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Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The Valley Forge Winter, December 19, 1777

Today in 1777, General George Washington and his Continental Army arrived at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. Located 18 miles from Philadelphia, Valley Forge would serve as the winter encampment for American forces during the hard winter of 1777-78. The army would see its darkest days there, as well as the first glimmer of hope that victory was possible.

The Continental Army was battered and bruised after a summer full of defeat. British forces had come ashore at the northern end of Chesapeake Bay in August with the intention of taking Philadelphia, the rebellion's capital. Washington set up a defense of the city, but the tactics of British General Sir William Howe won the day. In the end, the Continental Army lost battles at Brandywine and Germantown; the British gained Philadelphia.

With cold weather drawing near, Washington began to consider locations for winter encampment. Valley Forge was selected for its proximity to Philadelphia and for its topography---Mount Joy and Mount Misery offered high ground while the Schuylkill River to the north marked a clear line of defense. On December 19, 12,000 Continentals arrived at their winter home and began to prepare for the weather ahead.

Conditions were terrible. Food of all types was scarce. Most meals consisted of what was called "firecake", a mixture of flour and water that was then cooked over an open fire. It was essentially tasteless. The men had worn the same clothes for most of the year and had marched the soles off their boots. Blankets were worth their weight in gold. The shelters in which the soldiers slept were damp and crowded, which led to outbreaks of pneumonia, dysentery and typhus. At any one time, nearly twenty percent of the force was unfit for duty. It is estimated that nearly 2,000 men died before spring came. The Continental Army, far from a world-class force under the best of circumstances, was at its breaking point.

Washington was not ignorant of the needs of his men. He petitioned Congress for more supplies, but the money simply wasn't available. Washington and his officers were facing the possibility that their army would simply dissolve as hungry soldiers abandoned the effort.

Help came in February, 1778 with the arrival of Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, a former officer in the Prussian Army. Carrying a letter of introduction from Benjamin Franklin, von Steuben was assigned to the position of Acting Inspector General. He was tasked with turning the Continental Army into an effective fighting force. This was no small feat. While most of the Continentals had received some sort of training, it was by no means consistent. Local commanders set the agenda for training based on differing manuals. When the army was joined in one location, it was badly hobbled by inconsistent education and drill.

von Steuben, who had been a member of Frederick the Great's General Staff, attacked the challenge before him with military efficiency. He ran drills, then drills, then more drills. Training was intensive and, more importantly, consistent. von Steuben's methods could be harsh, but he was an excellent instructor. The American officers were amazed whenever he would work with platoons or even smaller groups of soldiers in order to stress a point or teach a lesson. This was rare; most of the Continental officers relied on the British tradition of aloofness towards and distance from the enlisted men, relying on the junior officers and senior enlisted men to communicate with them directly. As winter turned to early spring, the Continental Army at Valley Forge became an effective fighting force.

On May 6, 1778, with warm weather upon them, the Continental Army put on a parade to celebrate the recent French alliance with the rebellious colonies. It was a rebirth of sorts, for the winter had taken the core of America's chance for independence and tested it as never before. Farmers, laborers, lawyers, bankers and bakers became a unified army of professional soldiers. The war would continue for five more years and the Continentals would taste defeat again. But at least now they could stand toe-to-toe with the redcoats and at least have a chance of victory. In June, with word of the British departure from Philadelphia, the Continental Army marched out of Valley Forge and into history.

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