On 19 December 1777, the 12,000 men and 3,000 camp followers of Lt. Gen. George Washington’s weary, exhausted, and demoralized Continental Army trudged into their winter encampment at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. Valley Forge was to be the Continental Army’s crucible.
Nearly one third of the army lacked shoes after the shoes disintegrated in the unseasonably wet autumn. Their lack made the twenty mile march unbearable. But Washington’s first problem at Valley Forge wasn’t shoes, it was water. There was just enough snow on the ground for the men to leave a visible bloody trail with their bare feet, but not enough to melt and drink. With a population of 15,000, Valley Forge became the 5th largest city in North America, and they quickly drank nearby Valley Creek dry or foul. Furthermore, they had few buckets, so the Schuylkill River a mile away might as well have been a hundred. Some men had to wait over two days to get a drink of water.
The water situation was typical of Washington’s logistics, or lack thereof. The Continental Army was short of everything – winter clothing, blankets, food, water, gunpowder, and especially tents. But they weren’t short of wood, and Washington put the men to building 12” by 14” log huts of his own design that could house 12 men a piece. Grouped by regiment, brigade, and division, Washington dipped into his own money and offered 12 dollars for the first completed hut in each brigade. Other officers offered similar incentives, which greatly hurried construction. The first hut was completed just two days later, but most troops took until after the New Year to complete theirs.
The winter of 1777-78 wasn’t particularly cold, but it was wet. There was snow, but the weather was freezing rain more often than not. Everything was soaked and had to be dried by the small fireplace in each hut. Those soldiers on sentry duty, particularly at night, were given all of the warm and dry clothing in the hut, and when they returned cold and soaked after being replaced, they stripped down to place everything near the fire. Then the next sentry would begin collecting dry clothes for his shift.
The constant wet, standing water and mud, close quarters, and the squalor inevitable of untrained troops caused a breeding ground for disease. Valley Forge killed more men than any battle with the British. Typhus, typhoid, and dysentery ravaged the camp, although small pox did not but only because Washington forced the entire camp to get inoculated. By January most men in the army were not fit for duty. However, Washington deliberately placed the hospital huts five hundred yards away from the barracks huts to segregate the sick. Only if a man was sick enough to be carried by his mates would they venture the trip in the cold. Still, more than 3000 Continental soldiers died at Valley Forge. The conditions were abysmal.
Valley Forge was so bad that desertion was a serious problem. By mid-February some brigades had dropped to less than a thousand men. In January 1778, Washington resorted to hanging deserters, but only after multiple desertion attempts. The problem became so bad that several of his officers politicked with the Continental Congress to get Washington replaced by Horatio Gates, the victor at Saratoga. At Valley Forge, two out of every ten Continental soldiers died from disease, and one in ten deserted. What kept the other seven around?
Food for one thing. After the initial chaos of the first month, food never became a huge issue. There was never enough of it and the Continental soldiers didn’t have a feast every night, but what they had was adequate, and more importantly, not transportable. They lived on “firecakes”, a mixture of four and water roasted over a fire, that had to be consumed immediately or it turned into a rock. They also had a steady diet of meat from the rich countryside. Pvt Jospeh Plum Martin was on duty in January when “the women of Philadelphia” drove “80 yoke of oxen” into Valley Forge from the British occupied city. Local farmers and townspeople set up small markets in camp to supplement the soldiers’ diet of firecake and boiled beef or pork. The markets were the idea of Jeremiah Wadsworth, who reorganized the army’s commissariat. He took the bold step of allocating part of his budget to commissions for his deputies and agents based not on what was purchased, but what actually arrived in camp. The deputies and agents therefore had a financial incentive to actually deliver food, and the end chain disbursements cut down on graft.
However, Washington’s supply situation was still chaos in the early days of Valley Forge. Just about everything was managed by the regiments with supplies coming directly from their respective states. The troops from the nearby Middle States and New England were well kitted and taken care of, but troops from New Jersey, Maryland, and the Southern states were not, because they were effectively cut off from their sources of supply by the British. Washington needed it organized and placed his chosen successor and most competent general in charge, Nathaniel Greene. Like any good maneuver officer, Greene didn’t want the job of Quartermaster General, but there wouldn’t be a Continental Army if he didn’t take it. He energetically reorganized its logistics’ systems, and got the critical supplies more evenly distributed. Moreover, Greene organized a series of foraging expeditions to gather supplies from the countrysides of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland. Washington imposed limits on the foraging, such as receipts, payment, and leaving enough for the farmers to survive the winter. But if you were a suspected loyalist, the gloves were off. Like Sherman four score and seven years in the future, “Mad” Anthony Wayne cut a swath through Southeastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware, whom he thought were infested with loyalists while denying the forage to the British.
Howe knew of the expeditions and Washington’s army at Valley Forge, but never attacked. Valley Forge was a strong position and the British were misled on the number of troops in the Continental Army, mostly by George Washington himself. When Washington wasn’t writing letters to Congress, or anyone else who would listen about his supply situation, he was forging fake reports to Congress that he had delivered to the British by double agents. When Howe recognized a report in Washington’s own hand, he believed every word of it. At one point in February, the Continental Army was down to just 5000 men at Valley Forge, but Howe, citing Washington’s captured “reports” assumed he had 40,000.
But the biggest problem for Washington wasn’t the cold, or the food, or the British, it was morale. The soldiers of the Continental Army were mostly barely trained militia, and their officers elected or based on their civilian influence. The professionals of the Continental Line knew how to fight but not train. Even if they wanted to train and drill, they didn’t know how. Baron De Kalb was capable of training the army but he wasn’t in command of anyone so he spent most of his time drinking with his fellow officers. The men simply didn’t have enough to do outside of foraging, work parties for wood and water, and standing guard. As anyone who spent more than ten minutes with Joe knows, idle hands are the Devil’s plaything. By the beginning of February, morale couldn’t have been lower without a mutiny.
However, the Continental Army survived its darkest period at Valley Forge. February 1778 proved pivotal and three critical events raised the morale of the army. The first occurred on 6 February when France recognized the United States of America. There was now a very good chance that America wasn’t going to fight the most powerful country on the planet alone anymore.
The second occurred on the 11th of February when Martha Washington arrived in camp to spend the rest of the winter with her husband. Mrs. Washington provided a much needed new dimension to the Army’s commander, and seemed to raise the hopes, and discipline, of everyone around her. Martha Washington had run Mt. Vernon by herself for many years, and a mere glance by her had soldiers standing straighter, if they weren’t scrambling to organize and clean whatever she walked past, with the hospital huts receiving most of her attention.
Though the soldiers and officers wouldn’t initially enjoy it, the third morale boost came by direct recommendation from Benjamin Franklin. Franklin wrote Washington that he had found a Prussian who was a former lieutenant general and a veteran of Frederick the Great’s victories in the Seven Year’s War. On 23 February 1778, Washington, his wife, and his staff road out to meet the famed Prussian soldier, and newest major general in the Continental Army,
Maj. Gen. Baron Friedrich Wilhelm Ludolf Gerhard Augustin von Steuben.