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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. It is approximately 20 miles northwest of Philadelphia.[1] Starvation, disease, and exposure killed nearly 2,500 American soldiers by the end of February 1778.[2]


Letter from George Washington, 1778

Washington at Valley Forge

With winter almost setting in, and the prospects for campaigning greatly diminishing, General George Washington sought quarters for his men. Washington and his troops had fought what was to be the last major engagement of 1777 at the Battle of White Marsh (or Edge Hill) in early December. 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, Washington selected Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, 20 miles (32 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 densely forested plateau of Mount Joy and the adjoining two-mile long plateau of Mount Misery combined with the Schuylkill River to the north, made the area easily defensible, along with providing abundant forests of timber that would later be used to construct the thousands of log huts in the camp.[1]

The Continental Army


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 one in three of them had shoes, and many of their feet had left bloody footprints from the marching.[3] Grounds for brigade encampments were selected, and defense lines were planned and begun. 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 a typical Pennsylvania winter of 1777–1778. By the beginning of February, construction of 2,000 huts were completed. They provided shelter, but did little to offset the critical shortages that continually plagued the army.[4]

During the springtime, as the climate grew considerably warmer, Washington ordered the cutting of two windows into each hut. Mud was also chipped between the logs to improve ventilation.[5]

Food and Supplies

Soldiers received inadequate supplies of meat and bread, some getting their only nourishment from "firecake," a tasteless mixture of flour and water. Occasionally, there would be "pepper hot soup," a black pepper-flavored tripe broth.[6] However, due to the talents of Baker General Christopher Ludwig, the men at Valley Forge more often than not received freshly 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." Snow was limited, and small in amounts. The layer of snow was often too thin to be collected and melted into drinking water.[7] Alternating freezing and melting of snow and ice made it impossible to keep dry and allowed for disease to fester.

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. By the end of the winter, about 700 horses had died.[8]

Washington appointed Nathanael Greene as Quartermaster General to take charge of the supplies, who 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.

Hardships and Supply Shortages

Undernourished and poorly clothed, living in crowded, damp quarters, the army was ravaged by sickness and disease. Typhoid, typhus, smallpox, dysentery, and pneumonia were among the numerous diseases that thrived in the camp during that winter. These diseases, along with malnutrition and exposure to the freezing temperatures and snow, contributed to the 2,500 soldiers that died by the end of the winter.[2]

Gouverneur Morris of New York later stated that the Continentals were a "skeleton of an a naked, starving condition, out of health, out of spirits."[9]

Soldiers deserted in "astonishing great numbers" as hardships at camp overcame their motivation and dedication to fight for the cause of liberty. General Varnum warned that the desperate lack of supplies would "force the army to mutiny."[10]

Women who were relatives or wives of enlisted men alleviated some of the suffering by providing valuable services such as laundry and nursing that the army desperately needed. A group of people called Regimental Camp Followers also helped increase the morale of the soldiers and provided necessary support to the men.

Restoration of Army Supplies

Although Washington repeatedly petitioned for relief and supplies, the Continental Congress was unable to provide it and the soldiers continued to suffer. Finally, on January 24, 1778, five Congressmen came to Valley Forge to examine the conditions of the Continental Army. Washington greeted them imperatively, "Something must be done. Important alterations must be made." Washington also informed them that he wanted Congress to take control of the army supply system, pay for the supplies, and replenish them when necessities were scarce.[11]

By the end of February, there were adequate supplies flowing throughout camp after Congress gave full support to monetarily funding the supply lines of the army, along with reorganizing the commissionary department (which controlled the gathering of the supplies for the army).[11]


Increasing military efficiency, morale, and discipline were as vital to the army's well-being as its supply of food and arms. 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, who had recently arrived from Europe, tirelessly drilled the soldiers, improving their battle and formation techniques greatly.[12]

Wives and Children

Martha Washington, the wife of George Washington, arrived at the camp on February 10, 1778. She visited soldiers in the huts and in the camp hospital. Martha Washington also organized a sewing circle of women who knitted, crafted, and patched socks, shirts, and trousers.[13]

Camp followers at Valley Forge consisted of the 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 the army, encouraging them to remain at camp and continue on training and soldiering during the winter months. 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.[citation needed]

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 playing an important role in scouting and finding supplies and food, 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.[citation needed]

