Remembering a Valley Forge Christmas

December 21st, 2012

On December 19, 1777, 12,000 Continental soldiers under the command of General George Washington made their way to Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, to set up camp for the winter. Just months after their October defeat at the Battle of Germantown, in which the British secured their control over Philadelphia, Washington’s men were demoralized, poorly-fed, weary, and ill-equipped for the harsh winter. Many of the soldiers did not have shoes to wear, causing them to leave bloody footprints in the snow. As Washington would write the following February, the situation “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.”

Roughly 2,500 of Washington’s soldiers died that winter at Valley Forge from the elements and the diseases—typhoid, dysentary, pneumonia—the rough conditions brought forth. These truly were, as Thomas Paine had written just a year before, “the times that try men’s souls.” The soldier, Paine continued, “that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. […] What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value.”

Throughout the Army’s encampment at Valley Forge, Washington was committed to the welfare of his common soldiers, writing numerous letters on their behalf and using the most of his relationships to garner the supplies his Army needed to make it through the winter. As we now prepare to celebrate the holiday season in warmth and with family, it is worth taking a moment to read one of Washington’s letters about the conditions endured by those fighting for America’s independence:

To Governor George Clinton
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, will not be sufficient to support the army more than a month longer, if so long. Very little has 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.

Note: We at What So Proudly We Hail will be celebrating the holidays with family; we look forward to resuming our blogging duties in the new year.

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