Valley Forge FAQs

Considering the conditions at Valley Forge, how were the soldiers able to sustain their morale?

Q.Considering the conditions at Valley Forge, how were the soldiers able to sustain their morale?
Kim Maxwell, Pointe-Claire, Quebec, Canada

A.There is a misconception about Valley Forge that it was the worst winter during the American War for Independence. This is not so. There were actually two separate winters where the weather was much worse and thus conditions, harsher. The was certainly suffering at Valley Forge: lots of it! It was not a pleasant winter by any means. Valley Forge was still very unique — immediately and for what it has become today. The concentration of men at Valley Forge was significant. 11 of the 13 colonies had troops stationed at these winter quarters, AND all thirteen colonies were represented by men in some form or another.

The army arriving at Valley Forge on December 19, 1777 straggled in ... they had some structure to their forces, but these organizational units varied widely — physically and theoretically. The structure included officers and a hierarchy, BUT many of these in charge had very little experience or knowledge regarding their responsibilities and duties in that capacity. Training was sporadic and fragmentary; there was a high turnover rate in personnel due to short term enlistments (as well as deserters, casualties, and illness); and military law was primarily punishment ... so, in turn, the army was not actually an ARMY.

In contrast, the ARMY leaving Valley Forge six months later was named an ARMY rightly so. There were several reasons: One was von Steuben. He had the ability, training and the authority to begin a comprehensive training — reorganization — standardization of the Continental Army. Because the men were on "hiatus" they had the time and focus to concentrate on becoming an army.

Credit certainly goes to the Commander-in-Chief as well. General Washington had to deal with the Conway Cabal at Valley Forge — a test of his authority. The officers and men had faith in Washington's leadership.

The suffering at Valley Forge actually had more to do with indifference, graft and speculation as well as American mismanagement. But with all the suffering and hardship, death and disease, the men of Valley Forge left their winter quarters and marched into Monmouth demonstrating the tactical expertise learned during the winter.

A couple of statements of men who were at Valley Forge during the winter of 1777-1778:

Ebenezer Wild: "We had no tents, no axes to cut wood and make fires. It was a very bad snow storm when we stopped."

Gouverneur Morris (on a commission to examine the camp for the Committee of Conference): "An Army of skeletons appeared before our eyes, naked, starved, sick, discouraged"

The Marquis de Lafayette admired their fortitude: "The patient endurance of both soldiers and officers was a miracle which each moment served to renew."

Surgeon Albigence Waldo from Connecticut said of the Continental Soldier: "With what cheerfulness he meets his foes and encounters every hardship — if barefoot — he labours through the mud and cold with a song in his mouth extolling war and Washington — if his food be bad — he eats it notwithstanding with seeming content, blesses God for a good stomach, and whistles it into indigestion."

General Washington grieved to see his men "without clothes to cover their nakedness, without blankets to lie on, without shoes, by which their marches might be traced from blood of their feet..." He said that it is "a mark of patience which, in my opinion, can scarce be paralleled ... naked and starving as they are, we cannot enough admire the incomparable patience and fidelity of the soldiers..." (Note that "nakedness" in the 18th century meant a proper lack of clothing, not particularly the meaning we think of it today!)

SAS, Courtesy The Valley Forge Historical Society

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