Tredyffrin Easttown Historical Society
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Source: January 1980 Volume 18 Number 1, Pages 21–29

Valley Forge in Perspective

Jacqueline Thiabut [*]

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When Valley Forge State Park became a federal park in 1977, it was decided to launch an all-out effort to compile everything that could be found out about the history of the area, focusing particularly on the encampment of 1777-1778.

The Park Service inaugurated what might be called a three-pronged research attack. It consisted of, first, an archaeological project, which took place in the summer of 1978; second, an historical- architectural survey and analysis of the buildings within the Park; and third (my prong), an all-out campaign to gather together at Valley Forge virtually all extant information concerning the encampment.

To do this, we employed five Park Service historians to travel around the country and gather photocopies and microfilm copies of every document, no matter how insignificant, that bore at all on the history of the encampment and the administration of the Continental Army during the Valley Forge winter. We came up with about 10,000 separate documentary pieces.

The research project netted not only a considerable number of documents, but also an enormous quantity of questions. It seemed as if everywhere we turned we came up with a new unsolved riddle.

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We started out with one central question: How did the Valley-Forge encampment fit into the political, social, and military context of the Revolution?

There was one problem we identified right off, and that is that people have come to think of Valley Forge as essentially an isolated incident in the midst of the Revolution; as sort of a magnificent aberration where the Continental Army came, suffered (many of them died), and was transfigured into the fighting force which nipped successfully at the heels of Sir Henry Clinton at the Battle of Monmouth in June 1778. It was obvious to us right away that we were not dealing with an isolated incident, but one that was very much a part of the context of the Revolutionary period.

A place that has been written about as much as Valley Forge has, and has achieved such an overwhelming prominence in the public mind, takes on a life of its own that is independent from the strict historical record. In short, it ascends to the level of the mythical. For most people, that myth becomes the truth. We don't necessarily believe that; we believe history becomes myth through the evaporation of historical detail. What we have at the Valley Forge encampment is a sort of winnowing down to the basic elements, so that when one thinks of Valley Forge one thinks of privation and sacrifice and patriotism. We believe there is much more to that story — a great deal more that is of interest not only to the historian, but to the public at large.

One of the objects of this historical research, we determined quite early on, was to put the flesh back onto the bare bones of historical reality; to, in essence, throw the dessicated Chinese paper flower back into the historical mainstream so that it can assume once again a semblance of its original form. We were trying to flesh out the history of Valley Forge, and to do so by setting it against the background of the political and social events of the time. It was something of a tall order!

But we did have this 10,000 document collection. And as we began to look at the Valley Forge encampment in the light of this rather magnificent tool, which the federal government had helped us to forge, we began to devise more detailed questions that would help us to re-analyze what actually happened at Valley Forge.

We wanted to know, for example, why Valley Forge was selected as the encampment site for the Continental Army. We wanted to know why such awesome disarray developed in the support services of the Continental Army, and dictated the extraordinary privation with which everyone is familiar. We wanted to know how Washington managed to keep the army together; Washington was not only under rather incredible political stress, but also faced a growing disenchantment among the soldiers and officers in the field.

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And, finally, we asked the question: What was the ultimate significance of Valley Forge in the Revolution, and how did it differ from the other winter cantonments of the succeeding years of the war?

Why was the Valley Forge site selected? It appears that it was selected as the cantonment site for the Continental Army through a confluence of rather complex political and military exigencies.

Congress, for example, demanded that the army keep in the field, actually campaigning through and into the winter, such as it had done the previous December when Washington had fashioned his magnificent stroke against the British at Trenton. The Pennsylvania Assembly and the Supreme Executive Council, the executive branch of the State government, on the other hand, wanted the Continental Army to guard as much of the state as possible from British depradations, since the British Army, at this time, was occupying Philadelphia. Washington was, still quite late in the season, entertaining some ides of duplicating his Trenton exploit of the year before. When one thinks of the ragged soldiers who came into Valley Forge in December of 1777, it is a little difficult to contemplate that the high command was actually considering a military stroke against the British. But that was very much the case, and Washington considered this plan into January.

