This episode of America’s National Parks was hosted and written by Jason Epperson, with narration from Abigail Trabue.
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On December 19, 1777, 12,000 weary revolutionary war soldiers and 400 women and children marched into what would be their winter encampment. They began to build what was essentially the fourth largest city in the United States, with 1,500 log huts and two miles of fortifications. Lasting six months, from December until June, the encampment was as diverse as any city, with people who were free and enslaved, wealthy and impoverished, speakers of several languages, and adherents of multiple religions. Concentrating the soldiers in one vast camp changed the face of the conflict, leading to the long-fought independence the colonies so desired.
American Indians occupied the area in and around what is now known as Valley Forge National Historical Park over 10,000 years ago, enjoying the abundance of food and shelter offered by the river valley. Europeans began to settle the region in the late 17th century and gradually displaced the indigenous people.
The land was cleared for agriculture, and 18 landowners established fairly prosperous farms on the choice agricultural soils. Along Valley Creek, an ironworks named Valley Forge was established, and a small industrial village, including charcoal houses, a sawmill, grist mill, and company store grew up around it.
The slopes of Mounts Joy and Misery were wooded and were frequently cut over to supply wood to fuel the iron forge. By the time of the soldiers arrived during the Revolutionary War, it was an open, rolling landscape divided into many small fields and pastures by fences and hedgerows. Woodlands and charcoal hearths blanketed the mountains, and there was a smattering of structures in what was now the Village of Valley Forge. The forges themselves laid ruined—burned during a raid by the British three months earlier.
It’s perhaps American legend that a rag-tag team of misfit militias defeated the King’s Army, but in reality, the war was a massive, multi-national conflict, and the colonies needed to build a traditional military to force the British from America.
By the time of Valley Forge, most Americans realized that the Revolution would be a long, drawn-out affair. The nature of the war changed in July 1776 when a large contingent of troops reached America’s shores and sought to crush the rebellion. By the fall, the British had pushed
George Washington’s unevenly trained and outnumbered force to the brink of defeat and established control over New York City and the states of New York and New Jersey. Only Washington’s bold Christmas night 1776 crossing of the Delaware River and subsequent victories at Trenton and Princeton, New Jersey, saved the cause from disaster.
In order to put the Army on firmer footing, the Continental Congress allowed George Washington to recruit soldiers for longer enlistments, beginning in 1777. The men of this establishment formed the bulk of the professional force that would fight the rest of the war. After wintering at their stronghold in Morristown, New Jersey, Washington’s forces prepared to meet the British with renewed zeal in the spring of 1777.
British strategy for the third year of the American Revolution included a plan to capture the patriot capital at Philadelphia. To accomplish this objective, the British Commander-in-Chief, Sir William Howe, set sail from New York City in July 1777 with nearly 17,000 of His Majesty’s finest troop. The expeditionary force landed at the head of the Chesapeake Bay.
To oppose Howe, General Washington marched his 12,000-man Army from New Jersey. On the journey south, He paraded them through Philadelphia to impress citizens with the prowess of the patriot force. No longer a rag-tag bunch of inexperienced fighters, the Continental Army was battle-tested and capable of standing up to the British. One observer of the march stated that the men, “though indifferently dressed, held well-burnished arms, and carried them like soldiers; and looked, in short, as if they might have faced an equal number with a reasonable prospect of success.”
In the two key battles of the Philadelphia campaign, Brandywine and Germantown, the Americans fought with skill and courage. Though they lost both battles, as well as the capital at Philadelphia, the Continental Army emerged from these experiences with the confidence of an underdog sports team that had thrown a scare into the champion:
“The experience has served to convince our people, that when they make an attack, they can confuse and Rout even the Flower of the British Army, with the greatest ease, and they are not that invincible Body of Men, which many suppose them to be.”
Yet work remained to be done. The Army had difficulty executing complex large- scale maneuvers such as the orderly retreat. As a result, retreats could turn into panicked flights. In fact, General Nathanael Greene believed that the troops had “fled from victory” at Germantown.
As the campaign wound down through the months of November and December, Washington maintained strong offensive pressure on the British in the city. With the British ensconced in Philadelphia, Washington and his general officers had to decide where to encamp for the winter. As he chose a site, he had to balance the congressional wish for a winter campaign to dislodge the British from the capital against the needs of his weary and poorly supplied Army. By December 12, Washington made his decision to encamp at Valley Forge.
From this location 18 miles northwest of Philadelphia, Washington was close enough to maintain pressure on the enemy, yet far enough to prevent a surprise attack on his own troops. From here, the Continental Army could protect the outlying parts of the state, with its wary citizens and precious military stores, as well as the Continental Congress, which had fled to York, Pennsylvania.
