Historic Valley Forge

Numbers ... arrived, deserted, remained, died, length of enlistment

Q.I know that exact statistics are hard to come by. However, I'm trying to track down information on the following:

  • Number of soldiers that arrived at Valley Forge on December 19, 1777. (I've found estimates of 10,000 11,000 and 12,000.)
  • Number of soldiers that deserted during the encampment at Valley Forge. (I've found info that varies from "many" to "over 2,000.")
  • Number of soldiers that remained at Valley Forge until the troops moved out on June 19, 1778.
  • Number of soldiers who died during the Revolution. (I have found an estimate of 10% of the 250,000 soldiers who served, or 25,000.)
  • I have found several references to the short term enlistments common in the Continental Army, but no information on the actual length of service. How long were the enlistments?

Pat Davies, Canoga Park, CA

A.Exact numbers are very difficult to find. Historians do their best to assemble and examine the evidence from sources such as muster rolls, payrolls, discharges, orderly books, diaries, letters, enlistment papers, newspaper articles, etc. But ultimately we have to accept a fair amount of uncertainty and understand that these are the best estimates we have given the currently available evidence.

1. Number of soldiers that arrived at Valley Forge on December 19, 1777.

The estimates you mention are in the range of what is believed to have been the number of men who marched into Valley Forge.


2. Number of soldiers that deserted during the encampment at Valley Forge.


Desertion was certainly a problem that Washington addressed, though the currently available evidence does not allow for a very precise quantification of that problem. Washington issued the following General Orders on January 21, 1778:

"Notwithstanding the pointed and frequent orders which have issued to have all deserters reported to Head-Quarters it is by the General (except in general returns) which are exceedingly irregular. He therefore in peremptory terms now calls upon the Brigadiers to see or know that the rolls of their several Regiments are call'd over agreeable to former orders, and that all deserters (specifying the Regiment and Company they belong to) are reported by them to the Major General of the day, who is to present the whole in one view to the Commander in Chief when he comes from his Tour of duty. The Brigadiers are also requested to use every possible means to apprehend deserters of their respective Brigades; This order will not be dispensed with."

In all, only 42 cases were tried by Court Martial at Valley Forge — desertion or attempted desertion was in fact, the most frequent military offense charge. All of the cases pertained to enlisted men and two people who were tried were women campfollowers charged with conspiring with soldiers to mutiny and desert. One was acquitted and one convicted. The threat of desertion was high. It was virtually a daily occurrence.

  • February 3, 1778
    "Yesterday twelve deserters went over to the Enemy, viz. 10 sergeants, one corporal and a private from a Regiment of Artillery commanded by Col Proctor." (Stoudt, "Ordeal at Valley Forge," 115)

  • February 6, 1778
    "Regarding deserters from this Army of last Tuesday, this same paper reports: "No less than thirteen sergeants and a corporal belonging to Col Proctor's Regiment of Artillery, in the rebel service, and a number of privates from other regiments, came to Philadelphia. The accounts they give of Mr Washington's Army are distressing beyond description." (Stoudt, 120-121)

  • February 7, 1778
    "The spirit of desertion among the Soldiery, never before rose to such a threatening height, as at the present time." Washington to William Buchanan, Commissary General of Purchases of the Continental Army (Fitzgerald, Vol. X, 427)

  • February 12, 1778
    Desertions were "astonishingly great." B.G. James Varnum to Nathanael Greene (Trussell, "Birthplace of an Army," 66)

  • February 18, 1778
    "There has been no considerable desertion from this camp, to my knowledge within a few days past, nor have the Enemy made any number of Prisoners on the other side of the Schuylkill." Washington to Nathanael Greene (Fitzgerald, Vol. X, 476)

  • March 31, 1778
    "I hope a due attention will also be paid to keeping up a sufficient quantity of Cloathing, that the Soldiers may never be reduced to want and nakedness. Not only a loss from Sickness, follows the want of covering, but desertion to a very great degree. I am astonished, considering the sufferings the men have undergone, that more of them have not left us." Washington to James Bowdoin (Fitzgerald, Vol. XI, 181)

From the British perspective, Donald Barr Chidsey relays in his book, Valley Forge (p. 26) that a reasonably precise figure is a Tory statement that between September 27, 1777 and March 26, 1778, that 1,134 men deserted the American Army and came into Philadelphia. Interestingly enough — only three of those months are part of the encampment. The bulk of these men were men who were formerly from British regiments or had lived in America a relatively short time.

3. Number of soldiers that remained at Valley Forge until the troops moved out on June 19, 1778.

Again, you won't find anything specific. Over the six months of the encampment the numbers rose and fell. Washington sent men on detachments, some troops were wintering near Wilmington, Delaware and Trenton, New Jersey and the sick and wounded were sent to the outlying hospitals. Approximately 12,000 marched into Valley Forge in December. By February, Orderly Reports show that there were around 8,000 (Lesser). Washington wanted to increase his forces so in March new recruits began trickling into camp on an almost daily basis. There is another buildup reported in May when activity increases for the Army: training, building of more huts, etc. Estimates reach as high as 18,000. To put it all into perspective the following is a listing of the TOTAL Continental Army size estimates from the Encyclopedia of Continental Army Units by Fred Berg:

  • 1775:   27,443
  • 1776:   46,891
  • 1777:   34,820
  • 1778:   32,899
  • 1779:   27,699
  • 1780:   21,015
  • 1781:   13,292
  • 1782:   14,256
  • 1783:   13,476

4. Number of soldiers who died during the Revolution.

During land battles in the 18th Century, the ratio of wounded to killed in battle was approximately three or four to one. Conservative numbers were estimated during the Bicentennial by the William Clements Library of the University of Michigan based on available original sources:

  • 6,284 killed in action
  • 10,000 deaths in camp (disease, etc.)
  • 8,500 prisoner deaths
  • Total 25,324

5. I have found several references to the short term enlistments common in the Continental Army, but no information on the actual length of service. How long were the enlistments?

Enlistments could run from one to two years. Since the United States was a fledgling country, this was a new Army and no one was able to predict the length of the war. Many men were not willing to commit to that length of time. Short-term enlistments were fairly common. The duration of a short term was about nine months.