As 2012 draws to a close, breathless news reports have interrupted regular TV programming with updates on the inability of Congress and President Obama to avert a “fiscal cliff.” As problematic as this is, however, this situation is not a threat to the American republic itself. Such was not the case 235 years ago, when George Washington and the Continental Army settled into winter quarters at Valley Forge, Penn. The soldiers felt far more than the general anxiety afflicting American taxpayers and the financial market now.
From their commander on down, the patriot forces had come to expect redcoat attacks when they were least anticipated. Such had been the case three months earlier, at the Battle of Brandywine, when the British had crossed a ford believed to be impassable and had surprised the inexperienced colonials from behind. What they could not foresee, as Washington reached the site on the 19th and directed his men to build huts immediately, was that, even before they saw another redcoat uniform, they would suffer through some of the worst hardships and death rate of the entire American Revolution.
The national park that now occupies the site of the Continental Army’s third winter encampment is a kind of secular shrine for Americans. Yet no major battle was fought here, and over time myths have accrued as to what happened here.
I was disabused of one of these right at the visitor center when I visited the park in late October. Like many people, my image of Valley Forge consisted of patriot soldiers huddling close to fires as they sought to stave off freezing to death. Yet a park ranger informed me that a later encampment, the second one at Morristown, N.J., faced far lower temperatures—the worst in a century.
In a way, comparatively warmer temperatures worked to Valley Forge’s disadvantage. Solid snow and ice at Morristown enabled crucial supplies to make it through, so that fewer than 100 deaths occurred. At Valley Forge, though, thaws and rain created massive mud ruts that delayed the shipment of desperately need food. Moreover, the mud exacerbated problems with the army’s exposed latrines, spreading disease (typhus, typhoid, dysentery, and pneumonia) throughout the camp.
The result: 1,800 enlisted men out of 10,000 died in five months.
Had this been the entire story of Valley Forge, however, the revolution—and with it, the United States—would have perished on the spot. Valley Forge became so important to American history for three other reasons:
11) It marked the beginning of French involvement in the war. (The 19-year-old Marquis de Lafayette and engineer Pierre L’Enfant—later, the architect of Washington, D.C.—were stationed here, and the treaty of alliance between the U.S. and France was toasted before the end of the encampment.)
22) It represented the true birthplace of the American Army. (An immigrant from Frederick the Great’s vaunted Prussian Army, Baron von Steuben, arrived to train the Continentals.)
33) It demonstrated why Washington was the indispensable leader of the early republic. (He might have been a weak strategist, but his organizational ability, recognition of young talent, and persuasive appeals to Congress kept the army intact at its nadir.)
Location was central to the camp’s existence. Eighteen miles from Philadelphia, Valley Forge was close enough to the recently captured patriot capital so that Washington could carefully monitor British troop movements. At the same time, the rural village's high ground, Washington and his general staff decided, would permit an adequate defense.
Contemporary Valley Forge would have seemed an unimaginably strange place to Washington and his troops. Just beyond the range of the 3,600 national historic park loom the highways and office parks associated with this Philadelphia suburb. On the rainy day of my visit, joggers made their way around the arc associated with Washington’s encampment. Tourists of every conceivable ethnicity (including Asia) stopped and peered at the plaques and statues along the way.
The park was quiet the day of my visit. Two hundred and thirty-five years ago, it would have been a different story, as the air would have been filled with the sounds of men building huts that, according to General Washington’s own specifications, could contain a dozen soldiers each. (They were very busy with the building, since the commander-in-chief had promised to award “the party in each regiment” that constructed the huts quickest with $12 each.)
However, one point on the habitation’s map—Mount Joy—would have seemed like an obscene joke. The name of another—Mount Misery—would have been far more like it. It wasn’t only that the soldiers' diet of "firecake" (a mixture of flour and water), often minus meat or bread, was tasteless and unvaried. In addition, one-quarter of Washington’s troops were deemed “unfit for duty”—i.e., barefoot or badly clad. Area residents at the time were not pleased to find Continental soldiers foraging for provisions on their land, seeing their fences and woodlots used for shelters, and especially their livestock and grain commandeered.
Under these dire conditions, Washington doubted he could continue to field the army. “[U]nless 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," he warned Henry Laurens, president of the Continental Congress, only four days after arriving at the encampment.
That the army did not collapse was due, in no small measure, to the general himself. He persuaded a committee of the Continental Congress to come to the encampment, where they could see for themselves the impact of the food crisis on the men. That made them far more agreeable to Washington’s goal of creating an American army whose members would not bolt and run at the first opportunity (including pensions for soldiers).
The army that emerged from Valley Forge in June 1778 was considerably different from the one that entered it. They were better trained, more self-confident, with a major European power as an ally—and united by the privations they had endured.
(The photo I took accompanying this post depicts a replica of one of the log huts built at Valley Force.)