On December 19, 1777, the American Continental Army commanded by General George Washington began its winter encampment at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. Valley Forge was located 18 miles (29 kilometers) northwest of Philadelphia. The Continental Army spent the winter of 1777–1778 there during the American Revolutionary War. Starvation, disease, malnutrition, and exposure killed more than 2,500 American soldiers by the end of February 1778.
George Washington had sought quarters for his men with winter almost setting in, and with greatly diminishing prospects for campaigning. Washington and his troops had fought in early December what was the last major engagement of 1777 at the Battle of White Marsh (or Edge Hill). He devised to pull his troops from their present encampment in the White Marsh area (now Fort Washington State Park) and move to a more secure location for the coming winter.
Several locations were considered for the army’s winter quarters, but Washington selected Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, which was named for an iron forge on Valley Creek in Whitemarsh, Pennsylvania. It was not the best place to set up winter camp for the Continental Army, as it was unable to defend southern Pennsylvania at the time. This location also left the vulnerable under-supplied army in striking distance of the British, who were well provisioned and secured in Philadelphia. However, the area was close enough to the British to keep their raiding and foraging parties out of the interior of Pennsylvania, yet far enough away to halt the threat of British surprise attacks.
The densely forested plateau of Mount Joy and the adjoining two-mile-long (3 km) plateau of Mount Misery made the area easily defensible, combined with the Schuylkill River to the north. It also provided abundant forests of timber that were used to construct thousands of log huts. Seventy-eight of the huts in the camp housed soldiers, but more than 2,500 of those soldiers died.
On December 19, 1777, Washington’s poorly fed, ill-equipped army staggered into Valley Forge, weary from long marches. Winds blew as the 12,000 Continentals prepared for winter’s fury. Only about one in four of them had shoes, and many of their feet had left bloody footprints from the marching. Grounds were selected for brigade encampments, and defense lines were planned and begun.
The first properly constructed hut appeared in three days. One hut required 80 logs, and timber had to be collected from miles away. A hut could go up in one week with the use of only one axe. These huts provided sufficient protection from the moderately cold and wet conditions of a typical Pennsylvania winter. By the beginning of February, construction was completed on 2,000 huts. They provided shelter, but did little to offset the critical shortages that continually plagued the army.
Washington ordered that two windows should be cut into each hut during the springtime, as the climate grew considerably warmer. Mud was also chipped between the logs to improve ventilation.
The soldiers received inadequate supplies of meat and bread, some getting their only nourishment from “firecake,” a tasteless mixture of flour and water. Occasionally, there would be “pepper pot soup,” a black pepper-flavored tripe broth. So severe were conditions at times that Washington despaired “that unless some great and capital change suddenly takes place… this Army must inevitably… starve, dissolve, or disperse, in order to obtain subsistence in the best manner they can.”
Snow was limited and small in amounts. The layer of snow was often too thin to be collected and melted into drinking water. Alternating freezing and melting of snow and ice made it impossible to keep dry and caused disease to fester.
Animals fared no better. General Henry Knox, Washington’s Chief of Artillery, wrote that hundreds of horses either starved to death or died of exhaustion. By the end of the winter, about 700 horses had died.
Washington appointed Nathanael Greene as Quartermaster General to take charge of the supplies, his ablest and most trusted lieutenant. In so doing, Washington signaled that the supply situation was a more serious threat to his army’s survival than was Howe’s army. Greene found caches of food and clothing and hauled them there for the troops and horses.
Clothing, too, was wholly inadequate. Many soldiers who were wounded from previous battles died from exposure. Long marches had destroyed shoes. Blankets were scarce. Tattered garments were seldom replaced. At one point, these shortages caused nearly 4,000 men to be listed as unfit for duty.
The army was undernourished and poorly clothed, living in crowded, damp quarters, and ravaged by sickness and disease. Typhoid, typhus, smallpox, dysentery, and pneumonia were among the numerous diseases that thrived in the camp during that winter. These diseases contributed to the death of 2,500 soldiers by the end of the winter, along with malnutrition and exposure to the freezing temperatures and snow.
