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• The Story of Valley Forge •
by Ron Avery
Writer for the Philadelphia Daily News
Written exclusively for ushistory.org
• An Unhealthy Life •
The first priority of the soldiers was keeping warm and dry. The troops faced a typical Delaware Valley winter with temperatures mostly in the 20s and 30s. There were 13 days of rain or snow during the first six weeks.
Illness, not musketballs, was the great killer. Dysentery and typhus were rampant. Many makeshift hospitals were set up in the region. The Army's medical department used at least 50 barns, dwellings, churches or meetinghouses throughout a wide area of Eastern Pennsylvania as temporary hospitals. These places were mostly understaffed, fetid breeding grounds of disease. All were chronically short of medical supplies.
America's first true military hospital — constructed for that purpose — was built at Yellow Springs, a popular health spa about 10 miles west of the encampment. About 300 sick men were accommodated in the large three-story wood structure. Washington once visited the Yellow Springs Hospital and stopped to exchange a few words with each patient. Dr. Bodo Otto, an elderly German and his two physician sons, ably ran the hospital until the end of the war.
Much of the sickness was traceable to unhealthy sanitation and poor personal hygiene. Washington constantly complained of the failure to clear the encampment of filth, which included rotting carcasses of horses. The commander-in-chief even issued orders concerning the use and care of privies, but men relieved themselves wherever they felt.
"Intolerable smells" finally prompted Washington to issue orders that soldiers who relieved themselves anywhere but in "a proper Necessary" were to receive five lashes.
In the absence of wells, water was drawn from the Schuylkill River and nearby creeks. Men and animals often relieved themselves upstream from where water for drinking was drawn.
One of Washington's major worries was an outbreak of small pox. Inoculation was still relatively new and controversial, but the General was a firm believer in the procedure. The winter before at Morristown, N.J., he ordered inoculation for all those who had not already had the disease. A survey at Valley Forge showed many vulnerable soldiers. Some 3,000 to 4,000 men were vaccinated.
Knowing how unhealthy the congested the huts were, Washington ordered windows cut for circulation in the spring and even encouraged some to move from their squalid quarters into tents.
Just how many became seriously ill during the Valley Forge encampment and how many died of these illnesses is not known. Even in the mild weather of late spring, the medical department informed Washington that 1,000 men were too ill for combat. Those who died at camp or in hospitals has been estimated as high as 3,000.
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