Washington and his men marched into camp on December 19, 1777. The soldiers, while not well supplied, were not downtrodden. They exuded the confidence of men who knew that they had come close to beating the British in battle. They were cautiously optimistic about the future and resigned themselves to the task of establishing their winter quarters.
The romantic image that depicts the troops at Valley Forge as helpless and famished, at the mercy of winter’s fury and clothed in nothing but rags, renders them and their commander a disservice, but constant freezing and thawing, and intermittent snowfall and rain, coupled with shortages of provisions, clothing, and shoes, did make living conditions extremely difficult. Rather than wait for rescue, the Army procured supplies, built log cabins to stay in, constructed makeshift clothing and gear, and cooked hearty meals.
During the early months of the encampment, the soldiers received an average daily ration of one-half pound of beef. But by February, they went without meat for several days at a time. In early March, the Army listed 3,000 men as unfit for duty due to a lack of proper clothing.
One of the most immediate remedies against the weather and lack of clothing was the construction of log shelters. Valley Forge was the first winter encampment where many thousands of soldiers had to build their own huts. The officers formed them into construction squads and instructed them to build cabins according to a 14-foot by 16-foot model. The Army placed the 2,000-odd huts in parallel lines, and according to one officer, the camp “had the appearance of a little city” when viewed from a distance. Most agreed that their log accommodations were “tolerably comfortable.”
In addition to the huts, miles of trenches were constructed, five earthen forts, and a bridge based on a Roman design over the Schuylkill River. The picture of the encampment that emerges from the army records and the soldiers’ own writing is that of a skilled and capable force in charge of its own destiny.
Once the bridge spanning the river was complete, the Army made full use of the land on the other side as a vital supply link. The farms located on the north side could sell their produce to the Army. The bridge connection also made the camp more secure as patrols could range the country to the north and east to check British movements and intentions in that quarter.
But establishing a winter base so close to the enemy caused additional hardship. Instead of being able to focus on building the camp and obtaining much-needed rest, the troops had to expend energy on security operations. They spent extra-long shifts on duty patrolling, standing guard, and manning dangerous outposts. Washington recognized the strain that this situation placed on his men and rewarded them with two months’ hardship pay.
Perhaps the most notable suffering that occurred at Valley Forge came from a factor that is not frequently mentioned in textbooks: disease was the true scourge of the camp. Men from far-flung geographical areas were exposed to sicknesses from which they had little immunity. During the encampment, nearly 2,000 men died of disease. Dedicated surgeons, nurses, a smallpox inoculation program, and camp sanitation regulations limited the death tolls. The Army kept monthly status reports that tracked the number of soldiers who had died or were too sick to perform their duties. These reports reveal that two-thirds of the men who perished died not during the harsh winter, but during the warmer months of March, April, and May, when supplies were more abundant. The most common killers were influenza, typhus, typhoid, and dysentery.
The scale of the Valley Forge encampment was impressive. The number of soldiers present ranged from 12,000 in December to nearly 20,000 in late spring as the Army massed for the campaign season. The troops who came to camp included men from all 13 original colonies and regiments from all of them except South Carolina and Georgia. The encampment brought together men, women, and children of nearly all ages, from all walks of life, of every occupation, from different ethnic backgrounds, and of various religions. The women included approximately 400 enlisted men’s wives who followed the Army year-round and a few general officers’ wives who came on extended visits.
Valley Forge was demographically, militarily, and politically an important crossroads in the Revolutionary War. A mix of motives was at play, particularly in the minds of men who enlisted in early 1777. Some of served out of patriotism, but many served for profit, or for individual liberty, as in the case of enslaved, indentured, and apprenticed people. Others were coerced, as most colonies introduced conscription that year.
The participants had different values and different ideas about what words such as liberty, equality, slavery, and freedom meant. The ideals held dear by Americans today were not forged at Valley Forge, but rather contested – not just between patriots and the British – but also among different Americans. Valley Forge and the Revolution put the United States on a long road to defining those ideals in ways satisfactory to all – a process still in the making.
Despite the difficulties, the continental Army matured into a professional force at Valley Forge under the tutelage of Friedrich Wilhelm Baron von Steuben. Baron von Steuben assessed the Army and recognized that Washington’s men needed more training and discipline. At the same time, he realized that American soldiers would not submit to harsh European-style regulation. He did not try to introduce the entire system of drill, evolutions, maneuvers, discipline, tactics, and formations into our Army. “I should have been pelted had I attempted it, and should inevitably have failed,” he said. Instead, von Steuben demonstrated to the men the positive results that would come from retraining. He provided hands-on lessons, and Washington’s independent-minded combat veterans were willing to learn new skills when they saw immediate results. As spring wore on, whole brigades marched with newfound precision and crisply executed commands.
