Sunday, October 25, 2020

ARP172 Winter at Valley Forge

The Continental Army and militia entered Valley Forge on December 19, 1777.  Contrary to popular myth, the winter was not a particularly harsh one.  Even in a mild winter though, having to spend day and night outdoors without shoes or a coat was a miserable existence.  Many soldiers had received little or no food during the march to Valley Forge

Cold, Hungry, and Sick

General Washington reported hearing chants from the soldiers of “No Meat! No Coat! No Bread! No Soldier!”  Shortly after entering Valley Forge, roughly one-quarter of the army 3000 out of 12,000 men was unfit for duty due to the lack of adequate clothing to go outside.  This made the necessity of building cabins for the soldiers all the more critical.  The army set about cutting and hauling wood and erecting crude structures as quickly as possible.  Even so, it took several weeks while the men remained out in the elements before they could build the necessary housing.

As the army moved into Valley Forge, the Pennsylvania legislature issued a remonstrance critical of the Continental army for going into winter quarters. Instead, they called for a winter campaign to retake the area.

Washington and Lafayette at Valley Forge
(from Wikimedia)
Before Washington could think about more engagements with the enemy he needed to get his army the necessary food and clothing to continue.  He repeatedly wrote to Congress that the army was in danger of dissolving if food and clothing was not forthcoming quickly.  Congress, of course, had no money to buy food.  The continual printing of paper Continental dollars had made them virtually worthless.  Farmers did not want to give away their food in exchange for worthless paper.  Instead, they would take the risk of carrying their goods to Philadelphia, where the British would pay with gold and silver.

Desertions grew along with the desperation of the soldiers.  Washington gave orders for officers to take roll calls several times each day so that deserters could be discovered before they got too far away.  On Christmas, Washington pardoned two soldiers sentenced to hang for desertion.  While such pardons were common, they were not guaranteed.  About a third of Continental soldiers convicted of desertion, hanged.  This did not discourage everyone from the practice.  There are stories of some soldiers deserting to Philadelphia where they would become prisoners of war.  A British officer reported that an average of six soldiers walked into British lines at Philadelphia every single day during February.  Some thought that treatment as British prisoners would be better than as American soldiers.  Such was the level of starvation and desperation at Valley Forge.

All this was happening while Congress was engaged in all the events of the Conway Cabal that I talked about last week.  So Washington had to convey to Congress that the army was on the verge of collapse, while at the same time trying to discourage delegates from replacing him as head of the army.

Washington did not mince words when he wrote to Henry Laurens, the President of Congress in a letter that began as follows: 

I am now convinced beyond a doubt, that unless some great and capital change suddenly takes place...this Army must inevitably be reduced to one or other of these three things. Starve—dissolve—or disperse, in order to obtain subsistence in the best manner they can. rest assured, Sir, this is not an exaggerated picture, and that I have abundant reason to support what I say.

General Thomas Mifflin, as Quartermaster General, was responsible for food.  He resigned in September, but Congress then appointed him the Board of War, along with General Gates, as I discussed last week.  For several months the army had no quartermaster.  No one wanted the thankless job.

Campfire at Valley Forge
Over the winter, the Board of War under Horatio Gates and former quartermaster Mifflin convinced Congress to put the responsibility under the board’s control and take it away from the military.  This was part of a larger effort to grant the board all strategic authority and to let Gates order Washington around.  Rather than develop his own strategy, Washington would simply implement Gates’ strategy.

In the face of this threat, Washington forced General Nathanael Greene to take the job, over Greene’s strong objections.  Quartermaster was a thankless job.  There was never enough food nor money to buy food.  Even the quartermaster somehow did get the food, it was not going to result in praise or promotion the way that winning a battle would.  But Greene had a good reputation in Congress.  His appointment helped Washington to defeat Gates’ plan to take control of the army.

Washington also ordered that pickets guard the roads into Philadelphia.  Any civilians trying to take food to sell to the British would have it confiscated and seized by the army.  Laurens suggested to Washington that he begin commandeering food from local farmers, forcing them to take paper notes in exchange.  Washington largely resisted this, knowing that it would just turn locals against the army.

Darby Raid

The Continental Army was not the only army looking for provisions to get them through the winter.  The same week the Continentals marched into Valley Forge, General Howe deployed 8000 British and Hessian soldiers across a pontoon bridge erected across the Schuylkill River.  The regulars formed a defensive perimeter while other soldiers cut down wheat fields and herded cattle back toward Philadelphia.

