The winter of 1777-1778 may have been the low point of the Revolutionary War for George Washington and the Continental Army. After the Battles of Brandywine (September 11, 1777) and Germantown (October 4, 1777), the British Army occupied the American capital, Philadelphia, Congress was on the run, and the Army was in shambles.
Valley Forge was where the American Continental Army made camp during the winter of 1777-1778. It was here that the American forces became a true fighting unit. Valley Forge is often called the birthplace of the American Army. Valley Forge is located in the southeastern corner of Pennsylvania around 20 miles northwest of Philadelphia.
George Washington chose to make the winter camp at Valley Forge for several reasons. First, it was close to Philadelphia where the British were camping for the winter. He could keep an eye on the British and protect the people of Pennsylvania. At the same time it was far enough from the British so that he would have plenty of warning if they decided to attack. Valley Forge was also a good place to defend if the army was attacked. There were high areas in Mount Joy and Mount Misery to make fortifications. There also was a river, the Schuylkill River, that served as a barrier to the north.
It was at Valley Forge where the Continental Army turned into a trained fighting force. There were three leaders in particular who played a key role in building the army.
General George Washington – was the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army during the American Revolution. His leadership played a big part in the United States gaining its independence from Britain.
General Friedrich von Steuben – was a Prussian born military leader who served as the inspector general under Washington. He took on the task of training the Continental Army. It was through von Steuben’s daily drills, even in the cold of winter at Valley Forge, that the soldiers of the Continental Army learned the tactics and discipline of a true fighting force.
General Marquis de Lafayette – was a French military leader who joined Washington’s staff at Valley Forge. He worked for no pay and didn’t ask for special quarters or treatment. Lafayette would later become an important commander at several key battles.
While wintering in the camp, soldiers worked together to build huts for shelter, the conditions that they had to endure at Valley Forge were horrible. They had to deal with cold, wet, and snowy weather. They were often hungry, as food was scarce. Many of the soldiers didn’t have warm clothing or even shoes as their shoes had worn out on the long march to the valley. There were few blankets as well. Living in cold, damp, and crowded log cabins made matters even worse because it allowed disease and sickness to spread quickly throughout the camp. Diseases such as typhoid fever, pneumonia, and smallpox took the lives of many soldiers. Of the 10,000 men who began the winter at Valley Forge, around 2,500 died before the spring.
Valley Forge was the first state park in Pennsylvania. Today it is known as the Valley Forge National Historic Park. The area was named after an iron forge located at nearby Valley Creek.
General Friedrich von Steuben wrote the Revolutionary War Drill Manual which became the standard drill manual used by the US forces up until the War of 1812.
It is thought that only around 1/3 of the men who arrived in Valley Forge had shoes.
Some families of the soldiers including wives, sisters, and children made camp near the soldiers and helped them survive the winter. They were called Camp Followers.
General von Steuben arrived at Valley Forge with a letter of recommendation from Benjamin Franklin. His energy and knowledge of training and drilling men made an immediate impact on the soldiers at the camp. The elevated level of military discipline proved invaluable for the remainder of the war.
Martha Washington stayed at the camp as well. She would bring baskets of food and socks to the soldiers who needed them the most. Washington’s steady leadership was crucial to keeping the army intact through the logistical and administrative hardships of the winter of 1777-1778, and it likely accounted for the fact that there was a never a mass desertion or mutiny at Valley Forge.
Bodle, Wayne K. and Thibaut, Jacqueline. Valley Forge Historical Research Report, Three Volumes. Valley Forge: National Park Service, 1982.
Buchanan, John. The Road to Valley Forge: How Washington Built the Army that Won the Revolution. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2004.
Fleming, Thomas. Washington’s Secret War: The Hidden History of Valley Forge. New York: Smithsonian Books, 2005.