Gouverneur Morris of New York later stated that the Continentals were a “skeleton of an army…in a naked, starving condition, out of health, out of spirits.”
Soldiers deserted in “astonishing great numbers” as hardships at camp overcame their motivation and dedication to fight. General James Mitchell Varnum warned that the desperate lack of supplies would “force the army to mutiny.”
Women who were relatives or wives of enlisted men alleviated some of the suffering by providing valuable services that the army desperately needed, such as laundry and nursing. A group of people called Regimental Camp Followers also helped increase the morale of the soldiers and provided necessary support to the men.
Washington repeatedly petitioned for relief and supplies, but the Continental Congress was unable to provide it; they had little to no money, and they had no idea how horrendous the situation was, so the soldiers continued to suffer. Finally, on January 24, 1778, five Congressmen came to Valley Forge to examine the conditions of the Continental Army after many petitions. Washington greeted them imperatively, “Something must be done. Important alterations must be made.” Washington also informed them that he wanted Congress to take control of the army supply system, pay for the supplies, and replenish them when necessities were scarce.
By the end of February, there were enough supplies flowing throughout camp after Congress finally realized the importance, and gave full support to monetarily funding the supply lines of the army, along with reorganizing the commissionary department, which controlled the gathering of the supplies for the army.
Increasing military efficiency, morale, and discipline were as vital to the army’s well-being as its supply of food and arms. The army had been handicapped in battle because unit training was administered from a variety of field manuals, making coordinated battle movements awkward and difficult. The soldiers were trained, but not uniformly. The task of developing and carrying out an effective training program fell to Baron Friedrich von Steuben, a skilled Prussian drill master who had recently arrived from Europe. He tirelessly drilled the soldiers, improving their battle and formation techniques greatly; more importantly, he gave them their morale back, which had been lost in the hopeless winter.
George Washington’s wife Martha arrived at the camp on February 10, 1778. She visited soldiers in the huts and in the camp hospital. She also organized a sewing circle of women who knitted, crafted, and patched socks, shirts, and trousers.
Camp followers at Valley Forge consisted of the wives, children, mothers, and sisters of the soldiers. These camp followers often served as laundresses, cleaning and mending the uniforms of the soldiers. Washington understood that a soldier would die quickly from disease if his uniform was dirty and threadbare. These women and children also provided the emotional support to the army, encouraging them to remain at camp and continue on training and soldiering during the winter months. Women gained half the rations of soldiers, half the wages of a soldier, and a half pension after the war—if they had done enough work. Children would receive quarter rations if enough work was done, although there is no documented evidence of this measure.
Women were relegated to the back of the column when marching and were forbidden to ride on wagons. Camp followers faced the issues of disease along with the soldiers. Women played an important role in scouting and finding supplies and food, and some lost their lives on the battlefield trying to obtain goods from wounded or dead soldiers. At Valley Forge, it is estimated that women averaged one to every 44 men, adding up to around 500 women, although there are no reliable figures for this number.
The American public and Congress began to criticize Washington for his inability to advance the war effort, because of the terrible conditions of the army during the winter of 1777. Washington himself was aware of an increasing impatience and criticism of his leadership. A few soldiers wanted to replace him with General Horatio Gates, who had won a decisive victory in the Battles of Saratoga. Some members of the Continental Congress complained that Washington had left the surrounding countryside unprotected by moving into the isolated area of Valley Forge. Washington replied furiously:
I can assure those Gentlemen that it is a much easier and less distressing thing to draw remonstrances in a comfortable room by a good fire side than to occupy a cold bleak hill and sleep under frost and Snow without Clothes or Blankets; however, although they seem to have little feeling for the naked, and distressed Soldier, I feel superabundantly for them, and from my Soul pity those miseries, [which], it is neither in my power to relieve or prevent.
