Valley Forge

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A replica of a cabin in which soldiers would have lived at Valley Forge (unknown date)

Valley Forge in Pennsylvania was the site of the military camp of the American Continental Army over the winter of 1777–1778 during the American Revolutionary War.

Letter from George Washington, 1778



The Revolutionary War cannon overlooking the site of the Valley Forge encampment (July 1989)
Washington at Valley Forge
Washington's Valley Forge Headquarters (June 2010)
Issac Potts' house was General George Washington's headquarters in the winter of 1777 at Valley Forge, PA. (April, 2012
National Memorial Arch, in honor of the Continental Army that rode out the hard winter of 1777, at Valley Forge. Done in HDR. April, 2012
General George Washington at prayer, Valley Forge, Winter 1777–1778.[1]

With winter almost set in, and the prospects for campaigning greatly diminishing, General George Washington sought quarters for his men. Washington and his troops had just fought what was to be the last major engagement of 1777 at the Battle of White Marsh (or Edge Hill). He devised to pull his troops from their present encampment in the White Marsh area (now Fort Washington State Park) and move to a more secure location for the coming winter. Though several locations were proposed, he selected Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, 25 miles (40 km) northwest of Philadelphia. Named for an iron forge on Valley Creek, the area was close enough to the British to keep their raiding and foraging parties out of the interior of Pennsylvania, yet far enough away to halt the threat of British surprise attacks. The high ground of Mount Joy and the adjoining elevated ground of Mount Misery combined with the Schuylkill River to the north, made the area easily defensible. On December 19, 1777, when Washington's poorly fed, ill-equipped army, weary from long marches, staggered into Valley Forge, winds blew as the 12,000 Continentals prepared for winter's fury. Only about 1/3 of them had shoes, and many of their feet were leaving bloody footprints from the marching. Grounds for brigade encampments were selected, and defense lines were planned and begun. Though construction of more than a thousand huts provided shelter, it did little to offset the critical shortages that continually plagued the army. The men were under cover within six weeks. The first properly constructed hut appeared in three days. One other hut, which required 80 logs, and whose timber had to be collected from miles away, went up in one week with the use of only one axe. These huts provided sufficient protection from the moderately cold, but mainly wet and damp conditions of the mild, but typical Pennsylvania winter of 1777–1778. Snow was limited, and small in amounts. Alternating freezing and melting of snow and ice made it impossible to keep dry and allowed for disease to fester. Soldiers received inadequate supplies of meat and bread, some getting their only nourishment from "fire cake," a tasteless mixture of flour and water. However, due to the talents of Baker General Christopher Ludwig, the men at Valley Forge more often than not received fresh baked bread, about one pound daily. So severe were conditions at times that Washington despaired "that unless some great and capital change suddenly takes place ... this Army must inevitably ... Starve, dissolve, or disperse, in order to obtain subsistence in the best manner they can." Animals fared no better. General Henry Knox, Washington's Chief of Artillery, wrote that hundreds of horses either starved to death or died of exhaustion. Washington appointed Nathanael Greene as Quartermaster General to take charge of the supplies. Greene found caches of food and clothing and hauled them there for the troops and horses. Clothing, too, was wholly inadequate. Many wounded soldiers from previous battles died from exposure. Long marches had destroyed shoes. Blankets were scarce. Tattered garments were seldom replaced. At one point these shortages caused nearly 4,000 men to be listed as unfit for duty. Undernourished and poorly clothed, living in crowded, damp quarters, the army was ravaged by sickness and disease. Typhoid, jaundice, dysentery, and pneumonia were among the many diseases that killed 2,500 men that winter. Although Washington repeatedly petitioned for relief, the Continental Congress was unable to provide it, and the soldiers continued to suffer. Women, relatives of enlisted men, alleviated some of the suffering by providing valuable services such as laundry and nursing that the army desperately needed. Upgrading military efficiency, morale, and discipline were as vital to the army's well-being as was its source of supply. The army had been handicapped in battle because unit training was administered from a variety of field manuals, making coordinated battle movements awkward and difficult. The soldiers were trained, but not uniformly. The task of developing and carrying out an effective training program fell to Baron Friedrich von Steuben. This skilled Prussian drill master, recently arrived from Europe, tirelessly drilled the soldiers.[2] A group of people called Regimental Camp Followers also helped increase the morale of the soldiers and provided necessary support to the men. Camp Followers at Valley Forge consisted of the families, wives, children, mothers, and sisters of the soldiers. These camp followers often served as laundresses, cleaning and mending the uniforms of the soldiers. Washington understood a soldier would die quickly from disease if his uniform was dirty and threadbare. These women and children also provided the emotional support to a soldier, allowing them to remain at camp and continue on training and soldiering during the winter months. These women gained half the rations of soldiers, half the wages of a soldier as well as a half pension after the war—if they had done enough work. Children would receive quarter rations if enough work was done. Women were relegated to the back of the column when marching and were forbidden to ride on wagons. Camp followers faced the issues of disease along with the soldiers. While excellent scavengers, some women lost their lives on the battlefield trying to obtain goods from wounded or dead soldiers. At Valley Forge women averaged 1 to every 44 men, adding up to around 500 women. Soon word of the British departure from Philadelphia brought a frenzied activity to the ranks of the Continental Army. On June 19, 1778, six months after its arrival, the army marched away from Valley Forge in pursuit of the British, who were moving toward New York. The war would last for another five years, but Washington and his men had won a decisive victory.[3]