In response, Washington ordered his brigade leaders to select groups of fifty men who were sufficiently clothed and provisioned to march out and harass the British foraging parties.  Washington gave overall command of the mission to General Lord Stirling, who had managed the forage wars in New Jersey a year earlier.  Unlike in the New Jersey forage wars, the British learned not to send out smaller parties who could be ambushed.  The British moved in force so that smaller raiding parties could only take swipes at their pickets.

Washington Praying at Valley Forge, believed
to be a story invented in the 19th Century
On the other hand, since the British could not send out smaller foraging parties and had to remain inside their perimeter at Darby, that left much of the countryside to the north open.  Rather than attack the British, Stirling sent out his own foraging parties which captured cattle, sheep, blankets and other supplies to ship back to Valley Forge, thus denying it to the British and making it available to Washington’s starving soldiers.

Howe then deployed a regiment on a night march toward Radnor, which was where Stirling had made his headquarters.  The movements set off a panic among local farmers who feared both armies might descend on them and take all of their food.  A great many loaded their wagons and attempted to get to Philadelphia.  That way, they could sell their food for money rather than have it taken.  A great many made it into the city, but many others had their wagons seized and confiscated by Continental patrols.

Plan to Attack Philadelphia

All of this was happening in the days leading up to Christmas 1777.  It was not lost on anyone that Washington’s best claim to fame was his Christmas raid on Trenton a year earlier.  Washington seriously considered a second Christmas raid, this year on Philadelphia.  With more than half of the British Army in Darby, the defenses in Philadelphia were stretched rather thin.

Washington HQ, Home of Isaac Potts
(from Wikimedia)
Washington devised a plan to have General Stirling’s army attack the British at Darby in force as a feint.  Washington believed this would cause the bulk of the Hessian Army still defending Philadelphia to march toward Darby to support the British regulars.  With defenses in the city weakened even more, 4000 Continentals would storm the defenses north of Philadelphia and push the defenders back across the Schuylkill River.

Although this was Washington’s idea, he did not want to present it to his officers.  He feared doing so would get them all to go along rather than give their candid opinions.  Rather, he had General John Sullivan discuss the idea with other top officers and return with their opinions.  The feedback he got was not good.  The army simply did not have the supplies to begin a new offensive.  Even if they did, this was a complicated plan with lots of moving parts, which is the same thing that many blamed for the recent loss at Germantown.  Unlike at Trenton, the Americans would not be attacking a small isolated outpost.  They would be taking on the entire British Army, even if it was divided by about five or six miles.  The success of the plan would require perfect timing and would also require that the enemy to behave exactly as they expected.  The odds of that seemed too high.  In the end, Washington called off the plans.

Instead of the attack, soldiers in Valley Forge received an unexpected dinner of mutton courtesy of the sheep that Stirling’s raiding parties had sent.  Even so, it was too late for at least one soldier who was found dead in his cabin on Christmas Day, reportedly from malnutrition and exposure.  He was one of thousands who would die that winter in Valley Forge simply due to the darth of food, clothing, and shelter.

A few days after Christmas, the British foraging expedition returned to Philadelphia and once again secured its defenses against any possible attack.

Light Horse Harry

With the British back in Philadelphia, the Continentals needed to remain active in the area between Philadelphia and Valley Forge.  They needed to prevent farmers from trading with the enemy, and ensure that no new British offensives went undetected.  

Light Horse Harry Lee
(from Wikimedia)
Among those who were responsible for this territory was a Virginia captain named Henry Lee.  He was known as Harry, and would later get the nickname of “Light Horse Harry” for his actions during the war.  Captain Lee was from the prominent Lee family of Virginia. His father was the cousin of Richard Henry Lee, a delegate to the Continental Congress.

Captain Lee led a cavalry patrol in the area between the two armies.  Over several weeks, he established an understanding with the local farmers who gave his men food and shelter in exchange for their protection.  Lee’s company became effective in blocking farmers from trading with the enemy, as well as capturing 124 enemy soldiers over several weeks in December and January.

Lee’s cavalry became such a nuisance, that Howe sent out a regiment of British dragoons and the Queen’s Loyal Rangers to capture the Americans in late January.  Among those sent was Major Banastre Tarleton, the officer who had captured General Charles Lee (no relation) the year before.