The Commander-in-Chief’s professional reputation also got a boost at Valley Forge. Two events that occurred during the encampment strengthened George Washington’s authority. The first was the emergence of a group of critics who denigrated General Washington’s leadership ability. The proponents of this movement, which became known as the Conway Cabal, suggested that General Gates, the victorious leader at the Battle of Saratoga, was perhaps more fit for the top command. This splinter group of officers and congressmen blamed Washington for having lost the capital to the British and argued that he put the war effort in jeopardy. As winter wore on, the so-called cabal dissolved, bringing disgrace to and ending the careers of several of its leaders. Washington’s authority was strengthened as loyal supporters rallied to defend and exalt the Commander-in-Chief.
A second event that consolidated Washington’s control was his successful campaign to have a congressional committee visit camp. The general lobbied Congress to confer with him in person in order to resolve some of the supply and organizational difficulties that had plagued the Army during the 1777 campaign. The committee emerged from the Valley Forge meeting with a better understanding of the logistical difficulties Washington faced and more sympathetic to the Army’s requirements. The army reorganization was one of the most far-reaching consequences of the committee’s work. Almost from the war’s outset, Washington had argued for a large professional army. The public’s disdain for standing armies limited his ability to raise a sizeable force. The reorganization of 1778 represented a compromise between civilian and military ideals. Realizing that the Army existed at only a portion of its authorized strength, Congress consolidated regiments and created a more streamlined force.
At Valley Forge in the spring of 1778, the Army joyously celebrated the formal French recognition of the United States as a sovereign power and valuable alliance with this leading European nation. Though it would take years to bear fruit at Yorktown in 1781, the alliance provided Washington with the formidable French naval assistance and additional troops he needed to counter British marine superiority.
In mid-June, Washington’s spy network informed him that the British were about to abandon Philadelphia. The Commander-in-Chief rapidly set troops in motion: a small force marched in and took possession of the city. The majority of the Army swiftly advanced from staging areas on the north side of the Schuylkill River and southeast of camp toward the Delaware River and New Jersey. On June 28, at the Battle of Monmouth, New Jersey, Washington’s men demonstrated their new battlefield skills, as they forced the British from the field. Monmouth hurt the British in the short term and provided the Americans with a long-term boost in confidence.
Washington could claim that the war effort was going well. The Army’s decision to occupy Valley Forge and maintain strong offensive pressure on the enemy was a wise one. After they abandoned Philadelphia, the British had little to show for all of their past year’s efforts.
Thanks to the contributions of von Steuben and others, the Continental Army was more unified than ever before.
Many regard Valley Forge as the birthplace of the American Army. The concepts of basic training, the professionalization of the officer corps, and the rise of the Army’s distinctive branches, such as the corps of engineers, all got their start here. The symbolic importance that Americans have attached to Valley Forge both complicates and enriches its authentic history. The establishment of Valley Forge as a memorial provides a place where generations of Americans have had the opportunity to discover and admire the Continental Army’s sacrifices and achievements and to participate in commemoration of this history.
The 3,500-acres of monuments, meadows, and woodlands honor and celebrate the ability of citizens to pull together and overcome adversity during extraordinary times.
Valley Forge National Historical Park is located just 18 miles west of Center City Philadelphia and is easily accessible from New York City, Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. Here you can step back in time and re-live that winter of 1777 and 1778.
The Muhlenberg Brigade Area is the site of a brigade encampment led by General Peter Muhlenberg. Consisting of nine log cabins called huts, facing a gravel company street. This is the main site for Valley Forge’s Living History program. Rangers and volunteers dress in 18th Century attire to show visitors glimpses of life at the Valley Forge encampment.
The Artillery Park Commemorates the cannon batteries led by General Knox with three rows of cannons and is a great place to get a long-distance view of the National Memorial Arch – erected to commemorate the arrival of General George Washington and his Continental Army.
Washington’s headquarters, also known as the Isaac Potts House, has the distinction of being the structure General Washington used as his headquarters during the encampment.
On December 14, 2018, the National Park Service opened a new 5,760 square-foot Visitor Center within the park. This new, temporary facility will enable construction to begin on a $12 million renovation to the current Visitor Center (built in 1976).
On Thursday, December 19, visitors can witness a reenactment of the March-In of the Continental Army.
This annual event is a full evening of festivities at Valley Forge. Take a candlelit walk to the Muhlenberg Brigade huts, encounter reenactors at a living Continental camp, meet George Washington, and enjoy eighteenth-century music. Warm-up in the Visitor Center with holiday drinks and treats, see historic chocolate making, and more.
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