Baron (Freiherr) Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben

Von Steuben was a onetime member of the elite General Staff of Frederick the Great, King of Prussia. No longer in the Prussian Army, indeed without employment of any kind, von Steuben offered his military skills to the patriot cause. When he arrived at Valley Forge from France on February 23, 1778, he was armed with a letter of introduction from Benjamin Franklin. Washington saw great promise in the Prussian and almost immediately assigned him the duties of Acting Inspector General with the task of developing and carrying out an effective training program. He was a drill instructor, he was full of energy, and he taught the soldiers how to fire their guns faster. Numerous obstacles threatened success. No standard American training manuals existed, and von Steuben himself spoke little English. Undaunted, he drafted his own manual in French. His aides often worked late into the night, translating his work into English. The translations were, in turn, copied and passed to the individual regiments and companies that carried out the prescribed drill (or military parade) the following day. Von Steuben shocked many American officers by breaking tradition to work directly with the men. One officer wrote of von Steuben's "peculiar grace" as he took "under his direction a squad of men in the capacity of drill sergeant." From dawn to dusk his familiar voice was heard in camp above the sounds of marching men and shouted commands. Soon companies, regiments, and then brigades moved smartly from line to column, column to line; loaded muskets with precision; and drove imaginary redcoats from the field by skillful charges with the bayonet. When the Continental Army paraded on May 6, 1778, to celebrate the French alliance with America, von Steuben received the honor of organizing the day's activities. On that day the Grand Parade became a showplace for the united American army. Cannons boomed in salute. Thousands of muskets fired the ceremonial "feu de joie," a running fire that passed up and down the double ranks of infantrymen. Cheers echoed across the fields. The good drilling order and imposing appearance that the troops presented during the Alliance Day ceremonies demonstrated their remarkable progress in improving their abilities as a unified, fighting force capable of standing up to the British Army. Washington, with von Steuben's aid, had made an army of the Continental troops. With their French allies, the Americans could now proceed with the war, which would rage on for many years.[4]

Valley Forge National Historical Park

The site of the encampment became a Pennsylvania state park in 1893 and, on the 4th of July, 1976, it became Valley Forge National Historical Park. The modern park features historical and recreated buildings and structures; memorials; and a newly renovated visitor center, which shows a short film and has several exhibits. A chapel was built in 1903 as a memorial to Washington. An adjoining carillon of 58 bells represents all U.S. states and territories. It resides in a tower built by the Daughters of the American Revolution. Other park amenities include walking and bicycle trails. The park supports around 1,000 deer which can be seen grazing in the wide-open fields.

See also


  1. ^ "Washington in Prayer", undated/unsigned introduction,; incorporating "Prayer of Valley Forge May Be Legend or Tradition or a Fact, Yet It Remains Symbol of Faith" by Gilbert Starling Jones, from The Picket Post, publ. by the Valley Forge Historical Society, April 1945, No. 9.

    Jones noted that "[i]n 1918, the Valley Forge Park Commission refused a request by a patriotic organization for permission to erect a monument or marker on the spot where it was claimed Washington was seen kneeling in prayer. The Commission's report reviewed ... thousands of pages of correspondence and diaries of the Commander-in-Chief and his staff; generals of divisions and brigades; officers and privates of regiments; the Congressional Committee who were at the camp; manuscripts in the Library of Congress and other institutions where Revolutionary matter is preserved. It concluded by observing 'in none of these were found a single paragraph that will substantiate the tradition of the "Prayer at Valley Forge."'"

    However, Jones also reviewed in detail two accounts of Washington-in-prayer witnessed.

    A 1975 painting of the subject by Arnold Friberg "has been valued at more than $12 million [and] is currently on display at Mount Vernon," per "Arnold Friberg, Realist Painter, Is Dead at 96" (Registration required) by Douglas Martin, The New York Times, July 2, 2010. Retrieved July 3, 2010.

  2. ^ Bodle, Wayne (2002). The Valley Forge Winter. Penn State Press. ISBN 0-271-02526-3.
  3. ^ Text incorporated from Valley Forge National Historical Park website, which is in the public domain.
  4. ^ Lockhart, Paul Douglas (2008). The Drillmaster of Valley Forge — The Baron de Steuben and the Making of the American Army and moving forward with the revolution". HarperCollins (New York). ISBN 0-06-145163-0.

External links

Coordinates: 40°05′49″N 75°26′21″W / 40.096944°N 75.439167°W / 40.096944; -75.439167