Washington could not have launched any campaigns during the hardship at Valley Forge, yet anti-Washington movements still arose, led by Brigadier General Thomas Conway. These soldiers worked “behind the curtains” to degrade Washington’s reputation in hopes that this would enable Horatio Gates to replace him as the commander of the Continental Army. This scheme is known today as the Conway Cabal.
Washington was aware of them, and addressed them by saying:
Whenever the public gets dissatisfied with my service… I shall quit the helm… and retire to a private life.
This silenced his main critics and easily renewed his authority as the Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army; his authority was never critically challenged for the rest of the decade.
After the horrendous winter, the Continental Army found out that France was going to aid their cause by sending military and monetary donations to the army. France had signed an alliance pact on February 6, 1778, with the 13 colonies, after General Horatio Gates’s army had won the decisive Battles of Saratoga. A celebration of French alliance was organized on May 6, 1778, at Valley Forge. The army repeatedly shouted, “Long live France! Long live the friendly powers! Long live the American States!” Thousands of soldiers performed large drill formations and fired salutes from muskets and cannons. The formations were observed by George Washington and other military leaders. At the conclusion of the celebration, each soldier was to be rewarded one gill of rum.
Soon, word of the British departure from Philadelphia brought a frenzied activity to the ranks of the Continental Army. The army marched away from Valley Forge on June 19, 1778, exactly six months after they had arrived, and retook Philadelphia. They later charged in pursuit of the British, who were moving toward New York City.
The Battle of Monmouth occurred on June 28, 1778, and resulted in an indecisive victory, though Congress and many newspapers treated it as an American victory, since the British retreated and left the battlefield first. This result demonstrated that the colonists were now able to withstand a strong British army after the intense training at Valley Forge under von Steuben, boosting morale and improving Washington’s reputation as the Commander in Chief.
The winter at Valley Forge imbued into soldiers a strong will to persevere, endure, and triumph over obstacles and bring independence to the United States. Washington always acknowledged that the perseverance gained by the soldiers at Valley Forge was what made the Continental Army bind together even stronger and eventually win the war. At the same time, however, there were significant numbers of resignations among the officers. It was here, amid the struggles and trials, that Washington developed strong bonds of friendship with the much younger Lafayette.
Washington had made a professional, disciplined, unified, and efficient army out of the Continental troops, with heavy aid from Baron (Freiherr) Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben . Von Steuben himself claimed that his “enterprise succeeded better than he had expected.” With their French allies, the Americans could now proceed into the battlefield with hopes of winning the war, which raged on for many years.
On June 19, 1878, author and orator Henry Armitt Brown delivered a speech to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the departure of General George Washington’s troops from the encampment at Valley Forge. His oration recalled the hardships suffered during the winter of 1777–78, while also celebrating the eventual victory of the Continental Army:
And here, in this place of sacrifice, in this vale of humiliation, in this valley of the Shadow of Death out of which the Life of America rose, regenerate and free, let us believe with an abiding faith that to them Union will seem as dear, and Liberty as sweet, and Progress as glorious as they were to our fathers, and are to you and me, and that the institutions which have made us happy, preserved by the virtue of our children, shall bless the remotest generations of the time to come.
Brown’s oration was published by J.B. Lippincott & Co. of Philadelphia in 1879, serving as a literary marker of Valley Forge’s lasting impact upon American history and identity.
The site of the encampment became a Pennsylvania state park in 1893 and, on July 4, 1976, it became Valley Forge National Historical Park. The modern park features historical and recreated buildings and structures, memorials, and a visitor center which shows a short film and has several exhibits. Washington Memorial Chapel was built in 1904 as a memorial to Washington and his army. An adjoining carillon of 58 bells represents all U.S. states and territories. It resides in a tower underwritten by the Daughters of the American Revolution. Other park amenities include walking and bicycle trails.
