Reality #1: The American Revolution was saved at Valley Forge
For over twenty years I have driven through Valley Forge, site of the great winter encampment of 1777-78. Nearly every road was laid out over 300 years ago. The landscape is still lush with rolling hills. There are many more trees and deer than in 1777, but I can imagine that prior to December of that year, it was just as peaceful as now in the early morning mist – perhaps a few more farm animals would be awakening.
I park my car and walk down the silent lane towards the Issac Potts House. The gravel crunches under my shoes, birds chirp, Valley Creek gurgles on its way to the Schuylkill. The small stately house that Washington rented for six months, which served as the headquarters of the General Command, stands solitary. The Potts grist mill burned in the 1830’s, victim to sparks from one of the nation’s first rail lines – still in use in 2017. Long-gone as well is the bustle of 1777 Valley Forge village. Myth and reality float as mist on a land that holds too many undiscovered stories.
The 3,700 acres of Valley Forge National Historic Park are a small part of what was known in the 18th century as Pennsylvania’s Great Valley – one of the wealthiest agricultural regions in the thirteen colonies. Populated largely by Quakers, this industrious area had given rise by the 1750’s to the start of Pennsylvania’s iron industry – hence the village of Valley Forge along Valley Creek. This small company town owned by a few intermarried families, along with farming and water powered mills on the Schuylkill River, was making the region an economic power house. Yet before the autumn of 1777, the bucolic, hilly and peaceful countryside was hidden from the turmoil embroiling the colonies since 1775, but Philadelphia was only 20 miles south.
The crops were being harvested when the British advanced towards Philadelphia in the autumn of 1777. Although there is evidence of British requisitioning of supplies, the population was equally nervous concerning any future involvement in war. The British did burn a Potts forge warehouse because munitions were found. Being staunch Quakers, it’s unlikely the family gave the local colonial militia captain permission to use the facility.
One week before Christmas 1777, the first of what would fluctuate between 10,000 to 17,000 troops, women and children arrived. An area of 3,700 acres had been chosen months before as an alternate encampment should Philadelphia fall to the British. On the Schuylkill River, at the highest elevation closest to the city and overlooking the major routes from Philadelphia to the interior of northern and western Pennsylvania, the site at Valley Forge was ideal for both defense and reconnaissance
It wasn’t a demoralized, bedraggled rag of an army that marched into the encampment. The troops were rather pumped at the drubbing they’d given to some of the British Empire’s crack brigades while defending Philadelphia. True, the Battle of Brandywine was horrific in terms of casualties, but the pain was equally shared and the Continental brigades remained intact. Washington’s competition to house everyone in log cabins was a resounding success. Many diary entries speak of the relative comfort of these accommodations compared to other encampments.
Reality #2: Starvation or incompetence?
A severe lack of effective planning plagued the loose collection of brigades that constituted the Continental Army in 1777 with food supplies being the most obvious initial problem. No one was in charge. The troops had arrived at the start of winter, in the midst of the breadbasket of Pennsylvania and they had no one in charge of obtaining food. A canary in the coal mine?
Christopher Ludwick accepted the commission Baker General of the Continental Army. A prosperous German/Philadelphia baker, renowned for his gingerbread (General Washington’s favorite dessert) and a financial backer of the revolution, he was in his late 50’s – one of the oldest men in command. (Ludwick would remain BG until the end of the war in 1782). Along with the appointment of General “Mad” Anthony Wayne as Quartermaster General, these two men created, within three weeks of the first troop arrivals, an efficient commissary system with 13 field kitchens and 22 bake ovens feeding 10,000 – 15,000 people a day soup/stews and baking nearly as many loaves of bread. (Volunteers offer baking and cooking demos during the summer and special events. See park web site.)
Reality #3: Snag the Golden Ring
Because the defense of Philadelphia had called for a total effort, nearly every important person involved in the Revolution (and most of the troops) were together at Valley Forge – in one encampment. Yet Valley Forge encampment history seems almost uneventful to all but diehard history buffs. No battles for one thing.
The British fail to venture out of Philadelphia by the end of January to engage Washington at Valley Forge (they were not having an easy time controlling the city). The consequences of such an encounter – before the onset of “mud season” – would have been fatal for the Revolution. A golden opportunity presented itself and the General Command seized the ring: six months to get organized, trained, equipped, deal with corrupt merchants and a cautious Congress, standardize training, revamp recruitment and establish a central commissary kitchen system that remained in place for the remainder of the War. In other words, create a unified Continental Army – in six months.