In a dawn raid, 130 British horsemen descended on the house where Lee and nine of his men were sleeping.  One of Lee’s men fled in panic, leaving Lee with eight men to face the enemy.  The men in the stone house put up a stalwart defense, fending off several attacks on the house.  Eventually the British attackers decided the house was too difficult to storm and contented themselves with capturing the horses in the barn.

Lee, however, was not going to allow that either, and stage an unexpected charge at the barn to chase off the startled British.  

During one charge on the house, Tarleton reached the window.  One of the defenders pulled a pistol and fired point blank at Tarleton’s head.  The  gun misfired.  Tarleton shouted “you missed it my lad, for this time” and retreated away with only minor injuries.  The British suffered two dead and four wounded.  

Only one defender suffered a minor hand injury, although four pickets outside the house as well as the man who fled were missing and presumed captured.  The skirmish was of little importance strategically, but did great things for Captain Lee’s reputation.

HMS Symmetry

As it turned out, the real enemy that winter would not be soldiers.  It would be a battle for survival against starvation and exposure.  As such, much of the army’s work was to capture supplies for themselves, as well as deny them to the enemy. 

William Smallwood
(from Wikimedia)
A few days before the New Year, General William Smallwood’s Maryland militia managed to capture a British sloop called the Symmetry.  The ship had run aground a few days earlier near Wilmington, Delaware.  After the Militia fired a few shots, the crew struck their colors and surrendered.  The ship contained nearly 9000 muskets, six cannons, some food, wine, and rum, as well as enough uniforms to outfit four regiments. 

Washington congratulated Smallwood and requested that the supplies be shipped to Valley Forge as quickly as possible.  In response, Smallwood objected, claiming that as a seized ship, his militia were entitled to claim its contents as a prize to keep for themselves.  Washington seemed taken aback by this stand, but submitted the matter to Congress to resolve.  In the end, Congress ordered not only that Smallwood ship the bulk of the supplies to Valley Forge, but the Smallwood also be responsible for the care and feeding of several dozen British soldiers and sailors, as well as forty wives of officers who were captured aboard ship.

The dispute over the Symmetry created a rift between Washington and Smallwood that would last for years.

Disease and Death

Over the course of the winter, the lack of food and clothing remained among the army’s greatest challenge.  Added to that was disease.  Contagious diseases like smallpox and typhus ravaged the army.  

Officers set up hospitals in the few available buildings in the area.  But these were horribly overcrowded.  Caregivers mixed contagious patents with those suffering from other ailments, leading to greater spread of disease.  There were not nearly enough doctors, and even if there were, they did not know how to treat most of these diseases effectively.  Most of the sick received care from female camp followers who the army paid $2/month for their services. 

Valley Forge Encampment (from Lib of Cong)
Poor care, inadequate food, and mixing sick patients together made the hospitals a death trap for many.  Some soldiers who did survive, returned to duty wearing only a blanket because someone had stolen their clothes while they were sick in bed.  A great many soldiers simply refused to report being sick, thinking it would be better to try to get through their illness in their cabins.  A great many soldiers died without ever seeking any medical care.  

To combat these problems, Washington began a secret policy of smallpox inoculation.  Prior to the development of a safe vaccination in the 19th century, inoculation at this time often left the patient sick for several weeks or months with a weak version of smallpox.  Inoculated patients were also contagious for several weeks and had to be isolated from other soldiers.  A small percentage even died from the inoculation.

The Continental Army inoculated over 4000 soldiers in Valley Forge over the winter, meaning most of these soldiers would not be in fighting condition simply because of the inoculation.  That was one reason Washington wanted to keep the program a secret.  He did not want the British to realize that nearly half of his army was unable to fight.

The army also began to institute new rules regarding sanitary conditions.  These were rather rudimentary rules, like digging trenches for the men to relieve themselves a reasonable distance from the cabins and requiring soldiers to use the trenches rather than going wherever they wanted.

Congressional Committee

In late January, the Continental Congress sent a delegation to Valley Forge with an uncertain mission.  Some thought it was just a fact finding mission.  Others, including the head of the Commission, Francis Dana of Massachusetts, said it was “to rap a demi-god over the knuckles.”  In other words, push back against Washington for his overbearing demands to Congress.

