What Happened at Valley Forge?
While Valley Forge was not a site of a great battle during the American Revolutionary War, it was the site of one of its pivotal moments. George Washington and the Continental Army spent a brutal winter there in 1777-78, and during this time, many soldiers died not from battle, but instead from cold, disease, and hunger. The men who lived through the winter came out in the spring as a renewed force, however, both eager and ready to fight the British against all odds.
After fighting the last battle of 1777, Washington decided to march his men to Valley Forge, where they would wait out the winter. He chose the site because it was easily defensible, and he could track the movements of the British. While tactically it was a strong choice, the location proved to be a harsh place to spend the winter. Soldiers built lodgings on the site, but the dwellings were constantly damp and cramped. This promoted the spread of diseases, such as typhus, pneumonia, and smallpox, which claimed the lives of many men.
The soldiers of the Continental Army had marched great distances and fought in several battles, and the clothes they wore reflected such trials. Many soldiers wore threadbare uniforms that left them cold and damp during the winter months. Blankets were scarce, and many men succumbed to the cold. As the winter wore on, food became dangerously scarce, and men were often forced to eat what they called fire bread. This was a biscuit made from water and flour, and it had very little flavor, if any at all. Since animals, too, were succumbing to cold and disease, meat was a rare treat.
A turning point for the men at Valley Forge came when Baron Friedrich von Steuben arrived from Europe. He had joined the cause of the Continental Army and, shortly after his arrival, took up the task of training the soldiers who had been hindered in battle because of their lack of training. Von Steuben drilled the men and showed them many tactics for success, which re-energized the downtrodden men who had spent the winter in constant suffering.
Today, the location is known as Valley Forge National Historical Park. The site commemorates the difficult winter that proved to be a turning point for the Continental Army. Several historical exhibits and recreated structures populate the area, and a chapel in honor of George Washington also stands on the site. It is a recreational area with bicycle and walking trails running throughout.
Cool, but how many people lived through the battle?
@TreeMan - I understand your questioning of using Valley Forge as a hide out ground, but a lot of the discussion with Washington's decision is after the fact and does not take into consideration a lot of factors.
First, the winter was particularly harsh and this came as a surprise to many. Not anywhere near as many people would have died had the winter not been as bad and this was something that was out of Washington's control.
Second, I cannot imagine that Washington would have wanted to stay in a major city like Philadelphia for the duration of the winter due to how many civilians were there and the fact that he would not want the British to attack his army in a city in the dead of winter. There was also a lot of British agents in cities like Philadelphia and they would have alerted the British army if Washington was staying in a major city for the winter.
Last and most important, Washington knew how important it was that he not be killed or captured. In reality if he had been killed or captured the Americans would have lost the war and Washington knew this and was the reason why he was always on the move. He knew the British would not attack Valley Forge and if they did they were in a great position to fend them off.
Although it seems like Washington could have made a mistake in picking Valley Forge he made the right decision at the time as he had little options. He knew men would die and it was unfortunate, but was unavoidable and necessary in order to start fresh in the Spring and continue to try and win the War.
Although most people do agree that Valley Forge was an appropriate place tactically for Washington to sit his troops for the winter, some people criticize the fact that Washington knew that many of his men would die and he had to sacrifice them for the war effort.
Although it is easy to say that sacrificing a few men in such a way to make sure they win the war is understandable, one of the roles of a military leader is to make sure that they keep their army stocked and suffer as few of casualties as possible.
Many people criticize Washington to in essence sending many men to their deaths by staying at Valley Forge. However, this can be forgiven due to the conditions of the war at the time and the necessity for a good place to stay clear of the British so they are not cornered.
But, I do have to wonder whether or not Washington could have found a better place to stay, such as a city like Philadelphia? Although I do sound like I am criticizing Washington a lot I will say in studying him he was conscious of his decisions in regards to lives lost and hated making those decisions, but I am just wondering if he had better options available at the time?
@Emilski - I totally agree with your statement. Most people do not realize that Washington's personal win/loss record in battle was three wins and what can be considered six losses. This is not at all a very good record in battle, but during the American Revolution the only thing that Washington could do was to make sure that his army could outlast the British. In order to make sure that they could survive the long haul Washington, being the only major general for the Continental Army after Benedict Arnold switched sides, had to retreat quite often and constantly be on the move, making smart decisions as to where to go so that his army would not be cornered.
Washington was so important to the Continental Army that had he not fought and made decisions the way he did during the Revolutionary War there is no way that the Americans could have won on the battlefields. Valley Forge is just one of many tactical decisions that Washington made in order to make sure the army lasted the entire duration of the war.
Although some people question Washington's choice in picking Valley Forge to wait out the winter he had little choice in the matter.
The British were a much stronger army and as an upstart nation its army's whole strategy was to try and outlast the British. In order to do so they had to consistently be on the move and not get into a situation where they could be cornered and slaughtered by the British.
Picking Valley Forge to wait out the winter was a logical choice for Washington as he was looking at the big picture and looking to the future of trying to win the war and not take anything for granted that could stride away from that ultimate goal.
@accordion- Maybe you have heard of it, but if not, if you enjoy the Revolution you might love The Dreamer. It's a web comic about a girl from modern times who has dreams about going back to the 1770s and living another girl's life. There's love, action, teen angst, and a lot of history. The writer is really great at details and being true to that side of it, as well as writing a good story.
For me, it's sort of like those young adult books about American history that I read as a kid, but a little more grown up.
I love Revolutionary War History. I read a lot of books about it when I was younger, and I have been meaning to go back to Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia for years- I went a few times as a kid and loved it. Valley Forge and other moments during that era were so important, I think, for the entire attitude of this country for so long. That banding together and loving one another out of need, whatever other differences, is something I hope we can get back one day.
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