Valley Forge FAQs

Washington speech to rally the troops

Q.I am looking for a copy of the speech that George Washington made at Valley Forge to rally the troops behind him. I am a captain in the Illinois Army National Guard and plan on using it as a motivational tool.
Timothy J. Stewart, McHenry, Illinois

A.There is not a particular speech that General Washington made at Valley Forge to rally the troops. Over time, excerpts from all of his writings over the encampment period and the entire Revolutionary War have been so quoted out of context it has led to some general misunderstandings about the things that were actually said at Valley Forge. The General had great concern for his troops. He was constantly in contact with Congress trying to obtain food, clothing and munitions for the men. Any sort of "speeches" would have been issued in General Orders and not necessarily read by the General himself. For example, you can read the following General Orders from Valley Forge:

General Orders Headquarters, Valley Forge Sunday, March 1, 1778

Parole Arnold.
Countersigns Ashford, Almsbury

The Commander in Chief again takes occasion to return his warmest thanks to the virtuous officers and soldiery of this Army for that persevering fidelity and Zeal which they have uniformly manifested in all their conduct. Their fortitude not only under the common hardships incident to a military life but also under the additional sufferings to which the peculiar situation of these States have exposed them, clearly proves them worthy of the enviable privilege of contending for the rights of human nature, the Freedom and Independence of their Country. The recent Instance of uncomplaining Patience during the scarcity of provisions in Camp is a fresh proof that they possess in an eminent degree the spirit of soldiers and the magnanimity of Patriots. The few refractory individuals who disgrace themselves by murmurs it to be hoped have repented such unmanly behaviour, and resolved to emulate the noble example of their associates upon every trial which the customary casualties of war may hereafter throw their way. Occasional distress for want of provisions and other necessaries is a spectacle that frequently occurs in every army and perhaps there never was one which has been in general so plentifully supplied in respect to the former as ours. Surely we who are free Citizens in arms engaged in a struggle for every thing valuable in society and partaking in the glorious task of laying the foundation of an Empire, should scorn effeminately to shrink under those accidents and rigours of War which mercenary hirelings fighting in the cause of lawless ambition, rapine and devastation, encounter with cheerfulness and alacrity, we should not be merely equal, we should be superior to them in every qualification that dignifies the man or the soldier in proportion as the motive from which we act and the final hopes of our Toils, are superior to theirs. Thank Heaven! our Country abounds with provision and with prudent management we need not apprehend want for any length of time. Defects in the Commissaries department, Contingencies of weather and other temporary impediments have subjected and may again subject us to a deficiency for a few days, but soldiers! American soldiers! will despise the meanness of repining at such trifling strokes of Adversity, trifling indeed when compared to the transcendent Prize which will undoubtedly crown their Patience and Perseverance, Glory and Freedom, Peace and Plenty to themselves and the Community; The Admiration of the World, the Love of their Country and the Gratitude of Posterity!

Your General unceasingly employs his thoughts on the means of relieving your distresses, supplying your wants and bringing you labours to a speedy and prosperous issue. Our Parent Country he hopes will second his endeavors by the most vigorous exertions and he is convinced the faithful officers and soldiers associated with him in the great work of rescuing our Country from Bondage and Misery will continue in the display of that patriotic zeal which is capable of smoothing every difficulty and vanquishing every Obstacle.

[Orders continue, regarding court martials and daily events.]

For a second example, read the following personal letter which Washington wrote to one of his Generals regarding his service:

To Brigadier General John Glover
Headquarters, Valley Forge, February 18, 1778

Sir: I am favoured with yours of the 27th. of last Month Since, from the circumstances you represent, your continuance where you are, may be for some time necessary, I cannot but acquiesce in it, while that necessity continues; but I must hope, you will not delay a moment to join your Brigade, when the exigency, which now detains you from it, ceases.

Your presence, as that of every other General Officer, will be essentially requisite, to aid me in carrying to execution, many important new arrangements, which, there is a prospect, will take place, for the reformation and better establishment of the Army.

Excuse me Sir, if I hesitate to give my concurrence to the desire you express, of quitting the Army. I have too high an opinion of your value, as an Officer, to do any thing that may contribute to your relinquishing that Character. My earnest wish is, that you may continue in it. The spirit of resigning, which is now become almost epidemical, is truly painful and alarming. This spirit, prevailing among many of the best Officers, from various inducements, if persisted in, must deeply wound the common cause. You cannot but be convinced, the situation of the Army is such, that it can ill bear the loss of good Officers, and such would do well to consider how much they put to the hazard, by doing any thing to weaken the sinews of our contest, at so critical a time. I am persuaded, if these ideas were properly realized, they would endure great inconveniences and make great sacrifices, rather than withdraw their services. I am fully sensible of the disadvantages Officers have hitherto laboured under the insufficiency of their appointments; but measures have been, and I flatter myself, others, still more ineffectual, will be taken, to remedy this evil. I am impressing the necessity of it. by every argument in my power and you may assure yourself that no endeavor of mine will be omitted, to remove so just a cause of complaint. I am etc.

The amount of writing that went on at Valley Forge is enormous. You can find more information in various series of books with the manuscripts of George Washington in them. There is an old series by J. Sparks as well as the George Washington Bicentennial Commission edition from 1934. The University of Virginia is the home of the Washington Papers and you can visit their page on the Internet. They are currently working on, I believe, a 100+ volume edition of the writings of Washington.

SAS, Courtesy The Valley Forge Historical Society

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