George Washington: his winter at Valley Forge

The vigilant Washington immediately sent General Greene, with his division, by way of Burlington, to join some American troops in New Jersey and give battle to the enemy. Greene was accompanied by Lafayette, and expected to be reinforced by troops from the Hudson River. He was disappointed, while Cornwallis was joined by five British battalions from New York. General Greene was compelled to abandon the plan of fighting the invaders, and the commander of Fort Mercer (Colonel Greene), seeing no hope of help, evacuated the works, leaving his artillery as trophies for the enemy. Cornwallis levelled the ramparts of Fort Mercer and returned to Philadelphia, and the American troops in New Jersey crossed the Delaware and joined Washington at Whitemarsh.

A few of the American vessels escaped up the river, in the night, but seventeen of them were abandoned and burned by their crews. The river obstructions and the shore defences were scattered to the waves and winds; and on the 11th of December, Washington broke up his encampment at Whitemarsh and proceeded with his whole force to Valley Forge, about twenty miles northward of Philadelphia. He had been joined by troops from the north; and only a few days before, he had repulsed a British force, fourteen thousand strong, who came out on an intensely cold night (December 4, 1777) to surprise him. There was a sharp fight at Edge Hill; and after threatening the American camp at various points, the British withdrew and returned to Philadelphia. Washington's whole army did not number more than eleven thousand men, of whom only about seven thousand were fit for field duty. He chose Valley Forge as a place for a winter encampment, because it was further from the danger of sudden attacks from the enemy, and where he might more easily protect the Congress at York and his stores at Reading.

Members of Congress and the Pennsylvania Legislature, moved by impulse more than by judgment, had been clamorous for an immediate attack upon the British in Philadelphia, who had strongly fortified every important way of approach to that city. But Washington, sustained by a large majority of his general officers, disregarded all querulous fault-finding. His troops were in great distress, because of a lack of shoes and clothing, when they evacuated Whitemarsh. Many of them made the fatiguing journey to Valley Forge over hard frozen ground and through snow, barefooted, leaving blood spots on the white carpet trodden by their lacerated feet. Upon the slopes of a narrow valley on the borders of the winding Susquehanna, they were encamped with no shelter but rude log-huts, during a very severe winter. There the little army shivered with cold and almost starved with hunger, while the British army were indulging in comforts and luxuries in a large city. Yet the patriotism of that republican army was not cooled, nor their aspirations for liberty starved; nor did the commander-in-chief suffer a doubt of success to cloud his spirits, for he knew the cause to be a righteous one, and believed that God would give final victory to the oppressed. In all the world's history, we have no record of purer devotion, holier sincerity or more pious self-sacrifice, than was exhibited in the camp of Washington during the winter of 1777 and 1778. At the same time the British army were as much weakened by indulgence as were the republican troops by privations. Profligacy begat disease, crime, and insubordination. The evil effects of these led Dr. Franklin to say: "Howe did not take Philadelphia-Philadelphia took Howe."

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