Setting the stage for Valley Forge
At the end of 1776, the Continental Army had won the amazing Battle of Trenton, followed by the victory at Princeton at the beginning of January, 1777. By fall, the Continental Army Had been defeated at Brandywine, had lost Philadelphia, but watched the course of the war begin change in their favor with the heroism and brilliance of Benedict Arnold. Arnold’s victory in forcing British General Burgoyne to surrender helped the French decide to eventually come to the aid of the American war effort.
In 1777, Washington wrote letter after letter to Congress begging for supplies for his suffering army, but Congress was too busy bickering and squabbling among themselves to come to the aid of the very army trying to protect them.
Worse, the thousands of British, passing through an area, would strip it of food, cows, horses and whatever else they fancied. They would take over homes when they wanted rest and shelter, throwing the owners out or forcing them to cook and care for them. (This is why we have the 3rd Amendment to the Constitution.)
Patriot families took to burning their crops to keep them out of the hands of the British troops, so everyone was hungry. The British, in retaliation, burned homes and barns to the ground. Whole towns were burnt to ashes, and people had to scrounge through the ashes of their lives for anything salvageable. With winter coming on, usable firewood was scarce, so even the townspeople had trouble staying warm.
Even during the best if times, the life of a Continental soldier was pretty brutal: long marches, disease, battle wounds, lack of decent medical care. Even worse was the constant hunger, and the search for something to eat. At times, the only food the soldiers had was what they “borrowed” from a farmer’s fields or hunted up in the woods.
By December, the Continental Army, wearied from getting their butts kicked by well-fed British troops, tired from marching, with no food available – arrived at Valley Forge to rest and recuperate. They needed shelter for the winter and slept out in the open or in tents, for those who had them, until they could build rough log cabins. Washington himself refused the comfort of a house until the huts were built and his men had shelter. It hurt him to see his men without clothes to cover their nakedness, without blankets to lie on, without shoes in the cold, icy weather. Barefoot sentries stood watch while standing on their hats to keep their feet from freezing to the ground. Others, without shirts or coats, walked through camp huddled in ragged blankets. One night a “dinner party” was held in camp, and only those without a pair of trousers were invited to attend.
Men suffered from frostbite. Many died from the diseases that raged through the camps: smallpox, typhoid, dysentery, pneumonia. (Keep in mind that during the American Revolution, a small pox epidemic was sweeping the colonies, and more people died of this disease than the war effort.) The men were stacked 12 to a hut, which helped disease spread. In fact, 10 times as many soldiers died of illness than in battle. The soldiers were weakened by hunger and exhaustion, surviving on fire cakes and pepper soup (water and peppercorns) which also helped disease spread.
The shortages and hardships seemed even more bitter to those who knew food and supplies were nearby. Profiteers took advantage of the army’s need by charging high prices. Farmers often sold their goods to the British who paid better and in solid pounds, rather than to the Continental Army whose money wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on. During the cold months, soldiers froze while barrels of shoes, stockings and clothing sat along the roads, without the horses or able-bodied men to carry them to camp.
“Our constant companions were fatigue, hunger and cold,” said Joseph Plumb Martin. The soldiers were supposed to receive a daily ration of bread, meat or fish, and vegetables, but there were long and frequent shortages. A piece of hard biscuit and a bit of salt pork was a feast.
Many soldiers had never been away from home before, so they were homesick, worried about their families, and tried to get along with total strangers from other states. Lots of fights broke out. It was a miserable life.
Only miles away in Philadelphia, the British troops were housed comfortably in private homes. They enjoyed fine food, warm fires, fancy dress balls and the company of Philadelphia’s loyalist households.
In that terrible winter at Valley Forge, 2,000 Americans died. Many deserted, but most remained faithful to their cause and to their beloved General . . . . .
Stay tuned for Part II to this incredible story!