Winter at Valley Forge

The campaign of 1777 was over. Snow had already fallen, and Washington needed to find winter quarters for his army. Many of his officers favored wintering at Wilmington, Delaware, on the Chesapeake. The Pennsylvania Assembly objected to Washington leaving the area around Philadelphia exposed to the enemy. The legislators wanted the army to stay in the field to keep Howe in check.

“Wintering in this Desert”

Congress, now at York, Pennsylvania, passed on the Assembly's remonstrance. Washington reacted with fury. In a letter he asked the Pennsylvanians “if they thought the Men were made of stocks and stones and equally insensible to frost and Snow.” He reminded them that they had promised his troops quantities of clothing that had never been delivered. After unburdening himself, Washington compromised and accepted Wayne's suggestion of Valley Forge as a place to winter the army and also “cover this Country against the Horrid rapine and Devastation of a Wanton Enemy.”

Twenty-five miles northwest of Philadelphia, Valley Forge lay on a plateau that rose above the surrounding country. A worse spot for a winter camp would have been hard to find. Both armies had scoured the area for supplies earlier in the year, and now there was nothing left. The weather turned bad as the army marched to Valley Forge. The men suffered through snow, sleet, and ice on the way. Once they arrived, the soldiers found only a frozen wilderness.

A Time of Suffering

The army had to find some sort of shelter. Washington made the construction of log huts the first priority. The last of these were not finished until after Christmas. Drafty, smoky, and often floorless, they offered poor shelter from the elements. Many men could not leave their huts because they had no clothes. Lafayette wrote, “The unfortunate soldiers were in want of everything; they had neither coats, hats, shirts nor shoes; their feet and legs froze until they became black and it was often necessary to amputate them.” A shortage of food and water added to the misery. The staple of their meager diet was fire-cake, made from a flour and water paste cooked on hot stones. Sanitary conditions were abysmal. Disease wracked the camp; smallpox was a problem, but the worst killer was typhus.

Why did Washington's army starve in a rich country?

Neither Congress nor the army had solved the problem of supplying the army by the winter of 1777. A constant turnover in staff plagued the congressional commissary service. It was hard to find honest contractors to deliver food to the army.

Washington's army suffered through the winter of 1777–78, but they endured. Though it might not have seemed so in the frozen waste of Valley Forge, the war had taken a turn. The British had thrown away their last chance to subdue all the colonies in 1777. The great victory at Saratoga and Washington's tenacious defense in Pennsylvania were about to have diplomatic consequences that would transform the war.

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