Francis Dana
(from Wikitree)
Originally, the Committee was to have included Generals Gates and Mifflin from the Board of War.  Both men, however, declined to join the delegates.  Instead, in addition to Dana, four other delegates joined the commission: Gouverneur Morris of New York, Joseph Reed of Pennsylvania, Nathaniel Folsom of New Hampshire and John Harvie of Virginia.  Recall that Joseph Reed was Washington’s one-time aide. The two men had a falling out after Washington read correspondence between Reed and General Charles Lee more than a year earlier win which Reed disparaged Washington in favor of Lee.  Since then, Lee had left the army and become a delegate to the Continental Congress.

More than a month in Valley Forge had only given the soldiers time to become angrier.  They felt as if their home states and the army had ordered them to fight, but then refused to provide them with the food, clothing and other necessities to survive.  They had become naked starving wretches and no one seemed to care.  A mob of hungry soldiers killed a commissary officer.  The army’s paymaster refused to set foot in camp until he was given some money to pay the men, which did not come.  Similarly the clothier general’s department moved its winter quarters several miles from the main camp, fearing the wrath of soldiers.

Washington met the committee with a 13,000 word report entitled A Representation to the Committee of Congress, in which Hamilton, newly returned from his recovery from illness in Peekskill summarized thousands of pages of reports, and rebutted the attacks made against Washington by delegates and others outside the army.  It attacked the incompetence of the Commissary and Quartermaster Departments.  

It further proposed a guarantee of half pay for life to encourage officers to remain with the Continental Army.  It proposed a military draft to require state militia to serve a one-year stint in the Continental Army, with a $25 reenlistment bonus to be paid for another year. It also suggested the use of more free blacks in the army as well as greater use of allied Native Americans.  In summary, it laid out the desperate plight of the army and suggested the solutions necessary to build a more professional and functioning army.

Washington’s presentation impressed the committee members, who were struck by the plight of the army’s lack of resources and by Washington’s continued willingness to submit to civilian authority, even when the civilians were not providing his men with the necessities of life. Washington’s calls for a more professional army went against the revolutionary notions that a standing army was always a mark of tyranny and that militia should be sufficient.  Washington, however, made clear that such an army was a necessity and that, unlike other standing armies in history, his army would always remain subject to the civilian leaders in Congress.

The committee spent several weeks at Valley Forge, meeting with Washington and inspecting the army.  When they returned to York in February, they recommended passage of most of Washington’s suggestions.  Meanwhile, Washington’s struggle to keep his army alive would continue.

Next week: we will head over to France to discuss the first treaties recognizing the US as an independent nation.

- - -

Next Episode 173 Treaties with France 

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Further Reading


Valley Forge National Historical Park:

Valley Forge:

The Continental Army at Valley Forge:

“From George Washington to Henry Laurens, 23 December 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives.

A Representation to the Committee of Congress “From George Washington to a Continental Congress Camp Committee, 29 January 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives,

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Pennypacker, Samuel W. Valley Forge, Philadelphia, 1898.

Prowell, George R. Continental Congress at York, Pennsylvania and York County in the Revolution, The York Printing Co., 1914.

Riddle, James W. Valley Forge Guide and Handbook, Philadelphia, J.B. Lippincott Co. 1910.

Taylor, Frank H. Valley Forge, a Chronicle of American Heroism, Philadelphia: J.W. Nagle, 1905.

Woodman, Henry The History of Valley Forge, Oaks, Pa., J. U. Francis, 1922.

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Buchanan, John The Road to Valley Forge: How Washington Built the Army that Won the Revolution, Wiley, 2004.

Chidsey, Donald Barr Valley Forge; An On-The-scene Account of the Winter Crisis in the Revolutionary War, Crown Publishing, 1959.

Cole, Ryan Light-Horse Harry Lee: The Rise and Fall of a Revolutionary Hero - The Tragic Life of Robert E. Lee's Father, Regnery History, 2019.

Drury, Bob & Clavin, Tom Valley Forge, Simon & Schuster, 2018.

Fleming, Thomas Washington's Secret War: The Hidden History of Valley Forge, Smithsonian, 2005.

Flexner, James Thomas, George Washington in the American Revolution, 1775-1783, Little Brown, 1968.

Lockhart, Paul The Drillmaster of Valley Forge: The Baron de Steuben and the Making of the American Army, Smithsonian, 2008.

Ward, Christopher The War of the Revolution, Macmillan, 1952. 

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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