What developed was something of a compromise. Washington knew that the army could not "keep the field", as he put it, and could not stay on active campaign as Congress wanted. Congress was not at all aware, despite the occasional presence of members of the Congress in the camp, of the extraordinarily bad condition of the army in December 1777, or of the fact that the supply trains were breaking down, or that new uniforms were not arriving to clothe the now half-naked soldiers. So Washington couldn!t keep the field as he had originally hoped, and the Congress fervently hoped, would be the case. He could, however, manage to guard a portion of the state of Pennsylvania.

In this, he had to brook the objections of a number of his general officers. In early December, the New England generals, and even some of the Pennsylvania generals,wanted the army to retire to barracks in towns like Reading, Lancaster and York. However, this would not at all answer the problem of how to keep the British from running rampant over southeastern Pennsylvania, and so Washington rejected the proposal of an inland cantonment. Thus the army ended up, more or less on the basis of a half-political, half-military compromise, stuck about 18 miles north­west of Philadelphia at a place called Valley Forge, a place that was about the best situated in the area from the point of view of defense.

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As to the question of why the failure of the supply system, which so harried the army, one has to look to the political disarray of the army in the autumn of 1777.

The most crucial factor here is the complete disintegration of the Quarter Master Department (and those of you who served in the army recognize what an unsung, but nonetheless necessary, aspect of military organization this is). The Quarter Master Department supplied to the army all its wagon transportation. It was headed during 1777 by a Pennsylvanian, General Thomas Mifflin. Mifflin resigned in October of 1777 and, for some reason that has not yet been satisfactorily explained, Congress failed to appoint a new Quarter Master General until February of 1778.

In itself, this might not have seemed to be a wholly dire circumstance. However, General Mifflin had gathered together under his aegis a coterie of rather willful Deputy Quarter Masters. They were strung out throughout central and eastern Pennsylvania and into New Jersey (and throughout all the states, though they were concentrated in this area). Most of them were his cronies, people like Robert Lettis Hooper, from Easton, who was something of a wrathful renegade, a very efficient organizer, but also a staunch individualist. The department also included the General's nephew, Jonathan Mifflin; Nathaniel Falconer, George Ross Jr. — a number of worthy inland magnates, They were all very much of Mifflin1s point of view and political persuasion.

This became something of a problem because of the growing rift between the Continental government and the State government of Pennsylvania. The state government of Pennsylvania was fashioned on the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776, which, for its day (and even for later times), was a very radical document. It was considered by political moderates to be a highly leveling and democratic piece of work. There were people in the Continental government who were staunchly opposed to the leveling influence of that constitution, and also to the more radical Pennsylvania leaders, who included Thomas Wharton, at that time President of the Supreme Executive Council (as close as Pennsylvania had at that time to a governor).

From this developed a rather insidious, internecine warfare between the appointees and officials of the government of Pennsylvania and those opposing that government, many of whom were lodged in the Congress and some of whom were lodged in the army and Quarter Master Department.

When it became evident that the Quarter Master Department was not going to be able to supply adequate logistical services to the army, Pennsylvania had to assume the tremendous burden of supplying wagons, personnel, horse fodder, and nearly all the requisite equipment necessary to bring food, guns, ammunition, clothing and other military supplies to the army at Valley Forge.

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The burgeoning lack of cooperation between the various elements of the State government predicated a serious rift and impeded cooperation between State and Continental officials in supplying the army during the winter. In fact, many of the failures in the supply system and the actual breakdown of supplies that occurred sporadically that winter can be traced directly to the lack of cooperation between the two governing bodies and their various minions.

During the Valley Forge winter there were three severe food crises. The army was fed, in the favorite phrase of the commissaries, "from hand to mouth" during most of the winter. While the British army generally like to keep a three to six months reserve of food supplies in the field with the army at any given time, very often the commissaries at Valley Forge were lucky to have a week's supply. More often, they virtually fed the troops from the cattle that were driven in on any given day.

