Revolutionary War Historical Article

Valley Forge

By the Society of the Descendants of Washington's Army at Valley Forge

Editor's Note: This article was reprinted from the November 2007 Edition of
"The Encampment", Official Newsletter of the Society of the Descendants of Washington's Army at Valley Forge, Barbara Waltz Stone, Editor.

Philadelphia was the largest city in the new nation. It became the capital after representatives of the 13 colonies gathered there as the Continental Congress to demand their rights as Englishmen and later proclaim independence and battle the British.

Major General William Howe, commander of British forces in America, made his move on Philadelphia in September 1777 thinking the capture of the capital would end the war. Howe loaded 15,000 troops on an armada of ships and sailed from New York City to Elkton, Maryland on the Chesapeake Bay. His forces then marched north on Philadelphia.

General Washington attempted to block Howe along the banks of the Brandywine River but was outnumbered and outmaneuvered. Two weeks after Brandywine, Howe entered Philadelphia unopposed.

General Washington attempted a bold surprise attack on the main British forces at Germantown on October 4th. His plan was too complex and after some initial surprise and much confused fighting, the Americans were forced to retreat. The soldiers had marched about 35 miles and fought a four-hour battle in one day.

For several weeks American forces camped about 20 miles from Philadelphia in Whitemarsh along high hills that were ideal for defense.

Congress, now safely housed in York, Pennsylvania, urged Washington to attack the British in Philadelphia, hut the Commander-in-Chief realized it would be suicidal. His men were worn out and ill-equipped. Even before Valley Forge, there was a supply crisis. Many soldiers were already shoeless and their uniforms in tatters.

It was normal for 18th century armies to cease combat during the coldest months and take up "winter quarters". Washington was looking for a place to rest his army that would "afford supplies of provisions, wood, water and forage, be secure from surprise and best calculated for covering the country from the ravages of the enemy."

He sought the opinions of his generals on the best location for the winter encampment. There was no consensus, and Washington was forced to decide the matter alone. On December 12th, the troops began the move from Whitemarsh to the west bank of the Schuylkill River at Valley Forge. It was a 13-mile march that was delayed and took eight days.

The troops crossed the Schuylkill on a wobbly, makeshift bridge in an area called the Gulph. They were forced to bivouac at the Gulph for several days after a snowstorm and several days of icy rain made roads impassable. On December 18th the soaked and miserable troops observed a Day of Thanksgiving declared by Congress for the American victory in October at Saratoga, N. Y.

On December 19th, 1777, the famished troops finally marched into Valley Forge. These ragged soldiers might have thought the worst was over, but they were wrong.

Valley Forge, 25 miles from Philadelphia, was a good choice. It is a high plateau, and one side is protected by the river. Two shallow creeks provide natural barriers that would present problems for attacking cavalry and artillery. Any attackers would have to charge uphill.

Where the Valley Creek entered the Schuylkill was a small village, giving the area its name. It contained a complete iron-making operation owned by two Quaker families, the Dewees and Potts.

A cache of American military stores had been placed at Valley Forge. After the Battle of Brandywine the British had learned of the cache and raided the village, seizing the goods and burning houses. Arriving American troops found trees in the area but little else.

The troops arrived at Valley Forge in time for Christmas, but there was no holiday feast. Already the men’s diaries spoke bitterly of a diet of "fire cakes and cold water." A fire cake was simply a flour and water batter fried on a griddle. The morning after Christmas, the men awoke to find four additional inches of snow on the ground.

The first priority was the building of huts. An order issued by Washington spelled out the style and size. Every 12 men would share a 16 x 14 foot log hut with walls six and a half feet high. Each would have a stone fireplace. The roof would be of wood board. Most huts were built in a pit about two-feet below the ground. There was a dirt floor and some sort of cloth covering for a door. The huts were drafty, damp, smoky and terribly unhealthy. The primitive shelters were laid out in regular patterns to form streets. Officers built their huts behind the enlisted men’s cabins.

Housing the Army was fairly simple. Clothing and feeding the troops was a daunting challenge. Transportation was the major stumbling block. The supplies were out there. Getting them to Valley Forge seemed impossible. Roads were rutted quagmires. It was difficult to recruit wagoneers. Continental money was nearly worthless, so Pennsylvania farmers often hid their horses and wagons rather than contract with the Army.

Quartermaster General Thomas Mifflin was in charge of military transportation and hated his job.He was a wealthy Philadelphia merchant and a born politician who wanted glory on the battlefield not the headaches of transportation. He literally ignored the job.

It wasn’t until spring when Washington’s most capable General, Nathanael Green, took over the Quartermaster’s post that supplies began to move in decent quantity.

The first priority of the soldiers was keeping warm and dry. The troops faced a typical Delaware Valley winter with temperatures mostly in the 20s and 30s. there were 13 days of rain or snow during the first six weeks.

Illness was the great killer. Dysentery and typhus were rampant. Many makeshift hospitals were set up in the region. The Army’s medical department used at least 50 barns, dwellings, churches or meetinghouses throughout a wide area of Eastern Pennsylvania as temporary hospitals. All were chronically short of medical supplies.

