Friday, June 11, 2010

Valley Forge, PA

While visiting with Monte's family in Pennsylvania we took a day trip to Valley Forge National Park. If you will remember from an earlier blog post, I mentioned that during the mid 1750's George Washington commanded British troops during the French and Indian War. By 1775 he had become a “turncoat” (in this instance - better known as a Patriot) and was now the Commander In Chief of the Continental Army.

Monte and I, like most of us, had bought into the story of Valley Forge in the winter of 1777-78 as being occupied by an anonymous group of soldiers struggling against winter’s fury and clothed in nothing but rags. The reason many Americans picture Valley Forge as the pinnacle of misery is that this early and romanticized version of the encampment story became an important parable to teach us about American perseverance.

In 1777 the British had captured and occupied Philadelphia the patriot capital. To oppose them, General George Washington marched his 12,000-man army from New Jersey and by mid-December he had decided to encamp at Valley Forge where he could keep a close eye on the British.

Eyewitness accounts speak of a skilled and capable force in charge of its own destiny. Rather than wait for deliverance, the army located supplies, built log cabins to stay in, constructed makeshift clothing and gear, and cooked subsistence meals of their own concoction. Provisions, though never abundant in the early months of the encampment, were available.

Shortages of clothing did cause severe hardship for a number of men, but many soldiers had a full uniform, and the well-equipped units patrolled, foraged, and defended the camp. The sound that would have reached your ears on approaching the camp was not that of a forlorn howling wind, but rather that of hammers, axes, saws, and shovels at work.

Under the direction of military engineers, in one month the men built a city of 2,000-odd huts laid out in parallel lines along planned military avenues. The troops also constructed miles of trenches, five earthen forts (redoubts), and a state-of-the-art bridge over the Schuylkill River.

Disease, not cold or starvation was the true scourge of the camp. Army records show that two-thirds of the nearly 2,000 men who perished at Valley Forge died during the warmer months of March, April, and May, when supplies were more abundant. The most common killers were influenza, typhus, typhoid, and dysentery. Dedicated surgeons, capable nurses, a smallpox inoculation program, and camp sanitation regulations limited the death tolls.

Perhaps, the most important outcome of the encampment was the army’s maturation into a more professional force. The Continental Army was primed and ready to move on to the next level just as a charismatic former Prussian army officer, Baron Friedrich Wilhelm Augustus von Steuben, arrived in camp in February 1778.

Von Steuben’s hands-on training program helped the army become a more proficient marching machine. The Baron inspired a “relish for the trade of soldiering” that gave the troops a new sense of purpose and helped sustain them through many trials as they stuck to the task of securing independence.

On May 6, 1778, the army joyously celebrated France’s alliance with and formal recognition of the United States as a sovereign power. The expected arrival of the French greatly altered British war plans and triggered their evacuation of Philadelphia in June.

Washington rapidly set troops in motion to bring on a general engagement with the enemy. On June 28, at the Battle of Monmouth, N.J., Washington’s men demonstrated their improved battle prowess when they forced the British from the field.

By summer Washington could claim that the war effort was going well. Valley Forge was not the darkest hour of the Revolutionary War; it is a place where an already accomplished group of professionals stood their ground, honed their craft, and thwarted one of the major British offensives of the war. A long, hard 5 years of fighting lay ahead before the British would admit defeat and sign The Treaty of Paris.


Lois said...

Interesting stuff Shelley. I'm really enjoying your pictures too.

~Cheryl said...

How very interesting! I do love the stone headquarters, but those bunks! ooofta