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The Story of Valley Forge

by Ron Avery
Writer for the Philadelphia Daily News
Written exclusively for ushistory.org

• Background •

Philadelphia was the largest city in the new nation. It became the de facto 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.

Lethargic Maj. Gen. William Howe, commander of British forces in America, made his move on Philadelphia in September 1777 thinking that, perhaps, the capture of the rebel 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.

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.

When told that the British had taken Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin, representing his nation in Paris, said, "No Sir, Philadelphia has taken the British." As events turned out, Franklin's clever quip contained a kernel of truth.

Washington attempted a bold surprise attack on the main British forces at Germantown on October 4. His plan was too complex and after some initial surprise and much confused fighting, the Americans were forced to retreat. Those remarkable amateur 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. Howe tried to lure Washington from his impregnable position in December, but after a few minor skirmishes withdrew back to Philadelphia.

Some in Congress — now safely in York, Pa. — urged Washington to attack the British in Philadelphia, but 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.

Joseph Plumb Martin, a Connecticut Yankee, who wrote a fascinating account of his years in the Continental Army recalled that thanksgiving dinner decades later: "We had nothing to eat for two or three days previous except what the trees of the forests and fields afforded us, but we must now have what Congress said, a sumptuous Thanksgiving to close the year of high living. . . . it gave each man half a gill (about half a cup) of rice and a tablespoon of vinegar!"

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

Valley Forge — 25 miles from the city — was a good choice. It is a high plateau that might have been designed by a military engineer. 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 up-hill.

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 Pottses.

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.

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