America’s first true military’ hospital constructed for that purpose was built at Yellow Springs, a popular health spa about 10 miles west of the Encampment. About 300 sick men were accommodated in the large three-story wood structure.

Washington once visited the Yellow Springs Hospital and stopped to exchange a few words with each patient. Dr. Bodo Otto, an elderly German and his two physician sons, ran the hospital until the end of the war.

Much of the sickness was traceable to unhealthy sanitation and poor personal hygiene. Washington constantly complained of the failure to clear the Encampment of filth, which included rotting carcasses of horses. The Commander-in-Chief even issued orders concerning the use and care of privies, but men relieved themselves wherever they felt.

In the absence of wells, water was drawn from the Schuylkill River and nearby creeks. Men and animals often relieved themselves upstream from where water for drinking was drawn.

One of Washington’s major worries was an outbreak of small pox. Inoculation was still relatively new and controversial, but the General was a firm believer in the procedure. The winter before at Morristown, N. J., he ordered inoculation for all those who had not already had the disease. Some 3,000 to 4,000 men were vaccinated.

Knowing how unhealthy the congested the huts were, General Washington ordered windows cut for circulation in the spring and even encouraged some to move from theft squalid quarters into tents.

Just how many became seriously ill during the Valley Forge Encampment and how many died of these illnesses is not known. Even in the mild weather of late spring, the medical department informed General Washington that 1,000 men were too ill for combat. The number who died at camp or in hospitals has been estimated as high as 3,000.

In early March, the energetic and competent General Nathanael Greene was appointed Quartermaster General, and things improved rapidly. Greene got down to business by dispatching engineers to improve bridges and roads between Valley Forge and Lancaster. Wagons began arriving with clothing and food.

In early March a baking company of some 70 men headed by Philadelphia gingerbread baker Christopher Ludwig arrived at camp. The German-born patriot refused to profit from his labor. Eventually, each soldier got the daily pound of bread promised by Congress. Ludwig, himself, baked for the headquarters staff and often spoke with General Washington.

In March, an extra month’s pay was issued to all in camp for having stuck it out through the miseries of the winter. Washington added a ration of rum for each soldier.

In April great schools of shad surged up the Schuylkill River to spawn. Thousands were netted, and the soldiers gorged themselves. Hundreds of barrels were filled with salted shad for future use.

Despite General Washington’s daily orders, there was little real military discipline in the camp. There were no regular roll calls. Orders prohibiting gambling, fighting, selling Army equipment and wandering away from camp were routinely ignored.

The Continental troops possessed few skills in the art of 18th century warfare. They didn’t know how to march in ranks or maneuver on the battlefield. The bayonet, crucial to battlefield success, was used mostly to cook over a fire. In late February, the arrival of Friedrich Wilhelm Ludolf Gerhard Augustin Stuebe, known to history as Baron von Steuben changed things. He had served in the Prussian Army of Frederick the Great but rose no higher than captain. Now, at age 47, he was out of work and applying for military posts in several places. In Paris, Steuben impressed American envoys Benjamin Franklin and Silas Deane, who provided the German with a glowing letter of recommendation.

Like the Marquis de Lafayette, the Baron said the right words when he spoke to members of the Congress and the Board of War: He would serve without a salary. He did, however, want his expenses paid. Both the War Board and General Washington liked the man’s modesty and viewed Steuben as a possible candidate for Inspector General of the Army.

Steuben was appalled by what he observed during his first weeks at Valley Forge. General Washington asked the German to study the situation and provide reports on camp defenses, troop morale and military readiness. Steuben’s reports were detailed and astute. In a short time, Steuben was named acting Inspector General. His primary mission involved training, and he attacked the task with dedication and zeal.

General Washington liked Steuben immediately even though the Prussian could not speak English, but he could speak French, and Washington appointed two of his French-speaking aides, Alexander Hamilton and John Laurens to work with the Prussian.

Steuben has been called history’s only popular drillmaster. The men loved his gruff manner, his cursing in broken English and his hands-on-style of demonstrating every move personally. He insisted that officers drill with their men, and he pared down the officers’ staffs of personal servants.

He created his own manual of arms and drill to fit the American situation. Simplicity was the keynote. The training started with a select group of 100. When these men knew what they were doing, he released them to teach others. Soon he was drilling large masses of entire regiments and brigades. He constantly taught the use of the bayonet, gave lessons in mounting guard and sentry duty, insisted that every watch be synchronized with the headquarters’ clock. And page-by-page Steuben wrote in French an army drill book that was then translated into English. "Regulation for the Order of Discipline of the Troops of the United States" was then copied by an officer in each brigade. Within weeks, everyone could see a new proficiency and new pride among the formerly dispirited men. (Editor's Note: Click here for more information on the Baron's Training of the Commander-in-Chief Guard)

There were other factors coming together to boost morale and send sagging spirits soaring. France entered the war as an ally of the new nation. America got the good news in April. Great festivities were held in camp on May 5th. Along with prayer, parading and gun salutes, each man was issued a gill of rum. French-made uniforms and military gear soon began arriving in camp.

Farmers began bringing their produce to a camp market and fresh military units arrived at Valley Forge.

Reference: Avery, Ron (Writer for the Philadelphia Daily News), "The Story of Valley Forge", written specifically for and published by


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