Because of the fought-over, supply-bereft condition of the south­eastern Pennsylvania countryside, supplies had to be drawn from further and further afield. By mid-winter the Continental Army was absolutely dependent, for its supply of meat, upon New England. When one ponders the difficulty of that kind of supply route and the problems in keeping it open, with the British in command of New York and Philadelphia, it becomes absolutely astonishing that they managed to get supplies through at all. There were purchasers in western Connecticut and western Massachusetts who would put together droves of cattle, in towns like Danbury, Connecticut and Fredericksburg, New York, and send them across the Hudson River at King's Ferry, near modern Peekskill, down through Sufferm, through Booneton, Flemington, Morristown, and across the Delaware River at Coryell's Ferry, which is now New Hope. (When the British were too active in that area, they had to cross at some point further up.) Then they came to the army's stockyards, on the north side of the Schuylkill River.

It was a tremendously attenuated supply line. And it was because of that attenuation, plus a lack of proper financial support and constant incursions by British raiding parties in Bucks County, that from time to time the supply line broke and the Continental Army suffered from the lack of food and the meatless days with which we are all familiar.

Finally, in February, under the guidance of Washington, Congress appointed. General Nathanael Greene as the new Quarter Master General of the army. Connecticut delegates successfully pressed for the appointment of Jeremiah Wadsworth as the new Commissary General of Purchaaes, replacing the Pennsylvanian, William Buchanan, who was monumentally incompetent. With this change of personnel, and the addition of a few hardworking subordinates, the Continental Army support system slowly managed to resuscitate itself. By April of 1778 the supplies were again flowing in what was, comparatively speaking, abundance.

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Nathanael Greene

Jeremiah Wadsworth

The mention of Washington's astute selection of Nathanael Greene as his Quarter Master General brings us to the third question that we posed for ourselves early on: How was it that Washington managed to keep the army together?

One could suggest a number of answers to this question, but the thing that came out to us — that sprung out at us anew — was the political acumen of the man, who is very often underrated for his political and military virtues.

He did one thing during the Valley Forge winter which, in our minds at least, gained him a great deal of respect. When the army faced its first food crisis in late December of 1777, Washington called upon Congress to send to the camp at Valley Forge what was known as a Committee of Conference. This Committee of Congress consisted of six men. When one considers the fact that Congress during this period seldom numbered more than 18 or 20, one very quickly realizes that about a quarter of Congress ended up at Valley Forge. They included some very heavy­weight political characters of the period: one was Gouverneur Morris, of New York; another was Francis Dana, of Massachusetts. The Committee was charged with a number of things by Congress. One of the chief among them was the investigation of any malfeasance in the support services, commissary, and Quarter Master Department. The Committee was selected and dutifully arrived at the camp.

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Then Washington did a very clever thing. Several days before the Committee arrived, he polled his brigadier- and major-generals, and got from them their views on what they thought the members of Congress should be doing and investigating while they were at Valley Forge. Combining these opinions with his own observations, he then drew up an agenda, which he presented to the Committee members when they arrived. Very neatly, he managed to place his stamp upon and exert control over the meetings and the deliberations of the Committee of Conference once they arrived at Valley Forge.

He wanted them to consider, first of all, a new organization of the army, on the European model. While this doen't seem particularly unusual to us today, there was a certain movement afoot at that time to model the army on what could be called the American plan, something that was considerably different, and included large quantities of riflemen and light infantry. This was a plan that had been highly touted before this time by none other than General Charles Lee, who was considered by many to be the leading military theorist in the army at that time.

Washington, however, wanted an army that could stand up against a European field army. Thus he felt it must be to some degree a mirror image of that European army. Consequently, he took this up quite pointedly with the Committee of Conference. They liked the idea. They took the proposals back to York when they left, and, in May, Congress passed on the plan that was essentially the brain child of Washington and his generals.

A number of other things happened during this period. Washington managed, at this time, to persuade Congress to accept his own candidate as Quarter Master General, at a time when they may have been more disposed to accept the recommendations of the Board of War (which included in its membership Thomas Mifflin and Washington's cordial enemy, Horatio Gates).

