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Valley Forge

Although no battles were fought here, General George Washington faced his greatest challenge as Commander-In-Chief while his army was encamped at Valley Forge during the winter of 1777-1778.

With the winter of 1777 approaching, General George Washington needed to find suitable quarters for his army. A retreat from Brandywine (September 11) had allowed the British to take Philadelphia, and a defeat at Germantown (October 4) had forced Washington's men to entrench themselves at Whitemarsh, about 20 miles north of Philadelphia. Whitemarsh was a difficult place to defend, however, and with supplies already running dangerously low Washington knew the army could not pass the winter there. He eventually decided to take the Continental Army to Valley Forge, about 25 miles north and west of Philadelphia. The site he chose was on high ground and protected by the Schuylkill River and two creeks. It was close enough to Philadelphia to keep British raiding parties out of the Pennsylvania interior, but far enough away to prevent the British from launching a surprise attack.

map of the area around Valley Forge

By the time Washington and his men entered Valley Forge on December 19 only about one-third of the 12,000 troops had shoes and most were wearing threadbare uniforms. Several field hospitals were established in the area to deal with the wounded and sick, but medical supplies were short and in many cases all the hospitals could do was provide a place of rest. The rest of Washington's men spent the next six weeks building over a thousand crude wood huts for shelter, during which time they had to fight both rain and snow. Although temperatures stayed in the 20's and 30's most of those six weeks, the constant dampness caused many of the soldiers to become ill. And, as if the constant dampness weren't enough, the men also had endure constant food shortages.

Although the huts provided some shelter from the cold and snow, they were drafty, smoky, and difficult to keep dirt free. And, although Washington ordered his men to observe proper sanitation and latrine procedures to reduce the risk of disease, drinking water was still drawn from creeks in which animals often relieved themselves, causing many of the men to come down with cholera. Food was also in extremely short supply, with many days passing in which only the barest portions of bread and water were available. Washington constantly begged for supplies from the Continental Congress, but it was unable, and at times even unwilling, to provide them. Some relief was provided by the occasional local resident, but most locals were even less willing to part with food than Congress was. At one time the situation seemed so bleak that Washington told Congress that his Army was in danger of either deserting or starving. As many as 4,000 men were listed as unfit for duty at any given time due to disease.

Valley Forge

Despite the conditions, Washington's men had faith in their leader, and while there were sporadic attempts at desertion most remained loyal. Spirits did begin to lift somewhat with the appearance of Baron Friedrich von Steuben, a Prussian officer, in February. Although von Steuben did not bring food or clothing with him, he did bring a new style of military training that kept the men busy and gave them much needed confidence in their abilities. Washington marched into Valley Forge at the front of an army comprised primarily of farmers and merchants, but thanks to von Steuben his men were transformed into disciplined soldiers.

The first signs of relief finally appeared after General Nathanael Greene was appointed Quartermaster General in March and supplies began arriving at Valley Forge. And, as the grip of winter began to loosen, so too did the reluctance of area residents to provide help, and suddenly Washington's men were receiving clothing, food, and medical supplies. Hope was further lifted when news of the U.S.-French alliance reached Valley Forge in May. Soon after word was received that the British Army units occupying Philadelphia were preparing to join the main army in New York.

Having survived one of his greatest tests of the Revolutionary War, Washington finally led his men out of Valley Forge on June 19, 1778, and went in pursuit of the British.


Historic Valley Forge
Valley Forge National Historic Site

See Also

George Washington
Friedrich von Steuben
Nathanael Greene

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The Robinson Library >> The Revolution, 1775-1783 >> Campaigns and Battles

This page was last updated on December 19, 2018.