The United States has issued several stamps commemorating George Washington’s winter encampment at Valley Forge starting on May 26, 1928, with a 2-cent stamp initially released in Washington, D.C. and six other cities (Scott #645). The single red stamp marking the 150th anniversary of that winter depicts Washington kneeling in prayer at Valley Forge, an image repeated in 1977 for a Christmas stamp (Scott #1729).
In the 1970’s, the United States Postal Service issued 113 commemorative stamps over a six-year period in honor of the bicentennial of the nation, beginning with the American Revolution Bicentennial Commission Emblem stamp (Scott #1432). As a group, the Bicentennial Series chronicles one of our country’s most important chapters, and remembers the events and patriots who made the U.S. a world model for liberty.
The Bicentennial theme was repeated on the 1977 Traditional Christmas stamp (Scott #1729). This was released on October 21, 1977, at Valley Forge to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Continental Army’s brutal winter, during which Washington wrote, “We have this day no less than 2898 men now in Camp unfit for duty because they are bare foot or otherwise naked. Unless some great and capital change suddenly takes place, this Army must inevitably be reduced to one or other of three things. Starve, dissolve, or dispense.” The 13-cent stamp, designed by Steven Dohanos, was based upon the painting by J.C. Leyendecker (1874-1951).
On May 29, 1976, the Postal Service issued four souvenir sheets to commemorate INTERPHIL ‘76 (Seventh International Philatelic Exhibition) in Philadelphia (Scott #1686-1689). Each sheet contained five individually perforated stamps, which were valid for postage. Since Four famous Revolutionary War paintings were used for the designs. The paintings include “Surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown” by John Trumbull (13 cents domestic first class rate for the first ounce, Scott #1686), “Declaration of Independence” by John Trumbull (18 cents surface letter rate for the first ounce to countries other than Canada and Mexico, Scott #1687), “Washington Crossing the Delaware” by Emmanuel Leutze and Eastman Johnson (24 cents domestic first class rate for a letter over one ounce and up to two ounces, Scott #1688), and “Washington Reviewing Army at Valley Forge” by William T. Trego (31 cents airmail letter rate for the first half-ounce, Scott #1689). The stamps were designed by Vincent E. Hoffman. The Washington Crossing the Delaware souvenir sheet was featured in ASAD’s marathon country profile for the United States.
The painting depicted on Scott #1689 is William T. Trego’s “The March to Valley Forge, December 16, 1777,” also known by the alternate title, “Washington Reviewing His Troops at Valley Forge,” as inscribed on the souvenir sheet. In this work, Trego was inspired by a passage from Washington Irving’s Life of George Washington: “Sad and dreary was the march to Valley Forge . . .” and this passage was printed in the catalogue for the 1883 exhibition. The painting became the focus of a famous controversy when Trego sued the Pennsylvania Academy after receiving only the third prize in the annual Temple competition, despite the judges’ decision that his painting was the best of those entered. Though Trego ultimately lost the case in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 1886, the two years of scandal provided the young artist with excellent publicity for his work. It is sometimes suggested that the young soldier saluting Washington is a portrait of the artist himself, but if Trego intended this, the resemblance is not strong.
To assure a balanced composition on such a large canvas (40 x 72 inches) populated with so many figures, Trego utilized various geometrical schemes, including the classical device of the golden section to position key individuals and vignettes for best effect. The horse in the exact center is looking directly at us, a device intended to draw us into the scene. The foreground grouping, which includes Washington and the two figures saluting him on either side, are framed within a space defined by two superimposed golden rectangles measured in from each end of the painting. A pyramid formed by drawing lines from the center top point down to each bottom corner further serves to define the space with Washington and the young soldier saluting him, and it determines the position of a gun which is held exactly parallel to that line. The poignant group of three men at the head of the line of march are in their own space just outside the space defined for the rest of the foreground figures.
The painting is currently on loan from the Museum of the American Revolution to Valley Forge National Historical Park. The stamps were printed by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing using lithography with a total quantity of 1,990,000 souvenir sheets, perforated 11.