintain pressure on the British.

The location also allowed the Americans to prevent Howe's men from raiding into the Pennsylvania interior as well as could provide the launching point for a winter campaign. Additionally, the location next to the Schuylkill worked to facilitate the movement of supplies. Despite the defeats of the fall, the 12,000 men of the Continental Army were in good spirits when they marched into Valley Forge on December 19, 1777. 

Reconstructed army huts at Valley Forge. Photograph © 2008 Patricia A. Hickman

Housing

Under the direction of the army's engineers, the men began constructing over 2,000 log huts laid out along military streets. These were erected using lumber from the region's abundant forests and typically took a week to build. With the arrival of spring, Washington directed that two windows be added to each hut. In addition, defensive trenches and five redoubts were built to protect the encampment.

To facilitate re-supply of the army, a bridge was erected over the Schuylkill. The winter at Valley Forge generally conjures images of half-naked, starving soldiers battling the elements. This was not the case. This imagery is largely the result of early, romanticized interpretations of the encampment story which were meant to serve as a parable about American perseverance.

Supplies

Though far from ideal, the conditions of the encampment were generally on par with the Continental soldier's routine privations. During the early months of the encampment, supplies and provisions were scarce, but available. Soldiers made due with subsistence meals such as "firecake," a mixture of water and flour. This would sometimes be supplemented by pepper pot soup, a stew of beef tripe and vegetables. 

The situation improved in February following a visit to the camp by members of Congress and successful lobbying by Washington. While a lack of clothing caused suffering among some the men, many were fully uniformed with the best equipped units used for foraging and patrols. During the early months at Valley Forge, Washington lobbied to improve the army's supply situation with some success.

Statue of Brigadier General Anthony Wayne at Valley Forge. Photograph © 2008 Patricia A. Hickman

To supplement those supplies received from Congress, Washington sent Brigadier General Anthony Wayne to New Jersey in February 1778, to gather food and cattle for the men. A month later, Wayne returned with 50 head of cattle and 30 horses. With the arrival of warmer weather in March, disease began strike at the army. Over the next three months, influenza, typhus, typhoid, and dysentery all erupted within the encampment. Of the 2,000 men who died at Valley Forge, over two-thirds were killed by disease. These outbreaks were eventually contained through sanitation regulations, inoculations, and the work of surgeons.

Drilling with von Steuben:

On February 23, 1778, Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben arrived in the camp. A former member of the Prussian General Staff, von Steuben had been recruited to the American cause in Paris by Benjamin Franklin. Accepted by Washington, von Steuben was put to work designing a training program for the army. He was aided in this task by Major General Nathanael Greene and Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Hamilton.

Though he spoke no English, von Steuben commenced his program in March with the aid of interpreters. Beginning with a "model company" of 100 chosen men, von Steuben instructed them in drill, maneuver, and a simplified manual of arms. These 100 men were in turn sent out to other units to repeat the process and so on until the entire army was trained. In addition, von Steuben introduced a system of progressive training for recruits which educated them in the basics of soldiering.

Statue of Baron von Steuben at Valley Forge. Photograph © 2008 Patricia A. Hickman

Surveying the encampment, von Steuben greatly improved sanitation by reorganizing the camp. This included the repositioning kitchens and latrines ensure they were on the opposites ends of the camp and the latter on the downhill side. His efforts so impressed Washington that Congress appointed inspector general for the army on May 5. The results of von Steuben's training were immediately evident at Barren Hill (May 20) and the Battle of Monmouth (June 28). In both cases, the Continental soldiers stood up to and fought on equal footing with the British professionals.

Departure

Though the winter at Valley Forge had been trying for both the men and the leadership, the Continental Army emerged as a stronger fighting force. Washington, having survived various intrigues, such as the Conway Cabal, to remove him from command, cemented himself as the army's military and spiritual leader, while the men, stiffened by von Steuben, were superior soldiers to those that had arrived in December 1777.

On May 6, 1778, the army held celebrations for the announcement of the alliance with France. These saw military demonstrations across the camp and the firing of artillery salutes. This change in the course of the war, prompted the British to evacuate Philadelphia and return to New York. Hearing of the British departure from the city, Washington and the army left Valley Forge in pursuit on June 19. 

Leaving some men, led by the injured Major General Benedict Arnold, to re-occupy Philadelphia, Washington led the army across the Delaware into New Jersey. Nine days later, the Continental Army intercepted the British at the Battle of Monmouth. Fighting through extreme heat, the army's training showed as it battled the British to a draw. At its next major encounter, the Battle of Yorktown, it would be victorious.

General George Washington's headquarters at Valley Forge. Photograph © 2008 Patricia A. Hickman