At the very heart of the American Spirit lies a name that we all recognize: Valley Forge. It was the winter our fledgling nation was tried to the breaking point—and lived to fight another day.
There are some misconceptions though about exactly what the situation was regarding Valley Forge. Many claim that our soldiers were downtrodden and depressed. Was that really the case though?
I think if we do some digging into what that winter was, what it meant, and how it came about, perhaps we will find a different outlook on it.
What Was Valley Forge?
We all know that America declared her independence in the summer of 1776. But as December of the same year blended into spring and summer of 1777 the American cause was becoming more and more dire. Defeat after defeat did little for morale. Some of the momentum and support for the Patriot army was beginning to diminish.
As winter of 1777 approached, both armies sought places to camp until the fighting started again in the spring. For the British, winter encampment was a time of great enjoyment. For the most part they spent their time enjoying the company of loyalist women within the cities they occupied, drinking an absurd amount of alcohol, and feasting on good provisions.
The harsh winter looked much different for the ragtag Patriot army. Washington decided that encampment would be in a place called Valley Forge, outside Philadelphia. Only a few months before, a battle had taken place on the grounds of the valley, ending in American defeat. No doubt returning to the sight of the battle did nothing to bolster courage within the troops.
The trip to Valley Forge itself was one of great trial for the army. The snow was deep and many of them had no shoes. Washington said of the horrible experience, “You might have tracked the army from White Marsh to Valley Forge by the blood of their feet in the snow.”
Indeed, the snow was stained red from the blood of our soldiers poured out on it as they trudged the long way to winter encampment to lick their wounds. Arriving in the desolate place, it began to be realized that the army might not survive long enough to ever fight another day. Icy weather hovered over the valley, only adding to the misery felt by the troops. Hastily built huts and barracks sprung up across the landscape. One problem was discovered with the huts however. They had been so quickly thrown together that there wasn’t proper ventilation, and when a fire was built inside them it would smoke up terribly, making the inhabitants violently sick. They thus began building huge fires outside, where they would huddle around all through the frigid nights, trying to keep from freezing to death.
Soldiers began to succumb to the elements. In the mornings, officers would come to find their men frozen solid in the snow. Provisions and supplies were non existent for the greater part of the encampment.
One soldier wrote in a letter home,
The letters that came from Valley Forge only testify more of the tenacity that burned in their veins in the face of that terrible winter.
The winter was one of the worst our troops had yet faced. Smallpox raged violently through the camp, taking a horrible death toll. They were exhausted, starving, sick, and dressed in rags. Not exactly having a grand time like their British counterparts were. Shoot, even our officers were living in miserable conditions.
But it was perhaps one of the best circumstances to show forth the courage, tenacity, leadership, and bravery of America’s soldiers. You see, it was during these awful days in Valley Forge that the Patriot army was forged into the greatest fighting force of their day. When people speak of a Patriot army that was downtrodden and depressed, they aren’t seeing the entire picture. The eyewitness accounts tell us that they were not in fact discouraged to the point of breaking, but rather kept a stiff upper lip. They grit their teeth in the face of suffering and took courage, saying “if we can but live through this winter, we can win our freedom”.
No, in the darkness of that winter, our soldiers showed what they were made of. The average age of Patriot soldiers encamped at Valley Forge was between fourteen and twenty years old. They were young, but they were willing to suffer terribly so that freedom could have a chance at survival.
What Brought Them Through Valley Forge?
Glad you asked. This is perhaps one of my favorite accounts from Valley Forge, and I share it with folks every chance I get.
As we’ve already established, the living conditions were atrocious. Over half the soldiers were unable to even report for duty because they were so sick. Men were dying by shockingly high numbers every day. The leadership of the Patriot army held together the troops during that time.
Washington was a man very in tune with the needs and concerns of his men. It was noted that once he came across a young sentry standing guard outside his headquarters. The boy was shaking and shivering with a raging fever. The freezing wind stung at him, adding to his sickness. Washington ordered the boy to go inside out of the cold and rest, while he himself took watch.
That was not an isolated case among Washington and his officers. They routinely bore the brunt of the burden so that their men wouldn’t have to. Even going so far as to give up their own rations to men in their command who were sick and starving. Officers were certainly not required to take such actions. In the British army officers would never stoop to the level of their men. This new army—this ragtag, wild, wonderful army—threw out all formalities in that regard, its officers instead choosing to suffer alongside their men.
In the bleak weeks of January 1778, a Pennsylvania farmer, named Isaac Potts, was walking through the woods near Valley Forge. He heard a voice speaking in low tones and he drew near to investigate its source. He found a riderless horse tied up to a tree, the voice still able to be heard but no-one in sight yet. Stealing ever closer, he peaked through the trees into a clearing and saw a sturdy figure kneeling in the snow. Isaac Potts recognized the man to be General Washington. Tears streamed freely down the General’s face. In the freezing temperatures and icy snow that covered the ground, General Washington was praying for God to protect his men at Valley Forge. He was begging and pleading that God would cradle his soldiers in His hands.
In Isaac’s own words,
What was it that made our meager army emerge stronger and bolder on the other side of Valley Forge? God Almighty. The Timeless Anchor. I truly believe that the faith and prayers of George Washington and the other believers within the ranks of the Patriot army is what caused them to survive the brutal winter of Valley Forge.
When an army is lead by men of faith and devotion to the God of the Universe, you can bet your sweet life something big is going to happen through them. That was the case with the Patriot army in the winter of 1777-78.
What Were The Actual Statistics From The Winter?
• 12,000 men marched into Valley Forge in December of 1777
• By February of 1778 only 8,000 still remained
• Of those 8,000 only 5,000 were fit for duty.
• One out of every six soldiers died in Valley Forge
• Valley Forge had the highest death toll of all eight of the winter encampments of the war.
• 300 women accompanied the troops to Valley Forge (wives, mothers, and sisters of the troops).
What Can We Learn From Valley Forge Today?
You’re sitting here saying, this is all great, but how does it affect me? What can we learn and take away from studying Valley Forge?
When I study the atrocious living conditions these Patriots endured, I begin to understand what makes Americans the way we are. I begin to understand that freedom is worth living and dying for. I understand that my heritage as an American lies within the blood spilled in the snow at Valley Forge by Patriots who saw freedom as worth suffering for.
My 7th-great grandpa served in the Patriot army, and yes, during the brutal encampment at Valley Forge. During those freezing months, he became so sick that he could no longer serve and he was honorably discharged. But a few months later he reenlisted. The cause of freedom was worth going back and fighting for, even though he could’ve simply claimed his honorable discharge and went about his life, hoping the others would pick up the slack. I mean, good night, his health had suffered to the point he couldn’t even fight. Why would he go back? The same reason every soldier there endured what they did. They saw value in America. Their fledgling nation was taking flight and they refused to see it stifled by the iron grip of tyranny.
As Americans, we have to understand that our blood is not simply American, but rather we are America. The ice of Valley Forge breathed tenacity into our veins. From their long days suffering, perseverance was bred into us. The love for freedom has trickled down from Valley Forge to generation after generation of Americans.
It was here—at Valley Forge—that that tenacity, that perseverance, and that passion for freedom was forged. It was the winter that forged America.
Did you enjoy this week’s post? What are your thoughts on the winter at Valley Forge? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!