Valley Forge: The winter of 1778



During the winter's encampment in Valley Forge in 1778, Washington sedulously applied himself to the formation of a new system for the army. At his earnest solicitation Congress appointed a committee of five, called the Committee of Arrangement, to repair to the camp and assist him in the task. Before their arrival he had collected the written opinions and suggestions of his officers on the subject, and from these, and his own observations and experience, had prepared a document exhibiting the actual state of the army, the defects of previous systems, and the alterations and reforms that were necessary. The committee remained three months with him in camp, and then made a report to Congress founded on his statement. The reforms therein recommended were generally adopted. On one point, however, there was much debate. Washington had urged that the pay of the officers was insufficient for their decent subsistence, especially during the actual depreciation of the currency, and that many resignations were the consequence. He recommended not only that their pay should be increased, but that there should be a provision made for their future support, by half-pay and a pensionary establishment, so as to secure them from being absolutely impoverished in the service of their country.

This last recommendation had to encounter a great jealousy of the army on the part of Congress, and all that Washington could effect by strenuous and unremitted exertions was a kind of compromise, according to which officers were to receive half-pay for seven years after the war, and non-commissioned officers and privates eighty dollars each.

The reforms adopted were slow in going into operation. In the mean time, the distresses of the army continued to increase. The surrounding country for a great distance was exhausted, and had the appearance of having been pillaged. In some places where the inhabitants had provisions and cattle they denied it, intending to take them to Philadelphia, where they could obtain greater prices. The undisturbed communication with the city had corrupted the minds of the people in its vicinage. "This State is sick even unto death," said Gouverneur Morris.

The parties sent out to forage too often returned empty-handed. "For some days past there has been little less than a famine in the camp," writes Washington, on one occasion. "A part of the army has been a week without any kind of flesh, and the rest three or four days. Naked and starving as they are, we cannot enough admire the incomparable patience and fidelity of the soldiery, that thy have not been, ere this, excited by their suffering to a general mutiny and desertion."

The committee, in their report, declared that the want of straw had cost the lives of many of the troops. "Unprovided with this, or materials to raise them from the cold and wet earth, sickness and mortality have spread through their quarters in an astonishing degree. Nothing can equal their sufferings, except the patience and fortitude with which the faithful part of the army endure them." A British historian cites as a proof of the great ascendency of Washington over his "raw and undisciplined troops," that so many remained with him throughout the winter in this wretched situation and still more wretched plight, almost naked, often on short allowance, with great sickness and mortality, and a scarcity of medicines, their horses perishing by hundreds from hunger and the severity of the season.

He gives a striking picture of the maorence and luxury which reigned at the same time in the British army in Philadelphia. It is true, the investment of the city by the Americans rendered provisions dear and fuel scanty; but the consequent privations were felt by the inhabitants, not by their invaders. The latter revelled as if in a conquered place. Private houses were occupied without rendering compensation; the officers were quartered on the principal inhabitants, many of whom were of the Society of "Friends;" some even transgressed so far against propriety as to introduce their mistresses into the quarters thus oppressively obtained. The quiet habits of the city were outraged by the dissolute habits of a camp. Gaming prevailed to a shameless degree. A foreign officer kept a faro-bank, at which he made a fortune and some of the young officers ruined themselves.

"During the whole of this long winter of riot and dissipation," continues the same writer, "Washington was suffered to remain undisturbed at Valley Forge, with an army not exceeding five thousand effective men, and his cannon frozen up and immovable. A nocturnal attack might have forced him to a disadvantageous action or compelled him to a disastrous retreat, leaving behind him his sick, cannon, ammunition, and heavy baggage. It might have opened the way for supplies to the city, and shaken off the lethargy of the British army. In a word," adds he, "had General Howe led on his troops to action, victory was in his power and conquest in his train."

Without assenting to the probability of such a result, it is certain that the army for a part of the winter while it held Philadelphia in siege was in as perilous a situation as that which kept a bold front before Boston without ammunition to serve its cannon.

On one occasion there was a flurry at the most advanced post, where Captain Henry Lee (Light-Horse Harry) with a few of his troops was stationed. He made himself formidable to the enemy by harassing their foraging-parties. An attempt was made to surprise him. A party of about two hundred dragoons, taking a circuitous route in the night, came upon him by daybreak. He had but a few men with him at the time, and took post in a large store-house. His scanty force did not allow a soldier for each window. The dragoons attempted to force their way into the house. There was a warm contest. The dragoons were bravely repulsed, and sheered off, leaving two killed and four wounded. "So well directed was the opposition," writes Lee to Washington, "that we drove them from the stables, and saved every horse. We have got the arms, some cloaks, etc., of their wounded. The enterprise was certainly daring, though the issue of it very ignominious. I had not a soldier for each. Window."..

In the month of February, Mrs. Washington rejoined the general at Valley Forge, and took up her residence at head-quarters. The arrangements consequent to her arrival bespeak the simplicity of style in this rude encampment. "The general's apartment is very small," writes she to a friend; "he has a log cabin built to dine in, which has made our quarters much more tolerable than they were at first."

Lady Stirling, Mrs. Knox, the wife of the general, and the wives of other of the officers were also in the camp. The reforms in the commissariat had begun to operate. Provisions arrived in considerable quantities; supplies on their way to the Philadelphia market to load the British tables were intercepted and diverted into the hungry camp of the patriots; magazines were formed in Valley Forge; the threatened famine was averted; "grim-visaged War" gradually relaxed his features, and affairs in the encampment began to assume a more cheering aspect..





Return to The Great Republic by the Master Historians (Vol 2)