One of the results of this political maneuvering was also the appointment, eventually, of that famous Prussian drillmaster, Baron Von Steuben, as Inspector General of the army at Valley Forge. Very often you hear Von Steuben credited with the retraining, or rather, the reforming of the Continental army at Valley Forge. And the fact was that he trained the soldiers all by the same method, whereas previously each state had used a different manual of drill. But if it hadn't been for Washington's persuasive ability, Von Steuben would possibly not have landed in this rather key position.

Perhaps one of the most important things about the presence of the Committee of Conference in camp was that they were at Valley Forge during the worst food crisis of the winter. During the second week in February, the supply lines to New England broke. The exceptionally bad weather impeded cattle droves from proceeding overland and supply wagons from crossing the numerous rivers and streams between western Connecticut and Valley Forge.

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This and the administrative disintegration of the commissary and Quarter Master Department all contributed to a horrendous series of harrowing days at camp.

The army nearly mutinied. Some of the soldiers suggested that it would perhaps be better if they go home rather than put up with this.

Greene went out and foraged and came back with a little bit of provender, which helped them through a few days. Anthony Wayne did the same, cutting a bold swath across Delaware, near Wilmington, and surging up through western New Jersey, driving cattle before him.

But what is most important about this is that the Committee of Conference was there at the camp while this was happening. They saw that it was not rank peculation on the part of the commissary that produced these problems, and they recognized that something had to be done forthwith. And they took this opinion, both in writing and verbally, back with them to York.

This represents only one aspect of Washington's management of the army during this period. There were a lot of things going on that were not under his control. But there were a few that were, and his ability to impress Congress with his views was one of them.

It is fairly difficult for me to summarize two years of research into one sweeping generalization. But I would suggest that one finding of our research entails the conclusion that the Continental Army did not, during the winter at Valley Forge, suffer privations that were, in an individual sense, any worse than those that were suffered before and after that winter. The Morristown winter, as the historian at Morristown never ceases to remind me, was colder and perhaps more miserable. As she puts it succinctly, when I call her on the telephone, "We suffered more".

What was unique about the Valley Forge winter was that in a seemingly malevolent confluence of evil events, during a highly concentrated period of time, just about everything that could conceivably go wrong did. None of the events, in its individuality, was any worse than those of succeeding winters. (As a matter of fact, one could make a very strong case that the Continental cause saw a much darker period late in 1780, when not only the officers but the troops were thoroughly weary of the entire performance and didn't believe that a final outcome like the successful siege at Yorktown was at all in the offing.)

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But Valley Forge was an extraordinary accomplishment. It has achieved, in the minds not only of the public but of the histor­ian, a certain preeminence of extremely attenuated and deep privation. It has entered as such not only our mythology, and I say that kindly, but it has also entered very strongly into our historical consciousness.

It is perhaps best summed up by a man who wrote a letter to his sister-in-law from Valley Forge in March of 1778. The man was Brigadier General James Mitchell Varnum, who was in command of the Rhode Island Continental troops at this time. Varnum was probably the most outspoken man in the Continental Army; his sharp verbal repartee had earned him the cordial dislike of many members of Congress, as well as of many of his fellow officers. In fact, he was so bumptious that they finally bounced him back to Rhode Island. (This is perhaps forgiveable since he was only 30 years of age.) As a died-in- the-wool New Englander, he did not like Pennsylvania. One feels he may have taken his religion with a little tongue-in-cheek, but he was still very much imbued with the verbal imagery of the Puritans, and he thought that Pennsylvania was, as he called it many times, "a heathan, quaking state".

He also had magnificent prose style, and he wrote perhaps some of the most moving, and amusing, letters that came out of the war. This is how he summed up his experiences at Valley Forge:

"In short, Toryism rules the roost, & ugliness, in nameless forms usurps the throne of beauty. But for the virtuous few of the army, I am persuaded that this country must long before this have been destroyed. It is saved for our sakes; & its salvation ought to cause Repentence for all our Sins, if evil and misery are the Consequences of Iniquity. For my own part, I believe they are; And expect by this Pennance to emerge into the World, after leaving this place, with all accounts fully balanced. I shall then take care how I sin again, even having a retrospect to its consequences."

*This article is a transcription of the talk given at the annual banquet of the Tredyffrin Easttown History Club in October 1979


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