American spirits reached a low point during the harsh winter of 1777-78.
British troops had marched triumphantly into Philadelphia the previous autumn. Philadelphia was the largest city in the Colonies and the seat of political power. After the British swept into Philadelphia, the Continental Congress had flee to west, first to Lancaster then to York.
Washington's army had spent the summer of 1777 fighting a string of losing battles. The Americans harassed the British army in skirmishes and minor battles for much of the fighting season. In the fall, the Americans showed pluck at the Battle of Brandywine in September and the Battle of Germantown in October. Yet the Americans were unable to keep the British out of Philadelphia.
In December, Washington marched his tired, beaten, hungry and sick army to Valley Forge, a location about 20 miles northwest of British-occupied Philadelphia. From Valley Forge, Washington could keep an eye on General Howe's British army ensconced in Philadelphia.
At Valley Forge, there were shortages of everything from food to clothing to medicine. Washington's men were sick from disease, hunger, and exposure. The Continental Army camped in crude log cabins and endured cold conditions while the Redcoats warmed themselves in colonial homes. The patriots went hungry while the British soldiers ate well.
Terms of enlistment were ending for many soldiers in Washington's army. The General wondered if he would even have an army left when the spring thaw finally arrived.
General Washington was upset that local farmers were hoarding much-needed food waiting to earn higher profits in the spring. Some farmers even sneaked grain into Philadelphia to feed the British army, who paid in gold or silver. With each passing night came more desertions. Washington grew privately disgusted at the lack of commitment of his so-called patriot fighters.
Then there was the grumbling of some in Congress and among some of Washington's own officers. Washington's leadership skills were openly questioned. Many said General Horatio Gates was better-suited to leading the army. After all, hadn't he scored a major victory in October at the battle of Saratoga.? Within the environment of cold, deprivation, and rebellion, how long could Washington and his army endure?
Head Quarters, Valley Forge, February 16, 1778
Dear Sir: It is with great reluctance, I trouble you on a subject, which does not fall within your province; but it is a subject that occasions me more distress, than I have felt, since the commencement of the war; and which loudly demands the most zealous exertions of every person of weight and authority, who is interested in the success of our affairs. I mean the present dreadful situation of the army for want of provisions, and the miserable prospects before us, with respect to futurity. It is more alarming than you will probably conceive, for, to form a just idea, it were necessary to be on the spot. For some days past, there has been little less, than a famine in camp. A part of the army has been a week, without any kind of flesh, and the rest for three or four days. Naked and starving as they are, we cannot enough admire the incomparable patience and fidelity of the soldiery, that they have not been ere this excited by their sufferings, to a general mutiny or dispersion. Strong symptoms, however, discontent have appeared in particular instances; and nothing but the most acitive efforts every where can long avert so shocking a catastrophe.
Our present sufferings are not all. There is no foundation laid for any adequate relief hereafter. All the magazines provided in the States of New Jersey, Pensylvania, Delaware and Maryland, and all the immediate additional supplies they seem capable of affording, wil not be sufficient to support the army more than a month longer, if so long. Very little been done to the Eastward, and as little to the Southward; and whatever we have a right to expect from those quarters, must necessarily be very remote; and is indeed more precarious, than could be wished. When the forementioned supplies are exhausted, what a terrible crisis must ensue, unless all the energy of the Continent is exerted to provide a timely remedy?
Impressed with this idea, I am, on my part, putting every engine to work, that I can possibly think of, to prevent the fatal consequences, we have so great a reason to apprehend. I am calling upon all those, whose stations and influence enable them to contribute their aid upons so important an occasion; and from your well known zeal, I expect every thing within the compass of your power, and that the abilities and resources of the state over which you preside, will admit. I am sensible of the disadvantages it labours under, from having been so long the scene of war, and that it must be exceedingly drained by the great demands to which it has been subject. But, tho' you may not be able to contribute materially to our relief, you can perhaps do something towards it; and any assistance, however trifling in itself, will be of great moment at so critical a juncture, and will conduce to keeping the army together till the Commissary's department can be put upon a better footing, and effectual measures concerted to secure a permanent and competent supply. What methods you can take, you will be the best judge of; but, if you can devise any means to procure a quantity of cattle, or other kind of flesh, for the use of this army, to be at camp in the course of a month, you will render a most essential service to the common cause. I have the honor etc.
– George Washington, letter to George Clinton (Feb. 16, 1778)
Help came in the form of a Prussian volunteer, Baron von Steuben. The military leader was aghast at the lack of American discipline. At Washington's urging he trained the Continental Army, Prussian-style. The troops slowly became more professional. Among the soldiers who remained, confidence grew.
Over the course of the winter, the weather improved somewhat. Food trickled in from the surrounding countryside. Many wives of soldiers spent time at Valley Forge over the winter. Washington was able to quash those who questioned his leadership abilities.
The Continental Army encamped at Valley Forge in the fall of 1777 with about 12,000 men in its ranks. Death claimed about a quarter of them before spring arrived. Another thousand didn't reenlist or deserted. But the army that remained was stronger. They were fewer, but more disciplined. They were weary, but firmly resolved.
The next year, 1778, brought greater fortune to the American cause. While Washington froze at Valley Forge, Benjamin Franklin was busy securing the French alliance. Now the war would be different indeed.