Criticism of Washington

Because of the terrible conditions of the army during the winter of 1777, the American public, along with Congress, began to criticize Washington for his inability to advance the war effort. Washington himself was aware of an increasing impatience and criticism of his leadership.[14] A few soldiers wanted to replace Washington with General Horatio Gates, who had won a decisive victory in the Battles of Saratoga. Some members of the Continental Congress complained that Washington had left the surrounding countryside unprotected by moving into the isolated area of Valley Forge. Washington replied furiously:

"I can assure those Gentlemen that it is a much easier and less distressing thing to draw remonstrances in a comfortable room by a good fire side than to occupy a cold bleak hill and sleep under frost and Snow without Cloaths or Blankets; however, although they seem to have little feeling for the naked, and distressed Soldier, I feel superabundantly for them, and from my Soul pity those miseries, [which], it is neither in my power to relieve or prevent."[14]

In spite of Washington's inability to do much during the hardship at Valley Forge, anti-Washington movements arose. Led by Brigadier General Thomas Conway, these soldiers worked "behind the curtains" to degrade Washington's reputation in hopes that this would enable Horatio Gates to replace George Washington as the commander of the Continental Army. This scheme is known today as the Conway Cabal.[14]

Washington's Response

While the Congressmen came to examine the conditions of the Continental army at Valley Forge, Washington announced that he knew the critics that were involved in the Conway Cabal. He addressed them by saying:[15]

"Whenever the public gets dissatisfied with my service...I shall quit the helm...and retire to a private life."

This silenced his main critics, and Washington's announcement easily renewed his authority as the Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army; his authority was never critically challenged for the rest of the decade.[15]


After the horrendous winter, the Continental Army found out that France was going to aid their cause by sending military and monetary donations to the army. France had signed an alliance pact, on February 6, 1778 with the 13 colonies, after General Horatio Gates had led his army and won the decisive Battles of Saratoga.[16] A celebration of French alliance was organized on May 6, 1778, at Valley Forge.[15] The army repeatedly shouted, "Long live France! Long live the friendly powers! Long live the American States!"[17]

Soon, word of the British departure from Philadelphia brought a frenzied activity to the ranks of the Continental Army. On June 19, 1778, exactly six months after the soldiers arrival at Valley Forge, the tested army marched away from Valley Forge and retook Philadelphia. They later charged in pursuit of the British, who were moving toward New York.[18] The Battle of Monmouth, which occurred on June 28, 1778, resulted in an indecisive victory, though Congress and many newspapers treated it as an American victory (since the British retreated and left the battlefield first). This result demonstrated that the colonists were now able to withstand a strong British army after the intense training at Valley Forge under von Steuben, boosting morale and improving Washington's reputation as the Commander in Chief.[17]

The winter at Valley Forge imbued into soldiers a strong will to persevere, endure, and later triumph over obstacles and bring independence to the United States. Washington always acknowledged that the perseverance gained by the soldiers at Valley Forge was what made the Continental Army bind together even stronger and eventually win the war.[19]

Map of the Army Encampment

The encampment, winter 1777

Encampment at Valley Forge in 1778 (1830 engraving by G. Boynton)

Baron (Freiherr) Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben

General Von Steuben, 1930 Issue

Main article: 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 "without pay or rank".[20]

When he arrived at Valley Forge from France on February 23, 1778, he had with himself 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 who was full of energy. Von Steuben taught the soldiers how to aim muskets accurately, charge with bayonets, and maneuver together in compact ranks.[21]

Numerous obstacles threatened success. No standard American training manuals existed, and von Steuben himself spoke little English (He trained the soldiers using German and French, along with some broken English. Secretary and translator Pierre Duponceau translated his orders into English).

