Those of us in the Northeast have experienced back-to-back Nor’easters this last week. Each of us who’ve lived through this weather event have stories to tell, and while mine is a rather small contribution, my mind has been focused on the winter of 1777-78 to a place just a few miles up the road.
This is the 240th anniversary of George Washington’s winter encampment at Valley Forge, and I want to give you a two-part look into what those Patriots endured. . .
Washington’s exhausted troops arrived at Valley Forge on December 19, 1777 in bitter cold and snow. A few days later, the commander-in-chief wrote to President of Congress Henry Laurens, “I am now convinced beyond a doubt that unless some great and capital change suddenly takes place in that line, this Army must inevitably be reduced to one or other of these three things. Starve, dissolve or disperse.”
The general immediately ordered the men to begin constructing small cabins for themselves. The work generally went slowly, though. The men had inadequate tools with which to work, and trees had to be cut down and honed for the shelters.
As the building of crude huts continued for several weeks, General Washington spent the nights sleeping in his own leaky tent so he could be closer to the men—not the healthiest of environments, to be sure. Under those conditions he could fall victim to pneumonia or one of the diseases spreading through the encampment.
Tools were in short supply, and when it was time for a man to stand guard duty, his fellow cabin mates had to scrounge to come up with one complete outfit for him to wear. Some men went completely naked. Amputations of frozen, blackened limbs was common—without the aid of anesthesia.
Food was also scarce, owing to a poor road system that conspired with the weather to make it difficult for supply wagons to get to Valley Forge. Then there was the problem of money. While the British paid area merchants in gold, the patriots had nearly worthless paper currency to offer.
Disease and lack of clothing made one out of every four men unfit for duty. Many soldiers wrapped pieces of blankets around their feet in a futile attempt at protection and warmth. The blood of their feet stained the snow at Valley Forge.
While Washington inspired his men, the reverse also was true; he gained strength from observing them as well. Their patience and courage in the midst of incredible suffering moved him to write, “Naked and starving as they are we cannot enough admire the incomparable patience and fidelity of the soldiery.”
(Taken from Great Stories in American History, Rebecca Price Janney, 1998)