The French Alliance in the spring of 1778 sent the French navy and millions in gold to the Revolution. The army marched out in June and nearly crushed British forces evacuating Philadelphia for New York at the Battle of Monmouth. For all practical purposes (except New York City) the Revolution in the North was over – bitter fighting moved South for five more agonizing years.
Reality #4: Myths are easy; uncovering the human story is difficult.
Mrs. David Edwards Stephens inherited from her father, a prosperous Methodist farmer in this Quaker community, a comfortable stone house and 400 acres. The slave-owning Mrs Edwards, and her Quaker husband David Stephens, rented the second floor of their house as an office and beds for the staff of 28 year-old General James Varnum. A wealthy, staunchly abolitionist Rhode Islander, General Varnum had successfully pressured Rhode Island to create a free-black regiment who billeted across the street. To have been the fly on the wall…the dinner conversations…
Yet the family put up with half their small house being occupied and watched their prime farm land – the encampment’s Grand Parade – turn into a sea of mud by the boots of troops being trained under the Baron von Steuben. It would be four-years before any of the farms financially recovered.
Little is known of the family that rented rooms to the tall, dashing 19 year-old Frenchman the Marquis de La Fayette. The Marquis rapidly gained Washington’s trust, entre into the General Command’s inner circle and, I can assume, was a favorite at dinners. The house is not open for tours and is said to be haunted.
Eight hundred fifty women and children lived at the winter encampment. Blood relatives could share the 12-person cabins with others in the brigade. Women and children performed a number of necessary roles within the camp structure. An authoritative and insightful new book, Following the Drum, does much to end the myth of the disreputable woman camp follower.
The American born Scots aristocrat, General William Alexander, 6th Earl of Sterling, his wife, Lady Sarah Livingston Sterling, along with Martha Washington, were the center of the social calendar for officers and their wives during the encampment. The Sterlings leased a house that, unfortunately, is unstable today, but the Washingtons leased what is presently the best preserved 1760’s house in America.
Built in the 1760’s as one of thirteen rental properties owned by the wealthy Potts family, this fine example of 18th century craftsmanship was never meant to house 15 to 20 people. The staff of the General Command exceeded that number, but not all shared the house with the General and Mrs. Washington (it’s rumored Martha Washington remarked, through cinched teeth, that the house was a “lovely little cottage.”) There were strategic reasons for choosing this site even if it was cozy.
Only top aides had the comfort of beds. Most slept on the floor in bed rolls and the attic – including approximately five slaves. One slave, Hannah Till, earned enough money on the side as a seamstress (allowed in the 1700s) to purchase her freedom after the War.
The kitchen hummed all day with a staff of five – majority slaves – cooking meals for the General Command staff as well as numerous VIP guests. The fare was not the bread and soups of the enlisted men. Officers were from a different class. They lived better, ate better, and many subsidized their own expenses. Martha surprised the General with what became the first official celebration of his birthday in February 1778 complete with cake and a band.
Reality #5: This was the 18th century – before indoor plumbing…
That’s why 3,000 people died at Valley Forge. Sanitation, 18th century style, no matter how well thought out by the best science of the day, still left much to be desired. Mass inoculation for small pox was a resounding success – George and Martha led by example. Daily rations for all of beer and whiskey to prevent the consumption of tainted water helped. A daily dose of wine vinegar prevented scurvy. Yet by the end of March and through May 1778, as Spring arrived, fevers, dysentery, pneumonia and infections took the lives of nearly 3,000. None are buried at Valley Forge – considered bad for morale. Many lie in lost graves. Most were tended in hospitals as far away as 50 miles from the encampment by pacifist Amish/Mennonites and Quakers – Ephrata, PA, contains a rare grave yard.
I spent more hours than I can count roaming the fields and buildings of Valley Forge, leading tours as a volunteer and cooking in the outdoor kitchen. To a military history buff, the meaning of this site is obvious and the wealth of 18th century military information available is abundant.
For me, though, it’s the drama of the human stories of both camp and Valley residents that resonate: the failed attempt by influential locals to arrange a peace conference, dissension within the officers of the General Command, the constant complaints concerning mud, denuding the landscape for over a 5-mile radius of the encampment, the stench of thousands of barely washed bodies and animals, the smell of fresh-baked bread and dinners at the Sterling’s.
The detritus of war. It’s never myth; it’s only reality.
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