Undaunted, he drafted his own manual in French. His aides often worked late into the night, translating his work into English, which was titled: Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States It was more colloquially known as "The Blue Book". 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. "The Blue Book" remained the official American military training guide until the War of 1812.[16]

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 heavy aid from von Steuben, had made a professional, disciplined, unified, and efficient army out of the Continental troops.[16] Von Steuben himself claimed that his "enterprise succeeded better than he had expected." With their French allies, the Americans could now proceed into the battlefield with hopes of winning the war, which would rage on for many years.[22]

Oration by Henry Armitt Brown

On June 19, 1878, author and orator Henry Armitt Brown delivered a speech to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the departure of General George Washington's troops from the encampment at Valley Forge. His oration recalled the hardships suffered during the winter of 1777-78, while also celebrating the eventual victory of the Continental Army:

"...And here, in this place of sacrifice, in this vale of humiliation, in this valley of the Shadow of Death out of which the Life of America rose, regenerate and free, let us believe with an abiding faith that to them Union will seem as dear, and Liberty as sweet, and Progress as glorious as they were to our fathers, and are to you and me, and that the institutions which have made us happy, preserved by the virtue of our children, shall bless the remotest generations of the time to come."[23]

Brown's oration was later published by J.B. Lippincott & Co. of Philadelphia in 1879, serving as a literary marker of Valley Forge's lasting impact upon American history and identity.[23]

Valley Forge National Historical Park

Valley Forge National Historic Park commemorates the perseverance, sacrifice, and strength of the soldiers, the Continental Army, and the generals that were present during the winter of 1777-1778.[24] The site of the encampment became a Pennsylvania state park in 1893 and, on the July 4, 1976, it became Valley Forge National Historical Park.[citation needed] 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. Washington Memorial Chapel was built in 1903 as a memorial to Washington and his army. An adjoining carillon of 58 bells represents all U.S. states and territories. It resides in a tower underwritten 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.


The Revolutionary War cannon overlooking the site of the Valley Forge encampment (July 1989)

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. April 2012

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 Freedman, Russell (2008). Washington at Valley Forge. New York: Holiday House. p. 3. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 Freedman, Russell (2008). Washington at Valley Forge. New York: Holiday House. p. 30. 
  3. Freedman, Russell (2008). Washington at Valley Forge. New York: Holiday House. p. 1. 
  4. Freedman, Russell (2008). Washington at Valley Forge. New York: Holiday House. p. 37. 
  5. Freedman, Russell (2008). Washington at Valley Forge. New York: Holiday House. p. 65. 
  6. Freedman, Russell (2008). Washington at Valley Forge. New York: Holiday House. p. 22. 
  7. Freedman, Russell (2008). Washington at Valley Forge. New York: Holiday House. p. 4. 
  8. Freedman, Russell (2008). Washington at Valley Forge. New York: Holiday House. pp. 23–24. 
  9. Freedman, Russell (2008). Washington at Valley Forge. New York: Holiday House. p. 36. 
  10. Freedman, Russell (2008). Washington at Valley Forge. New York: Holiday House. p. 41. 
  11. 11.0 11.1 Freedman, Russell (2008). Washington at Valley Forge. New York: Holiday House. p. 42. 
  12. Bodle, Wayne (2002). The Valley Forge Winter. Penn State Press. ISBN 0-271-02526-3.
  13. Freedman, Russell (2008). Washington at Valley Forge. New York: Holiday House. pp. 45–47. 
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 Freedman, Russell (2008). Washington at Valley Forge. New York: Holiday House. p. 25. 
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 Freedman, Russell (2008). Washington at Valley Forge. New York: Holiday House. p. 44. 
  16. 16.0 16.1 16.2 Freedman, Russell (2008). Washington at Valley Forge. New York: Holiday House. p. 56. 
  17. 17.0 17.1 Freedman, Russell (2008). Washington at Valley Forge. New York: Holiday House. p. 62.  Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name ":21" defined multiple times with different content
  18. Text incorporated from Valley Forge National Historical Park website, which is in the public domain.
  19. Freedman, Russell (2008). Washington at Valley Forge. New York: Holiday House. pp. 82–83. 
  20. Freedman, Russell (2008). Washington at Valley Forge. New York: Holiday House. p. 49. 
  21. Freedman, Russell (2008). Washington at Valley Forge. New York: Holiday House. p. 54. 
  22. 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.
  23. 23.0 23.1 Brown, Henry Armitt (1879). Oration of Henry Armitt Brown: on the one hundredth anniversary of the evacuation of Valley Forge, June 19, 1878. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co.. Archived from the original on November 16, 2010. Retrieved February 14, 2013. "It is an hour to be here to-day." 
  24. "Valley Forge National Historic Park". National Park Service. Retrieved June 30, 2013. 

External links

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