The Winter of 1777

In August of 1777, Sir William Howe, the commander in chief of the British forces in North America, landed his experienced army at the upper end of Chesapeake Bay.  Taking Philadelphia was his ultimate goal.  It was this move by Howe that led Continental Army Commander in Chief General George Washington to position his troops in a location that would allow him to defend the patriot capital.  However, Washington made some errors.  Howe’s outstanding skill allowed him to use tactics that set in motion a series of events:  the British victory at Brandywine, the fleeing of the Continental Army to York, Pennsylvania, the British occupation of Philadelphia, and a defeat at Germantown.

 

As the weather grew colder, General Washington felt an urgent need to find a place for his troops make a winter encampment.  Northwest of Philadelphia about 18 miles, Washington found a place that suited his purpose:  Valley Forge.  The area was named for an iron forge which had been constructed on Valley Creek.  This location gave Washington the closeness he needed to the British.  From Valley Forge he could prevent British foraging raids on the interior of Pennsylvania.  The location was, however, far enough away to prevent surprise attacks by the enemy.  The high ground along the valley, Mount Joy and Mount Misery, gave the Continental troops an advantage.  In addition, to the North, the Schuykille River provided additional defense.

 

Finding a location was the easy part.  Setting up the encampment proved much more difficult.  Just days after arriving at Valley Forge and receiving instructions to select the grounds for brigade encampments, six inches of snow covered the ground.  The need for quarters became a priority, and General Washington issued orders for the men to construct log encampments for their own protections.  “Head Quarters, at the Gulph, December 18, 1777

 

The Colonels, or commanding officers of regiments, with their Captains, are immediately to cause their men to be divided into squads of twelve, and see that each squad have their proportion of tools, and set about a hut for themselves: And as an encouragement to industry and art, the General promises to reward the party in each regiment, which finishes their hut in the quickest, and most workmanlike manner, with twelve dollars. And as there is reason to believe that boards, for covering, may be found scarce and difficult to be got; He offers One hundred dollars to any officer or soldier, who in the opinion of three Gentlemen, he shall appoint as judges, shall substitute some other covering, that may be cheaper and quicker made, and will in every respect answer the ends.

 

The Soldier’s huts are to be of the following dimensions: fourteen by sixteen each, sides, ends and roofs made with logs, and the roof made tight with split slabs, or in some other way; the sides made tight with clay, fire-place made of wood and secured with clay on the inside eighteen inches thick, this fire-place to be in the rear of the hut; the door to be in the end next to the street; the doors to be made of split oak-slabs, unless boards can be procured. Side-walls to be six and a half-feet high. The officers huts to form a line in the rear of the troops, one hut to be allowed to each General Officer, one to the Staff of each brigade, one to the field officers of each regiment, one to the Staff of each regiment, one to the commissioned officers of two companies, and one to every twelve non-commissioned officers and soldiers.

 

G. Washington

(The Writings of George Washington: From the original Sources 1745-1799. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1934.)”

 

On December 19, the Continental Army first took camp at Valley Forge.  The conditions under which these men built the approximately 2000 log huts were less than good.  Not only did they lack experience in constructing log houses, the men had arrived at Valley Forge in a weakened state.  They were malnourished from lack of food.  Many had worn through the soles of their shoes in earlier marches and campaigns.  They lacked proper clothing for working outside in the winter elements.  They were tired from the exhaustive marches.  The army was not properly equipped for the task at hand.  They lacked the proper tools.  They were short on animals to skid the logs.  Even the logs were scarce.  With winter’s wrath bearing down on them, many of the men abandoned General Washington’s specifications for the huts, and did what they could to construct quick shelter.  Evidence exists that some of men dug down into the ground several feet below surface level to construct their huts.  Others added fireplaces in the corners.

 

It was January before the troops actually began building the fortifications they needed to properly defend the camp.  Reports from General Washington indicated that most of the men were living in the log constructions by the beginning of February.  However, do not confuse the huts with comfortable living.  The space, which is no larger than an average bedroom today, was shared by a dozen people.  Along two of the walls of each hut, a row of bunk beds were constructed.  The bunks served not only as a place to sleep but also as a place for storage of personal items and extra clothing, if they had any.  And still, food and other needs were in short supply.  If General Washington wasn’t careful, morale could become even shorter in supply than food and clothing.

 

The winter at Valley Forge provided a time for improving the efficiency and discipline of the troops.  By March, after the construction was complete, Prussian Baron Friedrich von Steuben began regimented training of the infantry.  This training uplifted the hopes and morale of the men.  They also honed their skills.  Then, ever so slowly, supplies began to trickle into camp.  Fresh troops arrived.  But the real boost to morale came as men learned in the spring that the French had allied with the United States with a promise of military support.

 

Who were these men at Valley Forge?  They were typical Americans.  What is meant by that?  Simply this, they came from all walks of life, both rich and poor, black and white, even Native American.  A party of Oneida Indians arrived in Valley Forge as late as May.  Some were born in the colonies while others were immigrants.  Most were free men, yet their were slaves.  They came from a variety of backgrounds and as individuals possessed unique skills.  They also held a number of different religious beliefs.  The group at Valley Forge was not just male soldiers.  Women and children, families of many of the men, followed the troops as they moved from place to place.

 

On June 19, 1778, six months after the arrival of Washington’s troops at Valley Forge, word came that the British were departing Philadelphia.  The Continental Army marched out of their winter quarters in pursuit of the Red Coats who were heading in the direction of New York.  Using the winter training, the Continental Army found success in the fight against Lt. General Sir Henry Clinton’s British Army at the Battle of Monmouth, New Jersey.

 

Though the war would rage for five more years, the winter at Valley Forge was a moral victory for the Continental Army.  It was a victory of spirit and determination, not one of shot and shell.

 

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Photo 1: Fossil HD Cover

 

Photo 2: A Reproduction Cabin at Valley Forge. Credit: Dan Smith-Creative Commons

 

Photo 3: Washington’s Headquarters. Credit: Sdwelch1031

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